The Atlantic announced yesterday that they have added a science section to their website. They already had a Health section and a Technology section, but there was no general place for science stories to go. I generally find them to be somewhat more serious than most other online magazines (they still even have a real magazine), so I think this is a good thing. Hopefully their new editors and writers will be knowledgeable enough to cover serious science stories in an intelligent way, which is something that much of online science journalism regularly fails at.
The New York Times has picked up the story about a recent paper talking about whether or not dark matter could have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs (as well as several other famous mass extinctions). I’m not sure why the piece is being printed now, since the paper was in the news a month ago.
My general position on such work is still the same: These kinds of papers are fun thought experiments working out possible real-world effects of things like dark matter and neutrinos but are highly unlikely to actually be true.
I’m not a big fan of the way the Times post is written. It seems to be trying to craft a narrative out of several papers in recent months about dark matter and extinctions (there are two different mechanisms discussed: (1) heating up the planet’s core and causing volcanism and (2) kicking objects out of the Oort belt that then hit Earth) and even about dark matter and cancer. These kinds of ideas have been discussed for decades and are actually all very different things that just happen to all involve dark matter. There’s not really any evidence that the papers are at all related.
That said, I think the main purpose of the paper is really just to give some information about dark matter to the public. While many people have heard of it, few have any real understanding of what is meant by the term “dark matter.” I think the author is using these fanciful papers to pull in readers in order to tell them a bit about some of the more grounded science being done on dark matter. Public outreach is almost always a good thing, especially in a field like physics, which often seems quite esoteric to the general public.
The BBC recently published a post by one of its science editors entitled “What is the point of the Large Hadron Collider?” The author goes over several justifications for such large projects. There is the idealistic view: Big science projects are important for improving our understanding of the universe, which to many is important to our society in its own right. There is also the pragmatic view: We don’t know what will come out of the research but at the very least many important inventions and a lot of technological progress have been made as a result of such projects in the past.
I would say that both points of view are compelling. The latter is obviously important, but the former is also a good point to make. A great deal of what people devote resources to in modern society is largely extraneous. We already spend a great deal of money on things that we want but don’t actually need. I would say that large science projects are a way to devote a tiny fraction of our resources to projects that in some way advance human society. Science, like literature, music, visual arts, theater, architecture, cuisine, and many other things, is an important part of what makes our society and our culture what they are today.
Salon, along with several other media outlets, has published a summary of a recent cosmology article published in PLB. The article claims to derive some quantum mechanical corrections to general relativity, yielding new equations that, among other things, force the age of the universe to be infinite. This has then been reported as something more or less like “Scientists disprove the Big Bang!!!” Phys.org is notorious for that kind of sensationalism, although the Salon article is not quite as accepting of what the paper says.
This kind of reaction always puzzles me. One of the main things many theorists do is to come of with new models that extend or alter what we currently think we know about physics in order to test how well we really understand things. While I can’t really judge the exact logic used in the linked paper, I would guess that the authors introduce some unsupported assumption or assumptions in order to make their claims. That’s not a bad thing either. In order to propose something different or new, one must often make some guesses in order to have something to compare to data besides the usual model.
One thing in the Salon article that I do object to is the characterization of this model as “simpler” than the current ΛCDM cosmology. While the laws of physics break down in the very early universe, having what is effectively a beginning at a finite point in time seems to me to be conceptually simpler than a non-static but infinitely old universe. Additionally, while there is no singularity in the theory proposed in the paper, the laws of physics will necessarily break down well before a singularity occurs (in fact, the singularity is likely one of the telltale signs that the laws of physics somehow don’t work during the early universe). Even if there is no singularity, it still doesn’t mean that we have a complete understanding of the history of the universe (Note that the authors do note that their theory avoids needing quantum gravity, so maybe they have determined that this point doesn’t matter here). My guess would be that this theory is designed as to be virtually identical to the ΛCDM given current data but diverges at a very early point in time. Thus, it provides an alternative, but one that can’t really be measured unless more work is done to discover observable differences between the two cosmologies.
Over at Slate, Phil Plait has an article on promoting media figures that support science. In particular, he discusses his decision to retweet a picture highlighting some famous Hollywood actresses who have shown some interest or aptitude in science. The controversy here is over the question of who should be applauded or treated as a role model for their interest or work in science and related fields.
The picture in question highlights five actresses with a variety of connections to science, from inventing new technologies to writing children’s books about math and science. Plait notes that the most controversial choice in the picture is the inclusion of Mayim Bialik, who earned a PhD in neuroscience. It’s not her actual work in earning the PhD that is controversial (as far as I know – I’ve never even taken a neuroscience class), but rather it is her apparent connections to various fringe groups pushing alternative medicine and anti-vaccination beliefs. Plait decided that Bialik’s work using her celebrity status to popularize science is more important the negative effects of her support for pseudoscience.
I would actually take the opposite position on this. The purpose of the image seems to be to highlight some celebrities who can also be seen as role models for children (and girls in particular) who might be interested in science. It shows that even cool people like science. However, in the case of Mayim Bialik, her support for pseudoscience and bad medical practices has far outweighed her scientific achievements in the eyes of the public (she has a PhD but doesn’t appear to have done any research since graduating). It’s difficult to hold her up as a role model when she’s setting back public support of science in other fields. While the idea of the image discussed in the article is fine, I think it would have been much better to showcase five people who have done real work (beyond student research/work) in science or popularizing science and who aren’t associated with anti-scientific groups. It really shouldn’t be that difficult to find five such people, although if it is difficult to do so then that might be a more interesting topic to talk about.
After waiting a few days, I decided to start looking at media reactions to what’s been going on in Ferguson, Missouri. A lot has happened too: The governor has announced a curfew and the Ferguson police released the name of the officer who shot Michael Brown. The police also, against the wishes of basically everyone involved, released a video clip they claim shows Brown stealing some cigars (or cigarettes – it’s not really clear) prior to the shooting. They admit that the confrontation between Brown and the officer was unrelated, so this is clearly just trying to defame the victim, who of course can’t defend himself. This is reminiscent of the attempts to ruin Trayvon Martin’s reputation prior to the Zimmerman trial – Trayvon Martin smoked weed sometimes and got into a few fights, therefore the shooting must have been reasonable. We have no evidence that this video is relevant (even assuming the video even shows what the police say it shows), and it will clearly serve to inflame the tension between the community and law enforcement. Given that the Ferguson PD is no longer in control, maybe that was the point of releasing the video.
Most of the major news media have continued to cover the story. I won’t link to most of the pages, but you can look for yourself in the opinion pages of the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, online magazines like Slate and the Atlantic. Some of these articles are from before my initial post on the subject but I’m including them anyway. Most of the media is echoing sentiments similar to those I gave in this post. The militarization of law enforcement and the history of violence and oppression aimed against black communities throughout the United States have prominent places in most of the commentary.
Interestingly, while most of the media has come out strongly against the police, the conservative media is split over which side to support (the protesters or the police). Unsurprisingly, Reason (which is not strictly a right-wing magazine) is emphatically opposed to the police. Given the articles right now on the front page, it looks like Drudge is also on the side of the protesters. The Weekly Standard is doing its best to ignore the issue. The American Spectator is on the side of racism, denying the existence of any racial disparities in the justice system – as if historical context doesn’t matter – and blasting Rand Paul for even suggesting that racism could still exist. In a perfect example highlighting a point I made about President Obama, Ben Stein writes an incredible piece on that same website accusing Obama of hating America. While Stein’s piece doesn’t address Ferguson, it does provide a window into how the people at that magazine think. Stein writes that Obama is an “Angry Black Man” (yes, Stein really uses that term) whose hatred of America is evident in his inability to start enough wars to satisfy Stein’s bloodlust. I guess all Obama (Eric Holder too) has to do to be an “Angry Black Man” is to exist since he’s very carefully avoided giving strong public responses on many controversial issues.
The National Review actually shows some diversity of opinion on the topic of Ferguson. Ever-loathsome commentator Michelle Malkin decided that this was a good time to salute the nation’s police officers. She focuses on the fact that being a police officer is not the safest job in the world (though not the most dangerous either), with a number of officers killed every year. In the process, she uncritically lends support to the idea of American cities as “war zones” and police as a military occupation force. She also uses statistics in a highly misleading and unethical manner. It’s bad enough that I think I’ll write a separate post on lying with statistics. The clear implication of her article is that police should be free to murder citizens without restraint because their job can be dangerous. Jonah Goldberg writes an odd but mostly reasonable article calling to reserve judgment until an investigation into the initial shooting is done but also calls for police to be more sensitive and more responsive to the communities they’re supposed to protect. He also criticizes the attempts by some to blame Obama (why people are doing this, I have no idea) for what’s happening.
Kevin Williamson provides one of the laziest arguments possible: The unrest is (of course) the fault of the Democrats and their liberal policies like support for public schools and public transportation. Similarly to the many conservative figures who coincidentally just happened to discover the evils of Big Government on a certain Tuesday night in November, 2008, Williamson is clearly trying to attract libertarians to his decidedly non-libertarian cause (electing Republicans). To Williamson, redlining, white flight, and urban disinvestment are just natural responses to the excesses of Democratic control (many think that these cause many urban problems and lead to near-permanent Democratic control). Police are bad because they’re the government, and the government is axiomatically bad. Only local government policies matter, not state, federal, or non-governmental policies designed to impoverish certain communities (obviously and dangerously untrue). Giuliani saved New York from becoming a hellish dystopia (he didn’t). It’s almost unbelievable that these kinds of sentiments would come from a person writing in a magazine that once explicitly called for the subjugation of non-white people (conservative intellectual hero William F Buckley, at least during and before the Civil Rights era, was an unrepentant white supremacist). I would have at least hoped that the National Review would be more sensitive to the plight of those it fought so hard to keep in (figurative, if not literal) chains. There are many other articles that I won’t discuss here, but you can easily look for more.
In its July issue, pseudo-intellectual political magazine and occasional home of white supremacist commentators considered acceptable enough for polite society the National Review published a bizarre article focusing on Neil deGrasse Tyson. While the original article requires an account, there is a free version available. The article set off a firestorm of criticism, getting noticed even by major media outlets like the BBC and the LA Times.
The gist of the article – to the extent it exists at all in such a poorly thought out article – seems to be that getting the general public interested and informed in matters such as science and technology is a liberal plot to increase the power of the government. Given that this is the National Review, any kind of expansion of the government necessarily leads to tyranny. So, Cosmos is preparing us for the coming liberal progressive communo-islamo-fascist dictatorship. The seriously dated phrase “fellow traveler” makes an appearance, suggesting that the author never got over the paranoia and xenophobia of the McCarthy era. Given the amount of vitriol the author reserves for self-styled “nerds” who don’t have the proper nerd credentials (Star Trek and WoW but not Star Wars and Mario Kart), one gets the sense that maybe the author just can’t stand that some of these “nerds” are now more popular than him.
The author also complains about more liberal-leaning pundits trusting the opinions of scientists on scientific matters without truly understanding the material. This kind of criticism could be warranted in some cases, but fails as a generalized criticism because there’s simply no way for anyone to be properly informed on everything. At some point, people have to trust experts.
As the LA Times points out, this whole article is strange, particularly the focus on Tyson, whose public persona is largely apolitical. He tends to talk mainly about science and related topics, not electoral politics. This kind of article is likely to be damaging to the NR’s political project. It just makes them and their supporters look like anti-intellectuals who rather keep people uninformed if giving them information might lead them to the wrong political opinions. Apparently, the NR may have more in common with Communism (of the Cultural Revolution/Khmer Rouge type) than they realize.