A couple of weeks ago the scientific world was shaken by a report out of the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) claiming that, after years of study, neutrinos were found to be traveling faster than the speed of light. The results were so shocking because, if accurate, they contradict Einstein's theory of special relativity which asserts that nothing in the universe can travel faster than the speed of light.
The importance of this news can easily be gauged by the excitement that the results generated in the non-technical media. News reports abounded with headlines like "Scientists Report Breaking the Speed of Light, But Can it Be True? " from NPR and "'Faster than Light' Particles Make Time Travel Possible, Scientist Says" from Fox News.
Scientists from around the globe made it clear that if these results hold up to additional scrutiny, they might herald a revolution in physics; that some of our most cherished and important concepts, concepts at the very core of physics, might have to be reworked.
Independent of whether or not the CERN results are correct, they have an enormous amount to teach us about the very nature of science and how dramatically it differs from the ways in which creationists characterize science. It also highlights the differences in methodology between those practicing science and those promoting the pseudoscience of creationism.
Creationists regularly assert that science is a closed operation, that those offering opinions differing from the norm cannot get a fair hearing within the scientific community. They argue that it is impossible to publish papers in the technical literature that call the dominant paradigm into question. It is this narrow-mindedness, they continue, that keeps their "important" ideas from being shared broadly. I can't begin to count the number of notes I've received from creationists who rail against the biologists who refuse to consider what they have to say. The charge is always the same: scientists are biased and unwilling to consider any ideas that contradict their opinions.
The work arising from CERN demonstrates just how absurd this argument is. The scientists responsible for the work calling special relativity into question had absolutely no trouble getting their results in front of their peers. No one closed ranks and black-listed those who challenged the prevailing paradigm. Quite the opposite occurred. The physics community is abuzz with the results, and healthy discussion, meaningful skepticism, and plans for replication abound.
Speaking as a scientist, I can say categorically that the second most exciting time to be active in the field is when earth-shaking results appear in your discipline. The only time that is more exciting is when you personally produce such results. (To be fair, I need to say that, like more than 99 percent of all scientists, I actually have not published a paper that has fully transformed my discipline - but I can certainly dream of how it might feel to do so!)
How does one go about attempting to overthrow a scientific paradigm? Very, very carefully and as transparently as possible. Consider what Antonio Ereditato, the spokesperson for the CERN group, said about their work, "We have high confidence in our results. We have checked and rechecked for anything that could have distorted our measurements but we found nothing. We now want colleagues to check them independently." These scientists worked for three years, found a result that might shake physics to its very core, presented their full methodology and have now asked their fellow scientists to check and replicate their work. They understand that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Creationists, on the other hand, simply make assertions. They offer no data and perform no experiments. As was pointed out by creationists themselves under oath in the Dover, PA intelligent design trial in 2005, no one is performing any scientific investigations of intelligent design. No one is publishing any empirical data on the subject. No one is doing anything at all other than saying, "wow, it seems really unlikely and counter-intuitive for evolution to work." What the creationists want is for an alternative theory of evolution to be accepted - and taught to our children - simply because they don't like the one that currently is supported by the data and by virtually every scientist in the field.
It turns out that a great deal of science is, in fact, counter-intuitive. If that weren't the case, we'd likely not need scientists to help us understand the workings of the natural world. Irrespective of the complexity of the world around us, creationists know what they believe and they need neither data nor experiments to support their beliefs. Belief is enough for them.
For scientists, however, data are absolutely essential. The physicists at CERN demonstrated how science works, how important ideas enter the scientific community and are dealt with on their merits, regardless of their potential impact.
The difference between scientists and creationists is so stark that it can be summarized simply enough to be placed on two bumper stickers.
Don't believe everything you can think!
Don't think about anything you believe!
I bet even creationists can figure out which one is theirs.