Media overreacts to science results

Credit: Adelaide Cole/Art Editor Credit: Adelaide Cole/Art Editor
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For anyone who hasn’t heard the news yet, an international team of researchers in Italy has recently released results from an experiment that showed sub-atomic particles traveling faster than the speed of light. These scientists launched 15,000 neutrino packets from Geneva, Switzerland to Gran Sasso, Italy over a three-year period. In a violation of Einstein’s relativity theory, which states that nothing travels faster than the speed of light, these particles arrived 60 nanoseconds faster than they should have been able to.

“Faster Than Light Particles Could Wreck Einstein’s Relativity Theory,” one source headlined. “Speed of light ‘broken’: life changing scientific discoveries,” another said. “'Faster than light’ particles threaten Einstein.” All of these headlines are designed to grab attention, and they succeed at it. None of them are technically wrong, and yet I still feel the need to criticize them.

These headlines, and in many cases the actual articles that accompany the headlines, convey the message that a paradigm shift — a fundamental change in basic assumptions within the ruling theory of science — is occurring as a result of this experiment. The headlines insinuate that this experiment has turned Einstein’s theory of relativity, which states that nothing in the universe can travel faster than the speed of light, on its head. But any scientist knows that one single experiment cannot induce such a drastic shift in a fundamental theory. It takes years or even decades for enough experiments to be performed for scientists to be completely confident in such a result worthy of a paradigm shift.

Not all of us are scientists — I get that — but that’s exactly the point. Those unfamiliar with a particular subject matter need an information source that doesn’t twist facts or stretch the truth to gain attention, because oftentimes that twist undermines the real story trying to be told. I’m certainly not claiming that I can solve the disconnect between the public and the science community. However, I do feel that blowing things out of proportion to gain readership is not the correct way to solve it.

The recent light-speed violation and the resulting portrayal of the story by the mass media brought these issues to light for me. I don’t outright deny the results of the study, but to say that Einstein was wrong just because one set of experimental results came out differently than physicists expected is a massive stretch. Sure, maybe several years down the road, independent experiments will see the same thing: particles breaking the universal speed limit in multiple laboratories. But only then can we really call this is a truly historic event, and only then can we really question fundamental science.

Of course, I’m focusing on the bad coverage here. There are some media outlets that do a fine job at communicating important, interesting science.

But it only takes a few exaggerations, a twisted fact here or a stretch of truth there, to get a large number of people to believe in something that isn’t necessarily true, creating a disconnect between the original result of a scientific study and the general public who needs to be informed of such events.