Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Hype, BICEP2, and all that.

It's been a few years since I've written a post slamming some piece of hype about nanoscience.  In part, I decided that all this-is-hype posts start to sound the same and therefore weren't worth making unless the situation was truly egregious or somehow otherwise special.  In part, I also felt like I was preaching to the choir, so to speak.  That being said, I think the recent dustup over the BICEP2 experiment is worth mentioning, as an object lesson.   
  • If the BICEP2 collaboration had only posted their paper on the arxiv and said that the validity of their interpretation depended on further checks of the background by, e.g., the PLANCK collaboration, no one would have batted an eye.  They could have said that they were excited but cautious, and that, too, would have been fine.  
  • Where they (in my view) crossed the line is when they orchestrated a major media extravaganza around their results, including showing up at Andre Linde's house and filming his reaction on being told about the data.  Sure, they were excited, but it seems pretty clear that they went well beyond the norm in terms of trying to whip up attention and recognition.
  • While not catastrophic for science or anything hyperbolic like that by itself, this is just another of the death-by-1000-cuts events that erodes public confidence in science.  "Why believe what scientists say?  They drum up attention all the time, and then turn out to be wrong!  That's why low fat diets were good for me before they were bad for me!"
  • Bottom line:  If you are thinking of staging a press conference and a big announcement before your paper has even been sent out to referees, please do us all a favor and think again. 


Don Monroe said...

Quite so.

The cold-fusion folks got a lot of grief for "publication by press conference." I'm not sure I see any meaningful difference here (except that those guys were (shudder) chemists.

Douglas Natelson said...

Don, well, that's a bit harsh to the BICEP2 folks. Pons and Fleischmann were clearly out of their depth (e.g., electrochemists trying to make claims about difficult calorimetry). The BICEP2 folks didn't screw up the measurement - they just took the most optimistic possible interpretation.

Don Monroe said...

Sure, but how do we know who is out of their depth when they bypass peer review and go straight to the press? The next gatekeepers are the science journalists, but although several stories included expert comments like "If this result is confirmed..." the journalists still couldn't resist the tantalizing spin that the authors put on it. I suspect that is the message that the vast majority of readers took away.

In the end, as you say, the episode has damaged the credibility of all science in the eyes of the public. And why? So the BICEP2 folks could scoop their competitors at Planck? Shame on them.

Their backdoor use of Planck data that they did not understand is another unseemly aspect of this. Not that behavior like that is new, of course. It recalls Watson and Crick's unauthorized use of Rosalind Franklin's data to deduce the double helix. Except they were right.

Anonymous said...

When I first heard the news, I looked at the CVs of the guys, and also at the paper and author list. I found that they were exclusively American, not a single European coauthor (except for one low-Temp Grenoble guy). I find that this is a RECENT hallmark of SOME American Science, that young, aspiring postdocs and assistant professors step forward, cross all scientific integrity boundaries, and push papers through, either into the media before being peer-reviewed, or launching them into high-impact journals. Those groups often have some Science or NATURE publications, but would hardly make it into PRL, where no editor pushes in the background, but bare peer reviewing takes place. The fact that the BICEP-2 paper appeared in PRL was an exception, as stated in the editorial by PRL. In the past, the PRL staff rejected even Nobel prize worthy stuff, e.g., the quantum hall effect paper of Klitzing, Dorda, Pepper, was first rejected. Now they seem to crave so much for publishing apparently Nobel prize worthy stuff that they throw overboard all rules and foundations of peer review AND good science.

You wonder, Doug, why some of the research topics you mentioned are mostly home to Europe? Because those are fields that will probably not cause that kind of hype as the US research causes. Everything has to be Nobel prize worthy or has to have an immediate application or an impact on society. Research for the gain of knowledge seems to be outdate. With that attitude, someone who would want to develop machines to attach the retina to the back of the eye after it had become detached would never have funded fundamental microwave research, which led to the MASER, which led to the LASER, which is now the tool of choice for doing just that.

Anonymous said...

Now the BICEP2 interpretation is officially dead:


Lack of thorough screening by the leading authors, and lack of proper exerimental physics behavior, in my humble opinion. The lead authors should be stigmatized in the future for this, and not be lauded as in "oh, at least they tried".