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Seth Zenz | Imperial College London | UK

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The Trees, the Forest, and Scientific Consensus

I recently saw this comic from Twisted Doodles, which I think poses quite a conundrum for our usual simple picture of how science is studied and brought forth into the public:

From http://www.twisteddoodles.com/post/86414780702/working-in-science – used in this post with permission

From Twisted Doodles. Used in this post with permission.

If you are a non-scientist reading this blog, your idea of what science is for, and what it’s good for, is probably something like the left column – and in fact, I hope it is! But as someone who works day-to-day on understanding LHC data, I have a lot of sympathy with the right column. So how can they be reconciled?

Science takes hard work from a lot of people, and it’s an open process. Its ultimate goal is to produce a big picture understanding of a wide range of phenomena, which is what you’re reading about when you think all the good thoughts in the left-hand column. But that big picture is made of lots of individual pieces of work. For example, my colleagues and I worked for months and months on searching for the Higgs boson decaying to bottom quarks. We saw more bottom quarks than you would expect if the Higgs boson weren’t there, but not enough that we could be sure that we had seen any extra. So if you asked me, as an analyzer of detector data, if the Higgs boson existed, all I could say would be, “Well, we have a modest excess in this decay channel.” I might also have said, while I was working on it, “Wow, I’m tired, and I have lots of bugs in my code that still need to be fixed!” That’s the right-hand column.

The gap is bridged by something that’s sometimes called the scientific consensus, in which we put together all the analyses and conclude something like, “Yes, we found a Higgs boson!” There isn’t a single paper that proves it. Whatever our results, the fact that we’re sure we found something comes from the fact that ATLAS and CMS have independently produced the same discovery. The many bits of hard work come together to build a composite picture that we all agree on; the exhausted trees step back to take a broader perspective and see the happy forest.

So which is right? Both are, but not in the same way. The very specific results of individual papers don’t change unless there’s a mistake in them. But the way they’re interpreted can change over time; where once physicists were excited and puzzled by the discovery of new mesons, now we know they’re “just” different ways of putting quarks together.

So we expect the scientific consensus to change, it’s definitely not infallible, and any part of it can be challenged by new discoveries. But you might find that scientists like me are a bit impatient with casual, uninformed challenges to that consensus — it’s based, after all, on a lot of experts thinking and talking about all the evidence available. At the same time, scientific consensus can sometimes be muddled, and newspapers often present the latest tree as a whole new forest. Whether you are a scientist, or just read about science, keep in mind the difference between the forest and the trees. Try to understand which you’re reading about. And remember, ultimately, that the process of doing science is all the things in that comic, all at once.

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