Scientists are seldom baffled, actually

The type of headline I dislike

Although the headline implies defeat, the article itself conveys intellectual arousal.

This afternoon, I checked into BBC News, and found an intriguing science headline near the top of the page. The article briefly summarized CERN observations that – if confirmed – would show conclusively, for the first time, that particles can travel faster than light. The implications of this result are no less than staggering; warp drive would be a step closer to reality! Don’t look for Captain Kirk and crew to materialize overhead tomorrow, because the particles in question are sub-atomic particles called neutrinos. But how can anyone not react to such news with fascination and wonder?

What raised my hackles was BBC News’ choice of headline: “Light-speed results baffle scientists.”

“Baffled scientists” headlines are a real pet peeve of mine. In 2007, I presented a lecture (okay, it was more of a rant) on this topic to my Severe and Unusual Weather class, just after Tropical Storm Humberto spun up to hurricane status a scant few hours prior to landfall. Generally, tropical cyclones weaken as they approach the shore, as part of the TC moves over land and the storm becomes partly cut off from its fuel source – the warm waters on the ocean’s surface. The spinup of Humberto (as was the overland re-intensification of Tropical Storm Erin earlier that fall) was unusual and noteworthy.

Annoyingly, the resulting headline on the front page of CNN.com the next morning was something to the effect of, “Forecasters baffled by Humberto’s sudden strengthening.” (The article no longer appears in the CNN.com archives, or I would link to it.) I posted this headline (along with some variants from other news sources) on my lecture slides, then had my students read the NHC forecast discussion for then-Tropical Storm Humberto that was issued just prior to landfall. It contains the following:

HOUSTON WSR-88D VELOCITY DATA INDICATE THAT HUMBERTO HAS INTENSIFIED... SOME ADDITIONAL STRENGTHENING COULD OCCUR BEFORE THE CENTER MAKES LANDFALL EARLY ON THURSDAY...AND WINDS COULD BE APPROACHING HURRICANE FORCE OVER A SMALL AREA NEAR HUMBERTO'S CENTER WHEN IT REACHES THE COAST.

The NHC forecasters were hardly “baffled.” In fact, they acknowledged that Humberto’s attainment of hurricane status was within the envelope of possibility. I challenged my students to reconcile the NHC discussion with the headlines, and we had an insightful in-class dialogue about it.

Scientists baffled? Experts baffled? Doctors baffled? In most cases, the choice of the verb “to baffle” is incorrect. According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, “to baffle” means “to defeat by puzzling or confusing.” It is the notion of defeat that I find offensive. Defeat marks the end of a battle. Is the “defeated” scientist going to stalk out of the lab, all time and effort spent for naught, hanging his or her head in humiliation, and grudgingly apply for a job at the nearest Burger King? Hardly. Puzzlement and confusion usually signal the beginning of a new scientific effort, not the end! Any scientist worth his or her salt will not throw up his or her hands in the face of compelling evidence that contravenes established understanding, but rather run to the nearest keyboard and draft up a new grant proposal or e-mail query to knowledgeable colleagues. That’s exactly what the BBC report describes – the CERN scientists publicized their finding in order to obtain a quick, informal, open-ended peer review. (Incidentally, peer review is a topic I plan to cover another day!)

Of course, “baffled scientist” headlines wouldn’t get so many clicks if they didn’t have such popular appeal. Readers evidently like to imagine that the relentless brainiacs they knew in high school, whose hands eagerly shot up to correctly answer every question the science teacher asked, and whose test scores they could never hope to exceed, are now utterly flummoxed by some data point that they can’t immediately explain. Granted, I identify more with the latter group than the former, but I still come away with the mental image of lab coat-clad eggheads scratching their greasy heads in humble astonishment. Those nerds aren’t so smart as they thought, eh?

Not only is “scientists baffled” a tired cliché, it is also a damaging one. Since many scientists are funded by public money (through NSF, NIH, and the like)*, reiterated messages about “bafflement” (“defeat”) can cause laudable research efforts to be cut by politicians (and voters) who erroneously believe that the scientists they support spend their time wallowing in befuddlement, rather than generating useful, applicable results. One could even conclude that all scientific results are too tentative to be acted upon (climate change, for example). In truth, puzzlement is an integral part of the scientific process. It leads to questions, questions lead to hypotheses, hypotheses lead to experiments, experiments lead to results, and, as often as not, the results lead to more questions. Vannevar Bush called this self-sustaining process of discovery “The Endless Frontier”; a concept that became the intellectual cornerstone for the creation of the NSF.

The next time you see the words “scientists baffled” in a headline, try replacing “baffled” with “surprised” or “intrigued.” (And to those of you who report on science, please grab a nearby thesaurus!) Understand that you are probably reading the first chapter of someone’s discovery process. The universe has no solutions manual; it is the solutions manual, and we’ve barely deciphered a neutrino-size part of it.

*Scientists even say, “Thank you,” sometimes.

Steam devils in Yellowstone

As you may have inferred from my last entry, I recently took a vacation to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. A sublime experience, and definitely worthy of inclusion on the Great American bucket list. After all, the park belongs to everyone, just like the weather.

Inside the bubbling, fuming caldera, Dan and I caught a few nice steam devils spinning off the park’s famous geysers:

I can only imagine they’d be better in the winter, when the temperature contrast between the geothermally heated waters and the overlying atmosphere is all the greater.

Going to a National Park is kind of like storm chasing… complete with chaser convergence. Just swap in bears for tornadoes as the primary photo/video quarry. Whenever a bear appears within sight of a road, everyone pulls their vehicles over, and tripods and telescoping lenses are deployed. We witnessed some rather silly behavior by people dodging in and out of traffic trying to get their “money shots.” But in the end, everyone was there for the same reason – to experience nature’s majesty first hand.

Lower Falls, Yellowstone NP

Lower Falls, Yellowstone NP


Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone NP

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone NP


Excesior Geyser, Yellowstone NP

Steam over Excesior Geyser, Yellowstone NP


Bison in Yellowstone NP

Some of the 3,700 resident bison of Yellowstone NP


Sunset over the Grand Tetons

Sunset over the Grand Tetons, 20 August 2011

Grand Teton Sunrise

I hope you enjoy this highlight of my recent vacation.

I’m particularly fascinated by the fog in the Snake River Valley in the foreground. As we all know, denser, cooler air tends to flow downhill and “pool” in low-lying areas. If you take an evening or morning walk, you’ll notice that the temperature in river valleys, or even creek beds, is a few degrees cooler than it is uphill. In this video, mixing fog marks the interface between the cool and warm air. If the interface between the cool air and the warmer air above is disturbed, internal gravity waves should propagate along that interface. I believe that’s the source of the “sloshing” seen in the fog layer.