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.