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Wall Street Journal Commits Epic Science Errors

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.
Robert Bryce, The Wall Street Journal

So much is wrong with that paragraph I quoted that I hardly know where to begin. About the only thing going for it is that Bryce does admit the possibility that the OPERA results (not CERN, Mr. Bryce) may be in error. Borrowing from the Twitter mockery that has grown up in the last half hour, let’s see the logical flaws in his argument.

  • If serious scientists can question relativity, there must be room to debate [the existence of the Philosopher’s stone]. (Leonard Kruglyak)
  • If serious scientists can question Einstein’s relativity, must be room to debate [whether Earth goes around sun]. (Charles Choi)
  • If serious scientists can question relativity, there must be room to debate [the atomic model of matter]. (my contribution)

And so forth; search for #WSJscience on Twitter for more laughs (on the principle that laughter is better than tears). Jess Zimmerman in Grist takes down the other four points in Bryce’s article with as many words as it really deserves.

The mocking does implicitly point two of the more egregious errors: linking results in high-energy particle physics to studies of Earth’s atmosphere is very much an apples-to-oranges comparison, and one anomalous result does not throw an entire area of science into doubt. Climatology is a cross-disciplinary study bringing in meteorology, geology, archaeology, oceanography, and other fields, and every one of those fields agrees that global climate change is a real threat. Yes, Earth’s atmosphere is complex; yes, there is always uncertainty built into any scientific endeavor. However, climate scientists are overwhelmingly in agreement on the meaning of the available evidence.

If the neutrino results from OPERA hold up under scrutiny, then the burden will be upon physicists to understand why, and where the exceptions to relativity show up. That is precisely the point: relativity is extraordinarily well tested, so any deviations from it occur on the very edges of what our experiments can do. Climate science is founded on even better-tested theories in atmospheric physics and chemistry, and while detailed predictions of the future are not available, the general historical trends could not be more clear: Earth is getting warmer, and it’s our doing.

So, I think there is but one appropriate graphic to bring out at this juncture:

Yes, he does.

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2 Responses to “Wall Street Journal Commits Epic Science Errors”


  1. 1 Paul Sampson October 7, 2011 at 16:39

    It never occurred to me to look to the Wall Street Journal for an understanding of scientific questions. Right wing catechism, yes. Science, no.

    • 2 Matthew R. Francis October 7, 2011 at 17:55

      I agree the WSJ opinion page is no good for factual information, but I also think it’s time we start calling on any news source if they misinterpret science. Part of the reason so much misunderstanding about climate change research exists is because many news sources give equal time to denialists, as though there are equally-valid viewpoints. It’s time for that to end.


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