05 February 2015

No more gravitational waves :(

Back in March, BICEP2 made big news when they announced by press release that they had found gravitational waves left over from the Big Bang. This really made the rounds and gained a lot of interest from the popular press as well as the scientific press. At the time I was afraid that an internal review of the data wasn't enough, and that after all this noise they would just be wrong... and it turns out I was. This week they confirmed with PLANCK data that the signal comes from interstellar dust, and I was sad. The idea that the signal could be dust was first put forward really quickly after the initial press release, and as time went on it looked more and more likely to be true.

Today Nature published an editorial that strongly defended their enthusiastic reporting of the original BICEP2 results. They said, quite justifiably:
Nature has a stake in discussions of the gravitational-waves story. Our news team was among those tipped off about the claim in advance. We were proud of our (extensive) coverage, both in print and online, at the time. We remain so now. Like most other news organizations, we reported the claims from the provisional paper accurately and, like almost all the coverage, were sure to include the caveat that the findings would need to be confirmed. That is not to claim that the press can be given a free pass on this. Its job is to ask questions after all. But it is not always possible for journalists — even the best science writers — to provide the answers.

Then they aimed their sights at me, because I had been saying, mostly to friends, that BICEP2 should have waited at least for peer-review before making a big public announcement.
What about the promised lessons for scientists? As we have pointed out before, researchers must not be afraid to be wrong.
Their point was that even a peer-reviewed publication - something I had said should have been required before making a public announcement - isn't really ever the final word on science. More fundamentally, scientists must live with some level of uncertainty that what we think we know might turn out to be wrong, and we can't let that stop us from pushing forward.

I needed this reminder to think deeper than doing some easy armchair quarterbacking, and that I shouldn't be such a grump over people getting excited about new discoveries.

Fortunately the BICEP2 results are really just a sentence out of an ongoing conversation about finding these Big Bang remnants. Hopefully my buddies at CLASS can nail the discovery! And this poor guy can get his champagne back.