Neutrinos have always caused the physics community a bit of grief. It took decades to go from the first hints of their existence to actually detecting their presence. Then, when studying solar neutrinos, scientists were stumped by an absence—far fewer showed up in the detectors than the Sun should be producing. This was eventually explained by what are called flavor oscillations, which cause neutrinos to shift among the three known types: electron, muon, and tau. Now, researchers are facing yet another enigma: antineutrinos undergo flavor oscillations at a different rate than their regular counterparts.
Flavor oscillations were big news when they were first discovered. The ability of a single neutrino to shift identity over the course of its travels implied that these particles have mass, something that was a bit unexpected. It was only this year that a detector in Italy provided a direct confirmation of a flavor oscillation taking place in a beam of neutrinos that originated at CERN, in Switzerland.
Science works by generating data that do or do not support a model that is being used to understand the world around us. The more data that the model explains the better it is. The best models explain all the data we can generate and thus represent the best view if the world around us. They may not be perfect nor complete but they are the best.
Scientists can then work on creating data that are natural consequences of what the model predicts, or to help identify which of several possibilities might result from the model’s use.
Here, we find scientists generating more and more data that goes against the very strong Standard Model, one that has worked for many, many years as an accurate construction of the world.
Scientists could retreat to Cargo Cult Worlds and ignore the new data. This is actually what Feynman originally talked about. Scientists are human too and some will simply say all the new data is wrong, the researchers are incompetent and the research is poorly done. They say it but do nothing to prove whether any of those conjectures are right.
But lots of other scientists want to examine the data and answer just those questions. Is the data wrong? Where the experiments done correctly? Are there experiments that can tell us what is correct? Can we gain a better approximation of the true nature of the world? That is what vetting by your peers accomplishes.
We see that here. New data does not fit the model. So either the model is mostly right and we just do not understand it enough. Or it is fundamentally wrong and we need to understand why. Scientists ant to understand in either case.
That is what science does. And it is not what anyone in a Cargo Cult World does. They do not investigate further, they do not try to clarify the results nor do they work to gain a better approximation of the underlying principles of the model. They do not want to understand.
Isaac Asimov wrote a great article called The Relativity of Wrong. As I wrote earlier this year, “The best models are the ones that can lead to better approximations of the truth.” People inhabiting Cargo Cult worlds fail to produce models that are useful, that lead to better views of the truth of the world around us.
Asimov also made a few astute observation that also serves to separate scientist/skeptic from denialist: