When I was a kid I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy stories. Both create a world in which the impossible becomes possible. Still, the fictional logic should be without contradictions. The biggest annoyances are mistakes of the author, a plot that doesn’t make sense, a scenario that is inconsistent. Why didn’t they just use the transmitter? Time travel stories were always the worst.
For a good story the imaginary world is based on only a few modifications: Our memory can be stored on a chip and transferred to another person. We can breed dinosaurs. We can travel to a parallel world; shield gravity; slow time. Big brother is watching us. We have a worldwide communications network. We can travel faster than the speed of light. IMAGINE!
In many cases, science fiction writers have predicted technological advances that later became true. Science and fiction have always been closely linked. In contrast to science which is about the possible, the imagination is unconstrained, and free to make a 'could' into 'will', thereby creating a new world.
|Virtual ‘reality’ has promoted fictional worlds to a new level. Video games can break the laws of nature, photo editing and three dimensional pictures tamper with our perception of reality, computer animated movies make the impossible possible. Today, everybody can publish his or her interpretation of the world. Einstein was wrong! Hijacked by an alien! A new quantum mechanics! Consciousness is the tenth dimension! A giant Mandala explains the elementary particles! The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise, and it's turtles all the way down.|
Does it matter whether it is fact or fantasy as long as it is entertaining? Does it matter whether it is science or fiction as long as visitors click on the advertisement banners? Does it matter whether it is virtual or reality? If your first one is too boring, why don't you just get a SecondLife?
"Around 1900, most inventions concerned physical reality: cars, airplanes, zeppelins, electric lights, vacuum cleaners, air conditioners, bras, zippers. In 2005, most inventions concern virtual entertainment — the top 10 patent-recipients are usually IBM, Matsushita, Canon, Hewlett-Packard, Micron Technology, Samsung, Intel, Hitachi, Toshiba, and Sony — not Boeing, Toyota, or Wonderbra. We have already shifted from a reality economy to a virtual economy, from physics to psychology as the value-driver and resource-allocator."
Science is done for the society we live in. Communicating our research, within and outside the community, is an essential part of our job. I am very happy to see that physics - even the theoretical side! - recently receives an increasing amount of attention in the broader public. I am all in favor of popular science books (even though these simplifications sometimes make me grind my teeth), and I think PI is doing an absolutely great job with its public outreach program. I am not sure how much influence blogs have in this regard, but I hope they contribute their share to making the ivory tower a little less detached.
The result of this trend is twofold.
First, scientists have to live with simplified and generalized statements, and with a lack of details. I hope on the long run people will become more familiar with some basic concepts and the standard can be raised. I guess that many people don’t understand the details of the stock market or tax systems, but that doesn’t scare them from reading about it in the newspapers. Likewise, everybody who writes about theoretical physics should learn how to use an equation editor. The myth that every equation lowers the accessibility for the reader is a result of cowardice and unfamiliarity. Scientific journalism could provide significantly more content than today. But still, scientists will have to learn how to live with unqualified commentaries, much like writers have to live with reviews by people who have no clue about literature.
Second, it seems that science, much as art, becomes a hobby. Some hobby artists believe they are actually the new Pollock, and their paintings belong in the Museum of Modern Arts. Some hobby scientists believe they are actually the new Einstein, and their theory belongs in PRD. Yes, it might be that occasionally there is a true talent to find there, but mostly it’s just splashing color on a canvas. Scientists have yet to learn how to deal with the attention of the interested layman. However, this problem is greatly amplified by the first point. Oversimplification in the media leaves people with the impression a PhD is a hoax, and our education unnecessary. Hey, the surfer dude can do it. Theoretical physics seems to be a specifically easy and appealing target.
Natural sciences are about describing nature. As a theoretical physicist I see my task as contributing to the understanding of the world that we live in. However, I - as many of my colleagues - have fun with wild speculations. Call it a brain exercise. What would the world look like if the parameters in the standard model were different? If there were additional dimensions? If the elementary particles were composite? If particles could jump non-locally in no time? Eventually however, we have to constrain ourselves to the reality we live in.
Theoretical physics explores the unknown, and goes beyond the limits of our current knowledge. We play around with ideas and examine their consequences in the hope of finding out how nature works. This might sound like there is an awful lot of freedom in such doing, but this is not the case. It is science, not fiction, because we have to make sure these ideas are not in conflict with the reality we observe. We have to make sure theories are internally consistent, and in agreement with what we already know. If you think this is easy, you have no idea what you are talking about. It’s like saying Miro just smeared color on a canvas, can’t be that hard to do.
Unfortunately, I have the impression that the tendency in theoretical physics is to make wilder and wilder speculations, to throw several of them together, to work out details of still unconfirmed ideas. Stories that are interesting in some regard, but increasingly detached from reality.
- The first point in my referee reports is insisting the author changes ‘will’ into ‘may’ and ‘does’ into ‘could’. You call that nitpicking? I call that the difference between science and fiction.
In many cases, the assumptions underlying such speculations are clear for those working in the field, but often not very well documented in publications. The combination of this tendency with the media can be disastrous. In popular science articles, the speculative character of theories is often poorly laid out. For one, because it might not be apparent to the journalist, but also because caution seems to be interpreted as just adding boring details.
The result is a blurring of the boundary between science and fiction.
“We are faced with all kinds of questions to which we would like unequivocal answers […] There is a huge pressure on scientists to provide concrete answers […] But the temptation to frame these debates in terms of certainty is fraught with danger. Certainty is an unforgiving taskmaker. […] If we are honest and say the scientists conclusions aren’t certain, we may find this being used as justification for doing nothing, or even to allow wiggle room for the supernatural to creep back in again. If we pretend we’re certain when we are not, we risk being unmasked as liars.”
If you want to witness science in the making, you will have to face there are no easy answers. There are pros and cons, and differing opinions. If they care about it at all, journalists seem happy if two persons provide the extremes; candidates that are naïve or stupid enough to either call things fabulous or nonsense, instead of making matters complicated. It seems to be enormously difficult to understand that even scientists change their mind, or feel torn into different directions as long as a situation is not entirely clarified. Indeed, it seems to be so difficult to grasp that a simple mind might insist a scientist who can allow for different alternatives is not one person, but two.
It doesn't sound easy to write a good and balanced article, does it? Well, that's why journalists have an eduction. It's their job to figure out the facts and present them in an accessible way, and luckily there are a number of very good science journalists out there. Unfortunately, often an inital article gets copied and watered down a hundred times with decreasing content and increasing headlines. I can understand it must be difficult to write about science without working in the field, but I am not willing to excuse arbitrarily cheap echoing and copying, deliberate omittances and polarizations of facts for the sake of catchy titles. Reporting on science in the making comes necessarily with uncertainties. If you can't cope with that stick to last century's headlines.
“Uncertainty, in the presence of vivid hopes and fears, is painful, but must be endured if we wish to live without the support of comforting fairy tales.”~ Bertram Russell
The hype of science in the media just reflects a general trend caused by information overflow. In today's world you have to scream really loud to be heard at all, and headlines are the better the fatter. I generally dislike this, as it leads to inaccurate reporting, unnecessary confusion, and bubbles of nothing. All of which obscures sensible discussions and is a huge waste of time.
However, despite this general trend, what worries me specifically about popular science reporting is how much our community seems to pay attention to it. This is a very unhealthy development. The opinion making process in science should not be affected by popular opinions. It should not be relevant whether somebody makes for a good story in the media, or whether he or she neglects advertising himself. What concerns me is not so much the media re-re-repeating fabulous sentences, but how many physicists get upset about it. This clearly indicates that they think this public discussion is relevant, and this should not be the case.
Concerns about the public opinion arise from the fear it might affect the funding of some research areas. But it's not the media who creates fashions and hypes who is to blame. Neither is it the scientists who are not careful enough when talking to journalists who are to blame. To blame is everybody who tolerates that the funding in science is subject to irrelevant factors.
It seems to me that scientists, as well as funding agencies, urgently need to learn how to deal with such popularizations. I have written previously about the dangers on the "Marketplace of Ideas": The more attention scientists (have to) pay to advertising themselves because they believe it might help their career, the more the objectivity of scientific discussions suffers. The more time scientists (have to) spend with irrelevant distractions for the sake of their career, the less time they have for research. That's the reality we do our research in ? - !
My concerns about science journalism are similar. I believe that freedom of the press is one of the most important ingredients for a well functioning democracy. Free not only to write without censorship, but free to write without being influenced by lobbyism and financial pressure. The necessity to write what sells promotes cheap and large headlines, premature reporting, extreme polarization, and goes on the expenses of content and quality. It causes people to uncritically echo and copy stories because it’s fast and easy whereas research requires time and effort. The harder it becomes to sell print versions, the worse the situation becomes because online the clocks tick even faster.
- Is the the goal of good writing that visitors click on the advertisement banner?
Information is precious. It is one of the most important goods in our modern society. Each time one of us spreads inaccurate information we contribute to confusion and hinder progress. Whether a scientist, a journalist, an editor, or a blogger: what we say, write, and promote publicly, is in our responsibility.
We are all human. Bloggers get overenthusiastic, write before they think, and make mistakes. Scientists say stupid things, speak before they think, and make mistakes. Journalists misunderstand, publish before anybody else thinks, and make mistakes. Deliberate repetition turns mistakes into lies.
The triangle of Science, Society and Information Technology noticeably affects our daily lifes. In the absence of any sensible way to cope with side-effects, the very least we can do is to be aware of the developments and find out how to deal with them.