What Do Neutrinos Have to Do With Climate? Not Much

The recent discovery that particles called neutrinos might be traveling faster than light has shocked physicists, but also led some to draw dramatically wrong conclusions, experts say.

In particular, they point to a Wall Street Journal op-ed writer who used that finding, in part, to call the completely unrelated field of climate change science into question.

Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative economic think tank in New York, wrote about climate change: "The science is not settled, not by a long shot. Last month, scientists at CERN, the prestigious high-energy physics lab in Switzerland, reported that neutrinos might — repeat, might — travel faster than the speed of light. If serious scientists can question Einstein's theory of relativity, then there must be room for debate about the workings and complexities of the Earth's atmosphere."

But experts in both physics and climate change say his conclusions are way off.

"This is a very scary statement, for it reveals both an ignorance of how science works, and an antipathy toward the scientific endeavor," said climate researcher Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. "Citing one experiment about a weakly interacting sub-atomic particle in an effort to discredit all of climate science is tantamount to citing the apparent discovery of an unexpected new animal species as reason to reject the theory of gravity. It is a desperate effort by those who find the implications of human-caused climate change inconvenient, to distract the public from the overwhelming evidence that it is both real, and a threat."

Earlier this month, physicists announced that neutrinos traveling from the CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, to an underground mine in Italy appeared to be moving at 1.000025 times the speed of light. Such a result seems to fly in the face of Einstein's special theory of relativity, which states that nothing can go faster than light. [Top 10 Implications of Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos]

Yet even the researchers behind that announcement suggested that some mundane explanation could be behind their measurements, and welcomed input from other scientists to help unravel the mystery. "Most experts believe that the finding won't hold up (there is some evidence it was probably an artifact of clock synchronization errors), and the smart money is definitely with Einstein on this one," Mann wrote in an email to LiveScience. "But even if it *was* correct, special relativity wouldn't be 'overthrown,' just as classical Newtonian physics wasn't overthrown by the 20th-century innovations of quantum mechanics and relativity. Newtonian physics was still valid within the range of assumptions over which it had been tested (speeds small compared to that of light, and spatial scales large compared to atoms). As for any implications for climate change, there are none that I can see at all."

Regardless of outcome of the neutrino issue, climate change science should be unaffected.

"His point is irrelevant," CERN physicist Jonas Strandberg said of Bryce's argument. "The 'correctness' of the laws of relativity is completely independent from the correctness of the climate research, and there is no correlation between the two."

There are also important differences between theoretical physics and climate change. Where the behavior of exotic neutrinos is a frontier field where scientists are still gathering data and forming hypotheses, climate science is well-grounded in measurements and observations.

"Every theory stands on the strength of the evidence supporting it," Mann said. "The evidence for the existence of the greenhouse effect, the warming of the Earth over the past century, and the role of human activity — particularly fossil fuel emissions — in that warming, has been affirmed by an overwhelming array of evidence coupled with an understanding of the basic physics and chemistry involved."

Just because some minor details of climate science are still being studied doesn't mean that the whole concept is uncertain. [Top 10 Ways Weather Changed History]

"The science of climate change is settled to the extent that we know that the climate is changing and humans are the main cause, with potential disastrous outcomes in the future," said Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. "But the science is far from settled in all of the important details about just how much, and where and when (all the regional manifestations, etc.)."

And while it's true that the scientific method leaves room for new evidence to update past conclusions, that doesn't mean that all ideas are equally likely to be proven wrong, said Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University.

"I think that the chance that the major tenets of climate will turn out to be wrong is quite small," Dessler wrote in an email. "And if you take their argument to its logical conclusion, you'd conclude that you should never act on any scientific result at all, since all science always stands some chance of later being overturned.  It's a recipe to do nothing."

Climate change, in fact, is an idea with particularly strong backup from data.

"Climate science is a century or more old, and many of the most important points have been tested and tested and tested and have stood up to scrutiny," Dressler said.

LiveScience Managing Editor Jeanna Bryner contributed reporting to this story.

You can follow LiveScience senior writer Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

Clara Moskowitz
Clara has a bachelor's degree in astronomy and physics from Wesleyan University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She has written for both Space.com and Live Science.