The Week’s Anti-Hype

I never thought I would see this happen: a university PR department correcting media hype about its research. You might have noticed this comment here a week ago, about a flurry of media hype about neutrinos and parallel universes. A new CNN story does a good job of explaining where the nonsense came from. The main offender was New Scientist, which got the parallel universe business somehow from Neil Turok and from here.

The ANITA scientists and their institution’s PR people were not exactly blameless, having participated in a 2018 publicity campaign to promote the idea that they had discovered not a parallel universe, but supersymmetry. They reported an observation here, which led to lots of dubious speculative theory papers, such as this one about staus. The University of Hawaii in December 2018 put out a press release announcing that UH professor’s Antarctica discovery may herald new model of physics. One can find all sorts of stories from this period about how this was evidence for supersymmetry, see for instance here, or here.

It’s great to see that the University of Hawaii has tried to do something at least about the latest “parallel universe” nonsense, putting out last week a press release entitled Media incorrectly connects UH research to parallel universe theory. CNN quotes a statement from NASA (I haven’t seen a public source for this), which includes:

Tabloids have misleadingly connected NASA and Gorham’s experimental work, which identified some anomalies in the data, to a theory proposed by outside physicists not connected to the work. Gorham believes there are more plausible, easier explanations to the anomalies.

The public understanding of fundamental physics research and the credibility of the subject have suffered a huge amount of damage over the past few decades, due to the overwhelming amount of misleading, self-serving BS about parallel universes and failed speculative ideas put out by physicists, university PR departments and the journalists who mistakenly take them seriously. I hope this latest is the beginning of a new trend of people in all these categories starting to fight hype, not spread it.

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6 Responses to The Week’s Anti-Hype

  1. An antiuniverse preceding our universe (Turok) isn’t what’s usually meant by a parallel universe.

  2. Peter Woit says:

    Warren Siegel,

    I could have sworn one of the news stories I saw explained that this was a “perpendicular” universe, but can’t now find that.

  3. There’s a new paper in Nature about measuring the cosmic baryon density using FRBs, that is being reported in Australian ABC News as finding a whole lot of ‘missing matter’ in the universe (maybe some local pride breaking through: Australian telescopes and astronomers were involved). It’s not terrible, the headline is a bit more sensational than the rest of the article.

  4. anon says:

    Missing baryonic matter is like water on Mars: I’ve lost count how many times I have seen press releases claiming that it has been found for the first time.

  5. Jens says:

    Doesn’t string theory provide a natural explanation for hype/anti-hype asymmetry?

  6. Peter Woit says:

    David Roberts/Anon,
    I don’t want to get into discussions here of claims about things like the significance of observations of fast radio bursts, simply because I’m incompetent to evaluate this or to even competently moderate a discussion of it. People who want to engage in public discussion of scientific issues need to pay close attention to the difference between what they have some expertise in and what they don’t. This means avoiding weighing in on issues you don’t have expertise in. It also though means that, since there are often few experts on a particular issue, those that are experts have an obligation to “If you see something, say something”.

    On the issue of “parallel universes”, there has been a massive failure over the years, with an overwhelming quantity of BS rarely if ever challenged by those who understand that it is BS. This press release is encouraging, I hope we’ll see this become a regular practice. If your research is misrepresented in the press, go to your institution’s PR people and put them to work.


    Yes, string theory does explain hype/antihype asymmetry, but it’s not a natural explanation, since it involves fine-tuning by those involved.

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