Bad Science Journalism

By Mark Trodden | May 4, 2006 10:16 pm

I have posted before about the value of good, serious science journalism. Although I think such writing is on the decline, I have often commented on interesting efforts in The Guardian, for example by Ben Goldacre in the Bad Science section.

So I am particularly disappointed that one of the times they fail me is while writing about my field. Today’s edition has an article by James Randerson about the cyclic universe ideas of Neil Turok and Paul Steinhardt. Now, while these ideas are very speculative, they are certainly an attempt to do solid science by two renowned cosmologists. As such, it is fine by me if a newspaper chooses to write about it.

However, the Guardian article seems to have required hardly any work at all from the point of view of the journalist. Rather, it reads like a press release. The article consists of block quotes from the proponents, with little or no attempt to elucidate the science for the reader. For example

Under his theory, published today in the journal Science with Paul Steinhardt at Princeton University in New Jersey, the universe must be at least a trillion years old with many big bangs happening before our own. With each bang, the theory predicts that matter keeps on expanding and dissipating into infinite space before another horrendous blast of radiation and matter replenishes it. “I think it is much more likely to be far older than a trillion years though,” said Prof Turok. “There doesn’t have to be a beginning of time. According to our theory, the universe may be infinitely old and infinitely large.”

Turok and Steinhardt’s ideas are contrasted with the anthropic principle, which is hardly explained before the author hands off to a quote from Alex Vilenkin from Tufts University which, apparently, has moved from Massachusetts to Maryland. Again there are statements like, while referring to Turok’s ideas,

His explanation by contrast is built up from first principles.

without any explanation of what this might mean and whether other scientists agree.

It is great to see theoretical cosmology in the news, and this topic provides an opportunity to discuss the challenges to constructing a consistent and predictive theory of the earliest times in the universe and how the current topic fits into the greater landscape (no pun intended) of ideas. But it is infuriating when there is such a lazy effort to explain the ideas to the public. If a science journalist doesn’t bother to do that, the newspaper might as well just cut out the middleman and pay scientists directly for their press releases.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and the Media

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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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