Still in the dark

Dark matter - I can't see nuffink!

How should scientific findings of potentially huge importance be reported when the data available have virtually no statistical significance?

This is a question for the scientists, science PRs and journalists who this week made a song and dance about the detection in an old Minnesota mine of two subatomic particle events described as being “consistent with” what astrophysicists call “dark matter”. Two events.

Dark matter is a hypothetical stuff thought to make up three quarters of the universe’s mass. It was invoked to explain the observed gravitational behaviour of ordinary matter in the cosmos at large, including the measured rotational speeds of galaxies. A small minority of cosmologists dismiss dark matter as a fudge, and look instead at the possibility that the universal force of gravity varies with distance in a manner different from Isaac Newton’s inverse square law.

Two particle events do not make for convincing experimental statistics. They may hint at the presence of dark matter, and their detection warrants reporting beyond the scientific community. But there is a strong chance that the discovery could turn out to be no more than background noise in the detector. In fact, there is a calculable one in four probability that the result is due to something other than dark matter.

If this pair of observed particle events has little or no statistical significance, what is its real impact? As Cambridge University astronomer Gerry Gilmore says,…

“The real impact of this is psychological, in that it shows we’re getting close to being able to do a whole new kind of physics.”

It might be revealing to engage in a little psychoanalytic literary criticism and deconstruct that sentence, but right now I cannot summon sufficient enthusiasm for the task.

In my view we are on dodgy ground with such high-profile bordering on hyperbolic reporting of scientific findings that have yet to be validated. It surely doesn’t deserve lengthy feature articles padded out with background material on current thinking in cosmology which may not survive second contact with reality.