Reaction to Faster Than Light Claims Expose Anti-Skeptic Myth

September 23, 2011

The physics world is abuzz this week over the claim that researchers may have found evidence that particles can exceed the speed of light. According to an Associated Press report,

"Physicists on the team that measured particles traveling faster than light said Friday they were as surprised as their skeptics about the results, which appear to violate the laws of nature as we know them. Hundreds of scientists packed an auditorium at one of the world's foremost laboratories on the Swiss-French border to hear how a subatomic particle, the neutrino, was found to have outrun light and confounded the theories of Albert Einstein. "To our great surprise we found an anomaly," said Antonio Ereditato, who participated in the experiment and speaks on behalf of the team. Going faster than light is something that is just not supposed to happen, according to Einstein's 1905 special theory of relativity. The speed of light - 186,282 miles per second - has long been considered a cosmic speed limit. The team - a collaboration between France's National Institute for Nuclear and Particle Physics Research and Italy's Gran Sasso National Laboratory - fired a neutrino beam 454 miles underground from Geneva to Italy. They found it traveled 60 nanoseconds faster than light."

Already there are many questions and skeptics. Will the findings hold up under repeated experiments? Could this team have proven Einstein wrong about the speed of light?

I don't know, and I don't really care. Certainly, if the findings are accurate then physicists will need to take a fresh new look at many of their previous conclusions and assumptions. But if Einstein was wrong about this, it does not affect me at all.

I mention this because one of the most common charges leveled against skeptics and scientists is that they refuse to acknowledge the existence of paranormal phenomenon (psychic abilities, ghosts, extraterrestrial visitors, etc.) because it would destroy their worldview. Skeptics and scientists, they say, are deeply personally and professional invested in defending the scientific "status quo." This claim is heard over and over again, often from New Age writers, UFO buffs, and the like.

It is, of course, a myth. The scientists and researchers who are skeptical of the new faster than light claims are not skeptical because accepting that Einstein was wrong about something would lead to a nervous breakdown, or that their whole worldview would crumble beneath them, or that they would have to accept that science doesn't know everything. The reason scientists are skeptical is because the new study contradicts all previous experiments. That's what good science does: When you do a study or experiment-especially one whose results conflict with earlier conclusions, you study it closely and question it before accepting the results.

Scientific testing is incredibly difficult work. Designing a well-controlled experiment can take months (or years), and no experiment is perfect. There are always some variables beyond the experimenter's control that must be accounted for. The goal is to design better and better studies as time goes on, fixing problems in previous studies and refining the methodologies.

What has been the reaction from scientists? "Burn the witch, this is heresy and cannot be true?" No, it's, "Well, that's interesting... Let's take a closer look at the experiment to make sure the results are valid."

Furthermore, the very fact that this experiment was conducted in the first place proves that scientists are hardly afraid of challenging the dominant scientific beliefs and paradigms. If scientists were truly reluctant to rock the scientific boat ("Maybe we shouldn't do this because we need preserve Einstein's legacy"), they wouldn't have done the study. In science, those who disprove dominant theories are rewarded, not punished. Disproving one of Einstein's best-known predictions would earn the scientists a place in the history books, if not a Nobel prize.

Whether Einstein will be vindicated or debunked remains to be seen, but either way science will find the answer.


#1 traveler on Friday September 23, 2011 at 12:58pm

Well written, Ben.

It is the worldview of New Age writers, UFO buffs and the like that scientists are personally invested in maintaining a scientific status quo (as if their is such a thing).

Strangely enough, it is the paranormal pushers and conspiracy theorists who cannot change their worldview WRT science and scientists.

#2 Benjamin Radford on Saturday September 24, 2011 at 8:10am

Thanks… Yes, it’s amazing how often I hear this, and it’s widely accepted and repeated. Without anyone pointing out that it’s completely wrong…

#3 Nalliah Thayabharan (Guest) on Sunday September 25, 2011 at 7:17am

In 1932 Nikola Tesla reported that neutrons are small particles, each carrying so small a charge and they travel with great velocity, exceeding that of light.
Experimental tests of Bell inequality have shown that microscopic causality must be violated, so there must be faster than light travel.  According to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, nothing with nonzero rest mass can go faster than light. But zero rest mass particles can go faster than the light. Neutrinos have a small nonzero rest mass.  Faster than light interactions are a necessity and they provide the non local structure of the universe. We should understand the relation between local and nonlocal events like the dynamics of universal structure. In any physical theory, it is assumed that there is some kind of nonlocal structure violates causality. If neutrinos are traveling faster than light, then neutrinos must be on the otherside of the light barrier going backwards in time, where the future can interact with the past. 
There are lots of theories and research regarding this matter including Cherenkov radiation,  Standard Model Extension, Heim theory, Novikov selfconsistency principle, Casimir effect, Hartman effect, Casimir vacuum & quantum tunnelling, Tachyons, etc.

- Nalliah Thayabharan

#4 Mimoza (Guest) on Sunday September 25, 2011 at 10:42am

Hell yeah, Nalliah, you tell them

#5 ParrotSlave on Sunday September 25, 2011 at 1:04pm

The argument I like to use is that scientists are more competitive than athletes, and that the profession has more than its share of egotism. No one with whom you might argue is going to disagree that scientists are more vain than anyone else, save perhaps actors. Once you get them to agree to that, you need only point out that the ultimate in vanity would be to prove that you are right and that everyone else is wrong. Disproving the theories of others is part of the core experience of science, and an easy way to win scientific acclaim if the disproven theory is one widely held. The secret ambition of most scientists is to win a Nobel Prize, and you cannot do so merely by validating the results of others.

#6 Jason Fahlman (Guest) on Sunday September 25, 2011 at 4:39pm

While the main point behind your post remains just as valid, didn’t they determine a couple of years ago that the speed of light was not the fastest that anything could go? For more than two years, since I first heard about it, I have been discussing this with people surprised that they are not shocked by the ramifications.

In the past few days apparently the folks at CERN have produced this effect, but if the research behind the concept was valid enough for the CERN lab to even be trying this, how shocked and surprised can scientists really be?

#7 gray1 on Thursday September 29, 2011 at 8:12pm

If making news is the object, they succeeded.  I suspect some serious peer review is in order.

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