What is Science? What is Hype?

“The most important scientific revolutions all include, as their only common feature, the dethronement of human arrogance from one pedestal after another of previous convictions about our centrality in the cosmos.” -Stephen Jay Gould

Tuesday, I talked about an alternative theory to cosmic inflation.

Whereas cosmic inflation gives you a uniform, flat Universe, that’s the same temperature everywhere, with a predictable spectrum of fluctuations, the alternative model gave none of those things, but did give those regions of concentric rings with low fluctuation amplitude.

In detail, of course, it turns out that inflation is very likely to give you those things, too! Inflation also tells us another very important thing, that is largely ignored in science news today.

Image credit: Ned Wright.

The important info? Inflation wipes out any information about the Universe that existed prior to the minuscule fraction of a second prior to the end of inflation and the Big Bang!

Image credit: Robert Piccioni.

If this is correct, it means we do not have any information whatsoever about what the Universe was like prior to the very end of inflation.

And it’s very tempting to ask what came before inflation. (Because we don’t say, “It’s turtles all the way down.“) Quite honestly, it’s a question I think about quite frequently. But — at this point in the game — it’s a philosophy question, not a science question. We observe steps one through five above, but the rest is 100% conjecture at this point.

And the scientists who’ve written about their preferred models, people like Steinhardt and Turok, Baum and Frampton, and Penrose (among others), are of course free to speculate. But physically, there’s no connection to anything that’s been observed that’s different from what “standard” inflation predicts.

And that’s what makes it hype.

Image credit: R. Klopping.

And there’s no shortage of this type of hype out there. Infinite quantum parallel Universes. The Multiverse. String Theory. Tachyons.

In many ways, they’re some of the most interesting ideas out there. They’re fun to think about, they’re beyond the limits of what we can observe (often even in principle), and some of them may, in fact, turn out to be correct!

But until they predict something observable that’s different from what the alternatives (i.e., the standard, accepted, verified stuff) predict, they’re hype, and not science. (At least, they’re not science yet.)

The interesting discussion in the comments of Tuesday’s post prompted me to write this, and so I’d like to know what your answer is to the title of this post.

What is science? What is hype? And, for you, personally, how do you distinguish between the two?

Comments

  1. #1 Christopher
    December 16, 2010

    I have to say I really appreciate this blog.

  2. #2 Conshycrush
    December 16, 2010

    Ethan… I’m addicted to this blog which i discovered about a month ago. I find myself reading archived posts to pass the day away at work.

    To me science is curiosity driven where hype is media driven.

    Also… any chance of writing a post on a tachyon? I have never heard of them!!

  3. #3 Sphere Coupler
    December 17, 2010

    “What is Science?”

    Science is a synonym for knowledge, it is a curiosity driven quest of study through observation and experiment of the natural Universe and phenomena.

    Science is that which is the bases for our continuing success in evolution…the continuation of the species. Through science we live in comfort, no longer freezing in a dark, dank cave.
    Science is hope, and a momentary cure for an ever inquisitive mind. Science is unending unto itself. It is a great part of our being, without science we would not exist, it can be cruel and solid, sometimes gaseous and liquid, it can be convoluted for those of less desire to understand it‘s intricacies.

    Science can be kind and rewarding, you can be intellectually intimate in the quest and after long years of pain and disappointment, your quest can be vindicated, or you can languish on and on and on, finally realizing one day that you have set your goals too high, yet looking back you see the accomplishments you‘ve made along the way.

    Science can be when you have a eureka moment and your mind races, your neurons fire in a cascading unstoppable flurry of creation, your blood rushes to supply your body in the heat of the moment and you know for an instant of a second, a second that seems to last for eternity, that you and only you know a thing and you long to share it with the world!

    Science can kill, in the wrong hands it can be deadly, yet used correctly it can save a person’s life. It is not evil nor is it good, it just is, and in the hands of a qualified human it can take you to the moon and beyond. It can save thousands from volcanoes and protect from earthquakes, it can extend life and give you a chance to say what you could have said all along.

    Science is a tool, a tool for which there are many purposes, many noble purposes, however there is only one true noble goal for science and that is the continuation of the human species and the betterment of the mankind and his environment.

    Science is a link from the past generations to you, a gift that you can build upon, a gift that you can leave for the future generations, it is only your ability and desire that drives you to success in Science.

    Science is EVERYTHING!!!(sorry got a little carried away, consider that hype).

    Science is not everything, none of us is truly Spock like, you need a break from science, you need to play, to fantasize, to imagine, to dream, to paint and laugh and sing, all of these things can be rewarding, they can stimulate curiosity…and then there’s Science.

  4. #4 Brian
    December 17, 2010

    What is science? What is hype? And, for you, personally, how do you distinguish between the two?

    Well, I do it mostly by reading the blogs of people more knowledgeable than myself.

  5. #5 Matthew Bright
    December 17, 2010

    Many of the Ancients postulated that there were “atoms,” that made up all matter. But of course back then such musings had to be in the realm of philosophy.

    No matter how far we go in increasing our knowledge, there will always be more out of our reach. But if we didn’t speculate about such things we wouldn’t be human, and probably wouldn’t have been preordained to develop the scientific method.

    We speculate. We can’t help ourselves. To limit ourselves to only that which is provable is both undesirable and probably impossible.

  6. #6 Toma Susi
    December 17, 2010

    Weren’t you talking about a totally different thing yesterday? You were claiming that the disproof of Penrose’s analysis of the concentric circles rules out the theory of CCC. Now you’re saying just that it’s hype? Well, at least that’s more correct ;)

    No seriously and with all respect, I do get what you’re aiming at. The Penrose idea was trumpeted in many medias as some sort of proof of pre-inflationary physics, and of course, that is hype. You’re in a good position to address this for a (slightly) wider audience. But I guess what I’m getting at is that this position gives you a bit more responsibility for choosing the correct words because you will be quoted on them.

    If we forget the publicity dimension for a sec, can one – within physics – call any theory “hype”? Within science, what does that even mean? That someone publishes his results in as widely read journals as possible? Talks about it in as many conferences as he can? Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to go? :)

    Of course, if Penrose et al. put their paper on arXiv and then started calling reporters, it does make it hype in the wider sense.

  7. #7 kktkkr
    December 17, 2010

    If two theories have the exact same predictions, then both are equally valid in the sense that you can’t disprove one but not the other. Why would you consider some theories as science and some as hype? (This question is especially important for the layman who does not have the tools nor motivation to go out and seek evidence for the theories.) There must be some way to determine which is more likely to be the truth, and historically, there are two main ways to do it. One is religion, and the other is Occam’s razor.

  8. #8 daedalus2u
    December 17, 2010

    To me, hype occurs when people deliberately go beyond what is a reasonable extrapolation of the data and understanding that they have. I wouldn’t call the Penrose concentric circles so much “hype”, I would call it an error and not hype because they didn’t look at it carefully enough.

    The cold fusion episode was (and still is) all hype. Calling anything the “god particle” is hype. The slogan “better, faster, cheaper” is hype. If it is something about science, and you can fit it into a sound bite, then it is probably hype.

    If the same old headlines come out again and again, it is probably hype, as in “gene for xyz discovered!”. Hype is usually ego driven, not discovery driven.

  9. #9 IanW
    December 17, 2010

    “…people like Steinhardt and Turok, Baum and Frampton, and Penrose…”

    Peter Frampton had a preferred model of the origin of the universe? Was that on the 1989 album “When All the Pieces Fit”?!

  10. #10 rob
    December 17, 2010

    this new learning amazes me, Ethan. explain again how sheeps’ bladders may be employed to dethrone human arrogance from one pedestal after another of previous convictions about our centrality in the cosmos.
    :)

    p.s. i luvs ur blog

  11. #11 BenHead
    December 17, 2010

    “Hype” is of course a loaded term, with strong negative connotations. Yet I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people – even scientists – discussing these non-scientific, often (as you note) very interesting ideas. So long as they don’t label it as science. I always appreciated that they were termed “interpretations” of quantum mechanics; everyone recognized that all of these interpretations made predictions that were (certainly at the time, and I believe still today to great degree) experimentally indistinguishable from one another. They were idle speculations about what’s “really” happening under all the strict formulas that actually comprise the theory, but no one ever posited that they were more than that. (Well, until string theory. Ohhhhhh buuuurn!)

    I think a plot of science/hype would look very similar to your smooth gradient chart ranging from law to ruled out. A lot of promising work that’s still very early in its development – anything that would fall near the middle of your chart – could certainly count as either science or hype simply depening on how one talks about it.

    I also think that there may be SOME place for hype in science literature for that layperson. I think that Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson (whose works for laypeople I see as very well grounded in established scientific facts) can capture many imaginations, but I don’t see Michio Kaku (whose works for laypeople are far more often about very speculative ideas) as having no value or being a detriment in that arena. Anything that can get more people interested and involved in science (and that isn’t total BS, of course) is worthwhile.

    People with scientific minds often hate hype. I’m in IT; we and the salespeople at my job are never on the same page about anything. But the fact we have to admit (and it’s been written about a lot lately, and I’m glad when scientists like those above and you, Ethan, take your time to enthrall and educate the broader public with the wonders of science) is that hype works. One might say it’s been scientifically proven to work. Again, it needs to have some grounding in reality, but as long as it does it’s not without value.

  12. #12 algernon
    December 17, 2010

    Given that I don’t personally possess the knowledge nor the genius to fully understand the problem (and the underlying math, too), I tend to trust the speculation put out by people like S. Hawking who has devoted many years of his life to the problem of finding reasonable, consistent theories explaining the first seconds of life of the universe.

    And yes, I find them interesting and credible even if _at this point_ they’re just speculation with no sign of a comprehensive proof in sight.
    I tend to think that people like him might be the only ones capable of actually figuring out actual answers, as a “natural extension” of what we already know (which, as far as I understand, goes back only to the Planck time, and not before). Perhaps his intuition paints a clear, reasonable picture in his mind where everything is consistent down to the very beginning of it all – even if we still lack proofs.

    Of course you cannot replace a proof with just a genius’ intuition, but still… I wouldn’t discount these speculative ideas like “hype” nor “non-scientific”. Let’s keep that derogatory terms for stuff which is provably unfalsifiable and/or logically inconsistent (e.g. religion) please, and not mix real, legitimate physics with that. As far as I understand we’re still not in a position to rule out some of that theories as “not science” at all, they might be able to come up with unique predictions once fully complete or better understood.

    I guess GR was still “science” even in the decade 1905-1915 when it was still in the working, and probably for some time (during the very first years after 1905) even unable to give meaningful predictions because it was just a sketched idea not yet turned into real, working equations.
    Is there any known theoretical insurmountable obstacle that prevents M-theory, after further efforts on it of course, to one day become the GR of the 21st century? No? Then, why cannot it be labeled “science”, even of a speculative nature?

  13. #13 Douglas Watts
    December 17, 2010

    There is a theoretical elegance to a cyclic universe in that it eliminates the question of a beginning and end, and just leaves for explanation the mechanics of the cycle. In that sense it is less offensive to human sensibilities. But aside from being more comforting to human sensibilities, there is no tangible reason a ‘cyclical’ universe should be any more probable or plausible than any other form.

  14. #14 Douglas Watts
    December 17, 2010

    Okay, i’ll offer an oddball thought. *IF* the nature of dark matter can be discerned, and *IF* methods of fine-scale mapping of DM can be devised, and *IF* theories of its nature and origin and history can be devised from its dynamics and distribution since the Big Bang, this info. could offer a work-around for the information wall the BB now seems to pose. So in a way, the central mystery of what DM is and is not at least leaves open the possibility of a pre-BB fingerprint in a way that ‘normal’ matter does not.

  15. #15 OKThen
    December 18, 2010

    Penrose did make a prediction that proved true; but then big bang theorist made a postdiction that was also true. Prediction and postdiction are both scientific activities.

    Science is a wide range of activities that try to extend our understanding of nature. Science is more than the body of knowledge of what we think we know (e.g. Darwin’s theory of evolution; the third law of thermodynamics; quantum entanglement; classical mechanics; Piaget’s theories of child development). Science is the activity, the approach.

    And the activities of science include much more than prediction and postdiction; and sometimes include hype. The good ideas of science need help from showmen like Ethan and Feynman to promote and convey ideas to the scientific and non-scientific community. Hype does not transmute science into non-science; but neither does hype transmute non-science into science.

    By the way, in Newton’s day, alchemy was the science of chemistry (recent book review in New York Times). But today alchemy and cold fusion are mostly not considered to be science.

    However, being a scientist is a bit like being a poet; in that, if you call yourself a scientist, you are one. The arts and sciences cover a wide range of overlapping activities as Leonardo demonstrated.

    Now most scientific activity is mainstream applied science; discovering one more insect or one more exoplanet. Building catalogs of stuff is a respected activity of science from Brahe to the Human Genome project.

    And of course many an applied scientist inadvertently steps into a fundamental discovery.

    But in the area of what we might call fundamental science; we must remember that most theory, observation and experiment is incorrect, as in wrong.

    How many different types of accelerator experiments will it take to find a Higgs type particle? And even if a Higgs type particle is never found; that does not mean that all Higgs activity in theory and experiment was hype?

    How many different observations will it take to find gravitation waves or not?

    Michelson and Morley’s null experiment was science at its best; so even unsuccessful predictions and experiments are science.

    Work in theory, experiment and philosophical musing (not just prediction and certainly not just successful prediction) are part of the necessary scientific dialogue and activity seeking to describe or explain some aspect of our visible universe. Such work is not hype.

    Consider Einstein’s Principle of Equivalence. Einstein struggled with this “philosophical” idea for a dozen years before he found the mathematics to turn it into general relativity. The Principle of Equivalence was not hype; it is an example of Einstein’s best scientific work.

    The great danger to science from hype is not that some non-scientific idea (e.g. intelligent design) will contaminate science knowledge or some philosophic idea (e.g. multiple universes) will dilute science activity.

    I think the great danger to science from hype is that some current theory of science will be so hyped by mainstream scientists that new science (at the funding and promotion level) will be discourage.

    Eddington’s scientific abuse of Chandrasekhar’s black hole idea is an example of establihsment science so hyping current theory and so mocking new theory (i.e. black holes); that the new science of black holes was delayed decades, basically until Eddington died.

    The problem with the Standard Model of Cosmology (i.e. the big bang theory), in my mind, is that it is so hyped (i.e. insecure) that it pounces upon every new idea from no matter how credible a scientist (e.g. Penrose).

    I do not see this problem with the Standard Model of Elementary Particles (which in my opinion is much more firmly established than the big bang theory). Rather elementary partical physicists both theorists and experimentalists are considering a wide range of new elementary particles.

    Why is the idea of some kind of cyclic universe, some kind of steady state universe, some kind of extra-dimensional universe so threatening?

    Many useful scientific ideas (e.g. the classical vacuum, the quantum vacuum, the gravitational mass of an elementary particle, time itself) are never observed; yet they are part of the foundation of physics. Such ideas become part of the foundation because they become esential logical links in our descriptive model of nature (i.e. our visible universe).

    Ultimately a science idea must be essential to our “rational” description and explanation of our visible universe. Darwin’s theory of evolution was not accepted by mainstream biologists for a hundred years. Predictions of Einstein’s theory of relativity were not accepted by astronomers for fifty years. Physicists reluctantly accepted chemists periodic table of atoms.

    The ideas of a cyclic universe, backward time at the quantum level;, and extra spatial dimensions are essential physics ideas; that have not yet been built into a convincing predictive theory. Nevertheless, scientific work should be encouraged in these areas. Such work is no more hype than the Higgs or the graviton or white holes.

  16. #16 Sphere Coupler
    December 21, 2010

    OKThen, I gotta say, that was well written,
    and it brings to mind the old school thought of (my theory is right and there’s no room for yours) Whereas, today we have a much more dynamic way of thinking, My theory is just a percentage of the whole and the whole will incorporate a great multitude of differing perspectives.

    The future will tear down the absolutism of competition and we will see each scientific method induced theory as a possible piece of the puzzle.That doesn’t mean all theories are correct, it means that there are more than one way to skin a cat. (can’t believe I just said that)
    Said another way, the most vivid picture of reality is produced by many differing perspectives conjoined.

    We can do this, we now have the tools(computers,manpower and almost free access to knowledge) necessary to accomplish what was unheard of at any previous time in our history.What an exciting time to be a thinking human.

  17. #17 islami chat
    December 24, 2010

    Bazı arkadaşlar 3 adet aynı takı cümlesini tam olarak anlamamışlar. Burda kastettiğim örneğin 3 adet Diamond Ring’dir. Zamanla öğreneceğiz ancak benim şöyle bir fikrim var. Bildiğiniz gibi Chaos event’e giren herkes kazansada kaybetsede 1 adet Voucher of Chaos kazanıyor. Moradonda [Grand Merchant`s Daughter] Manishya isimli NPC’de [Chaos] Emblem of Chaos III adında bir görev var ve 10 adet Voucher of Chaos karşılığında uniq takı veriyor. Bu uniq takıları + basmak için bu yöntem kullanılabilir. Ama dediğim gibi bu sadece benim fikrim zamanla deneyip paylaşacağım. Ayrıca adının başında Old yazan ve biraz koyu görünen takıları takdığınızda bir daha satamıyor veya trade edemiyorsunuz.

  18. #18 Issac
    January 24, 2011

    I have had physics up to “modern”, but I cannot say I am all that familiar with astrological as a whole, nor specific to expansion.

    What about expansion requires that we lose all data prior to the expansion occuring?