Against Kaku-ism

I had lunch with Ethan Zuckerman yesterday, and we were talking about technology and communicating science to a mass audience, and Michio Kaku came up. Specifically, the fact that he's prone to saying stuff that's just flat wrong, if not batshit crazy-- see this angry post from 2010 for an example.

It was amusing, then, to return to my RSS reader and find first Sean Carroll and then Matt Strassler expressing outrage and annoyance over some incredibly dumb things Kaku said about the Higgs Boson. My initial reaction was along the lines of "Yeah, welcome to the club," but I suspect that that's part of the problem. Kaku is called by different media organizations to talk about such a wide range of topics that, while he consistently says wrong things about whatever he's talking about at that particular moment, he's usually only pissing off one subfield at a time, and the rest of science happily ignores him.

So as a small step in the direction of unity, let me offer this: Sean and Matt are absolutely right. That stuff about the Higgs is just gibberish. I'm not even a particle physicist, and I know that. And the next time I see, say, astronomers or biologists complaining about something dumb Kaku says, I'll try to add my voice there as well. What we really need is a "Michio Kaku Is Always Wrong" Tumblr or something, but I'm not the guy for that.

For any readers who happen to work for media companies, let me also offer this: I will work at least as cheaply as Kaku does, and will promise to be at least 90% less wrong about everything. Granted, I'm not physically located in Manhattan, so it'll take a bit more lead time, but not that much, especially given the order of magnitude improvement in accuracy. Call me, I'll be happy to talk.

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Sounds like Kaku is becoming the physicist's version of Mehmet Oz -- once in the mainstream, but lured by woo as he gets more into pop science (or pop medicine, in the case of Oz).

By Nick Theodorakis (not verified) on 19 Mar 2013 #permalink

I can't help but suspect that the reliability of his wrongness is somehow part of the appeal... Or perhaps, more accurately, it's the reliably media-friendly nature of his wrongness....

I just had a similar discussion about Kaku with my girlfriend (a theoretical astrophysicist). We deduced that Kaku is so popular with the media precisely BECAUSE he is wrong. Let's say you are making a show about the physics of time travel, you first call up the the Sean Carrolls of the world and get very reasonable, sober answers. Boring. After going down the list a ways you get to Kaku, who tells you "Of course it's possible! Let me tell you my ideas". Guess who gets on TV. I think you mentioned a similar experience related to Quantum computing at a perimeter institute panel. I wouldn't expect a surge of media calls.

I remember when the news about faster than light neutrinos exploded, there was a video of Michio Kaku saying that, if it was confirmed, the whole theory of relativity will break down and the physicists will have to start all over again. I am not a physicist, but to me it seemed like gibberish and, if someone with a better insight in the topic would be kind enough, I would like to know if that statement would be eligible for “Michio Kaku Is Always Wrong” Tumblr ?

I used to wonder if maybe Kaku was the victim of selective editing or something-- you know, he thinks he's in a free-wheeling bullshitting session, and all of a sudden they slap that into a sober and serious piece making him look like a moron.

Or something.

But it happens _so damned often_ I can't entertain that any more.

By John Novak (not verified) on 19 Mar 2013 #permalink

I hereby redub Michio as MichiOZ.

If you're going to be the "not always wrong" version of Kaku, can I be the "not always wrong" version of Neil Degrasse Tyson? Almost everything he says or writes about physics is blatantly wrong. yet he's everywhere and never admits mistakes, no matter how blatant.

Last semester I was part of a team-taught interdisciplinary elective, the description of which is lengthy and unimportant right now. Suffice it to say that our students read an eclectic collection of books about upcoming technological advances. Physics of the Future is one of the earlier ones. A couple of others are also written by physicists. In the penultimate class, I began the discussion with, "This book is by yet another physicists who believes he's qualified to talk authoritatively about every topic under the sun. It's really computer scientists who are so qualified."

By Christopher Bohn (not verified) on 19 Mar 2013 #permalink

It is simpler than that: they like his hair.

I suffer from the horrible problem that I have a wide-ranging basic knowledge of a lot of fields, both from a wasted youth and friends in a variety of scientific fields. That means I know he is so deep in $#!+ he is lucky to be able to breathe from his nose when he leaves his specific knowledge area of theoretical physics to be the world expert on, say, geology or weather or taming wild horses.

They must have him on contract, and he never learned what I thought was the first lesson of grad school: Don't try to BS an answer. It is better to admit you don't know the answer than to open your mouth and prove you don't.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 20 Mar 2013 #permalink