Does science news make us dumber?

Some while ago, I wrote a post criticizing the New York Times’s Dennis Overbye for being far too quick to write science stories reporting on 1-sigma detections or groundbreaking theories which purport to completely overturn our understanding of the universe. I’ve started to realize that these sorts of stories are the rule rather than the exception.

As a case in point, I’ve collected three of Overbye’s most recent stories:

I pick on Overybye for a couple of reasons. First, he is a very good, very well-informed, and very well-read writer. For many people, his may be the only column they read about the goings-on in physics. The other reason is that he deserves it.

Consider the implications of the three articles. The first is arguably the most important, and is the one of greatest ultimate value, although the article itself is fairly confused. It claims, for example, that the Rydberg constant has to be seriously adjusted. The Rydberg constant is (for all intents and purposes) the number governing the spectral energy lines of hydrogen (and the electron orbital radius), a number measured to far greater accuracy than the 4% difference in proton radius found by the experiment. The experimenters themselves point out that the QED calculation against which they are comparing might simply be misapplied. But Overbye focuses, instead, on the possibility that QED itself might be wrong.

The second article focuses on gravity. Despite the stunning successes of general relativity, the article focuses on what is really a fringe theory. Overbye handles it well, including caveats like the following:

Some of the best physicists in the world say they don’t understand Dr. Verlinde’s paper, and many are outright skeptical. But some of those very same physicists say he has provided a fresh perspective on some of the deepest questions in science, namely why space, time and gravity exist at all — even if he has not yet answered them.

“Some people have said it can’t be right, others that it’s right and we already knew it — that it’s right and profound, right and trivial,” Andrew Strominger, a string theorist at Harvard said.

“What you have to say,” he went on, “is that it has inspired a lot of interesting discussions. It’s just a very interesting collection of ideas that touch on things we most profoundly do not understand about our universe. That’s why I liked it.”

but to my mind he shouldn’t have done the story at all.

As for the third, the science is solid, and the story is important, but the headline writer should be fired. We have no more a clue now why there is matter rather than anti-matter, and the fact that matter and antimatter behave differently than one another has been known for almost 50 years.

My point in all of this is that to read the news, one would get the (false) impression that the major paradigms in physics are constantly being overturned. They’re not. But it causes people to think that they are. Take this comment in response to my latest article on io9:

I do not know of a single scientific fact or principal that has not been misproven or altered throughout the years. With our current understanding of the world an ansible is impossible, but I would be surprised if that did not change a few decades from now.

In other words, because people see a constant barrage of articles suggesting that we have been wrong for decades (and retractions and corrections are almost never prominently printed, if they’re printed at all), the idea that a physicist can say something about how the universe works is seen as almost laughably naive.

The conventional scientist is put on essentially the same footing as the crackpot.

-Dave

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