The worst science journalism ever?

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Here at Language Log, we've been known to complain from time to time about language-related reporting in the popular press.  But a couple of days ago, when I clicked on a link in the science section of Google News and hit John Brandon's "Freaky Physics Proves Parallel Universes Exist", Fox News, 4/5/2010, I was reminded that things could be worse.

Look past the details of a wonky discovery by a group of California scientists — that a quantum state is now observable with the human eye — and consider its implications: Time travel may be feasible. Doc Brown would be proud.

The strange discovery by quantum physicists at the University of California Santa Barbara means that an object you can see in front of you may exist simultaneously in a parallel universe — a multi-state condition that has scientists theorizing that traveling through time may be much more than just the plaything of science fiction writers.

A bit of web search turned up Matt Springer's blog post "The Worst Physics Article Ever", which confirmed my reaction:

Every word in the title is wrong but "physics". It's not freaky, doesn't prove anything we didn't already know, and has nothing to do with parallel universes nor does it shed any light [on] the question of their possible existence. […]

I know complaining about science journalism is a staple around ScienceBlogs, but really this is just astonishing malpractice. This would be an embarrassment in a Star Trek episode. For it to appear in a news story is beyond words.


  1. John Lawler said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 10:05 am

    As to why it's so bad, consider the source.

    [(myl) I'd feel better about blaming this on Faux News if I were confident that (oh, for example) BBC News was any better.]

    But, just coming off a major SF convention, I really appreciate the description of how bad it is as "This would be an embarrassment in a Star Trek episode."

  2. Chris said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

    Speaking of the BBC and linguistics, here's a recent article whose title fails to match up with the content: Why machines do not understand human speech.

    It's not that the article is wrong per se, it's just so vacuous it tells us nothing about the current state of NLP or future directions. So little content is provided, I wonder why they bothered to write the story at all. Is the BBC just trying to fill space?

    [(myl) That article is indeed amazingly empty. It also displays an odd editorial choice of illustrative photo — a standard PC user (no microphone in sight) who looks like she's about to vomit.]

  3. [links] Link salad can check out any time it wants, but it can never leave | said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 12:56 pm

    […] The worst science journalism ever? […]

  4. Aaron Davies said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 1:12 pm

    @chris: "all the news that fits, we print" (not remotely original to me, of course)

  5. Mr Punch said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 1:24 pm

    Fortunately, the author can just go back and fix it before we see it.

  6. Chris said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

    @myl, that photo creeped the hell outta me. I had to look away.

    @aaron, cute, and apropos

  7. Army1987 said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 2:04 pm

    Ok, let's read that… "a quantum state is now observable with the human eye": and I thought that *any* way of observing a quantum state would collapse it. But… "dimmed the lights"; OK, here's why it didn't collapse, but I wasn't aware that the human eye could observe things in the dark.

    Also, aren't they trying to use several interpretation of QM at once. ("Your Honor, I will show first, that my client never borrowed the Ming vase from the plaintiff; second, that he returned the vase in perfect condition; and third, that the crack was already present when he borrowed it.")

  8. Army1987 said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 2:08 pm

    Also "Krikalev time-traveled to the future — and back again" — back again???

  9. Joe said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 2:10 pm

    That's no standard PC user! That's David Walliams from Little Britain. Computer says no… classic.

    Google search


    [(myl) OK, I completely missed this, living as I do in a place where Little Britain is not available on TV. But I should have known that such an unusual-looking person must be a cultural reference, not a stock photo…

    We've covered (the BBC's coverage of) Vicky Pollard in the past — but of course without any real depth of knowledge. Are all the female characters on that show played by men?]

  10. Joe said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 2:12 pm

    Oops, I messed up that YouTube link. Here it is. Enjoy.

  11. Robert said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

    The picture in the BBC article is of David Walliams as a character in the desperately humour-impaired (BBC) sketch show Little Britain. This character's catchphrase is "Computer says no".

  12. D.O. said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 4:00 pm

    There is nothing unusual with quantum effects observed by naked eye. Just search for superconductor levitation. Heck, just usual refrigirator magnet is working on quantum principles, search for ferromagnetism, though I am not sure that the last example can persuade anybody, no that it should.

  13. Stephen Jones said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 5:38 pm

    That article is indeed amazingly empty. It also displays an odd editorial choice of illustrative photo — a standard PC user (no microphone in sight) who looks like she's about to vomit.Perhaps she's just read the article.

    It's not so much that it's empty; it just confuses entirely different things such as the problems in Natural Language Processing with the problems with speech recognition (including background noise!).

  14. Peter Taylor said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 6:11 pm

    @myl: no, but most of the characters are played by two men.

  15. Non-sequitur, just before bedtime... said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 6:47 pm

    "Richard Gott, a physicist at Princeton University, says Krikalev aged 1/48th of a second less than the rest of us because he orbited at very high speeds. And to age less than someone means you've jumped into the future […]."

    Then again, maybe it was the super-purified artificial atmosphere and aseptic conditions inside his space capsule that prevented aging in his case.

  16. Non-sequitur, just before bedtime... said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 6:51 pm

    By the same token, if he hadn't undergone re-entry at all, why, he might be living light years ahead of everyone else, still, ha ha!

  17. Chris said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 7:14 pm

    FYI, Little Britain is available via Netflix online.

  18. Matt McIrvin said,

    April 10, 2010 @ 7:59 pm

    For what it's worth, I get the impression that conditions on long-term space missions like Krikalev's are generally about the opposite of aseptic.

    I'm not sure this article is the worst ever–a lot of things printed in New Scientist could give it a run for its money. But it's up there.

  19. Dierk said,

    April 11, 2010 @ 3:44 am

    I still think the worst in "scientific" journalism surrounds the Large Hadron Collider.

  20. MattF said,

    April 11, 2010 @ 8:29 am

    FWIW, 'quantum effects visible to the naked eye' includes just about all of solid-state electronics. Transistors, lasers, LEDs, magnets, light sensors– would all be just so many little rocks with itty-bitty arcane inscriptions if it wasn't for the consequences of many-particle quantum statistics.

  21. Brett said,

    April 11, 2010 @ 10:38 am

    @MattF– If it weren't for many-particle quantum statistics, no macroscopic matter would exist. It is actually very hard to identify any everyday phenomenon which is not fundamentally quantum.

  22. Sunday Starlinks said,

    April 11, 2010 @ 7:31 pm

    […] The worst science journalism ever? (Doubt it, but a good candidate!) […]

  23. Fluxor said,

    April 12, 2010 @ 10:36 am

    As an Ottawa Senators fan, I quite enjoyed Matt Spring's hockey reference:

    It's a category error on the scale of a reporter watching the Ottawa Senators play hockey and writing an article claiming they were the new lawmaking body of Canada.

  24. Fluxor said,

    April 12, 2010 @ 10:37 am

    Excuse the typo…I meant Matt Springer, of course.

  25. Dan T. said,

    April 13, 2010 @ 8:06 am

    Deciding political issues by playing hockey might not be any worse that some of the other methods that are currently used. It's certainly a lot more conducive to having a decisive result than, for instance, a filibuster.

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