Wrong On The Internet

Just when I thought the Weinstein/Einstein kerfuffle had wound down, it seems to have decided to go another round.  Jennifer Ouellette updated her commentary with more good sense (including links to my earlier post – thanks!)  Peter Woit also weighed in, linking the Weinstein circus to some of his previous commentary. Woit’s question was why extensive news coverage of another Oxford event — a talk by Laura Mersini-Houghton on apparent observational evidence for a multiverse — did not provoke a similar outcry.  

Here it is in The Australian (possibly paywalled — but google for it, as it was widely reproduced) and I was asked about it by people who had seen it online and wanted to know if it was “really true”.  Mersini-Houghton’s paper has been around for a while; it claims that anomalously cold spots in the microwave background and large flows in the distribution of galaxies are evidence that our “universe” interacted with other parts of a multiverse immediately after the Big Bang. The abstract contains the memorable phrase

Placed in this context, the discovery of the bulk flow by Kashlinsky et al. becomes even more interesting as it may provide a probe of the preinflationary physics and a window onto the landscape multiverse.

— http://arxiv.org/pdf/0810.5388.pdf [Note the published version has a more circumspect abstract, but retains strong claims in the text.]

‚ÄčTestable signatures of the “multiverse” are clearly newsworthy, so it is hard to fault the media for running the story.  Beyond the technical arguments, however, an immediate problem is that “dark flow” — large scale motions of galaxies coherent on scales of a billion light years or more — as claimed by Kashlinsky and others has always been regarded with skepticism, so it has never made sense to speak of its “discovery”.  

Moreover, other analyses failed to detect any anomalous large scale flow and the recent Planck results appear to rule it out with even greater confidence.  Kashlinsky is holding on, but it looks to be an increasingly quixotic mission for him and his collaborators.  And if dark flow really constitutes evidence for a multiverse, the absence of anomalous dark flow in our universe is, at best, a null result.

So Woit is right that the media coverage of the multiverse story left a lot to be desired. Woit may also be objecting to the idea multiverse itself, and there we would part company — many otherwise testable cosmological theories seem to imply the possible existence of a “multiverse” and cosmologists have a duty to follow their ideas wherever they may lead. As for the du Sautoy story, though, the objection was not that it was bad journalism, since du Sautoy is not a journalist — he gets to blog at the Guardian because he is a scientist, and publicly hyping work his colleagues have not seen is bad science

Weinstein himself will be talking again at Oxford today.  He is  steamed about the contretemps, if his twitter feed is anything to go by. What’s more, it looks like we might be waiting a while for the paper, since revolutionizing science is “just a […] hobby”.  Hopefully that will help everyone keep things in perspective. 


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