Science in the age of Facebook and Twitter

Interesting blog post. Some people might remember the recent BICEP2 result that got so much media attention. It now looks like the hype might have been premature ([1405.7351] Toward an Understanding of Foreground Emission in the BICEP2 Region) (no shock there).

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Must admit I didn’t remember, had to look it up. First of all I searched for EPIC rather than BICEP which brought me to another, not quite so interesting site.

I once met a guy - and still have his book somewhere - who thought he could prove that the Big Bang came about because of sound waves so powerful that they sparked the Big Bang (a bit like the sound of thunder sparks lightning).

Enough of my gibbering, I shall now read the blog post. Thank you.

His basic point seems pretty solid.

“Scientific truth is not the outcome of a single Eureka moment but of a long sociological process and hence it is subject to all human deficiencies.”

The problem is that the media moves hundreds of times faster than the sciences and reporters are a hundred times less careful in drawing conclusons than scientists.

In the sciences, when a new result is found, it is first published in a peer-reviewed journal in what can be a very long process. If the study is important, it will probably be checked and if it is correct, reproduced by competing scientists, and if it is not correct, it will be shown to be incorrect in a peer-reviewed paper (at least this is how it normally works). This usually takes several years and a lot of very careful and tedious work. A result, if correct, will slowly become accepted in the scientific community. People generally do not make wild claims about their research results since they have very little to gain by doing so.

In the media, only exciting eye catching claims are welcome. When such claims catch the attention of the media, they can be spread all over the world in hours and days. Very rarely are these claims checked for accuracy before they are published and for scientific issues, there is generally no time to do so. Things easily become sensationalised beyond recognition. Uncertainty and caution are forgotten about. The media storm lasts maybe a few days or a few weeks, and is then forgotten about, leaving no time for any serious discussion of the claims. Proper rebuttals might take over a year to be published, and are usually not reported.

I remember a few years ago, while I was still a PhD student in St Andrews (best physics department in UK according to the Gaurdian university guide released yesterday), a friend of mine who was also a PhD student in my department was doing some work on astrobiology in binary star systems (i.e. systems with two stars). In a press release, his group made a rather banal off-the-cuff statement that some plants might be darker in systems where they recieve different amounts of radiation, or something like that. This was not the results of their research, which itself was interesting, but unlikely to get much media attention. Suddenly the world media west crazy and started reporting that they had found that planets in binary star systems could have black plants, or even in some cases, black trees (why trees, I do not know; All the interesting science in the press release was lost, and only this one statement was seized upon. The claims even made it into Scientific American (along with the weird claim that St Andrews is in England; Black Plant Life Could Thrive on Other Planets - Scientific American). There was essentially no relation between the research that had been done, and the media’s reporting of it. Anyway, this was hardly an important life or death issue, so we all had a good laugh about it.

(Of course, the media’s sensationalisation of science also affects more important issues. One example is the weird belief that in the 1970s, climate scientists were warning about imminent catastrophic global cooling, usually presented by professional contrarians as a reason not to believe the current scientific consensus on global warming. Studying the actual scientific literature of the time shows that this is not true, but there were quite a few articles in the popular media at the time that do warn of global cooling in a very misleading way.)