This Week’s (Stale) Hype

The usual hype machine is at work this week, with the usual mechanism:

Normally I try to defend the journalists involved, feeling that the most irresponsible behavior is coming from the scientists themselves. In this case, Hertog has a lot to answer for, but it’s not Hawking’s fault since he’s dead. Any semi-competent journalist should have realized that this is not news: the same stories had already been written and published a month ago, and then conclusively debunked in many places (see here, here and here for instance).

This is rather depressing, making one feel that there’s no way to fight this kind of bad science, in the face of determined efforts to promote fake physics to the public. It’s one thing for journalists to be misled by a new variant on an old debunked story, but that they’re getting misled again by exactly the same story is a new development.

Update: More hype from Hertog, this time from Scientific American, which tells us that his work is based on

string theory, one of the most dominant emerging paradigms in 21st-century physics.

Hertog is asked about the undeniable fact that his work predicts nothing:

How do you counter critics of string theory, who argue it cannot be tested?

I don’t agree with this statement; it is not my intuition that string theory can’t be tested. We may already have observations based on studies of the universe’s large-scale structure and evolution that are telling us something about the nature of quantum gravity. Of course, further theoretical work will be needed to arrive at a mathematically rigorous, fully predictive framework for cosmology.

So, your paper’s key predictions depend on the reality and nature of inflation. Will that be testable?

There are the obvious observables, yes. Just as it amplified tiny quantum fluctuations in the early universe, inflation should have amplified gravitational waves in the early universe, too. Gravitational waves are ripples in spacetime, first predicted by Einstein, that were finally observed just a few years ago—but the ones we have observed come from black holes and other stellar remnants in neighboring galaxies, not from the primordial universe. These amplified gravitational waves would leave their imprint on the polarization of the cosmic microwave background. Astronomers are actively trying to detect this polarization pattern.

So you are optimistic they will succeed?

Well, our theory certainly predicts that primordial gravitational waves should be there at some level.

As Sabine Hossenfelder points out, saying “at some level”, without even an order of magnitude estimate, is not a prediction at all. In addition, this non-prediction is exactly the same non-prediction of the theory (eternal inflation) that Hertog is claiming his work challenges.

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10 Responses to This Week’s (Stale) Hype

  1. David Appell says:

    Unfortunately many science journalists let press releases led them around by the nose. They’re about all they pay attention to.

  2. Anthony Moose says:

    “This is rather depressing, making one feel that there’s no way to fight this kind of bad science, in the face of determined efforts to promote fake physics to the public.”

    On the plus side, most members of the public are so scientifically illiterate, and so disinterested in science journalism in general, that this will hardly have any effect on their understanding of physics, or lack thereof.

    The people who do know enough to get in trouble are probably either already enamored with multiverse hype, or know enough to be skeptical of headlines and articles like these.

    I could definitely see why it’s frustrating, though. It’s probably not unlike trying to fist-fight the Pacific Ocean.

  3. Hal Porter says:

    I’m a former science journalist (among other topics, though never focused on theoretical physics–how,about indoor air pollution?), now 70 y.o. I agree with Appell; I understand Moose’s despair/cynicism but follow that path and one ends falling into any number of social abysses. There would simply be no hope other than some farcically improbable intellectual autarchy. The project of universal education, in the broadest sense, must be followed if one is to avoid another dark age, a la Dick, etc. It seems to me this blog has congruent aims.

    About the journalists, call up the sources! Research! Reporting! Don’t call up or otherwise contact scientist just to get two views to create a he said, she said dialogue, but try to understand, as much as possible (especially in theoretical physics) what the author of the whole study is trying to say. Even I could understand 2/3 of the papers out of Fermilab delimiting the mass of the Higgs boson–if such existed–back, what, 7-8 years ago. With that awareness, some 4-5 hours of genuine research (over several days, you’ve got to actually think/absorb) one could produce a modest, 300-500 word story on the subject, crudely addressing method, means, and the meaning of results ruling out at that point. But you’ve got to do the thinking, the research, and talk to people (who may not always be right)! What intellectual laziness–or cowarice or greed–does laziness is.

    Woit’s objections here are very fair; I used to blame the college PR Depts. more, but the research scientists have a duty to anti-hype these releases; though in fairness may be under a lot of pressure and dealing naively in areas where they they have no training. Furthermore, in publishing contexts, the writer DOES NOT WRITE THE HEADLINE (my horror stories abound).

    Of course these issues nowadays quickly conjoin with anti-science anti-global warming political/financial agrandizement memes. The good fight against the barbarians risks losing sight of the need for intellectual and ethical rigor on our side also.
    Sorry for the extended rant.

  4. Thomas says:

    This is exactly what happened today here in Germany. Every big and every wanna be news magazine brings a front story about this new “bahnbrechende” theroy from Hawkins. The funny thing is that the name Thomas Hertog is never ever mentioned. This is a déjà vu because it all happened shortly after his death. The same papers the same news all over again … 🙁

  5. Gram Nasi says:

    Try what? It’s “try to defend” not “try and defend”.

  6. Peter Woit says:

    Gram Nasi,
    Fixed.

  7. Jim Holt says:

    @ Gram Nasi
    “Try and defend” is a perfectly literate use of the rhetorical trope called hendiadys. Peter did not deserve your censure.

  8. Kevin says:

    An exception: today, the Bavarian radio programme BR2 summarized the paper as follows: one more speculation in an existing huge number of speculations; experimental check with gravitational waves not correct; nobody dares, for reasons of piety, to voice public disagreement; but almost complete private disagreement within the research community.

  9. David Appell says:

    Anthony Moose says:
    On the plus side, most members of the public are so scientifically illiterate, and so disinterested in science journalism in general, that this will hardly have any effect on their understanding of physics, or lack thereof.

    Huh? In the US, the situation is the exact opposite of this.

  10. lun says:

    In related news, Italians are celebrating the 50th anniversary of string theory today.
    Is this a midlife crisis situation? :-/
    http://home.infn.it/it/comunicazione/news/2900-50-anni-di-teoria-delle-stringhe

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