Cosmic Hype

The latest issue of Astronomy magazine has two articles hyping the landscape/multiverse/anthropic principle and cosmic superstrings. Many well-known theorists are quoted supporting the anthropic principle and the multiverse, including Joe Polchinski, Nima Arkani-Hamed, Martin Rees, Max Tegmark, Alexander Vilenkin, Alan Guth and Lenny Susskind. The only negative quotes are from Paul Steinhardt and David Gross (whose quote is just one word: “virus”, that he used to refer to the anthropic principle a couple years ago).

Max Tegmark is quoted as saying the kind of thing that motivated John Horgan’s recent NYT Op-Ed piece: “I fully expect the true nature of reality to be weird and counterintuitive, which is why I believe these crazy things.” Funny, I thought scientists were supposed to believe things, crazy or not, because of experimental evidence for them. At a Templeton Foundation sponsored conference on the multiverse, supposedly Martin Rees “was confident enough of the multiverse’s existence to stake his dog’s life.” And Andrei Linde “went further, claiming he would put his own life on the line.” Horgan might point out that neither Linde nor Rees’s dog are in much immediate danger since no one has any plausible idea of how one could ever show that there is no multiverse.

Linde, Vilenkin and Susskind acknowledge that they don’t know how to use the anthropic principle to predict anything, with Linde noting the problem of an infinite number of possible vacuum states: “There are many different ways of counting infinities, and we don’t know which methods are preferable.” Vilenkin is quoted as saying the problem has to do with the lack of the right “statistical techniques”, which is kind of misleading, since the problem isn’t one of mathematical technique. Susskind actually sounds the most sober of the lot, saying it will be a long time before the anthropic principle can be used to predict anything and “At the moment, it’s telling us more about what not to do than what to do.” Polchinski on the other hand, goes for maximum hype value, claiming that “The value we now measure for the cosmological constant is precisely what Weinberg predicted.” Of course, by “precisely”, he means “off by one to two orders of magnitude, much more if you allow not just the cosmological constant to vary.”

The article on cosmic superstrings also contains quite a lot of hype from Polchinski, who not only is pushing the idea that the “CSL-1” object is a galaxy lensed by a cosmic string, but that “We’re likely to go from one event to 1,000 events in 10 years” and “We’re really at the dawn of a new era of science.” For more about this, see the latest posting on Lubos Motl’s weblog.

Over at Cosmic Variance, Clifford Johnson has a posting about an article in the Guardian about wacky science stories in the media by Ben Goldacre, who runs the Bad Science weblog devoted to this topic. Clifford is quite critical of media coverage of science, but the only examples he gives are ones related to health scares. String theory inspired wacky science stories like the ones in Astronomy aren’t mentioned, neither is the fact that here the problem may not be incompetent science journalists, but the fondness for hype of some of his prominent colleagues.

In other popular science magazine news, I learned from David Appell’s weblog that the New York Times is reporting that Discover magazine is being sold by Disney to Bob Guccione Jr. Guccione says that he intends to add a humor column to Discover and to create two new print magazines devoted to science. He claims that scientists are kind of like rock stars: “a bunch of people with strong egos and God complexes. That sounds like rock ‘n’ roll to me.” I guess he liked Michio Kaku’s recent cover article.

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18 Responses to Cosmic Hype

  1. Dick Thompson says:

    The bas science media stories I always look for is the annual one where some lab or other has “demostrated faster than light communication” and thereby “overthrown Einstein”. The New York Times, continuing its great tradition (“A rocket in space won’t work because it has nothing to push against”) is a regular venue for these stories.

  2. woit says:

    Actually, in recent years I think the New York Times science coverage has been much better than what I remember from many years ago. On stories that I know something about they generally don’t get all that much wrong. These days, at least in theoretical physics, when there’s nonsense in the Times articles, it’s often because they’re quoting, accurately, some prominent physicist.

  3. cvj says:

    Hi, Peter, I have to say that I’m less concerned about hype (alleged or otherwise) by string theorists about string theory research in the media than I am about hype concerning health issues. I think that misinformation about the latter is a more immediate concern with regards innaccurate science stories. I’m not obliged to mention string theory in everything I talk about, right? There’s more to this universe than just strings…There’s branes, for example. … 😉


  4. Maynard Handley says:

    Perhaps journalists wouldn’t write quite such stupid articles on physics if physicists writing textbooks, pop physics books and blog articles didn’t think it a point of pride to go on and on about how “wacky” QM is, how “no-one in the world understands it”, and similar drivel.
    [I’m not attacking Peter here, he’s pretty good about this. On the other hand Cosmic Variance goes in for this big time.]

  5. cvj says:

    On the other hand Cosmic Variance goes in for this big time.

    What?! Speaking of drivel….


  6. woit says:

    I agree with Maynard that there’s a lot of drivel out there from people who should know better about how wacky and incomprehensible quantum mechanics is (actually I take the extreme point of view that QM is simpler, mathematically deeper and more coherent than classical mechanics). But promoting this kind of drivel isn’t something I’d ever noticed anyone at Cosmic Variance being especially guilty of.


    Nothing wrong with being concerned about the health-related nonsense in the media. Personally I think I stopped reading such articles about thirty years ago, when I realized that most of them weren’t based on any serious science. Maybe I’ll start paying attention again as I get older and develop more health problems.

    But I still think you should take the problem of hype in physics more seriously. Ideally I think we’d all like the average person to understand what real scientific evidence is, and to be able to evaluate any news article they read about science in terms of whether there is real evidence to back up the claims being made. The danger of physicists promoting highly speculative ideas based on virtually no evidence that are most likely wrong, and continually announcing that “we’re at the dawn of a new era of science” is that the credibility of the field can be destroyed. I don’t see how you can both explain to people that they should reject ID, astrology, etc. as wishful thinking not backed up by any evidence, while at the same time promoting the multiverse as the latest serious scientific advance.

  7. Not a Nobel Laureate says:

    More pedantry.

    In their day,
    dispersion relations, Mandelstam representation, Regge poles, S-matrix theory, N/D method, and bootstrap dynamics, were the fashionably dominant theories.

    In each case, they were superseded by, what was then, “obscure work”.

    Progress was possible because the “obscure work”, for example Yang-Mills fields, were able to explain some aspect of the flood of experimental HEP data that the popular theories of the day could not.

    The difference with string theory along any current “obscure work” is that there is a drought of experimental observations that could differentiate between the various approaches.
    That is, any of the current “theories” could actually make experimental predictions to begin with.

    Thus we have the sad, if not pathetic, situation of very clever people confusing their opinions with physical reality.

  8. Not a Nobel Laureate says:

    The truly interesting work today is instead being done in condensed matter physics and optics.

    Disclaimer: don’t work in either field.

  9. island says:

    Linde, Vilenkin and Susskind acknowledge that they don’t know how to use the anthropic principle to predict anything, with Linde noting the problem of an infinite number of possible vacuum states: “There are many different ways of counting infinities, and we don’t know which methods are preferable.?

    phhht… Try, none. In order to use the anthropic principle to predict anything, you must first give up trying to apply it to anything other than the observed universe where it belongs. Evobiologists could use it as it stands right now in its incomplete and tautologous form to make testable predictions about life, if they weren’t anti-fanatically motivated to *believe* that it represents proof of god’s existence if we’re here for any other reason than by pure accident. Cosmologists could use it in its biocentric form to predict that we won’t find life on Mars or Venus, and that we will find life on the bands of spiral galaxies that are about the same age as ours… etc…

    Peter wrote:

    I don’t see how you can both explain to people that they should reject ID, astrology, etc. as wishful thinking not backed up by any evidence, while at the same time promoting the multiverse as the latest serious scientific advance.

    ‘Dear Holiest man on Earth…

    I appeal to your highest mortal authority in order to ask that you please tell your peeps not to say stuff that hurts the popularity of my crackpot theories… ‘

    Thanx in advance…

    Luv, Larry

  10. Peter Shor says:

    This is pretty off-topic, so I’ll apologize, but what happened to all the popular science magazines anyway? There were quite a few more a decade ago, but now, at least on newsstands, it seems to have dwindled to Scientific American, Discover (which is being sold!), American Scientist, and a handful a specialized ones. I don’t think Scientific American is as good as it used to be, either. Is this a symptom of the decline of the popularity of science in America?

  11. Not a Nobel Laureate says:

    P. Shor wrote: “This is pretty off-topic, so I’ll apologize, but what happened to all the popular science magazines anyway? . . .”

    I’ve noticed the same.

    Scientific American was worth reading every month, now it’s worth avoiding.

    New Scientist used to be an excellent British science news publication (it’s actually where I first read an article by Penrose about his Twistor program) but is now the National Enquirer / World Weekly News of science reporting.

    Science has not only lost popularity in the US, but also respect.

    Interesting article here about math and science education in N. America:

    I’ll also apologize for going off topic.

  12. woit says:

    Not really off-topic, the question of what if anything is happening to popular science magazines is interesting, and I’m certainly curious what the significance of Guccione buying Discover and getting into the science magazine business will be. Scientific American was one thing that got me interested in science when I was a kid, and part of that was the fact that it was quite serious and intellectually demanding, something I fear is less true these days.

    One thing that has affected all magazines in one way or another over the last decade is the internet, and many people are getting information this way that they used to get from magazines. So it’s not clear a declining number of magazines means less interest from the public. It’s my impression that there are actually a lot more popular science books being published than there used to be, and books aren’t affected in the same way as magazines by the internet (just about nobody wants to read a book online). So maybe there is more popular interest in science, but magazines are just less important.

  13. cvj says:

    Peter. I agree with your comment that it is very important. I just happen to think that misleading health-science stories are a lot more damaging to far more people. But these things are all connected, of course. But in an article or post that I’m writing, if I want to mention a few examples of dangerously misleading science reporting, I am more likely to mention examples such as the misrepresenting of the results of drug trials than I am the results of string theory. Call me old-fashioned if you want to, but this will always be the case. This has nothing to do with me being a stirng theorist, (perhaps trying to hide some non-existent theorectical physics community conspiracy to delude the public) and everything to do with me trying to be a responsible citizen of the planet first and foremost.



  14. J.F. Moore says:

    Spin and Gear were OK for what they were. Guccione the younger’s main problem seems to be keeping his publications in the black. Frankly, Disney managing anything is more financially viable, but they have no compunctions about stong-arming producers, editors, etc to enforce the party line, which is a moderately conservative, family values, thoroughly corporatist, although secular viewpoint.

    Given the growing storm over ID, and the opportunity to make science “cool” to a new generation, this change might not be that bad. Incidentally, my favorite articles in Discover have consistently been the “Vital Signs” pieces, because of the way they are written and the fact that I always learn something reading them (I’m not a medico).

    I will also point out that while SA has been watered down, they threw down the gauntlet rather dramatically over the assault on darwinism with the “april fools” editorial.

    New Scientist has become an embarrassment, almost as bad as Wired now.

  15. J.F. Moore says:

    Sorry, but I have to respond after reading that op-ed piece “Not a Nobel Laureate” linked. Pedagogy is infinitely debatable – personally I think hers is terrible – but the author seems either ignorant or willing to ignore the basic facts involved in her argument about outsourcing. US companies are not outsourcing due to any shortage of talent or because US science students are lousy. They are outsourcing primarily programmers and clerical technical workers because they can be had for much less salary in India and China. This is not only obvious, but can be thoroughly sourced in business literature. To the extent that there is scientific outsourcing, a significant number of those scientists, you will find, were educated in the US.

    These comparative tests that rank various countries are a joke. One thing they don’t account for is the much more eglatarian basis of US education compared to many other countries, which essentially doom the majority of their population to trade labor at an early age. So our average sample is pitted against a German gymnasium (for example). Administrators and politicians keep their mouths shut about this outrage because they get more money being ranked low than they would if we were near the top.

    The difficulty to get students to go to grad school or take a career in science in the US exists because the opportunities just aren’t there afterward. Other professions are a much safer bet. Again, that should be obvious.

  16. JC says:

    I agree with J.F. Moore on this issue.

    The job market has always been dictated by supply and demand. Brainpower, skills, abilities, etc … have always been a secondary issue when it comes to hiring decisions and/or the clueless HR drones. As long as the demand for particular jobs is significantly greater than the supply of those particular jobs, the PHB’s (ie. “pointy hair bosses” in Dilbert) will always pick and choose whoever they want to hire. For a long time engineers, scientists, computer programmers, etc … have been a “dime a dozen” as far as the PHB’s are concerned. (The only significant exception to this in the recent past was during the dotcom bubble of the late 1990’s). With major outsourcing overseas, scientists and engineers have become more like a “nickel a dozen” or even a “penny a dozen”. Many PHB’s are mainly interested in their own paycheck and bonuses, and how much their stock is worth.

    It’s not entirely encouraging for freshman university students, when they see so many computer programmers, engineers, scientists, etc … out of work and/or significantly “under-employed” (ie. an engineer working as a clerk at a Wal-Mart). Parents may be less likely to dole out the cash for tuition when they see the poor job opportunities awaiting their kids. Increasing the number of science/engineering degrees will only compound the problem even further. This would be like the equivalent of significantly increasing the supply WITHOUT a corresponding increase in the demand.

    Whether there is a significant correlation between the declining numbers and quality of scientific magazines with the decline of science/engineering jobs, I don’t really know at this point. Though it sure seems like many kids are going into areas where the money and jobs are (ie. they’re following the money). At the present time it seems to be areas like accounting, real estate, oil/energy industry, etc …

  17. Amitabha says:

    Hope you had a wonderful birthday, Peter! And hope you continue to debate the future of theoretical physics for many years to come.

    On the off-topic comments above, J.F.Moore is right in pointing out that outsourcing is based solely on financial reasons. There isn’t enough reason to believe that science and technology work is being outsourced to India/China because the workers there are better qualified. In fact many, if not most, of the top science and engineering students in India (and perhaps also China) end up on Western shores for graduate education and further research anyway. On the other hand, some Indian recipients of the outsourcing work do employ top-of-the-class science and technology graduates.

    There is a recent trend among the school boards in India to make school education more fun and also easier. I guess time will tell if this leads to more students interested in serious science.

  18. D R Lunsford says:

    “Astronomy” is to “Sky and Telescope” as “Lubos Motl” is to “Socrates”. It’s been a miserable fishwrapper since the day it first appeared.


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