Of Neutrinos And Climate Science

Neutrinos don't really affect us too much. They're small, sub-atomic particles that are generated in incalculable numbers in the sun's core and ejected out in all directions. A mere fraction of those head towards Earth, where they pass through matter -- stones, trees, humans -- unnoticed. Scientists in the 1960s working in a special underground facility designed specifically to capture the particles observed that of the roughly 10 quintillion neutrinos that passed through their detection apparatus (a humongous pool of heavy water) each day, they were able to detect, on average, two.

And just as neutrinos don't alter our chemistry in any appreciable way, they don't upset the science behind climate change, despite what Robert Bryce of the Manhattan Institute would have us believe.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal this morning, Bryce argues that an (unconfirmed) report of neutrinos that travel faster than the speed of light is sufficient reason to question climate science:

The science is not settled, not by a long shot. Last month, scientists at CERN, the prestigious high-energy physics lab in Switzerland, reported that neutrinos might -- repeat, might -- travel faster than the speed of light. If serious scientists can question Einstein's theory of relativity, then there must be room for debate about the workings and complexities of the Earth's atmosphere.

Particle physics, climate research -- it's all “science,” right? Not exactly.

As Bryce notes, the faster-than-light neutrino reports are unconfirmed. If the scientific community jumped and screamed “the sky is falling” every time a small group of researchers released controversial, unverified findings, nothing would get done.

And the logic of Bryce's argument doesn't quite hold up. I could just as easily argue that we shouldn't doubt climate science because the fundamental concepts undergirding other branches of science -- like cell theory and gravitational physics -- stand unchallenged. If serious scientists aren't willing to question Newton or Van Leeuwenhoek, then surely there's no reason to challenge the science of climate change, right? And if it turns out that the CERN physicists were wrong (which is entirely likely), what then?

One of the great triumphs of the modern scientific method is that it encourages challenges to the established order, but requires rigorous proof before changing our fundamental understanding of the physical world. If we do discover that neutrinos are capable of moving faster than light, then we'll have a whole new world of physics to explore. But that doesn't change the fact that belching out carbon dioxide warms the planet.