News Physics

Rob Sheldon comments on Peter Woit on science journalists

Spread the love

Sheldonon BICEP2

Woit had advised them to

Take a hard look at the behavior of some prominent theorists in this story, and draw the obvious conclusions for your future coverage of developments in this field of science.

Note: This is a notice to all trolls and their followers: Barry Arrington has decided to pardon you, but – O’Leary for News is undecided, and has the mod privileges to ban. If you occasionally find yourself admitting to yourself that you are a troll, you can be fairly sure I think you are one. Smarten up. – O’Leary for News

Meanwhile, back to the business at hand: Rob Sheldon on Peter Woit (and this should be good):

Alan Guth skyrocketed to fame on his theory that the universe went through a phase change — like water boiling to steam the instant the pressure cooker lid comes off–which cause the universe to inflate, and erase the special conditions (Anthropic Principle) on the Big Bang expansion. It was a theory that removed design, and it was instantly popular.

Andre Linde likewise got his moment of glory when he hypothesized that inflation was going off like popcorn, and universes were appearing everywhere that the vacuum energy was fluctuating. You might think of it as Inflation 2.0, but neither theory has much evidence in its favor. Some have argued that the distribution of fluctuations in the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation show periodicities or alternating high and low temperatures that are sound waves generated in the Big Bang and inflation. These “baryonic acoustic oscillations” have been fit to a 10-parameter model and used as support of inflation, but frankly, with that many free parameters it can fit anything.

So Guth and Linde have been denied their Nobel prize for lack of confirmation. Then along comes BICEP2 experiment that claims to have proof of inflation. What do Guth and Linde do? They go nuts advertising this amazing discovery and suggesting to all and sundry that the Nobel prize be awarded for the confirmation. Of course, one would hardly give the experimenter a Nobel without also rewarding the theorist, so this cheerleading was a bit self-serving. The BICEP2 result turned out to be dust, which really was trivial to show from their own paper, and the results are now “contested” which is the stage before “ignored” and two stages before “retracted”.

Lots of people are upset about this, and Peter Woit is defending BICEP2 by putting the blame on Guth and Linde’s promotion that snookered the journos. I suppose he thinks that journos should have known the history of Guth and Linde’s theory and how it colored their judgment. I’m not sure any journo should be that immersed in the field to know all the politics. In fact, why didn’t Woit himself write a blog on BICEP2 if he is so concerned, that’s what I did. And I didn’t blame Guth and Linde either — though I said the celebration was a bit early — I blamed BICEP2 for not being more honest with their data analysis.

So why is Woit defending the BICEP2 team? I would imagine he is friends with them, that is usually the reason. Or perhaps he dislikes Guth and Linde, I don’t know. But he seems to think that Physics is getting a bad name from all of this, and worries that scientists won’t be honest in the future if they can’t occasionally publish wrong papers. I sympathize, and say the same thing about biology and biologist Felisa Wolf-Simon and her paper on Arsenic life. You take the data, you do your analysis, you draw conclusions and try to sound humble. What else can you do?

Well for starters, you could read the literature. Sometimes a long view of the field can mitigate against making dumb mistakes in analysis. In the field of particle physics/cosmology, for example, experimental results need a 5-sigma significance to account for systematic errors (remember the Higgs?). BICEP2 reported a 2 sigma experimental significance, and that was from a model they cooked up in the same paper since they couldn’t get their hands on the real model, since the Europeans were still cleaning it up. I could go on with the hubris that infected the analysis in this paper, but surely a little history would have gone a long way towards advising caution.

So contra Woit, the BICEP2 rebuke really was directed at the experimentalists and not the journos. But the self-serving promotion of the theorists didn’t help. Which is to say, there is something very sick about the practice of physics, if both experimentalists and theorists conspire to inflict their hubris on the paying public.

Okay. Point taken.

They should also quit having a free bar on the journo bus.

See also: The Science Fictions series at your fingertips (cosmology).

Follow UD News at Twitter!

2 Replies to “Rob Sheldon comments on Peter Woit on science journalists

  1. 1
    bornagain77 says:

    And once again my hat is off to Dr. Sheldon for rebuking the BICEP2 results, in the face of a some pretty bitter backlash, when almost everybody else knowledgeable in the field was falling over themselves to accept the results unconditionally.

  2. 2
    HeKS says:

    I’m just going from memory here, but I though Woit did write a blog post saying he thought BICEP 2 was wrong not too long after it came out.

Leave a Reply