Saturday, November 01, 2014

Bad science reporting

You may have noticed that I indulge a hobby of looking up the actual journal articles behind some science headlines to see what's really happening. This tends to leave one frustrated with the "oh look a squirrel" reporting culture, and with a strong suspicion that most reporters not only don't know anything, but they don't have a clue how to investigate a story either. On the other hand, the net makes it relatively easy to discover the truth about claims that in earlier decades would have simply gone unchallenged: "Cronkite said it so it must be gospel."

A Czech named Lubos Motl does the same in a much more dramatic way from time to time: here he takes apart sloppy reports about an experiment in quantum mechanical effects in helium bubbles. Motl is a colorful (some say infamous) string theorist with strong opinions about Russia (he likes it), climate change (the current fashion is a con), political correctness (hates it), and string theory (only fools doubt it). Since academia tends to be leftist, he rubs some people the wrong way.

I'm an experimentalist, btw, and I think a reasonable test of the string theory paradigm is to let a bunch of very smart people have at it for about 20 years and see if they come up with any predictions. So far, zip--so I respectfully suggest that the test has failed, though it has resulted in some great advances in math that I don't understand. Yes, I understand that it predicts supersymmetry, which gets rid of some nasty theoretical issues in a very simple way--but decades of searching for SUSY particles only found limits. That's nice for giving grad students a thesis, but after a while you start to wonder if there's really a pony in there.

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