Friday, September 23, 2011

Opera, Einstein, and Why Economics Is Not a Real Science

Congratulations (maybe) to the Opera (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-Tracking Apparatus) team for their (possibly) revolutionary finding that a few neutrinos were able to defy Einstein and travel from Geneva to central Italy faster than the speed of light.  If true, it will require a revision of basic physics that borders on science fiction.

I heard through the grapevine, however, that some senior scientists with this project did not give permission for their names to be on the article setting out the results, including one of the individuals who helped conceive and organize Opera from the start.  They are passing up the opportunity to be connected to a historic breakthrough in their field.  Why?

The answer is that, with such an extraordinary anomaly, there is a risk of error.  Mismeasuring the distance within the apparatus by 12 meters, for instance, would reverse the results.  Above all—and this is why economists should be interested—a physicist would suffer a huge, possibly irreparable blow to his or her career by being attached to a claim that is later found to be wrong.  Type I error (false positives) are taken very seriously.  The logic of this extreme asymmetry, so much weight on Type I, so much less on Type II, is explained in this earlier EconoSpeak post.

It’s rather different in economics, isn’t it?  If someone shows you have made a false claim in a published article, you can write a gracious response thanking the critic and go on. More likely, you will double down and spin out more studies defending your original argument.  Either way, if you’re wrong it’s no big deal.  Lots of the top economists in the professional firmament have been wrong at one time or another (or even all the time), and it hasn’t set them back.  Meanwhile, physics evolves over time toward ever-closer approximation of the real universe, while economics accumulates error along with insight.

UPDATE: Note that these neutrinos made their trip through the rugged terrain of the Alps and Apennines at an "impossible" speed.  I think they should be checked for doping, and if they turn up positive they should be disqualified.


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