Multiverse Mania at Wikipedia

The quality of Wikipedia entries about mathematics is often quite good, but unfortunately the same cannot be said for their entries about physics. I happened to take a look today at the Wikipedia entry for Multiverse, which is an outrageously one-sided promotional piece for pseudo-science.

It’s hard to know where to start with a document like this, and I’ve neither the time nor the Wikipedia expertise to start trying to edit it to something sensible (at this point I’d suggest that the most sensible edit would be to remove the whole thing).

I include just a couple of random examples of problems with the entry. The “criticism” section has little actual criticism, just some mild comments from Ellis and Davies, together with positive quotes from them about the multiverse as a research program. Nothing from Gross or Steinhardt, for instance. Much of the “criticism” section is actually defense of the multiverse through claims about experimental evidence from Mersini-Houghton that I don’t think anyone except her takes seriously. Other claims of experimental evidence are completely outrageous, for instance we read that “Recent research has indicated the possibility of the gravitational pull of other universes on ours.[22]” where reference [22] is to a Planck collaboration paper which states the exact opposite (“There is no detection of bulk flow”).

There’s a good case to be made that I pay too much attention to popular media nonsense about the multiverse. Unfortunately Wikipedia is taken a lot more seriously by the public than magazine stories. At this very moment, hundreds of high school students may be copying material out of it for their assigments…

Update
: Some people have written to tell me about the appearance of the multiverse in the new Cosmos program that started last night. I saw just 20 minutes of the end of the program, missed that part. Presumably Tyson will deal with this in more detail in a later episode, so I’ll wait to write more about this then.

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43 Responses to Multiverse Mania at Wikipedia

  1. Vanzetti says:

    What prevents you from editing the article?

  2. Lamont Granquist says:

    If you’ve ever tried to edit a wikipedia article like this you’ll quickly get frustrated. Without citable evidence your edits will quickly get reverted. The fact that the opinions which made it into the article first are based on nonsense and without citations themselves (or with incorrect citations) will not matter. Just in order to get the “There is no detection of bulk flow” statement correctly inserted into the article will take finding a moderator who understands physics well enough to be able to make a judgement that you’re correct, but sufficiently removed from the subject that they’re considered unbiased. It is much easier to ‘greenfield’ nonsense into wikipedia than it is to get that nonsense corrected.

  3. Peter Woit says:

    Vanzetti,

    I tried this once, in an even more egregious case, see here

    http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=1657

    Based on my experience then, unless you know a lot more than I do about how to deal with the systemic problem of determined wikipedia contributors devoted to using it to spread nonsense, trying to add sensible edits is just a waste of time. This is all in addition to the fact that the whole thing is such an outrageously misleading production that editing it to something sensible would be a massive amount of work.

    If others with more knowledge of how to get sensible edits put in of nonsense like this are able to get somewhere, that would be great. My blog entries about problems with the multiverse contain a large number of links that I would hope would be useful to anyone trying to get involved in this. Personally, I’m already wasting more of my time than is sensible on this topic.

  4. vmarko says:

    My take on these cases is to edit the article by putting “citation needed” superscripts on every sentence which sounds suspicious. These placeholders are usually not removed without providing an actual reference, which in these cases may be hard to find, if at all.

    When a typical student opens the Wikipedia article and sees “citation needed” superscripts in virtually every sentence, this will be just enough alarm to refrain from trusting the article too much. ;-)

    And yes, math articles are often quite well written, while physics articles vary in quality between an excellent and a complete stub.

    HTH, :-)
    Marko

  5. Brandon Brown says:

    The Wikipedia page was brought to my attention in Sunday school ( of all the places) by another reader of this blog. We both decided that Peter wouldn’t like what was written and it just might ruin his weekend or a wonderful meal.

  6. bhny says:

    Pointing out things on the talk page does get results. Most serious editors just want to make a good article and aren’t trying to push a point of view. If there’s an obvious disconnect between the text and the reference, then fixing it with an edit is the fastest way to go.

    I’ve already fixed the “Recent research has indicated the possibility of the gravitational pull” sentence. I’ll look at your other links during the week. It seems the pro-multiverse crowd have the loudest voices at the moment and so get greater representation in the article. Another fix I could do is to spread the criticism throughout the article (which is normal wikipedia style) rather than a separate section.

  7. cthulhu says:

    Peter, hopefully not too far off topic, but what about “Eric Weisstein’s World of Physics” at http://scienceworld.wolfram.com/physics/ as an online physics resource? I generally find that Mathworld (http://mathworld.wolfram.com) is a reliable math resource, at least at the level I need (MS level in a fairly mathematical part of engineering, i.e., control theory). I’ve been not too impressed by Wikipedia in the engineering disciplines…

  8. anonymous says:

    Now you’ve got me worried that high school teachers could be asking their students to study the multiverse.

    I’ve found Wikipedia to have calmed down over the years, even since your troubles in 2009. A small edit that adds material and includes a citation is less likely to be seen as offensive as removing other cited material because that way you won’t have to get into a debate over which source is more “authoritative” than the other. There already seem to be some new edits from bhny along those lines. The multiverse article by its very nature is likely to be more of a crackpot magnet than others, sure, but notice how nobody has reverted bhny’s edits yet.

    You might also want to put the multiverse article into perspective among all the physics articles out there. According to the list of popular physics pages, the multiverse article is only 294th on the list, albeit in a mix that includes many biographical/historical/interdisciplinary topics. There are plenty of other potential crackpot magnets that are much more popular than the multiverse, e.g. Schrödinger’s cat, Coriolis effect, or LHC to name just a few. By far the most popular physics article is Watt, which only has a “C” rating. It’s a topic that has real consequence for people in the real world and can be taught as early as middle school. There’s an argument to be made that the thinness of the Watt article is as worrisome as the unbalanced weight of opinion in the multiverse article as measured in terms of the total number of people viewing the article who don’t learn the material properly. If you’re worried about some sort of personal conflict of interest but still want to help people learn physics in your spare time by editing Wikipedia, try first focusing on some of the other popular, imperfect articles on the list. Get a feel for how it’s done these days and how different it is from 2009.

  9. Tom says:

    “caveat emptor” w.r.t to any faddish or hot-button topic at Wikipedia.

    eg, Some of the most egregious, one-sided Wiki articles are about “global warming”, “climate change”, “climate disruption”, etc.

    Many of Peter’s critiques on the Wiki physics & multiverse articles, are just as relevant & applicable.

  10. Jerzy Kierul says:

    It seems that Wikpedia on Yang-Mills theory has changed, no references to Marco Frasca now.

  11. Patrice Ayme says:

    I watched the new Cosmos today, with my 4 year old. Neil De Grasse Tyson replacing his mentor Carl Sagan. Some of it was excellent. However the Multiverse was presented as a fact, and part of our “address”. I was shocked. Especially after the narrator had pontificated, a few minutes prior, that scientists don’t make guesses.

  12. Richard says:

    unfortunately the same cannot be said for their entries about physics

    That’s nonsense.
    Not even wrong.
    99.4% of Wikipedia articles about physics are tremendously good, far better than anything that anybody outside a research university had any access to a decade ago.

    Keep some sense of proportion, people! Orders of magnitude, orders of magnitude.

    Wikipedia is, in fact, one of the few things that makes me proud to be a human.

    Ignore articles about “multiverse” just as one would articles about “Ariel Sharon” or “Barak Obama” and you’ll be just fine.

    Baby with the bathwater, Mr Woit.

  13. imho says:

    Hi Richard,

    Wikipedia articles are imho not tremendously good, which I think, is part of Peter’s point. Wikipedia is a great tool for lay people to learn the basics of a subject. For example I would like to find out more about the prescription I’ve just been prescribed or I’m interested in this Multiverse thing I just heard Neil Tyson speak about. For professionals in any field it’s really only tangentially useful. From this perspective it’s important that these introductory articles are giving correct information.

  14. TB says:

    Agreed IMHO, but as a layman’s resource, that puts even more onus on it to be evenhanded at best. If Cosmos drives people online to learn more, Wikipedia will always be at the too of their search results.

  15. Peter Woit says:

    bhny,
    Thanks. It looks like, due to your efforts and others, the Wikipedia entry has been significantly improved. It’s encouraging to see that this seems to be easier to accomplish than the bad experience I had back in 2009.

    imho/Richard,

    To put things more positively, I should say that one thing I’ve found most remarkable about Wikipedia is the quality of some of the mathematics entries. Often I’ve run across quite good explanations of very difficult material that is understood by only a small fraction of professional mathematician.

    Patrice Ayme,

    I just saw about the last 20 minutes of the Cosmos show last night. No multiverse there, but I have to say I don’t see what the fuss is about that program. It looked more or less identical to dozens of other inspirational science programs that fill the cable TV channels. It’s not very encouraging that Tyson gives the multiverse as a main example of why Sagan’s version needs updating, see
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/04/neil-degrasse-tyson-cosmos-god-alien-life-multiverses-interview_n_4790408.html
    but I’ll wait to see how he handles the topic, since it appears likely he’ll devote a lot of attention to it in some later episode.

  16. Jeff McGowan says:

    As a mathematician I can second Peter on the quality of the math entries, in general. I’ll sometimes look something up I’ve forgotten, usually something quite specialized and very high level, and it’s rare for it to be either missing or incorrect. Actually, it’s usually not only correct, but quite well written. There have been a few times when I’m pretty sure I know who wrote it…

  17. Jozape says:

    Neil mentioned the multiverse as a possibility some scientists believe may be true, but I do not remember him stating it was a fact, nor do I remember our cosmic address including the multiverse. Actually, the multiverse barely even received a mention.

  18. TB says:

    Jozape
    It came at the end of the portion with the cosmic address, that we’re one of billions of bubble universes. I don’t know if people would take it as a fact, but it was definitely an endorsement.
    I would say it was presented in the context of the cosmic address, and as there was no alternative presented, most people would feel that Tyson the scientist believes that is part of the address.

  19. Peter Woit says:

    I see that Jennifer Ouellette’s review of the show

    http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/tv/showtracker/la-et-st-cosmos-20140309,0,7079191.story

    emphasizes the multiverse as the 21st century improvement over Sagan:

    “Tyson adds a 21st century twist by invoking the multiverse: the notion that our universe might be just a bubble among bubbles in a vast infinite sea of universes. That’s the kind of notion that used to fall firmly into crackpot territory – or make for bestselling science fiction novels — but is now taken quite seriously by many cosmologists, even if it’s not (yet, if ever) a testable hypothesis. ”

    No discussion of whether untestable hypotheses are really an improvement on Sagan.

    She’s also quite fond of the Giordano Bruno section, which I saw at least part of. Seemed to me cartoonish, in all senses of the word, and that’s not an improvement on Sagan.

  20. Tom says:

    New Cosmos’s mix of fact and fantasy is not easy to tell apart, by laypeople.

    My non-technical family interpreted the “multiple bubble universe” segment as a more-or-less “established fact”.

    In future episodes, I’m uneasy whether other speculations will be passed off as “likely” or “probable” or “fact”. Unless you are listening *very* carefully, Tyson’s subtle qualifiers are easily overlooked.

    I may be too pessimistic, but this series could end up as a “What the Bleep Do We Know” type of gibberish & nonsense.

  21. Kavanna says:

    Among non-scientists, the multiverse mania is creating confusion, reinforcing credulity, and discrediting credibility, all at the same time. Peter has rediscovered what many of us already know, that correcting errors in Wikipedia articles is an arduous exercise. Some of the articles should just be deleted and recreated from scratch. Many areas of Wikipedia are controlled by editing cartels.

    I’ve heard mixed things about the new Cosmos. But one thing that remains from the original series is the pomposity, including absurd statements like “scientists don’t make guesses.” Of course, they do, all the time. They just develop ways to check their guesses, and, if they can’t, they labels those guesses “guesses,” not “facts.”

    The multiverse isn’t even much of a guess, just hand-waving. It’s shocking but not surprising that the multiverse is presented as a scientific datum, not as what it is, a speculative mania like a stock market bubble.

  22. Peter Woit says:

    Kavanna,
    To be fair, unlike in 2009, this time some errors did get corrected in Wikipedia very quickly. I only have personal knowledge now of two data points…

  23. Mike says:

    Peter,

    I didn’t get that Ouellette’s review touted the multiverse segment as an “improvement.” And, she does in fact specifically say that the hypothesis my never be able to be tested. It certainly is, however, 21st century :)

    I tend to agree with your dislike for the cartoon segments — and to top it off, they weren’t even good (i.e., costly and painstakingly produced) animation!

    Tom above says that he may be too pessimistic, and that this series could end up as a “What the Bleep Do We Know” type of gibberish & nonsense. I think he is too pessimistic. At least from the first show, I don’t see it going that way.

    While there will probably be little new in the show for readers of this blog, I do think that on balance it is a very a good thing for the American public to view. I especially thought that the relatively strong criticism of religion and mysticism was a great way to kick off the first show. On that note, perhaps a redeeming aspect of cartoon segment was the depiction of the evil church elders. ;)

    And, on a sentimental note, I thought Tyson’s personal link to Sagan was very good TV.

    Guess I’m not as negative as some — perhaps my standards are just lower.

  24. D R Lunsford says:

    The original Cosmos was riddled with science errors, particularly about relativity, but more importantly with historical errors – the largest of which was the fable of Hypatia as martyr at the hands of a Christian mob. The new one goes one better, setting up Bruno as some martyr for science, perhaps the founder of modern science itself. Nothing could be further from the truth. He had neither knowledge of, nor interest in, the considerable body of medieval science, and was simply promoting his own version of Hermetism. Nor was there any official papist position on heliocentrism when the torch was lit around his ankles in 1600. He was a garden variety heretic, very probably mentally ill and strange (he thought disease was caused by demons) who had 10 years to get his act together, and failed. I look forward to Peter’s review.

    -drl

  25. Peter Woit says:

    All,
    Maybe that’s enough about Cosmos, unless someone has something new and interesting on the multiverse angle. I assume Tyson will deal with the more speculative areas of physics in later programs and I’ll be curious to see how he does this, may write more then.
    In the meantime, from the little that I saw I don’t see any reason personally to pay more attention to this. On topics like Giordano Bruno, in addition I’m pretty ignorant of the real history (and felt that the Cosmos segment did nothing to change that), so best for all to find a blog moderated by someone who actually knows something about this.

  26. Bill Hunt says:

    No, it wasn’t. Watch again. “Multiverse” was NEVER listed as part of our Cosmic Address. Tyson simply said of the Multiverse concept, “Many of us suspect…” that it’s true. Not that the Multiverse is factually proven true. I get that there are a lot of people around here who hate the idea of Supersymmetry and the Multiverse, and I appreciate the arguments against excessive flights of fancy vs. experimentally proven fact, but the point of Cosmos is to inspire a love of the wonders of science in lay people. Not be a strictly dry and 100% exactly accurate reassurance for more knowledgeable and scientifically literate viewers. I love and appreciate this blog and its comment section, but sometimes it takes on a little too much of the tone of the Lone Gunmen nitpicking the scientific accuracy of Earth 2.

    The great failure of science, in my opinion, is a smug assumption that everyone else is going to appreciate (or care or even pay attention to) scientific endeavor and effort as much as those working within science do, just as those same scientists tend to thumb their noses down on those of their own who attempt to communicate its wonders to the general public. It’s in that very kind of environment that those who wish to distort science for political or economic reasons can get away with it. Which is a shame.

    To the extent that discussion of SUSY and the Multiverse in the mainstream gets people interested in science, I don’t see that the harm exceeds the value of the result. When those people do take an interest and start digging a little deeper, they’ll discover that theory is one thing but experiment is where the actual rubber meets the road.

  27. Geoff says:

    Having listened to quite a bit of George Ellis, I am of the opinion that the wikipedia snippet is by far the kindest and most generous statement about the multiverse that he’s voiced. One of the better critiques I’ve found is the following with the multiverse discussion at the 34:00 mark. Also of possible interest is quoting your Columbia colleague David Albert at the 44:00 mark about books that have also been reviewed here.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tq8-eLGpEHc

    I also can’t help but wonder if Ellis’ opinions are drowned out partially because he’s sympathetic to theistic ideas.

  28. adel sadeq (@AdelQsa) says:

    Dear Peter,

    You seem so far to have successfully attacked just about every quantum gravity theory or fundamental physics ideas so far. So I am wondering if you have any ideas of your own on how to carry physics further(in case you see that as needed).

    I don’t see anything in you website or randomly checking your blog. If you think this is off topic can you tell us at least if you will address that in the future. Thanks

  29. Peter Woit says:

    adel sadeq,
    The only ideas I’ve significantly criticized here are pretty much string theory, supersymmetric extensions of the Standard Model, and various versions of multiverse mania. I’m quite pleased to hear that these attacks have been successful, so I guess these subjects have now been discredited and I can stop paying attention to them.

    As for what I personally find promising, I’m not one for hyping my own speculative ideas, but I’ve often explained here that I think there is a great deal still to be learned about how to apply ideas from representation theory to physics. For the past year or so the main way I’ve been working on this has been writing a book about quantum theory and representation theory. It’s now about 400 pages long, the latest version is always at
    http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/QM/qmbook.pdf
    I’m hoping to finish this project this spring (probably another 40-50 pages), then get back to the ideas I never finished writing up about using Dirac cohomology instead of BRST to handle symmetries in quantum theory. Working on the book has helped me a lot to clarify in my mind what seem to me some promising questions to think about, most with some relationship to the Dirac cohomology project business. I’m looking forward to getting to work on those after there’s a complete version of the book, hopefully a couple months from now. But, no, I’m not going to start a publicity campaign for my half-baked ideas.

  30. Peter Woit says:

    Oh, and this is quite off-topic, I’m afraid. Anyone with any helpful comments about the book manuscript is welcome to write to me. Once it’s complete I’ll write about it in more detail here and will be happy to discuss it extensively then. Give me a couple months…

  31. Pawl says:

    While I certainly applaud attempts to make Wikipedia more accurate, the most important thing for everyone — especially laypeople — is not to assume it’s accurate. We have to bear in mind — and Wikipedia might emphasize — that the editorial process there does not ensure accuracy in the short run. It relies, especially for problematic subjects like the multiverse and string theory, on sources it can cite by people who’ve made a splash. There is no very good way within Wikipedia of disputing the logic of such courses, and no good way of explaining to Wikipedia that a lot of these views are simply not taken seriously by many experts — and almost none of those feel obligated to publish critiques. (I was at a major conference recently where cosmology was a main topic and I only heard brief, uncomplimentary comments about the multiverse.)

    So: yes, try to make Wikipedia better; but also, emphasize that it does have weaknesses which seem to be structural.

  32. Don Jennings says:

    @AdelQsa
    That seems rather unreasonable. I don’t know much about Peter’s work, and I’m pretty sure he’s no Einstein and no Ed Witten. But nor are you, nor am I, and nor is any other living physicist. However, when I have glanced at his scientific writing it seems to be directed toward fairly difficult, plausibly promising, long-term projects, and done in a rigorous, honest fashion. I think that’s all one can generally expect from non-Einsteins such as ourselves. It’s certainly much much better than having non-Einsteins spout out incessant vacuous fairy-tales in an attempt to look like Einsteins. To my eye that is what Peter’s attacking.

  33. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks Don.
    But no more pro/con Peter Woit here. The ad hominem tactic for dealing with scientific criticism pretty much speaks for itself.

  34. Sam Klein says:

    I enjoyed this post.

    Regarding math v. physics on Wikipedia: the uniform high quality of math articles is due in part to a few dozen or so prolific math grad students, and later young profs, who decided to contribute there years ago. Chemistry had a similar intentional influx; some of whom invented the article-rating scheme that the whole English Wikipedia now uses. While I’m not sure what leads some groups to take this up and others not to, there is a tipping point beyond which there are enough regulars reviewing a field (and referring to WP in their field) to make it pleasant for others on the frontier of the field to do the same.

    And writing widely-read blog posts about unaddressed gaps is a popular way to influence an article, even if you don’t want to edit directly. :-)

  35. SilverDave says:

    Before we all get our blood pressure raised to aneurysm levels…
    I think the last paragraph of this ” Rational Wiki” article on “Universe ” might help….
    http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Universe

    While Rational Wiki probably suffers from the same citation , and editing problems as Wikipedia… this paragraph comment soothed me :

    —While it is a term most commonly associated with science fiction, cosmologically speaking, the “multiverse” is the hypothetical realm which contains our universe, as well as many possible others. Some physicists do take multiverse theory kinda-sorta-seriously.
    Perhaps there have been multiple universes with multiple big bangs, and each new universe receives a different roll of the cosmic dice, thus having different laws of physics. This is a philosophically satisfying interpretation of the fine-tuned universe problem.

    —However, it’s also completely stark-raving unfalsifiable—-

    “For a start, how is the existence of the other universes to be tested? … invoking an infinity of unseen universes to explain the unusual features of the one we do see is just as ad hoc as invoking an unseen Creator. The multiverse theory may be dressed up in scientific language, but in essence it requires the same leap of faith.”
    …..
    Until we develop instruments which can actually see outside of the universe (which is not bloody likely), or create a universe in a jar that we can poke with scientific instruments (slightly more likely) this remains a theory to stay grounded in sci-fi. Anyone who talks about multiverse theory seriously may either be speculating wildly or trying to sell you some woo—

    I felt a little better after reading that.

  36. Mitchell Porter says:

    On the subject of physics and the Wikipedia, there was a paper today by Stephen Adler (co-discoverer of axial anomalies), arXiv:1403.2099, where the acknowledgements include thanks to Edward Witten for helping to interpret a Wikipedia article, that Adler evidently used as a reference.

  37. DrDave says:

    As an occasional editor of the Wikipedia, I understand the frustration, but we still have to make the effort. Certainly “citation needed” is a start, talk page is good, but I also recommend setting up a web page with a concise, clear, short article on one or more aspects of the article, especially as a collaboration, and linking to it. You can also make a video or podcast and upload it. I suppose one can imagine a universe in which there is no multiverse article.

  38. philh says:

    Maybe its changed since your blog post or maybe Im missing something but I went on the link to the wiki article through your blog post and it said:
    “Around 2010, scientists such as Stephen M. Feeney analyzed Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) data and claimed to find preliminary evidence suggesting that our universe collided with other (parallel) universes in the distant past. [23][unreliable source?][24][25][26] However, a more thorough analysis of data from the WMAP and from the Planck satellite, which has a resolution 3 times higher than WMAP, failed to find any statistically significant evidence of such a bubble universe collision.[27][28] In addition, there is no evidence of any gravitational pull of other universes on ours.[29][30]

    It also quoted Steinhardt
    “Over the entire multiverse, there are infinitely many distinct patches. Among these patches, in the words of Alan Guth, “anything that can happen will happen—and it will happen infinitely many times”. Hence, I refer to this concept as a Theory of Anything. Any observation or combination of observations is consistent with a Theory of Anything. No observation or combination of observations can disprove it. Proponents seem to revel in the fact that the Theory cannot be falsified. The rest of the scientific community should be up in arms since an unfalsifiable idea lies beyond the bounds of normal science. Yet, except for a few voices, there has been surprising complacency and, in some cases, grudging acceptance of a Theory of Anything as a logical possibility. The scientific journals are full of papers treating the Theory of Anything seriously. What is going on?[6]

    —Paul Steinhardt, “Theories of Anything” in Edge
    That seems to me to be a fair representation , no?

  39. Peter Woit says:

    philh,

    There have been some significant changes since my blog posting. Thanks to all responsible.

  40. Machine Elf says:

    re DrDave: “setting up a web page with a concise, clear, short article on one or more aspects of the article, especially as a collaboration, and linking to it.”

    That’s not allowed, best just to edit the article and/or post to the talk page.

  41. Gustavo Burdman says:

    Colbert ended his interview of Neal De Grasse Tyson last night (10/03/14)
    with this: “Yes, the idea of the Multiverse is cool. But so is the idea of the Force …”.
    My guess is the the show (Cosmos that is) will have to address such serious criticisms
    before too long or it’ll loose credibility.

  42. imnobody00 says:

    I have tried to correct one wrong point in the criticism section of the Wikipedia page. I have done it twice. It has been reverted to the original twice.

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