There’s a science-literacy backbeat to several of the recent supposedly-superluminal-neutrino stories, and it really manifested itself in a barrage of tweets a few days back, responses to the WSJ “science” article I discussed where the author mused that because of the neutrino experiment, the global warming science isn’t settled. Lampooning such denialism is pretty easy (and fun) and it’s summarized in Be(c+)ause Neutrino and ‘Settled Science’ and CO2. The tweets went with the format of
If serious scientists can question Einstein’s relativity, there must be room for debate about [silly argument]
And fun was had by all. But it occurred to me that there are a lot of people who wouldn’t get the joke. As I tweeted, serious scientists question Einstein ALL THE TIME. That’s what we DO. This is something I think the most people probably don’t get, and that the crackpots who liken science to dogma and scientists to priests certainly don’t. ANY time you do an experiment you are questioning and testing the principles at play in that experiment. If you get some unexpected result you may have discovered new science. Most of the time, of course (and more so the further you are from the cutting edge), you either get what you expected to get, or you made a mistake that you might later uncover. But that’s not due to science being a religion or some conspiracy, it’s because the science is on a solid foundation. So any experiment that uses relativity is a test of relativity, just as any experiment using chemistry principles is a test of those principles, and for biology and geology.
Once a theory has been tested numerous times, you gain confidence that it’s right. Toppling it is not really an option once you have established that it works over the range of problems it’s meant to address — at best you might have to modify it. If you let go of an object and it rises, you don’t rush out and declare “gravity is dead!” (unless perhaps you’re Charles Krauthammer). What you do is look to see if there is some other influence at play — the object is a helium balloon, perhaps, or there’s a strong air current. Established science mandates the adage that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Established science defines what ordinary is.
And ordinary does not get toppled with a single experiment. While some abbreviated history lesson might point to these paradigm shifts, the reality is that the experiments were repeated or other experiments were done and there was invariably a period of debate. Paradigm shifts are slower than the history books sometimes depict. The famous 1887 Michelson-Morely experiment, for example, was a higher-precision repeat of an 1881 experiment that hinted at a discrepancy with the expected answer. The 1881 experiment was insufficient to topple the idea of the aether as a medium (representing an absolute frame) we moved through (but it most certainly was a test of the current paradigm) but at the time, so was the 1887 experiment. Other experiments were subsequently done, and new hypotheses arose to explain the results, such as the partial entrainment of the aether and the ad-hoc FitzGerald–Lorentz contraction. Michelson-Morely may have been the mortal blow for the aether, but it took decades for it to actually die.
Evolution is another example. It took a long time for the theory to be accepted, but by now has accumulated so much evidence and been tested in so many ways, no single bit of evidence is going to topple it. Theories are either shown to be systemically wrong, or they get modified. The early thermodynamic theories of phlogiston and caloric were tossed out because they were wrong — they were not examples of a simplified version of a more complete theory, as with relativity and Newtonian systems. Atomic models came and went as more data were obtained, and the Bohr model had its day as quantum mechanics was developed. The Rutherford scattering experiment may be the closest example of which I am aware of a single experiment toppling a model, but that model was not particularly well-developed and certainly did not have 100 years of testing and confirmation behind it.