Posted by: Jamie | April 7, 2010

Bad Science Journalism, Episode 1

I have decided to keep track of instances of bad science journalism that get my hackles up. Usually, the things that bother me most are very simple things, and are probably even covered in the AP Stylebook. I should check that… Anyway. From FoxNews:

“Freaky Physics Proves Parallel Universes Exist”

ZOMG NO WAI!!!!!!!!!1!!!1111!

You’re kidding me, right, Fox News*? Now, for starters, don’t get me wrong. This experiment? It is badass, amazing, and way freaky.

Scientists in California have done something astounding. They’ve shown that physical laws thought only to rule in the mysterious realm of atoms and electrons can also apply to stuff you can actually see. (NPR)

They managed to get a visible object to exist in a superposition of quantum states – essentially behaving two different ways simultaneously. Those two ways – moving and not moving – would be mutually exclusive under classical laws of physics.

But back to the thing that annoyed me. Let me list, for you, the headlines from some other news sources.

  • Macro-Weirdness: “Quantum Microphone” Puts Naked-Eye Object in 2 Places at Once | Scientific American
  • Scientists supersize quantum mechanics | Nature
  • A Mechanical Device Behaves as a Quantum System Right Before Your Eyes | Popular Science
  • Quantum Physics Used to Control Mechanical System | Wired
  • Tales from the quantum frontier | MSNBC
  • Team’s quantum object is biggest by factor of billions | BBC
  • Quantum Physics Leaps Into The Visible World | NPR
  • UCSB Researchers Have Created a Visible Mechanical Device That Behaves as a Quantum System | Convergence

Do any of those say anything about parallel universes? No. Do any of them use the word “prove”? No – they sure as hell better not!

Let me explain what the Fox News article does that the other articles don’t, which they seem to think justifies their ridiculous headline and narrative. This article devotes a single paragraph to a description of the experiment (emphasis is in the original):

UC Santa Barbara’s Andrew Cleland cooled that paddle in a refrigerator, dimmed the lights and, under a special bell jar, sucked out all the air to eliminate vibrations. He then plucked it like a tuning fork and noted that it moved and stood still at the same time.

Then they take a quote from Cleland:

“When you observe something in one state, one theory is it split the universe into two parts,” Cleland told FoxNews.com, trying to explain how there can be multiple universes and we can see only one of them.

And then they run off to talk to a couple of other physicists who are willing to provide quotes that can be mined to support this pet narrative about proving parallel universes. I think my favorite part is where they directly contradict the headline within the text of the article (emphasis is mine, this time):

Sean Carroll, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology and a popular author, accepts the scientific basis for the multi-verse — even if it cannot be proven.

Yes, this research is awesome. Does it prove the existence of parallel universes? No. It is the first in what I hope will be a long series of experiments replicating and verifying this result.

Fox News’ headline is problematic because it is misleading about what science can and cannot do, and has and has not done. You know how annoying it is when the media jumps on the latest nutrition science fad? Fat is bad for you! Eliminate fat and you’ll be healthy. No, wait! Cholesterol! Now trans fats! Oh look, someone said chocolate is good, rejoice!

Science takes time to work. It doesn’t really prove anything. It collects a body of evidence and makes predictions about the natural world. Hopping on a new result – before it has been confirmed by repeated experiments, before it has been absorbed into the body of evidence and incorporated into existing results – does nothing useful. In fact, it is capable of harming the reputation of science (even though science itself isn’t at fault). When an article jumps the gun, or exaggerates a result, the public sees the science as being misleading, rather than the reporting.

This particular example is especially frustrating to me because it is an extreme example of this problem. The multiverse/parallel universes theory has not been proven. By a long shot. And to say otherwise is utterly irresponsible.

*I know, I know, it’s Fox News. Are they really a reliable source of anything? Still.


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