Science and Hype

In the last few years, the media have picked up on a few physics stories that were later shown to be incorrect. Prominently, in the last couple years, stories of superluminal neutrinos and evidence for cosmic inflation at BICEP2 flooded the internet. Premature media coverage of high-temperature superconductivity in H_2S and the Higgs boson also occurred, but these findings stood up to the peer review process. Most recently, a rumor was started about the detection of gravitational waves at LIGO. There is an interesting take on these events, focusing on the already-infamous LIGO tweet, in a Physics Today piece by Stephen Corneliussen. I recommend reading it.

It is my personal opinion that the aforementioned scientific discoveries should not have been reported to the media until they stood up to the peer review process. This point of view is not meant to blame the media; we physicists are in fact more responsible for alerting the media than they are for reporting the findings. (Do you really expect a reporter not to report a story? They are just doing their job after all!) Of course, the peer review process is itself far from perfect (just think of the absurd case of Schon for instance) but at least it provides an extra layer of assurance concerning new results.

This is not a cut-and-dry issue, and I wholly acknowledge this, but I do think that we can do better than the current state of affairs.

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3 responses to “Science and Hype

  1. Regarding press conferences (as in the neutrino and BICEP cases) it is cut and dry: in the regular scientific literature community, a work is considered published after it has undergone (so called rigorous, but that’s another story) peer review, or as a pre-print that was submitted to undergo peer review. And without published work, there is nothing to report in the media because there was nothing reported within the scientific community.
    The perported LIGO results have not been put out into the public as either published or submitted, and as such they should not be discussed in a press conference. Kudo’s to LIGO for keeping quiet. If the rumor is true, let’s hope they will remain quiet until it’s published.

    Regarding the tweets, this is less clear in general: if I work in my own lab, and I tweet out “fantastic day – finally been able to measure the data I had been hoping for!”, then (almost) no one knows what I’m talking about, and that’s fine. It’s okay to tweet excitement (especially when working in science!)
    However, if I’d be working at LIGO (or ITER), the story would be different because a tweet like this suggests the singular goal being pursued has been reached. So it’s difficult, and depends on how focused an organization is. LIGO is doing it right so far.

    In this specific case, Krausz is impolite, to put it mildly: if I finally find what I am pursuing, but I’m not ready to put my preprint on the arxiv, I would be very pissed off if my colleague next door starts to inform the world that he heard (hearsay!) my goal has been reached. Wait doing that until I am ready to publish, i.e. until I’m confident the data will withstand scrutiny.

    So, Krausz is either trying to steal part of the spotlight if the rumor is true (since I believe he had no hand in its achievement), or if the rumor is incorrect, he is doing science a disservice by whipping up general public enthusiasm for a non-existent accomplishment.
    There is no way his actions can be justified. He should have waited until a preprint is out, and then be excited in public (with the caveat that it’s not been “vetted” if only based on a preprint).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with DK wholeheartedly about the LIGO issue. The LIGO team has (so far) made no announcements or statements about their findings. They would not do so until the work had been properly analyzed and peer reviewed. If any of them communicated information about a positive result to any person outside of the team, it would have certainly been done with a request for secrecy, pending the peer review process.

    So, then Krauss blogged about a rumor that he heard. If the rumor is true, and if he heard it from a member of the LIGO team, then he was almost certainly asked to keep it under wraps. The fact that he didn’t would make him… irresponsible (I’m being polite by not using a stronger word here). If the rumor is false, and/or if he heard it from a less reliable source, then he has no justification for spreading it further. Either way, he’s done a disservice to the LIGO team and to the physics community, for no apparent reason other than self-aggrandizement. I hope he is feeling guilty about this.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So, kudo’s to LIGO. I understand that they have a PRL accepted. I.e. they waited with their press conference until the scientific process, including peer review, had run its course.
    (ANd now I wonder why PRL and not Nature or Science? Intriguing…)

    Liked by 1 person

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