Scientific hype? Surely not!

I was excited to find a letter of mine in this week’s New Scientist!

The BICEP2 station at the South Pole, which made the observations.

The BICEP2 station at the South Pole, which made the observations. (Photo from here)

Three weeks ago, there was massive fanfare about a major cosmological discovery. A telescope based near the South Pole had been surveying the cosmic microwave background, which is the fading echo of the Big Bang. Although the observations (described here) are impressive, it struck me that the interpretation being put on them was premature and over-hyped.

When the New Scientist reported the story, instead of giving a balanced account, they accentuated the hype further by trumpeting it as a confirmation of the multiverse (which it isn’t). I therefore wrote a letter “as a church minister with an astrophysics background”, which they published this week (and which I nearly missed!). Here’s the full letter (the published one is slightly shorter):

Dear New Scientist,

The potential confirmation of both gravitational waves and inflation is understandably exciting – but I have been very disappointed by the over-hyped coverage in the media generally. I had hoped that New Scientist would be able to give a sober assessment of the observations and their interpretation – instead, you have chosen to sensationalise it still further by talking it up as a confirmation of the multiverse (22 March, pp8-10, ‘Ripples of the multiverse’).

As a church minister with an astrophysics background, I am in the unusual position of having a number of friends who believe in 6-day creationism. I frequently find myself having to defend both the science of a multi-billion year universe, and the integrity of the scientific process. I argue that science is not inherently anti-God, even if some scientists are; and that scientific results are subject to rigorous scrutiny and not subject to spin and hype. You will therefore understand why I find the New Scientist’s treatment of this discovery most disappointing.

More sober discussion has been provided by Professor Peter Coles in his ‘In the dark’ blog, who regards confirmation at another frequency as a minimum requirement, and points out some oddities in the data. It would have been helpful if New Scientist had been able to include something similar. It is not long ago that great excitement was generated by the apparent discovery of […] neutrinos [going faster than the speed of light] – until it was discovered that there was an un-noticed calibration error, and the result was retracted. The difficulty of extracting the gravitational wave signal from the CMB data suggests that such a retraction could happen here.

Yours sincerely,
Rev Dr Rich Tweedy

Since then, there has already been a research paper that suggests the signals could be galactic in origin rather than cosmological (here). The observations merit close scrutiny from those qualified to do so – but the hype ultimately does no-one any favours.

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