Posted by: Kash Farooq | February 7, 2011

Meeting a Neutrino Skeptic

The other night I met someone who referred to himself as a skeptic.

It turns out that he wasn’t the good sort of skeptic.

He was in one the bad types. Like global warming skeptics, or evolution skeptics.

I met the skeptic at an excellent talk organised by Science London. The talk was given by Super Kamiokande physicist Ben Still (#ff !) and was about a particle called the neutrino. It was not an event at which you’d expect to meet a bad skeptic.

Neutrinos are fundamental particles in physics. Their existence was first proposed when scientists observed a process known as β-decay, in which a neutron decays into a proton and an electron. Physicists noticed a problem with the decay. The starting energy of the neutron, calculated using E=mc2, didn’t match the sum of the released energy carried away by the electron and the proton. The physicist Wolfgang Pauli proposed that the missing energy was accounted for by a new particle called the neutrino.

Of course, scientists didn’t just accept the existence of this new particle. It had to be detected. And a few years later it was. The hypothesis was demonstrated experimentally to be valid.

Since then, many experiments have been devised to detect and measure the neutrino.

The first use of a hydrogen bubble chamber to detect neutrinos

The first use of a hydrogen bubble chamber to detect neutrinos, on November 13, 1970

Neutrinos are weird, almost massless particles that travel at the speed of light. Billions of neutrinos from the Sun have just passed straight through your head and you didn’t feel a thing.

What has this got to do with bad skeptics?

After the talk, Ben happened to join us at our table and we all discovered a new type of skeptic. Someone at our table informed Ben that he was a “Neutrino Skeptic”.

Ben was stunned. Nearly speechless. The OMG Cat is a pretty accurate representation of the expression on Ben’s face. Ben had just met someone that thought that a fundamental particle of physics, that Ben studies and works with every day, didn’t actually exist.

He had basically been told that a job description of “Neutrino Scientist” was equivalent to a job title of “Unicorn herder”.

Ben rapidly went into the reasons how scientists know that the neutrino does indeed exist. If it didn’t, all discoveries made in particle physics over the previous decades were wrong. All the models would be wrong. Physicists do experiments all the time that detect and measure neutrinos. If neutrinos didn’t exist, all our theories on how the Sun generates energy would be incorrect. Our understanding of nuclear physics would be invalid.

The neutrino skeptic was undeterred. He continued:

“Yes, but it’s all still just a matter of faith that the neutrino exists”.

Yes, he used the word “faith”.

Ben now had to explain that he, as a scientist, doesn’t just believe in something based on faith. If it can’t be demonstrated experimentally, and if the experiment can’t be repeated, he is not going to just accept it.

Internal view of the Super Kamiokande detector. Image: (c) Kamioka Observatory, University of Tokyo

Internal view of the Super Kamiokande detector. Image: (c) Kamioka Observatory, University of Tokyo.

You get the picture. And this brings me to my point.

I think we (the good skeptics) need to reclaim the word “skeptic”. We need a rebranding exercise.

The person we met the other night is not a “neutrino skeptic” – he’s a “neutrino denier”.

Skepticism involves looking for, and relying on, evidence. Denialists are not the same thing. They don’t believe in something despite the evidence. They deny that the evidence exists, or that the evidence is valid.

So, the next time you hear someone use a phrase such as “Global Warming skeptic”, please correct them:

“I think you meant to say ‘Global Warming Denier’”.

The “Numpty” Edit

I have just returned from QEDCon at which I attended an excellent talk by Simon Singh. He suggested that we stop calling people denialists and came up with a (tongue-in-cheek) alternative: the Scottish word “numpty”.

Here is the Urban Dictionary definition of numpty:

Someone who (sometimes unwittingly) by speech or action demonstrates a lack of knowledge or misconception of a particular subject or situation to the amusement of others.

I quite like that.

So, perhaps the final sentence of this post can be updated:

“I think you meant to say ‘Global Warming Numpty’”.


I recorded a version of this post for episode 70 of The Pod Delusion. The Pod Delusion is a podcast about interesting things.


  1. Haha! We were actually warned of these “skeptics” in Maths-Physics the other day. Our lecturer referred to them as “cranks” and to be especially careful of they have an engineering background. As then they are under the impression they understand physics.

    Hilarious lecture.

    Neutrino Numpty takes the biscuit.

    Does “numpty” not sound a bit patronising though?

    • It does sound patronising. When I heard the word I thought: “doesn’t that mean ‘idiot’?”

      But the definition above doesn’t necessarily say that. Perhaps it would be a perfect definition if it didn’t have the “to the amusement of others” bit.

  2. […] to Kash Farooq for raising a topic I actually managed to have an opinion […]

  3. RationalWiki contrasts denialism and skepticism here:

    “Skeptics keep an open mind until data shows that a hypothesis is invalid, while denialists start with the conclusion and look for support. To put it another way denialism embraces confirmation bias while skepticism seeks to avoid it.”

    We certainly need to try and reclaim the concept of “skeptic”, especially since “Global Warming Skeptic” seems to have become an accepted term. True “Global Warming Skeptics” are the scientists working on climatology, because they’re looking for data and evidence right now. The denialists are just there to find whatever evidence suits them (confirmation bias) at all costs. It’s all about why you believe rather than what you believe, so your neutrino “skeptic” might be justified if he had studied and criticised the evidence, pointing out where it was inconsistent with the theory – but instead, he just jumps straight to “it’s a matter of faith”. I’m sure that sounds deep and philosophical, but it’s absolute intellectual laziness.

  4. TBH I’d get rid of the word skeptic too. They (mostly) aren’t scientists – if they are, use that word instead.

    It’s largely a group who want to feel superior to others simply because they’ve chosen to believe what real scientists say rather than what someone else tells them is true

    But usually only what the scientists say in the Guardian, twitter or on a blog – because they don’t have the wits to understand the actual science. They are just as much “numpties” as everyone else who doesn’t understand science. Except they want to kid each other they do every month in the pub.

    The other half of so-called “skepticism” is wasting reams of paper, hard drive space and time not believing in stuff that the rest of us have known is nonsense for decades if not longer. The vast majority manage to accept it as nonsense without needing to go to a pub and sit there nodding at each other or hunting down people who they think do believe in it to fret about or pointlessly argue with.

    The trouble is, it’s very easy to be a fan of science, read the blogs, nod in agreement and kid yourself that you understand science.

    The thing to take along to your next skeptic meeting is a folder full of scientific papers for them to chew on. Read and discuss them. At which point you’ll either be at a meeting of scientists – and there’ll be no need to call them skeptics. Or you’ll be in a meeting of people who, if they are honest, might begin to understand what science is, rather than what being a fan of someone’s blog or twitter stream is.

    • Please define scientist.

    • It doesn’t matter that science has dismissed idiotic ideas. People still keep believing in them. They just will not die as easily as one would like to think.

      Skeptics are a group of people who agree that all these ideas are a load of rubbish, who are spending their time fighting them so that proper scientists can get on with their jobs. Why is this a bad thing, again?

      To say that skeptics don’t understand science is also a gross over-simplification. Of course we can’t all follow the nitty-gritty of the maths involved, but we do generally get the scientific method and how it works. We tend to understand the nature of scientific debate, to understand the need for replication of results and to know what peer-review is.

      We are willing to defend the scientific way of looking at the world from the (much more numerous than you seem to think) people who either don’t or don’t want to understand it. If you don’t want to join in, then fine. Get on with whatever research you’re doing and add to the sum of human knowledge. We’ll be grateful for your efforts.

    • Had I more time, I would have written a shorter post. (Apols to Thoreau.)

      Can’t help but feel that Michael misses the point of SitP. Scientists can toddle along to seminars, conferences, lectures, do research, write, review, & read journal articles; it’s their job. Oddly, none of that did jack to help when the media decided to run with Wakefield’s lethal BS, & to run with it long after Teh Science had shown it to be dribbling arse gravy of the first water.

      Having a body of people beyond professional scientists (those people so often & so easily traduced in the media as “boffins”) who are willing to speak up publically against pernicious twaddle such as Wakefield’s seems to me rather a good thing. Otherwise the only popular voice the media hears is, in the case of Wakefield, the pro-disease lobby.

      SitP is also somewhere you can take your non-scientist mates to help them understand why the antivaxxers are stone loons, or why homeopathy is no different from the old days of “paternalistic, authoritarian” medicine, when many moderately anxious people were successfully treated with bread pills or gentian water.

      I too get a bit ticked off with the the title “skeptics” but that’s because I don’t spell “colour” without a “u”. Also because, as Michael has ably demonstrated, it’s often used by people who don’t really know what it means, & misused by those who conflate it with Empiricism An over-reliance on Empiricism would make theoretical physics a bit of an awkward gig; you wouldn’t be allowed to theorise anything until after it had been observed. Reckon we can all see a few flaws there.

      If it was called Scientists in the Pub, I’d let Michael few paras of kvetching slide, but it isn’t. So now he’s got his strawman bashing out of his system, lets kiss & make up & agree that it isn’t perforce a bad thing to occasionally go for a drink with people who enjoy a bit of critical thinking & who are interested in disciplines other than their own. If he had done more research on SitP, he’d know that it isn’t only about scientists descending from lofty heights to do a PopSci turn. Hell, SitP even has lawyers doing talks.

      The idea of a group of adults sitting down with refreshments in order to be informed about some element of the world in which they live is hardly new. The Women’s Institute, Townswomen’s Guild, Co-op Guild, Workers Education Association, Oddfellows, Rotarians, & countless other organisations have long invited individuals from a variety of backgrounds, including the scientific, to speak. I fail to see why this sort of informative meeting is news to Michael or why it irks him so.

      From the general to the specific – I’m old enough to remember when HIV was known as Slim (& imagined to be confined to a few poor, developing nations), then as GRID (“Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). When HIV was isolated, I was an outreach worker; my client group was recreational drug users & street prostitutes (the crossover should be clear). Part of my job was writing information leaflets about HIV for clients & their families/ partners, etc. I also had to do face-to-face outreach & counselling on the issue. Our project provided training & info on HIV for various professionals.

      In those days, I would have given my eye teeth for the sort of access that things like SitP & Twitter give me to people who actually know what they’re talking about; people who are prepared to give of their own time & expertise to explain complex & important specialist issues.

      Workers like me had to embark on personal crash courses in immunology & epidemiology. With no more communications technology than print media & a landline, we had to tug on every part of our professional & social networks to find doctors & academics willing to help us learn about the issue. I even had to beg an undergraduate friend to get journal articles for me – our project barely had enough money for stationary, never mind journal subscriptions & our wages were only a few quid above benefits, so forget individual subscription.

      Had all those people who helped us, chosen instead to sneer at people like me for trepassing beyond our purview; who would have written the leaflets? Who would have hung around the park benches where the chaotic poly-drug absuers congregated, to talk with them sensibly about HIV? Who would have spent time chatting with hookers about *exactly* what was & wasn’t safe to offer johns? None of that is properly the work of scientists & medics, but the people like me, whose job it was, needed accurate scientific & medical information.

      Even though there were far more specialist science journalists in those days, a quick trawl through newspaper archives will demonstrate that measured & well-informed journalism on HIV was not the dominant editorial line.

      Organisations like ours were able to offer accurate information about HIV in large part due to the goodwill of proto-SitPers. People willing to dispel dangerous canards, de-mystify complex research, & fill the educational lacunae of strangers for no greater reward than a pint or a curry. I am eternally grateful to them.


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