Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Higgs boson, uncertainty, and the scientific method

It's begun, just as I predicted it would.

This week, a pair of physicists at Cornell, Joseph Lykken and Gabe Shaughnessy, published a paper calling the Higgs boson finding into question.  (Source)  What was described in the widely-publicized press release from CERN ten days ago could be the Higgs, Lykken and Shaugnessy say -- or maybe not.  The relevant sentence is, "... a generic Higgs doublet and a triplet imposter give equally good fits to the measured event rates of the newly observed scalar resonance."

In other words, there are other possible explanations for the CERN findings other than it having been a Higgs boson.  "Currently the uncertainties in these quantities are too large," Lykken and Shaugnessy say, "to make a definitive statement."

Like I said, I predicted this, and it certainly isn't because I have some kind of ESP regarding scientific discoveries.  Nor is it (more prosaically) because I even understand all that well what the Higgs boson is, and what the CERN findings meant.  My expectation that the CERN results would be challenged came from a more general understanding of how the scientific process works.  And this is why I make another prediction; the paper by Lykken and Shaughnessy will be widely misunderstood by the lay public.

In order to see why, let's imagine that you're at work, and there's a general meeting of staff.  Your boss states that there's a problem, one that will ultimately affect everyone in the business, and it's up to the staff at the meeting to propose a solution.  (S)he assigns all of you to go off, by yourselves or in small groups, and brainstorm a solution to the problem.  You and two others spend the better part of a day hammering out a solution.  You and your pair of friends look at it from all angles, and you are absolutely convinced that your solution will work to fix the problem.  At the end of the day, you bring back your solution to your boss and the staff.

Now, let's envision two possible scenarios of what happens next.

(1)  Everyone looks at your idea, and applauds, and tells you that you clearly have a working solution.

(2)  Each member of the staff takes his/her turn tearing at your idea, stating why it might not work, proposing ways to prove that it won't work, and recommends testing every single one of the ways that your solution could fail.  "Let's beat this solution," they say, "and try to see if we can get it not to work!"

Which one, in your opinion, is the better outcome?

If you said #1, you are in agreement with the vast majority of humanity.  #2 seems somehow mean-spirited -- why would your colleagues want you to fail?

#2, however, is the way science is done.

I see no greater misunderstanding about scientific matters that is more pervasive than this one.  While specific ideas in science are frequently the subject of erroneous thinking, there is no area in which there is more widespread lack of comprehension by the lay public than the general method by which science is accomplished.  When a scientific discovery is announced, when a new theory or model is proposed, the first thing that happens is that it is challenged by every researcher in the field.  Is there another explanation for the results?  Are the data themselves accurate, or did some inaccuracy or bias slip into the experiment despite the researchers' best efforts?  Can the results be replicated?

The last one, of course, isn't always possible -- and the Higgs boson result from CERN is an excellent example.  It took decades, and millions of dollars of equipment and research time, to get this single result -- it would be decidedly non-trivial to replicate it.  This, in part, is why the other physicists are hammering so hard on the data CERN generated -- it's not like they can go home to their own labs and try to make a Higgs of their own. 

So Lykken and Shaugnessy's paper isn't mean, it isn't some kind of bomb launched at the CERN team's reputation in the scientific world -- and it was bound to happen.  This is how science is done -- and why it is so often misunderstood by the lay public.  And now, I'll make a second prediction -- there will be a flurry of stories in the media about how "the CERN results aren't certain," which will cause large quantities of influential non-scientists to bloviate about how those damn scientists don't know what they're doing, for criminy's sake with all of those advanced degrees and all of that money and time you'd think they'd at least be sure what they were looking at.  So, inevitable as this announcement was, it is likely to have the result of further undermining the standing of science itself in the eye of the layperson.

And that's just sad.


  1. I actually was surprised that CERN seemed to be trumpeting this publicly as the finding of the Higgs boson, based largely on what I understand of the Higgs from a TED talk given by a particle physicist from CERN, Tara Shears, a couple of days before the announcement.

    Highly recommend this talk, she gives an explanation of the Higgs and its importance which really helped me understand it much better.

    She also indicates that the evidence for the new particle being the Higgs is...equivocal. One experiment shows it being consistent with the Higgs, another experiment...half the data shows it being consistent with the Higgs, but the full data from the experiment shows no statistical significance.

    While even the single experiment suggests that it could be the's merely consistent with it...doesn't prove, imo, that it IS the Higgs.

    1. Thanks for a thoughtful & interesting reply to my post. I just watched the TED talk you posted -- fascinating stuff! I will be following this story as it develops.