Speedy Neutrinos, Data, and the Humanities

Like a lot of people, my Twitterstream blew up yesterday with the news from CERN about the possibility that neutrinos have been clocked breaking the speed of light. As a former physics major, this wigged me out, not least because it would mean that neutrino at that speed would have imaginary mass (at least according to the same Special Relativity that's at the heart of the tizzy).

But that's not the news that helps us hack the humanities. Instead, it's this characterization about what's happening right now:

But the group understands that what are known as "systematic errors" could easily make an erroneous result look like a breaking of the ultimate speed limit, and that has motivated them to publish their measurements.

To paraphrase, "Our conclusions might be completely wrong, so we're going to publish not just the results, but all the data, so others can help us figure it out."

Contrast that with the common response to online publishing among humanists, that they cannot let their conclusions out into the world until they are really certain, and their arguments are really solid. In short, be certain, then publish. CERN is doing the opposite with their knowledge. The specific uncertainty motivates them to publish the core data so others can help produce certainty, one way or another. It'd be like instead of submitting an article to a journal, you publish online not only your argument, but also all your research notes (say, via Zotero).

It's a difference between the humanities and sciences in how we view the creation and confirmation of knowledge, and one that I think we should pay more attention to.

"Any medium powerful enough to extend man's reach is powerful enough to topple his world. To get the medium's magic to work for one's aims rather than against them is to attain literacy."
-- Alan Kay, "Computer Software", Scientific American, September 1984

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