Communicating the edge of science

Scientists, more than anyone, love to get things wrong. You really can’t be a scientist unless you’re willing to change your mind. We should all seek to cultivate the scientific virtues of being ideologically pliable to objectively discernible reality alone and reasonably flexible in the face of the unknown in ourselves. Science doesn’t work like politics, religion or team sports; rigid thinkers in science aren’t upheld as principled and strong; they’re castigated, marginalized, repudiated – as they should be.

I’d heard stories to this effect, and then last year I attended my first scientific conference. Boy, these people excoriated one another so brutally that in any other setting I would have expected to see the gamut ran from puling to wanton waterworks. I loved it, as you might imagine – but so did the assembled researchers. Not necessarily the ones dishing out – though they were gleeful – but also the ones being ripped apart. It wasn’t masochism, it was education. Or as Dick Feynman put it: “the pleasure of finding things out.” The ennobling of fallibility is what separates science from religion; science is truly humble, while the contrasting conceit of theistic dogmatism is exemplified in the professed certainty of its myriad doctrines.

Part of being a fervent non-believer (à la Richard Dawkins) is boundless ardour and affection for science. Science is transcendent; it uncovers the beauty of how things really are. You can’t look at stars at night quite the same way when your consciousness has been raised to appreciate their true nature. I don’t know anyone who isn’t blown away by the simple fact that our bodies consist only of the heavy element ejecta of supernovae, shaped by the laws of chemistry and natural selection. We are made of stardust, and that’s a fact. If you’ve never heard that before, think about it.

(Tellingly, the religious often accuse non-believers of being closed-off to the transcendent. The great astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan once quipped: “How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?’ Instead they say, ‘No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.’”)

The recent ruction surrounding the superluminal neutrino anomaly (that is, neutrinos apparently detected travelling faster than the speed of light by CERN’s OPERA experiment) is an illustration of scientific principles in practice. My hope is that the media coverage afforded scientific research in recent years will, over the long term, edify public consciousness with the vigilance and scepticism intrinsic to scientific inquiry. The unremitting hyperreality evoked by the ubiquitous and pervasive nature of modern communications media makes such an unprecedented level of ‘information saturation’ inevitable, so I prefer to take comfort in what I hope is rational optimism.

I’d like to see fringe and emerging scientific theories discussed in the media with nothing less than healthy scepticism. Granted, sometimes this is done very well. (And in a perfect world, pure pseudoscience would be treated with the same level of derision worthy of James Randi. Pseudoscience will undoubtedly be discussed in another post. Today I’m talking about real – but speculative – science.) Too often, public science education is bad. Really bad. Try watching some of the ridiculous conspiracy crap that passes for science on The History Channel.

Many scientists bemoan media attention because they feel the sensationalistic treatment their research is paid may ultimately be counter-productive. When exciting ideas are falsified publicly, scientists worry that an ignorant public (pandered to by agenda-driven commentators) will relinquish confidence in the power of the methods of science, and this will be exploited by those with vested interests to justify aberrations like denying humanity’s responsibility for global warming and indoctrinating innocent children with the vulgar pseudoscience of creationism. Sadly, this does happen. To capture the essence of Robert Bryce’s ignoble prating:

The science is not settled, not by a long shot. Last month, scientists at CERN, the prestigious high-energy physics lab in Switzerland, reported that neutrinos might—repeat, might—travel faster than the speed of light. If serious scientists can question Einstein’s theory of relativity, then there must be room for debate about the workings and complexities of the Earth’s atmosphere.

But, while disconcerting, that isn’t necessarily all I want to discuss. As a science reporter looking to write for a popular audience, my interest is in how to best communicate science to the largely lay public. To examine this, I want to discuss some issues surrounding the field of theoretical physics. If neutrinos really are breaking the cosmic speed limit, theoretical physicists are the ones tasked with figuring out why. I’m not particularly adept at adumbrating concepts culled from my regrettably rudimentary self-education in the most difficult field of science to make points, so please bear with me.

As such, parts of this post may be a little impenetrable if you’re not a regular consumer of popular science – the difficult stuff can probably be skipped without rendering the whole thing irredeemably incomprehensible. And thank you for helping me demonstrate my contention. (I don’t mean that to be condescending.)

String theorists come under frequent fire within the physics community for speculating beyond what can be studied. Distinguished physicists Lee Smolin and Peter Woit have written books suggesting that such conjectures, no matter how mathematically beautiful, should not be regarded as science because they do not (yet) make testable predictions. Theoretical physicists working in the fields under attack will often counter by pointing out that the immensely complex theories they are working on are not yet complete, and it might take many years before they will be – ergo any testable predictions extrapolated from their incomplete theories are only tentative, and moreover might be superseded by future developments. But that’s not to say that theoreticians aren’t working feverishly to produce testable predictions from their emerging theories – they are. I’m not qualified to contribute meaningfully to the discussion around this within the scientific community, but I do have some things to say for the rest of us – with the glaring caveat that I’m no physicist.

One of the first explanations I came across for CERN’s curious observation relied on M-theory, or superstring theory; conceived by Ed Witten and the darling conjecture of Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene, Michio Kaku and other high profile theoretical physicists. M-theory is a perpetually inchoate mathematical framework that aims to describe the physics of everything that makes up existence. To meet this modest aspiration, M-theory seeks to dissolve the stark demarcation between two totally incompatible theories that respectively describe their moieties of reality with astonishing accuracy using some particularly clever and (I’m told) quite beautiful equations. Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity and the standard model of quantum mechanics have, until recently, survived every single test thrown at them. OPERA’s superluminal neutrino reading is interesting because if it holds up to the intense scrutiny it is facing, it flies in the imposing faces of both general relativity and the standard model of quantum mechanics.

The weirdness of the neutrino anomaly is hard to overstate. For example, general relativity predicts that anything travelling faster than the speed of light would also be travelling backwards in time. Hypothetical particles that do exactly this, called tachyons, have been postulated and hunted for. If there was any evidence for the existence of tachyons beyond wild but mathematically congruent speculation, we’d have heard about it by now.

The problem with M-theory is that it isn’t yet a theory; it’s more of a proposal for one. It’s a series of hypotheses, or an elaborate conjecture which may very well be wrong. (Peter Woit titled his book critical of M-theory Not Even Wrong.) M-theory simply isn’t holding up to testing in almost every other respect, so my feeling as an unqualified outsider is that it might be a little asinine to invoke the entire edifice to explain one quirk of data.

M-theory requires an egregious surfeit of hypothesized baggage in order to meaningfully interpret an anomaly standard theories can’t account for – such as seven imperceptible extra spatial dimensions, mathematically described as Calabi-Yau manifolds, that could be curled up in 10500 different ways. It follows that this indicates 10500 different possible universes (dubbed the ‘string theory landscape’ and adhering to the anthropic principle), and only one of those could be our own – there is, as yet, no indication which. The eponymous strings of superstring theory exist in these dimensions, vibrating at specific frequencies to generate the type of 4-dimensional universe we experience. Moreover, in M-theory (correct me if I’m wrong), any number of these universes may exist as bubbles on 11-dimensional membrane structures that collide occasionally to create more universes (called the ‘ekpyrotic scenario’). I’m not going into much depth, but it should be clear that the definitive traits of M-theory do not make for minor caveats.

The idea of the universe as a giant string symphony is a poetic one, but this is no reason to accept it. From Paul Boutin’s Slate review of theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss’ 2005 book Hiding in the Mirror:

Scientific Method 101 says that if you can’t run a test that might disprove your theory, you can’t claim it as fact. When I asked physicists like Nobel Prize-winner Frank Wilczek and string theory superstar Edward Witten for ideas about how to prove string theory, they typically began with scenarios like, “Let’s say we had a particle accelerator the size of the Milky Way …” Wilczek said strings aren’t a theory, but rather a search for a theory. Witten bluntly added, “We don’t yet understand the core idea.”

Fortunately, the defined construct of M-theory is built on top of more testable hypotheses. It is a sort of amalgam of the hottest ideas of the last few decades of theoretical physics, including five different string theories. M-theory is a heterogeneous goulash theory of everything, if you will.

One of M-theory’s many speculative predictions (the string theory landscape issue notwithstanding) is the existence of supersymmetrical particles, adorably dubbed ‘sparticles’. Supersymmetry can exist independent of the M-theory framework, but M-theory rests largely on supersymmetry. The Large Hadron Collider (the LHC, you might have heard of it), another CERN experiment, was expected to turn up evidence of the existence of sparticles once it crossed record-breaking energy and luminosity thresholds. Despite the LHC now probing the energy ranges where sparticles were predicted to be visible, these sparticles are nowhere to be found. Other predictions made by theories of supersymmetry have failed, such as the shape of the electron. Recent observations bore out a round and smooth electron, while many supersymmetry models predicted a coarse electron. These results leave supersymmetry models, in the parlance of professional physicists, ‘severely constrained’; I wonder what it will take for supersymmetry, if not M-theory, to be considered falsified.

Apparently needless extrapolation from exciting science to ecstatic conjecture is perennial among researchers. This is good for science; it brings those theories to the foreground for intense analysis. Controversy and scepticism are ostensively scientific. But is it useful for the public? Hapless documentarians like to showcase CGI renditions of some of the more intrepid ideas at the fringe of science in Full HD and 5.1 Surround Sound to the entire gaping market of cable TV consumers. We have now entered difficult territory.

There clearly needs to be a recognition of the difference between solid theory and speculation in the popular media, though most TV executives are clearly bereft of such prudence. More sensational speculation probably should remain largely constrained to the relative privacy of academic literature and not brought to you by Mountain Dew until they’re sufficiently experimentally grounded enough to merit popular consumption.

Certain TV features manage what I would call an acceptable level of scientific balance very well. Carl Sagan speculated about alien life in his seminal series Cosmos. Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe triptych was on M-theory, but it aired the voices of sceptics admirably. BBC’s Horizon documentaries are mostly good. Unfortunately, while I enjoy watching Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman, this series fails at the standard of science education I’m alluding to. It clearly vaunts some of the less mainstream ideas (and because this is science, less established) alongside (and occasionally in absence of) established theories. I don’t think this is the best way to get the public amped up on science.

To illustrate, the Wormhole episode “Is There Life After Death?” explored the nature of consciousness. Any sensible discussion of consciousness in 2011 occurs in the context of cognitive neuroscience, which is my preferred field. Freeman’s hypnotic narration paid the emerging discipline a little attention, but only before he veered off into a discussion of mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose’s and anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff’s very unpopular theory of consciousness as a quantum process replete with the same superposition-laden weirdness, based on supposed quantum effects occuring inside neural microtubules (the Orch-OR conjecture). This conjecture is tantalizing and fascinating, but very likely wrong; no-bullshit theoretical physicist, staunch atheist and philosophy professor Victor Stenger refuted it to my uninitiated satisfaction with some fairly simple calculations, and you can read a summary of how he did it on Michael Shermer’s blog. (Stenger never seems to receive his due acclaim, but that’s fuel for another post.)

M-theory isn’t by any means a fringe theory in science. It’s simply popular, but popularity doesn’t mean correctness. I’m not averse to speculative documentaries, and the fact that these documentaries are made is itself a good thing; they keep me and other incorrigible geeks informed. It’s worth noting though, CSI and House M.D. got the public interested in forensics and diagnostics too, much to the dismay of practising forensic investigators and diagnosticians. My problem with media coverage of issues like M-theory is sensationalism and the lack of journalistic scepticism we’re supposed to see elsewhere.

Stephen Hawking and Leonard Molidinow’s book The Grand Design did overtly trumpet M-theory as a worthy theory for everything (and apparently if there isn’t a final theory, M-theory will do). At the time, Hawking audaciously and unequivocally stated – to equal parts fanfare and derision – that M-theory rendered God unnecessary. But his recent episode of Curiosity – which I imagine would have received a wider audience – took the focus off controversial hypotheses in favour of the uncontroversial science of gravity, emphasizing and echoing the punchline expressed in final pages of his and Mlodinow’s book:

Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.

This was probably because most of the criticism Hawking and Mlodinow recieved from religious commentators focused on the controversies surrounding M-theory in the physics community. Obviously, such criticisms don’t help the case forwarded by those who want to invoke Divine Intervention as an alternative to qualified scientific speculation, but as the title character of House M.D. observed: “if you could reason with religious people, there would be no religious people.”

(As a side note: The Grand Design attempted to solve the string theory landscape problem by conjecturing that the universe we observe is like a collapsed wavefunction of all possible cosmic states; as if the universe were a giant particle; this approach I thought quite novel – I can’t recall if it has been proposed elsewhere, at either a consumer or prosumer paperback physics level. It first struck me here, and to my woefully ignorant mind it seemed a stroke of sheer genius.)

While M-theory may not yet be a science, the people who work on it are most emphatically scientists first and foremost. The media’s disproportionate vaunting of string theory is not wholly a sin of the string theorists; in many cases, quite the contrary. Popular science communicator Michio Kaku disagrees with those string theorists who hope to appropriate superluminal particles into the M-theory rubric. His response to OPERA’s anomolous results was heartening. Writing in the Wall Street Journal:

If all this wasn’t bad enough, it would also mean that the fundamental principles of physics are incorrect. Modern physics is based on two theories, relativity and the quantum theory, so half of modern physics would have to be replaced by a new theory. My own field, string theory, is no exception. Personally, I would have to revise all my theories because relativity is built into string theory from the very beginning.

This is where the power of science really comes into its own – and this is exactly where much of the media fails in communicating what science is all about. Too much of the media sort of treats science as a Pentecostal church treats the Bible: as a source for cartoonish giddiness. We heard about Gliese 581 g, the apparently habitable goldilocks extra-solar planet – but we didn’t readily hear that Gliese 581 g, unlike the other exoplanets in the Gliese 581 system, is an uncomfirmed finding. While science clearly is cause for genuine rapture, this doesn’t justify using it to sell Apple products.

To further illustrate this same point: you might not have heard that the neutrino experiment has probably already been falsified. I found out a couple of days ago from experimental physicist Tommaso Dorigo’s blog, but in my Google News search, there were only four published articles. Obviously hype sells.  And this result probably won’t be discussed extensively in any media outlet until someone like Robert Bryce warps it to discredit the whole of science.

On the subject of that extract I posted from Robert Bryce’s declaration of supreme idiocy on the subject of climate science, I hope it’s obvious to my many astute readers that my case for rational balance in the media when dealing with matters at the edge of science should not be construed as granting expediency for these sorts of utterly unqualified crackpots. While denying ‘balance’ in this respect superficially appears anathema to good journalism, I believe that a more scientifically literate breed of journalist will get where I’m coming from.

Our neural circuitry is replete with cognitive heuristics designed to pacify our paranoid primate impulses with the illusion of certainty. Cognitive heuristics are the basic biases that drive much of human ratiocination; they distort percepts to fit the concepts we wish to feel certain about. It is very difficult for the human mind to accept uncertainty. This is evinced when conservative slaves to certainty like FoxNews’ Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly berate their consummate sceptic guests like Penn Jilette and Richard Dawkins for admitting tentative ignorance on the answers to the ‘big questions’. It therefore isn’t surprising when members of the public read a story in a newspaper about some failed scientific theory decide to turn on science as a whole. This can change with education.

As our tools and experiments become more refined, we overcome yesterday’s precipice and push back the threshold of the knowable. We close the gaps and uncover countless new ones. Think of it as the process of zooming in on a fractal like the Mandelbrot set; and like a fractal, the deeper we go, the more beauty we find. Science is the poetry of reality. I believe the public will come to recognize it as such, and more so as we progress into the future – provided science communicators make the principles of fallibility that underlie scientific inquiry clear. To do this, communicators need to take into account what has shaped present public perceptions and what unconscious forces influence them. As long as the public are inculcated with the false impression that scientific knowledge is analogous to religious dogma, this will be difficult. Unlike religious knowledge, scientific knowledge is constantly under review.

I’m not committing to blind faith with my optimism that the public will come to recognize science for what it uniquely achieves. Citizens are becoming the new scientists. Just yesterday I installed the LHSee app on my Android phone. I can watch particle collisions, streamed live from the ATLAS detector in CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, at my leisure. Gamers might have unlocked the key to treating the AIDS virus. Citizen astronomers have been published in papers documenting the discovery of extrasolar planets using a publicly available live stream from the orbiting Kepler observatory. We’re all becoming a part of this process – a process that is far too rigorous to be rigid, with accountability to objective reality built into its core.


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