Friday, 14 October 2016

A new low in tabloid science reporting

Every now and then I have to sit down and breathe deeply when seeing a tabloid science headline that is about as far as the truth as is possible. Usually such headlines use a kind of bait and switch mechanism where the headline proclaims something dramatic, but the article makes much weaker claims, or points out that most scientists think this is a load of tosh. (Even New Scientist rather likes doing this.) But the Daily Express has come up with an outright winner where the article backs up the headline with a story that bears little resemblance to science as we know it.

Let's see if we can spot what's a little iffy with this 'Scientists discover what existed BEFORE the beginning of the universe' article:
  1. Scientists have not 'discovered' anything. That means finding something. What has happened is someone has come up with a model that produces these results. It's a bit like confusing having a business plan with being a billionaire.
  2. We read in the article 'they discovered what came before this universe was.. another universe or more accurately another "cosmological phase".' See above re what a discovery is. In reality they've made an educated guess based on a model.
  3. But best of all, we read 'Despite being infinite in size our universe is cyclical and has always existed in one of four stages.' Whoa - Paul Baldwin, the writer of this piece seems to know an awful lot the rest of us don't. We don't know the universe is infinite, we don't know it's cyclical and we don't know it has always existed in one of four stages. The rest - 'Despite' - is true.
When we get on to quotes from the scientists involved it all settles down. All they talk about is their model, not the universe itself. They point out their model avoids singularities, which is a nice to have (though hardly unique).

So, as a guide for intrepid tabloid hacks, here's the main thing to remember. A model is just that. To say that universe is like X because someone has a model of it is like saying a child can destroy Westminster Abbey by standing on it, because someone built a model of the abbey out of matchsticks and that's what happened when a child stood on the model.

Let me finish off with that sentence again, because it fascinates me. It has all the attraction of a slow motion traffic accident. 'Despite being infinite in size our universe is cyclical and has always existed in one of four stages.' Wow.

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