This Week’s Hype

The award for this week’s hype goes to the people at CERN, who normally are pretty good about this, but somehow thought it was a good idea to spin the AMS-02 results in a way that makes it sound as if they provide significant evidence for dark matter. The press release has:

The international team running the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS1) today announced the first results in its search for dark matter….

These results are consistent with the positrons originating from the annihilation of dark matter particles in space, but not yet sufficiently conclusive to rule out other explanations….

One possibility, predicted by a theory known as supersymmetry, is that positrons could be produced when two particles of dark matter collide and annihilate. Assuming an isotropic distribution of dark matter particles, these theories predict the observations made by AMS…

which, is inconclusive if you read it carefully, but sure makes it sound like this was an announcement of significant evidence for dark matter if you don’t. As one might expect, this immediately led to press stories about how:

A $2 billion particle detector attached to the International Space Station has detected the potential signature of dark matter annihilation in the Cosmos, scientists have announced today…

By doing a tally of electrons and positrons, physicists hope the AMS will help to answer one of the most enduring mysteries in science: Does dark matter exist?

And today, it looks like the answer is a cautious, yet exciting, yes.

the kind of thing which, as usual, made it to Slashdot.

I won’t bother explaining here why this is nonsense, since this has been done much better and at length by Jester and Professor Matt Strassler.

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22 Responses to This Week’s Hype

  1. Bernhard says:

    Good that you put it so clearly. In the previous post I was already about to ask how come the result could be “evidence of a new physics phenomena” while at the same time they could not tell for sure whether the “spectrum originates from the collision of dark matter particles or from pulsars”….

  2. Avattoir says:

    Ethan Siegel is calling the CERN spin not merely misleading, but deceitful; no, worse -planned and deliberate fraud (since he predicted it 6 weeks in advance):

    http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2013/04/03/itll-take-a-lot-more-than-ams-to-find-dark-matter/

  3. ohwilleke says:

    It would be nice if someone could do theoretical expectation charts in different scenarios to compare to the results. This may not be possible in all scenarios, but ought to be calculable in dark matter annihilation scenarios with some precision.

  4. Pingback: Matéria escura! (Será mesmo?…) [2] | Chi vó non pó

  5. Z says:

    Well, it gets worse. This is the Huffpost’s front page right now: http://i.imgur.com/ISgvNps.jpg

  6. OHNOES says:

    The Over-Hype Network for Objective Estimates of Significance has announced, in its first analysis of the media data, that along with the expected hype emitted by the AMS collaboration, there are very large quantities of antihype being produced by local sources in the blogosphere. We believe that the volume of antihype emission is significantly greater than would be produced purely by a desire for rational balance, and that it therefore constitutes evidence for the existence of “dark motives”.

    One popular theory of dark motives is “superskepticism”, a state of mind which reflexively scorns and belittles any claim of significant novelty or discovery. According to the theory, superskeptics would characteristically be found in hype-rich environments.

    The quest for evidence of superskeptics has been dominated by the search for great voids, cosmic battlegrounds created by the mutual annihilation of hype and antihype, several of which were observed in the mid-2000s. We believe that our observations may constitute the first direct detection of superskeptics engaged in real-time production of antihype.

  7. paddy says:

    First: kudos to PW (for the links to knowledgeable discussion of AMS-02 results).
    Second: it is sad that the success of such an intricate instrument is, apparently, besmirched by PR seeking.
    Third: I await the formulation of a simply unnatural “superskepticism” perhaps split?

  8. Hal Porter says:

    Just a quick add-on. Nature’s take seems pretty much yours and Jester’s, which I had had read before the CERN release. I assume it was the CERN press office to blame, but I can assure you that as this goes down, the more intelligent and discerning of the science press press may well remember this with great negativity and future suspicion if they feel they were misled.

    Really stupid/self destructive of CERN, in my opinion.

  9. Shantanu says:

    This hype maybe due to the amount of trouble/ difficulties/delay
    this experiment faced.

  10. Many news on AMS-02 results start with mentioning $2bn. Is it too big to fail ?
    http://gravityattraction.wordpress.com/2013/04/01/boltzmann-brain-discovery/

  11. Bernhard says:

    And, as this nonsense goes around the world and is translated to other languages, the level of hype increases through a sort of Chinese whispers effect. One Brazilian newspaper states “Scientists detect existence of dark matter for the first time”:

    http://www.diariodepernambuco.com.br/app/noticia/ciencia-e-saude/2013/04/04/internas_cienciaesaude,432320/cientistas-detectam-existencia-de-materia-escura-pela-primeira-vez.shtml

  12. Chris W. says:

    …and an AP story, via the Weather Channel…

  13. steve newman says:

    can someone refer me to a paper that spells out how these ams observations
    connect to dark matter. the prl paper doesn’t even contain the word ‘dark’.
    what do we know about dark matter other than its presumed gravitational effect?
    how does dark matter relate to positrons? what would cause dark matter to
    annihilate? i assume that the people commenting on this blog understand the connection, so someone please provide a link for those of us to whom this is all new.
    thanks.

  14. Peter Woit says:

    Steve Newman,

    For much more of a background explanation, follow the links I provided at the end to Resonaances and Matt Strassler’s blog, both of which provide a lot of such discussion. The fact that the connection to dark matter is so slim that AMS didn’t put it in their PRL paper, but that they then went ahead with a press release trumpeting such a connection, is exactly what the controversy is here.

  15. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    Is CERN being faulted here for hyping, or for parroting Ting’s hype? Statements he made in this release and via other sources seem to be wildly at variance with the skeptics. The latter complain that not only do these data provide nothing like firm evidence of dark matter, they may never be able to unless cosmic backgrounds are far better understood than they are at present. I’m not going to pass judgement, but the dissenters seem to saying, in a nutshell, that Ting is all but spreading falsehoods. It seems as if there’s some effort shoot the message (or its couriers) and not the messenger, i.e. no one seems to be calling Ting out directly. Deference to a Laureate? I don’t know if my impressions are mistaken, but that’s the general picture I’m getting.

  16. Peter Woit says:

    LMMI,

    I think there’s plenty of blame to go around here. Ting is known for running a tightly-controlled operation, so he likely approved the press release. The CERN press people however are not random journalists but often physics ph. ds, and should have been aware that dark matter hype was a danger here. Both parties had to agree to put this out, either one could have stopped it.

  17. Bob Jones says:

    Some sad off-topic math news:

    http://avzel.blogspot.com/#__sid=0

  18. Peter Woit says:

    Bob Jones,

    Sorry to hear that. I see that there will be a previously planned conference, now in his memory, in a couple weeks at Northeastern, see

    http://www.math.neu.edu/~bwebster/ACRT/index.html

  19. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:
  20. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    Sorry, should have checked out Resonaances first before bothering you…

  21. Peter Woit says:

    LMMI,

    Besides Resonaances, some of the news stories are fairly reasonable, see for instance
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/15/dark-matter-found-underground-detector-particle-physicists_n_3086829.html

    which quotes Cabrera about the experiment

    “We’re not claiming anything,”… The finding “does not rise anywhere near the level of discovery, nor does it rise anywhere near what we would call ‘evidence for,’” Cabrera said. It is, however, a “region of interest” for future study.

    This isn’t much of a signal, and arguably inconsistent with other results. Best to ignore, if you ask me…