So there’s this notion in the popular press that when a new scientific paper comes out, that paper should be taken as the final definitive word on an issue. Science has spoken. This is a scientific fact now. But that is not how science works.
When new research is published, you should expect there will be followup research, and then that followup research will be followed up by even more research. A new scientific paper really shouldn’t be seen as a proclamation of fact but rather as the beginning of a dialogue among scientists, or perhaps as the continuation of a dialogue that’s already in progress.
The recent detection of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus has turned out to be a fantastic example of this ongoing dialogue in action. The initial research was published in two separate papers (click here or here). Basically, astronomers found the spectral signature of phosphine (PH3) in the Venusian atmosphere, and they were at a loss to explain where all that phosphine could be coming from.
Based on everything we currently know about Venus, those two papers tried to rule out several possible explanations. Such a large quantity of phosphine could not be created by Venus’s atmospheric chemistry. It could not be spewing out of volcanoes on Venus’s surface. It could not be delivered to Venus by asteroids or comets. One very intriguing possibility that could not be ruled out: maybe there’s life on Venus. On Earth, phosphine is produced almost exclusively by living things.
But those two papers were not the definitive final word on the matter. A dialogue had begun. Soon, followup research came out suggesting that phosphine could be spewing out of volcanoes after all. It would still be pretty shocking to discover that Venus has enough active volcanoes to produce that much atmospheric phosphine—but it be nowhere near as shocking as discovering Venus has life.
And then even more followup research came out with this paper, which points out possible errors in the original research and suggests that we may be dealing with a false positive detection. Venus might not have phosphine after all, or maybe it doesn’t have as much as originally believed.
And the dialogue continues. More research will come. More responses will be published, and then there will be responses to those responses, and so forth until the scientific community reaches some sort of consensus about this Venusian phosphine business. And even then, that scientific consensus still might not be the 100% final word on the matter.
Based on the way the popular press reports science news, you could easily get the impression that scientific papers should be treated as gospel truth. You would be understandably confused, then, when one scientific paper comes out refuting the findings of another. Subsequently, you may come to the conclusion (as a great many people apparently have) that science must not know anything at all. Science just keeps contradicting itself, it seems.
But scientific papers are not meant to be taken as gospel truth. They’re part of an ongoing back-and-forth dialogue. So the next time you hear about some new scientific discovery on the news, remember that scientific papers are not intended to be bold proclamations of fact. And when you hear about some new paper refuting older research, you’ll understand what’s going on.