Sunday, June 17, 2012

On a new discovery about the speed of neutrinos

NOTE: Update added below.

A recent article reports a new discovery about the speed of neutrinos:
 Today, at the Neutrino 2012 conference in Kyoto, Japan, the OPERA collaboration announced that according to their latest measurements, neutrinos travel at almost exactly the speed of light. "Although this result isn't as exciting as some would have liked, it is what we all expected deep down," said CERN research director Sergio Bertolucci in a statement.
It turns out that you don't have to know any physics whatsoever in order to understand this discovery, or to understand why it was inevitable. In fact, the explanation is pretty obvious from the article, although neither the author nor any of the physicists involved seem to have noticed it.

The article explains that last September, OPERA announced the discovery that neutrinos actually travel slightly faster than the speed of light (denoted by c)! The OPERA people were well aware that this result would overturn a century of fundamental physics, so they made sure to check very carefully that their result was correct. After being unable to find anything wrong with it, they announce it to the world. And the world was not willing to believe it.

So what happened next? A number of other labs tried to reproduce OPERA's result, and none of them were able to. So OPERA was shut down and their physicists returned to their previous farming occupations.

Just kidding. After OPERA realized no one was buying their schtick, they realized they had to retreat. Exactly what happened next is not completely clear. It appears they first did what the technical support people always tell us to do, namely they checked that their cables were connected well. And they found one that wasn't. So they fixed the cable, and the speed of neutrinos decreased, but not below c. So they looked further and found a faulty clock. Replacing the clock caused the speed of neutrinos to fall just slightly below c, which is where they wanted it to be.

So what did they do next? They next replaced every other piece of their equipment, one piece at a time, to see how sensitive the results were to the vagaries of their equipment. Just kidding again. Next, they did absolutely nothing except to announce their new result. Which just happened to be the result they expected. And was exactly the result I would expect to be achieved by people who keep jiggling their equipment until their output is on the right side of c, and then stop jiggling. Now I suppose one can say that the fact that their original result was close to c is strong evidence that the correct value is also close to c. But surely the subsequent jiggling gives us no further confidence that this is the case, and there is no good reason to take their new error bars seriously.

There is disagreement within OPERA about how much jiggling there should have been before they announced the earlier, unbelievable result. But everyone seems to agree that if a result is believable and even desirable, then it should be believed, and that no (further) jiggling is necessary.

For more fun with OPERAtic neutrinos, consider the following passage:
Before OPERA, all the evidence for neutrino oscillations came from disappearances: detectors would end up with less of a certain type of neutrino than they started with, suggesting some had morphed into other flavours. Then in 2010, OPERA found the first tau neutrino in a beam of billions of muon neutrinos streaming to the Gran Sasso detectors from CERN. The discovery was a big deal at the time, but the team said they needed more tau neutrinos to make it statistically significant. Now, a second tau neutrino has shown up in the detectors, they report.
In unrelated news, I recently conducted an exclusive interview with Joe, a janitor who works for OPERA. Joe told me that he remembers very well the day when the second tau neutrino was discovered.  "I remember that day" he explained, "because that was the day I badly sprained my ankle tripping over a cable."  "I should have been more careful" he added. "That was the second time that happened to me."

update: September 4, 2012
Innumerable people have written to ask me what I think about the discovery of the Higgs boson (or at least a particle very similar to the Higgs boson) by CERN.  According to Joe Incandela (probably not the Joe quoted above who used to work at OPERA), in order to discover this particle CERN had to observe a number of collisions comparable to the number of grains of sand that can fit in an Olympic size swimming pool.  In all those collisions, the elusive particle only showed up a few dozen times.

But it appeared nearly exactly the number of times and in exactly the way that the theory predicted.

Not clear.  But if so, this is a triumph. And if not,  it's even better because it's a "gateway" to Something New. Why should we believe all this? Because Scientists did the Math, and determined that the observations could not be due to  anything except this "God particle" (or something similar). Sort of like when Creationists do the Math and conclude that a new species could not have arisen except by some sort of ... God particle. Of course, scientists correctly point out that the math done by the Creationists fails to take into account certain alternative natural mechanisms. So exactly what mechanisms did the CERN Scientists take into account in order to rule out explanations alternative to their desired one? At last count I calculated that the Large Hadron Collider consists of a gazillion separate parts, each of which can malfunction in interesting ways.  Did anybody do the math here?  As of last September, we know the answer is "NO". (See footnote.)

But not to worry. This is a result everybody wanted, so what's not to like?

(Footnote: Perhaps malfunctioning equipment can cause an error in a measurement, but not in the detection of a particle. I doubt this, since I think everything is measurement. I haven't read the technical literature. But the best we can say about these scientists is that they are treating us like idiots. The worst we can say is ...)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

A new paper purporting to present a scientific analysis of ad hominem attacks in the "Climategate" emails has caught the attention of global warming skeptics. The paper's "analysis" has little value--the idea of scientifically analyzing ad hominem attacks is a bit dubious from the start, and this paper does nothing to vindicate the concept. Its primary attraction to the skeptics lies in its attitude towards the climate change question: it bends over backwards to be neutral, while tut-tutting the poor behavior of the climategate emailers--sort of Judith Curry-style. In this respect, it highlights the primary weakness of the climate change skeptics' case.

The problem with this detached, neutral, scientific conduct-focused approach is that the scientific questions can't be so cleanly separated from the conduct questions. It's nice to think that even when one side in a scientific debate--whether the establishment or the dissenters--is the scientific equivalent of flat-earthers or creationists, the other side can and should stick to careful technical arguments, and will eventually win the day. But people (and institutions) are human, "eventually" is a long time, and a lot of damage can be done when flawed ideas are advanced by unscrupulous means, and resisted only by the most fastidiously scrupulous ones. In this respect, the "alarmists" actually have the better of the argument.

"Fakegate" has provided an excellent illustration of this point. Most of the discussion on both sides has carefully avoided the question of the authenticity of the disputed "strategy memo"--one side emphasizing instead Glieck's dishonest methods in obtaining insider information from the Heartland Institute, and the other side, the contents of the acknowledged-authentic Heartland documents--for the understandable reason that the authenticity of the "strategy memo" cannot be proven one way or another, and probably never will be. Yet the final judgment on Glieck's actions depends crucially on that question: if the memo is indeed authentic, then Glieck's deception to expose an organization intent on undermining science education (among other sins outlined in the memo) is at least understandable. And conversely, if the memo is fake, then Glieck isn't simply an investigator with somewhat controversial methods--he's at the very least a reckless purveyor of slanders, and at worst an outright forger.

Likewise, if opponents of the "consensus view" on AGW really are the equivalent of flat-earthers or creationists, trying to replace legitimate scientific consensus in the service of a patently unscientific agenda, then scheming to keep them out of peer-reviewed journals and science classrooms is a perfectly reasonable, even noble endeavor, arguably necessary to defend the standards of scientific research and education from attack. It's only if the climate skeptics have a legitimate scientific case that the shenanigans of Jones, Mann et al. start to look disturbing.

And this is where the real failure of the broader scientific community becomes clear. Academic research has become so specialized and compartmentalized--for political reasons as much as for scientific ones--that entire scientific fields of highly dubious merit have sprung up, keeping large numbers of "scientists" busy doing research that is at best useless and at worst downright bogus, with nary a complaint from the collective scientific establishment. In this environment, it's simply expected that the scientific community will rush to the defense of any fairly small collection of scientists that comes under attack from without, regardless of the credibility of their conclusions and despite a complete lack of external scrutiny.

It should be obvious to any scientifically literate person that the claims of the AGW establishment are nowhere near iron-clad enough for all of their critics to be dismissed out of hand as cranks, lunatics and political hacks. Yet not only do I hear embarrassingly few scientists from outside the immediate field address this point, but nobody thinks it odd that these outside scientists should simply defer en masse to their specialist colleagues, no questions asked. If I didn't know better, I'd think the scientific research community as a whole cared more about solidarity in the protection of its status as collectively coddled, well-funded "experts" than about the quality of its scientific research.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Does this validate (a bit late) my last prediction for 2011?

Sunday, January 01, 2012

It's time for ICBW's annual predictions post...First, a review of last year's predictions:

  • The US economy will continue to recover in 2011, and unemployment will drop, although not sharply. Inflation will remain tame, and short-term interest rates will therefore be kept very low, although long-term interest rates will rise substantially. Real estate will decline slightly again. The dollar will strengthen, oil and other commodity prices will be stable, and gold will drop.

  • Not a great prediction--in a nutshell, I expected a stronger recovery in the US economy, the absence of which weakened the US dollar, causing oil, gold and commodities to remain strong.

  • At least one US state or large municipality, and at least one European country, will experience a Greek/Irish-style debt crisis, which it will manage to muddle through, Greek/Irish-style, with a combination of austerity measures and external bailout funds.

  • Birmingham AL and Harrisburg PA both declared bankruptcy this year, and numerous states and municipalities have experienced major budget crunches. Several European countries (Italy, Portugal and Spain) joined Ireland and Greece to form the notorious "PIIGS" group.

  • The Afghan "surge" campaign will show signs of progress, but strong domestic opposition to it in the US will force an overall de-escalation of operations and/or a shortened time limit on deployment. The gradual American withdrawal from Iraq will continue, and internal instability there will again increase, although only modestly.

  • Pretty much on-target, although the American withdrawal from Iraq became markedly less gradual at the end of the year, and some say the resultant increase in instability has become correspondingly less modest.

  • Middle East peace negotiations will remain frozen. The Palestinian Authority will enact some kind of official declaration of independence or sovereignty, which will be nominally recognized by a bunch of countries around the world, but otherwise change nothing. Similarly, the UN tribunal will indict some Hezbollah officials for the murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. The move will be ignored in Lebanon, where Hezbollah's iron grip will continue unaffected. Both Hamas and Hezbollah will exercise relative restraint towards Israel, however, due to strengthened Israeli deterrence and Iranian government's preoccupation with consolidating its hold on power and shoring up its imploding internal economy.

  • Pretty much dead-on.

  • The Obama administration and Congressional Republicans will alternate between conciliation and confrontation over the year, co-operating on certain popular measures--possibly including deficit reduction and tax reform--while feuding bitterly over partisan ones, such as health care and the environment. GOP-run House hearings and proposed (but doomed) legislation will compete with symbolic executive and regulatory actions for partisan advantage through theatrics. Obama's approval ratings will improve to the low-50-percent range. On the Republican side, the 2012 presidential nomination race will by the end of the year produce neither a clear frontrunner nor a credible threat to Obama's re-election.

  • Perhaps they should have taken my advice--a year of continuous confrontation and hostility has badly tarnished the approval ratings of both the Republican Congress and the Obama administration. As a result, Mitt Romney is looking more and more like both a clear frontrunner and a credible threat to Obama's re-election.

  • Phenomena such as the Voca People and Mike Thompkins will lead a surge of popular interest in a cappella music.

  • Well, maybe next year...

    And now for this year's fearless (or fear-mongering, or fearfully misguided, or merely frightful) predictions...

  • The Euro's never-ending soap opera will badly constrain European growth, and developing-world growth will also slow. As a result the US economy, though stronger than elsewhere, will grow only modestly in 2012. The stock market will decline as profits get squeezed, and interest rates and inflation will remain low. Real Estate will bottom out but remain flat, and oil prices will (finally!) drop modestly, as new supplies start to come online. The US dollar will continue the recovery it began in mid-2011, as other economies continue to show greater weakness.

  • At least one European country will begin concrete initial moves towards exiting the EMU (AKA the Euro). Rather than causing the predicted crisis, this move will eventually come to be recognized as the only realistic solution to Europe's financial crisis, and the question of which countries will require a bailout or default will shift to that of which countries will require a Euro exit.

  • The "Arab spring" turmoil in the Middle East will turn out to be more of a large-scale collapse than an awakening. Following the departure of American troops, Iraq will dissolve into the civil-war-like conditions of 2006, with the Iranian-backed Shi'ite government battling Saudi-supported Sunni rebels, and the Kurds increasingly clamoring for independence. Syria's Bashar Assad will remain in power, but will be forced into a protracted low-level conflict with a Turkish-supported insurgency, as Western sanctions bring the country's economy to its knees. Egypt will face food riots as its economy also collapses and foreign aid fails to prop up the government's finances enough to keep up the necessary rate of subsidized food imports. The new Islamist governments of Libya and Tunisia will attempt to impose strict Shari'a laws, but will find themselves unable even to maintain basic order in the face of domestic political infighting, corruption and tribalism. The PA will find itself under increasing pressure from a resurgent Hamas, and the two will spend most of the year alternating between making nice and fighting bitterly. Iran's nuclear program and apparatus of internal repression will continue to operate unimpeded--new sanctions will be imposed, which will be about as effective as the ones against Saddam Hussein were--but it will be too preoccupied with propping up its proxies in Syria and Iraq to cause much trouble elsewhere.

  • Amidst all this chaos, Israel will be a haven of stability, with ample time and resources to devote to its endless internal political squabbles.

  • At least one of the following autocrats will fall from power this year, due to death or ill health: Hugo Chavez, Ali Khamenei, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Robert Mugabe, Raul Castro.

  • Mitt Romney will very narrowly defeat Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election. The Republicans will also win the Senate--but just barely. They will maintain control of the House of Representatives, but with a net loss of seats. Turnout will be low compared to recent presidential elections.

  • The issue of concussions will become the NFL's equivalent of MLB's steroid scandal.

  • There they are--read 'em and weep (or laugh derisively)...