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.

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  • Elliot

    Not to immediately get off track but how does the recent WMAP data square up with Turok/Steinhardt’s model?

    Anyway back to the article. I think the comment about “first principles” actually makes sense. The subtext is that the anthropic principle is ad-hoc and thrown in to explain things that can’t be explained otherwise.

    Although not particularly informative, I don’t think for a layperson’s article it was horrible. Just not great.

    Elliot

  • http://www.twistedphysics.typepad.com Jennifer Ouellette

    Speaking as a science writer, I tend to agree with Mark: it’s lazy writing, plain and simple. It comes down to knowing your audience and writing the piece accordingly. The article in question assumes an awful lot of familiarity with cutting-edge (far be it from me to call it “speculative”) cosmological theories, and is pretty jargon-heavy, even for the Guardian’s readership.

    Sure, there is a passing attempting to explain anthropic principles and the like — although he seems to be quoting a working definition verbatim, rather than trying to come up with a better way of phrasing things — but what’s really missing is a broader context. That’s why it reads, as Mark says, like a press release. There s only a passing attempt to talk about where it fits with the prevailing theory, never mind the entire field. Of course, books have been written about that, and this is just a short, truncated news story. I’m guessing time and space limitations got in the way of decent reporting. It happens.

    By virtue of my profession, I’m sympathetic to how difficult it is to get good, hard science into the news at all, and to do a complex topic like cosmology justice when faced with tight deadlines, severe space restrictions and harried editors who may not “get it.” And frankly, we all have our “lazy days” when we just don’t put out that extra effort to raise a story from acceptable to good. I haven’t read any of Randerson’s other writing. Let’s hope this isn’t typical.

  • http://www.anthropic-principle.ORG island

    The model sounds very similar to the one that I’ve discovered, except that I actually have a mechanism for it.

    … not to mention first principles…

    … that don’t deny the anthropic principle.

    Because I’m not afraid to recognize that the AP indicates that we ARE the mechanism… *duh*

  • http://www.anthropic-principle.ORG island

    I found this article in nature. Apparently this is just a rehash of Steinhardt and Turok’s “bouncing universe” that people has benn around for a while now:
    http://www.nature.com/news/2006/060501/full/060501-8.html

    It’s an expansion/recollapse model.

    Nope… try again:

    http://www.lns.cornell.edu/spr/2006-02/msg0073320.html

  • Maynard Handley

    Isn’t this simply one more data point confirming Peter Woit’s fundamental point – that if any random crap that comes along is presented as evidence for string theory, that if the string theory guys persist in labelling it as a branch of physics rather than a branch of math, that if they continue to try to avoid the issue of whether it is actually connected to reality via experiment, then this attitude is eventually going to pollute the whole of physics?

    We’ve had a eighty freaking years of physicists, when explaining QM (and to a rather lesser extent relativity) aggressively preferring to explain things as “Gee Whiz, the universe is the strangest thing out there, far beyond the ken of the human mind” rather than “things are different when they are small; here’s what we understand; here’s what we don’t”.
    Who can be surprised when the chickens come home to roost, when journalists now accept whatever they’re fed uncritically? Physics has wasted the chance over the last 80 yrs to provide a realistic view of the world to the public.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    I’d say no Maynard. I don’t think what you say stands up at all. Over the last 80 years physics has provided an unprecedentedly accurate description of nature over vastly different scales. There are always boundaries to knowledge, and that’s where the fun is, and there will always be physicists pushing their work. This article is pure bad science journalism.

  • Cynthia

    Mark:I agree with your overall assessment! As a general rule, I would much rather receive scientific information – which is highly specialized – coming from a primary-source-specialist than from a secondary-source-nonspecialist. I have noticed that nonspecialist have a greater tendency to warp and/or skirt scientific information which is highly specialized. In contrast – for example – Seth Lloyd’s “Programming the Universe” is -by far- one of the most lucid, most concise works on the subject of quantum computing. Unlike most non-experts reporting on quantum computing, Seth Lloyd does not confuse and/or distract the reader with a bunch of flowery language and/or wasteful analogies. Moreover, I do not believe the nonspecialist could come close to reproducing Lloyd’s amazing degree of clarity as well as brevity on the subject of quantum computing. More specifically – for example – I cannot image a nonspecialist – reporting on the elusive realm of quantum computing – being able to match Lloyd’s masterful exposition on tying information theory to the second law. Hail to the specialist of science!

  • strategichamlet

    Not to demean Turok and Steinhardt’s work since I’m not really familiar with it, but purely hypothetically does anyone else think that there is a problem with presenting highly speculative theories to the public before they have any real supporting evidence without a huge “this is not widely accepted science” disclaimer? I understand that we don’t want to hide the process of making science behind a curtain, but unless something makes a big splash in the scientific community it probably shouldn’t be made out as one to the public.

  • http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/blog Peter Woit

    Maynard,

    I’d like to make clear that I don’t think the problem with string theory is that it is math, not physics. Some parts of string theory may be best thought of as math, but the great majority of recent work in string theory is not creating new mathematics and thus is not mathematical research. The most dangerous aspect of string theory, the anthropic landscape pseudo-science, has nothing to do with mathematics.

    I’m not quite sure why Mark found this piece so disappointing. It wasn’t very good, but there’s far worse out there. When well-known and respected physicists are over-hyping their highly speculative and almost certainly wrong ideas, it can be difficult for non-specialists to see this and get the story right. While there are lots of examples of journalists who write up what scientists tell them in an overly-credulous way, not really understanding what is going on, I’ve often been pleasantly surprised at how many journalists are able to see through the hype, sometimes even when many trained physicists don’t seem to be able to. While it would be great if journalists would always recognize hype for what it is and not repeat it uncritically, it also would be great if scientists would act more responsibly and not over-hype highly speculative ideas, either their own or other people’s.

  • http://www.anthropic-principle.ORG island

    I’m hearing cries about the need for a distinction between the popularization of mathematically “supported” theoretical conjecture, and the most conservative mainstream approach, which is not even close to the same thing, regardless of what *some* cutting-edge theorists might like to *pretend*…

    `

    …so that they can push their pet theories on the mainstream.

    `

    Which might be okay if the idea was simply to get them evaluated for merrit, but “some” are simply declaring it so, and then moving-on with this, (politically), while circumventing the normal channels of what even constitutes a falsifiable theory!… is Peter’s point, I believe.

    All that’s missing is the threat of death by kung-fu.. 😉

    `

    I’m thinking it’s more-like 89 years.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/05/what-comes-next.html Plato

    I mean if you think of micro-seconds and someone saids to you, it just doesn’t make sense( what energy scale the model of strings applied?) then one might have trouble accepting the report on colliders for consideration, and how we view the outcome of the universe from that beginning?

    Nice moose picture in there to look at.

  • http://electrogravity.blogspot.com/ Science

    “We’ve had a eighty freaking years of physicists, when explaining QM (and to a rather lesser extent relativity) aggressively preferring to explain things as “Gee Whiz, the universe is the strangest thing out there, far beyond the ken of the human mind” rather than “things are different when they are small; here’s what we understand; here’s what we don’t”. Who can be surprised when the chickens come home to roost, when journalists now accept whatever they’re fed uncritically?” – Maynard Handley

    “When well-known and respected physicists are over-hyping their highly speculative and almost certainly wrong ideas, it can be difficult for non-specialists to see this and get the story right. … I’ve often been pleasantly surprised at how many journalists are able to see through the hype, sometimes even when many trained physicists don’t seem to be able to. While it would be great if journalists would always recognize hype for what it is and not repeat it uncritically, it also would be great if scientists would act more responsibly and not over-hype highly speculative ideas, either their own or other people’s.” – Peter Woit

    I can’t believe these comments! Nobody sees through hype, it is part of the social culture of physics. Consensus is what mainstream science is all about when you get to untested or ad hoc models fitted to measurements. Few people are clear which parts of QFT or GR are 100% justified empirically. So you get all kinds of crazy extensions based on philosophical interpretations being defended by the accuracy to which you can calculate the magnetic moment of an electron …

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/05/basis-of-reality-by-geometric-design.html Plato

    Ya, it’s tuff science to see clearly through all the thought constructs? :)

  • http://www.anthropic-principle.ORG island

    Ya, it’s tuff science to see clearly through all the thought constructs?

    All the more reason not to pile-up ad hoc assumptions without fixing the problem at the root first. Pretty much guarantees that any initial distortion will be compounded, and a hundred and twenty orders of magnitude is quite enough already, thanks!

    Few people are clear which parts of QFT or GR are 100% justified empirically.

    Which *should* make theorists wonder quite a lot more than they do about how the heck Dirac ever possibly managed to unify QM and SR, especially since it can be shown that QFT isn’t *really* a second quantization of Dirac’s negative energy solutions.

    http://arxiv.org/abs/hep-th/0401208

    Nah… it makes a lot more sense to keep pushing… that’ll fix it.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/mark/ Mark

    OK boys, isn’t there some forum on which you could go bitch about professional physicists without hijacking one of our threads?

  • Elliot

    Here is another article on the same topic which gives a better explanation than the one in the original post.

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/space/20060508/sc_space/recycleduniversetheorycouldsolvecosmicmystery

    In retrospect I amend my original comment. This later article is much better than the first.

    Elliot

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/05/basis-of-reality-by-geometric-design.html Plato

    island,

    Ya, it’s tuff science to see clearly through all the thought constructs?

    While you choose to highlight my statement, I would like you to know and Mark, that it was written fully acknowledging Peter’s careful warnings, as well as Cliffords, about our views on string theory and how we look at particle collider information. It’s place in the timeline.

    Pretty much guarantees that any initial distortion will be compounded, and a hundred and twenty orders of magnitude is quite enough already, thanks!

    While such “delusions” are good to be aware of, it is also empowering to realized, that you could be living one, and not know it? :)

    Working to clear such delusions is a good thing, while also recognizing that this timeline did indeed began somewhere?

  • http://www.geocities.com/vhsatheeshkumar V H Satheesh Kumar

    Yes! Mark is right!! I have seen some physicists complaining about their own interviews appeared in top rated journals. Some journalists get some inputs from the authors (through e-mails, they don’t even meet face-to-face) and then they will ‘cook up’ the interview and publish it. It would be better if they show the final draft to the authors. Ultimately many people rely on this kind of articles rather than to the original papers by the authors. Even the authors should not allow the journal to publish without having a look at the article in the final form.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

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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