Sunday, April 7, 2013

Unnecessary spin

A few people have asked me why I have not blogged about the recent announcement about, and publication of, results from the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, which were widely touted as a possible breakthrough in the search for dark matter.

The reason I have not is simply that there are many other better informed commenters who have already done so. In case you have not yet read these accounts, you could do worse than going to R├ęsonaances, or Ethan Siegel, or Stuart Clark in the Guardian, who provide commentary at different levels of technical detail. The simple short summary would be: AMS has not provided evidence about the nature of dark matter, nor is it likely to do so in the near future. The dramatic claims to the contrary are spin, pure and simple. Siegel in fact goes so far as to say "calling it misleading is generous, because I personally believe it is deceitful" (emphasis his own).

So I'm not going to make any more comments about that.

However, since this incident brought it up again, I do want to comment on a related piece of annoying spin, which is the habit of physicists in the business of communicating science to the public of making vastly exaggerated claims about the possible practical applications of fundamental physics. The example that caught my attention this week occurred when Maggie Aderin-Pocock – who is apparently a space science research fellow at UCL – appeared on the BBC's Today programme on Thursday to discuss the significance of the AMS findings.

At one point in the discussion the interviewer John Humphrys asked a slightly tricky question: I understand that dark matter and dark energy are endlessly fascinating, he said, and that learning about the composition of the universe is very exciting. But what practical benefits might it bring? The answer Aderin-Pocock gave was that if we understood what dark matter and dark energy were, we might be able to use them to supply ourselves with energy – dark matter as a fuel source.

I'm sorry, but that is just rubbish.

Unfortunately, it's the kind of rubbish that is increasingly commonly voiced by scientists. You may argue that Aderin-Pocock was simply commenting on something she didn't understand – and if you  listen to the whole interview (available here for a few days; skip to the segment between 1h 23m and 1h 26m), including the cringe-worthy suggestion that dark matter and dark energy are the same thing really (because E=mc2, apparently), it's hard to avoid that conclusion. But a few weeks ago I thought I heard Andrew Pontzen and Tom Whyntie suggest something similar about the Higgs boson on BBC Radio 5 (unfortunately this episode is no longer on the iPlayer so I can't check the exact words they used). And here is Jon Butterworth seeming to suggest (in the midst of an otherwise reasonable piece) that the Higgs could be used to power interstellar travel ...

Why do people feel the need to do this? It's patently rubbish, and they know better. Do we as a scientific community feel that continued public support of science is so important that we should mislead or deceive the public in order to guarantee our future access to it? Do we feel that there is no convincing honest case to be made instead? Or are we just too lazy to make the honest case, and so rely on the catchy but inaccurate soundbite instead?

I think the sensible answer to the question John Humphrys posed would go something like this. Discovering the nature dark matter is a fascinating and exciting adventure. Knowing the answer will almost certainly have no practical applications whatsoever. However, on the journey to the answer we will have to develop new technologies and equipment (made of ordinary matter!) which may serendipitously turn out to have spin-off applications that we cannot yet foresee. More importantly, the very fact that the search is fascinating is part of what draws talented and creative young minds to physics – indeed to science – in the first place, from where they go on to enrich our society in a myriad different ways, none of which may later be connected to dark matter at all. I tried to make this case at greater length here in the early days of this blog.

It's a more subtle argument than just throwing empty phrases about "energy source" around, and it might be hard to reduce to a sound-byte. But it is justifiable, and also honest. And since science is after all about careful argumentation, let's have less spin all round please.

6 comments:

  1. Meh, the actual correct answer to Humphry's question is just that the pursuit of knowledge itself is worthwhile. Everything else is at least a little dishonest.

    If the practical spin-off benefits were the reason to do these things then it would make much more sense to just invest in trying to create those spin-off benefits directly. The LHC wasn't built to trick the clever physicists into accidentally improving medical imaging. Nor was it built to trick kids into wanting to be particle physicists, so that when they fail we'd have the next generation of engineers. To say so is dishonest.

    It was built because a significant proportion of the public wants to know that their society is pursuing fundamental knowledge. That's the reason the scientists are doing the research (i.e. to gain the knowledge) and that's the reason it is funded. There is some cynicism involved, because it is also about sticking it to the rest of the world when you're the nation/continent that made the fundamental discovery, but it's not about spinoff benefits or tricking kids into learning science so that they'll be better engineers. Both of those aims would be much better achieved by direct investment, rather than building LHC's.

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    1. And just because another portion of society doesn't want money spent on fundamental research doesn't change the fact that the portion that does want that money spent exists and pays enough taxes to cover it.

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    2. I wasn't answering the question "Why was the LHC built?". I was answering the question "Other than satisfying your intellectual curiosity, does learning about the precise nature of dark matter have any practical benefits?"

      The answer to that question is no, knowledge of the nature of dark matter has no possible practical benefits (other than satisfying intellectual curiosity, where obviously I agree with you). The process of acquiring that knowledge does have indirect practical benefits, and one doesn't need to be dishonest to make this case.

      The reason it is important to stress the indirect practical benefits to the public when they ask questions about it is simply that the proportion of people who support funding satisfying your intellectual curiosity and mine (a) is relatively small, and possibly susceptible to being over-ruled by a majority with other opinions, (b) may change with time, particularly when economies struggle, and (c) may in any case decide instead to fund satisfying someone else's intellectual curiosity, especially if that has practical benefits as well.

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    3. In that case, I would say that the correct answer is "Why should it?". By trying to answer that question without pointing out that it is irrelevant we're already conceding a substantial amount of ground. We should control the narrative not be shaped by it. Fundamental science is done for the same reason that sport is played. It doesn't have practical benefit, but society wants it to happen.

      I don't object to mentioning either spin off benefit in passing but it should never be the substance of an argument for why fundamental science should be done. Whenever it is the substance then we've already lost the argument concerning what actually matters.

      I also object to your assertion in (a). I simply don't think it is true. The popularity of someone like Brian Cox, or the "I fucking love science" facebook page attests to this. Faster than light neutrinos was front page news, the Higgs was front page news, Planck was front page news. Newspapers don't put things on the front page if they don't think a substantial proportion of the public wants to read about it.

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    4. An admirable sentiment. But to go from the true statement that lots of people like reading or hearing about physics to your implicit assertion that a majority of them are willing to pay for it, irrespective of incidental benefits, requires some justification! Newspapers put lots of things on their front pages because people like to read about them, but fewer and fewer people are even inclined to pay for newspapers.

      Fundamentally, I think there are some facts that simply can't be evaded. The amount of money that the public are willing to pay through taxes to support science research of all kinds will always be less than the amount of money that scientists would be capable of utilising in some form of intellectually worthwhile research. So some prioritisation is always going to be necessary. Any money spent on answering some great science question is also money not spent on answering some other great question. Ultimately judgement about which things to prioritise is not going to be based solely on the popularity as judged from TV viewership figures or membership of Facebook groups (and nor should it!), so knowing what the other benefits are is important.

      If I didn't think funding astrophysics and cosmology had practical benefits, then despite my personal interest in it, even I would hardly be able to argue against diverting funding away from the field and into the search for, say, a malaria vaccine.

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    5. Soundbite: Solving [insert] is not directly beneficial: instead, it inspires people to join all of the sciences, and the technology created along the way will have unforeseen applications beneficial to society.

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