Categories
Scicomm

UCal Irvine’s ‘fifth force’ farce

A screenshot of the UCI press release in question. Source: UCI
A screenshot of the UCI press release in question. Source: UCI

Michael Moyer just concluded a rant on Twitter (at the time of writing this) about how a press release on a recent theoretical physics result developed at the University of California, Irvine, had muddled up coverage on an important experimental particle physics result. I was going to write about this in detail for The Wire but my piece eventually took a different route, so I’m going to put some of my thoughts down on the UCI fuck-up here.

Let’s begin with some background: In April 2015, a team of nuclear physicists from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (Atomki) announced that they had found an anomalous decay mode of an unstable beryllium-8 isotope. They contended in their paper, eventually published in Physical Review Letters in January 2016, that the finding had no explanation in nuclear physics. A team of American physicists – from the University of California, Irvine, and the University of Kentucky, Lexington – picked up on this paper and tried to draw up a theory that would (a) explain this anomaly even as it (b) would be a derivative of existing theoretical knowledge (as is the work of most theoretical physics operating at the edge). There are many ways to do this: the UCI-UKL conclusion was a theory that suggested the presence of a new kind of boson, hitherto undiscovered, which mediated the beryllium-8 decay to give rise to the anomalous result observed at Atomki.

Now, the foreground: A UCI press release announcing the development of the theory by its scientists had a headline that said the Atomki anomalous result had been “confirmed” at UCI. This kicked off a flurry of pieces in the media about how a ‘fifth force’ of nature had been found (which is what the discovery of a new boson would imply), that all of physics had been overturned, etc. But the press release’s claim was clearly stupid. It was published no more than a week after the particle physics community found out that the December 2015 digamma bump at the LHC was shown to be a glitch in the data, when the community was making peace with the fact that no observation was final until it had been confirmed with the necessary rigour even if physicists had come up with over 500 theoretical explanations for it. The release was also stupid because it blatantly defied (somewhat) common sense: how could a theoretical model built to fit the experimental data “confirm” the experimental data itself?

There’s even a paragraph in there that makes it sound like the particle’s been found! (My comments are in square brackets and all emphasis has been added:)

The UCI work demonstrates [misleading use] that instead of being a dark photon, the particle may be a “protophobic X boson.” While the normal electric force acts on electrons and protons, this newfound [the thing hasn’t been found!] boson [a boson is simply one interpretation of the experimental finding] interacts only with electrons and neutrons – and at an extremely limited range. Analysis co-author Timothy Tait, professor of physics & astronomy, said, “There’s no other boson that we’ve observed that has this same characteristic. [Does this mean UCI has actually observed this particular boson?] Sometimes we also just call it the ‘X boson,’ where ‘X’ means unknown.”

Moyer says in one of his tweets that PR machines will always try to hype results, outcomes, etc. – this is true, and journalists who don’t cut through this hype often end up writing flattering articles devoid of criticism (effectively missing the point about their profession, so to speak). However, as far as I’m concerned, what the UCI PR has done is not build hype as much as grossly mislead journalists, and I blame the machine in this case more than the journalists who wrote the “fifth force found” headlines. Journalism is already facing a credibility crisis in many parts of the world without having to look out for misguided press releases from universities of the calibre of UCI. Yes, such easily disturbed qualities are also often trusted by journalists, or anyone else, because we trust institutional authorities to take such qualities seriously themselves.

(Another such quality is ‘reputation’. Nicholas Dirks just quit because his actions had messed with the reputation of UCal Berkeley.)

This is a problem exacerbated by the fact that journalism also has a hard time producing – and subsequently selling – articles about particle physics. Everyone understands that the high-energy physics (HEP) community is significantly invested in maintaining a positive perception of their field, one that encourages governments to fund the construction of mammoth detectors and colliders. One important way to maintain this perception is to push for favourable coverage in the mainstream media of HEP research and keep the people – the principal proxy for government support – thinking about HEP activities for the right reasons. The media, in turn, can’t always commission pieces on all topics nor can it manufacture the real estate even if it has the perfect stories; every piece has to fight it out. And in crunch times, science stories are the first to get the axe; many mainstream Indian publications don’t even bother with a proper science section.*

If, in this context, a journalist buys into a UCI press release about some kind of ‘confirmation’ of a fifth force, and which is subsequently found to be simply false, an editor wouldn’t be faced with a tough choice whatsoever about which section she has to axe.

What happens next? We wait for experimental physicists try to replicate the Atomki anomaly in experiments around the world. If nothing else, this must happen because the Atomki team has published claims of having discovered a new particle at least twice before – in 2008 and 2012 – both at a significance upwards of 3 sigma (i.e., the chances of the results being a fluke being 1 in 200,000). This is a statistical threshold accepted by the particle physics community and which signifies the point at which a piece of data becomes equivalent to being evidence. However, the problem with the Atomki results is that both papers announcing the discoveries were later retracted by the scientists, casting all their claims of statistical validity in doubt. The April 2015 result was obtained with a claimed significance of 6.8 sigma.

*Even The Hindu’s science page that used to appear every Thursday in the main newspaper was shunted last year to appear every Monday in one of its supplements. It never carried ads.

Categories
Life notes Science

‘Infinite in All Directions’, a science newsletter

At 10 am (IST) every Monday, I will be sending out a list of links to science stories from around the web, curated by significance and accompanied by a useful blurb, as a newsletter. If you’re interested, please sign up here. If you’d like to know more before signing up, read on.

It’s called Infinite in All Directions – a term coined by Freeman Dyson for nothing really except the notion behind this statement from his book of the same name: “No matter how far we go into the future, there will always be new things happening, new information coming in, new worlds to explore, a constantly expanding domain of life, consciousness and memory.”

I will be collecting the links and sending the newsletter out on behalf of The Wire, whose science section I edit. And so, you can trust the links to not be to esoteric pieces (which I’m fond of) but to pieces I’d have liked to have covered at The Wire but couldn’t.

More than that, the idea for the newsletter is essentially a derivative of a reading challenge a friend proposed a while ago: wherein a group of us would recommend books for each other to read, especially titles that we might not come upon by ourselves.

Some of you might remember that a (rather, the same) friend and I used to send out the Curious Bends newsletter until sometime last year. The Infinite in All Directions newsletter will be similarly structured but won’t necessarily be India-centric. In fact, a (smaller than half) section of the newsletter may even be consistently skewed toward the history and philosophy of science. But you can trust that the issues will all be contemporary.

Apart from my ‘touch’ coming through with the selection, I will also occasionally include my take on some topics (typically astro/physics). You’re welcome to disagree (just be nice) – all replies to the newsletter will land up in my inbox. You’re also more than welcome to send me links to include in future issues.

Finally: Each newsletter will not have a fixed number of links – I don’t want to link you to pieces I myself haven’t been able to appreciate. At the same time, there will be at least five or so links. I think The Wire alone puts out that many good stories each week.

I hope you enjoy reading the newsletter. As with this blog, Infinite in All Directions will be a labour of love. Please share it with your friends and anybody who might be interested in such a service. Again, here is the link to subscribe.

Categories
Science

Curious Bends – outraged warriors, bizarre obsessions, dubious drugs and more

It’s been one year since we launched Curious Bends – a newsletter where we bring you science, technology, data and India stories from around the web, once a week (subscribe).

We’ve enjoyed serving you important and interesting stories. Thank you for being loyal subscribers!

Anniversaries are a good time to reflect. Help us do that and improve what we do by taking this two-minute survey. We respect your privacy, so the option to tell us who you are is up to you (but we’d LOVE to know).

Starting this week, the newsletter has a new home at The Wire.

1. India’s bizarre, fascinating and occasionally horrifying obsession with urine

“Urine is one of those perennially surfacing topics in Indian media and it is difficult for a year to go by without multiple references to urine, whether of humans, cows, rhinos, tigers or elephants, of the diseased or undiseased kind, medical therapies, recipes for consumption and more. As a nation, we are obsessed.” (6 min read, scroll.in)

2. India has more illiterates than anywhere in the world—partly because of a preference for sons

“An extra child—which is likely had to have a trophy son—in the family reduces schooling, on average, by 0.1 years. Furthermore, that extra child reduces the probability of ever attending or being enrolled in school by up to 2%. Both numbers may seem small, but for the size of India’s young population, the upshot is that millions don’t go to school enough or at all.” (3 min read, qz.com)

3. Why Indians aren’t outraged about climate change

“Astonishingly, the intensification of political activity has not led to a wider engagement with what is self-evidently the single greatest threat that humanity has ever faced: climate change. This is understandably a matter of despair for the activists and scientists who have been battling to warn the world about what lies ahead. Their mounting anguish and frustration at the world’s continuing indifference is itself an instructive commentary on our institutions and the myths they are built upon. Many scientists and activists have gone from combativeness to rage and then to a quiet resignation in the face of what they now believe to be an inescapable catastrophe – or rather a series of catastrophes which will consume tens, if not hundreds, of millions of lives.” (6 min read, thewire.in)

+ The author, Amitav Ghosh, is a celebrated Indian writer whose work in English fiction has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

4. World Health Statistics 2015: some achievements, many concerns

“The World Health Organization (WHO), on Wednesday, released this year’s World Health Statistics (WHS) which evaluate achievements in health with respect to targets set as part of the MDGs. While WHS lists some landmark accomplishments reported in the 15 years since the beginning of the global programme, the overall results have been a mixed bag with great variations between regions and countries.” (7 min read, downtoearth.org.in)

5. Most antidepressant drug combos in India are unapproved

“The health of 120 million patients in India is in jeopardy because of the proliferation in the past decade of unapproved and unregulated combination drugs commonly used as anti-inflammatory, antidepressant and anti-psychotic medication, a new study has found. The research findings are especially troubling for people who are depressed because 8-in-10 antidepressant and 7-in-10 anti-psychotic combination drugs in India don’t have the proper approval. Worldwide, depression has already taken over as the leading cause of disability but its treatment in India is largely unregulated.” (4 min read, thewire.in)

Chart of the Week

In the past year, Curious Bends has shared a total of 212 stories with you from 69 different sources. Of course, our selection is biased because of the places we read most. However, our effort to spread the net broad has showed us that the state of science journalism for India-related stories is not nearly as poor as we had thought going in. The problem is that, while there are a lot of sources that publish good stories that fit our criteria, they don’t do it consistently enough. That’s why we find curating these good stories worth our effort, and it is reinforced by the fact that so many people have subscribed to this newsletter.

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Categories
Scicomm

Science journalism as an institutional undertaking

“The paper has been through many financial crises and Science Times has not been affected.” These were the words of David Corcoran, Editor, NYT Science Times, who’d dropped by my NYU SHERP class today for a short presentation and some Q&A. David said that in response to the question “How easy or difficult is it to make money off the science section on nytimes.com and the newspaper?” that I’d asked him. His reply in full went like this:

Not something the Times has been worried out. Going back to 1978 [when Science Times was launched], the paper was facing a lot of pressure. The top management came up with publishing special sections every day and the hope was to attract more advertising. [Once the other days were decided,] There was a question about what to do about Tuesday. There was a lively debate between the news and business sides. The business side wanted fashion but the top news editors said that’s not The New York Times and they came up with the idea of a science section. They knew it wouldn’t be a big money maker – it never has been. We have a big ad on the last page today but that’s unusual.

The future of newspapers is very much in doubt and the reason is that the old business model which was selling those newspaper ads is rapidly going away. They’re still a significant source of revenue but much, much smaller than they were even 10 years ago, even five years ago. So the question is how we’re going to replace that source of revenue. The ads in videos don’t bring in nearly as much money, and I don’t know why. Science Times is very central to the identity of the newspaper, and it’s not going to go away. The paper has been through many financial crises and Science Times has not been affected.

In response to someone else’s question, he said: Wrapping your mind around a subject like stem cells is not what [editors of other desks] have a lot of time for, so we get to do our own thing most of the time.

Sounds like the science section of The New York Times in print (much like at The Hindu) exists in order to fulfill some kind of institutional ambition more than being a logical conclusion backed by the commensurate resources. If only to me, this sounds like a precarious position to be in for many reasons. Foremost, depending on ideological over business interests means the science section is susceptible to ideological over business forces. And ideological forces are often much less rational, unpredictable and, most importantly, accountable.

Could it be that science editors are reluctant to acknowledge that their department in a publication is situated in a bubble that protects them from financial pressures? There’s no doubt that The New York Times does some excellent science reporting and analysis, and wins many awards doing it, but there’s a part of me wondering how much – and in what ways – this would change if science editors were pulled up and asked to start showing profits from their work. It’d be a brutal thing to do, no doubt, asking such gentle creatures to figure out a business model that even political editors are confused about. But it would also level the playing field, give the science department some bargaining power, and let journalists explore if there’s any way to eliminate the subsidization of science news.

Cutting back: my classmates as such had a lot of questions for David Corcoran. I’d like to reproduce his answers to two that pertained to specific stories that appeared today (September 16).

How do you decide if it’s time to reintroduce an issue in the news, like with Karen Weintraub’s piece today [on stem cells research]?

It’s an important subject and it’s overdue for an update. There’d been a lot of hype but not been many major breakthroughs yet. We brainstormed with the writer and photo editor and art director and figured out the best way to show this. We went to researchers and got a striking picture. The picture inside would’ve given a false impression because not everybody comes from stem cells treatment and the next day, be break-dancing.

How did the Peter Higgs interview work out?

Dennis [Overbye] went to England and ended up having lunch with Peter Higgs. I let him write it, he was a little starstruck. And he turned it in without any fanfare, he just sent it to me. I did a wordcount, it was 1,600 words, 600 words more than [we could fit]. But then I read it and said, “Wow, that’s fabulous”. Dennis’s strongpoint is explaining these difficult ideas. So we held another piece and included Dennis’s piece in the cover. [When asked about the staid choice of picture] With that particular columnist, there’s an artist, and they like each other’s work, so we let them go with it.

Overall, David comes across as an unassuming, deliberative and very helpful person in his role as the editor of Science Times. I say helpful because, when asked how much time he spends mentoring freelancers, he said, “I spend quite a bit more time working with [promising freelancers] because there are lots of people like you who are just starting out and how are they going to start out if nobody takes them seriously? I would hope there are lots of other editors doing a similar thing.” Thanks very much for dropping by, David, and it’s good to know a newspaper as daunting as The New York Times has someone like you who makes people like me feel less intimidated.

Categories
Scicomm

Protected: NYUlab: Beat-sculpting, money-making and science journalism

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Scicomm

Beat-sculpting, money-making and science journalism

Money is not always just money but also economic relevance. Mr. Benjamin Franklin likely agrees.

Today, my class had two guests. Malcolm Ritter, whose Twitter profile reads “Associated Press science reporter”, is not just any science reporter. He’s been covering science for AP for over 30 years now. While Dan Fagin said Ritter’s journey through journalism might not be relevant to our class considering he made a name for himself before the new media wave swept through, Ritter’s answers to our questions revealed a skills set brilliantly honed by three decades of reporting.

Our second guest was Andrea Thompson, a senior science writer at Climate Central and an alumnus of the program she was now addressing, from 2005. Until recently, Andrea was with Live Science before switching to CC.

With Dan “compering”, my classmates and I had many questions for the duo. I had two the answers to which revealed some informative differences between newsrooms in India and the United States. Here they are.

You’re both beat journalists. Dan also mentioned something about science journalism having become very competitive recently. In this setting, how protective of your beats have you had to be [within the organization]?

This question may have mildly startled our guests, neither of whom had a specific answer in that they had nothing to say about my concern. Dan jumped in and clarified that when he said ‘competitive’ – whenever he said it – he didn’t mean journalists pushing their colleagues on the same beat out of their way. I said then that, though I wasn’t disputing him, I had worked for a couple years in India in an environment where people often competed to simply retain their beats, and that that’s what prompted my question.

I don’t have to stress on the point that having a beat all to yourself can be very comforting. Apart from working secure in the knowledge that only you produce the news on whatever your beat is, you also get to sculpt your employer-institution’s attitude toward happenings in that beat, which can be a powerful exercise, as well as your audience’s. But herein lies the rub.

Dan equated the presence of multiple journalists (from the same org.) working on common beats to the organization’s success – which is almost obviously true. If a newspaper puts multiple journalists on the same beat (which The Hindu did; not sure if it does anymore), then

  1. It must enjoy a large and loyal readership for whom so-so beat must be covered in great detail
  2. It must be able to afford putting two, three or four journalists on the same beat

Dan continued, “Here [in the United States], companies are short-staffed.” His choice of words implies that they’re more likely not doing well than that they intend to run a lean organization. By extension, the ‘rub’ is that your opportunity to be ‘beat-sculpting’ is more accessible if you’re writing for a smaller audience – which is kind of ironic. (Remember at this point that I’m writing based on just two experiences: talking to Dan and working with a newspaper publisher in India.)

How do journalists at publications like The New York Times and The Guardian organize their beats? This is what I’d like to know.

My second question:

How much influence does the business model of your employer wield over how you write?

Again, this was a question that didn’t bring forth eager answers. I was disappointed with myself for not being able to ask the “right” questions… but only briefly, recalling that I was among a bunch of people wanting to talk about science writing, not the business that surrounded it. I also think now that I should’ve worded my question differently, and perhaps asked it to someone else.

Earlier, in response to someone else, Malcolm Ritter had recounted that there were a lot of newspapers in the United States in the early 1990s that sported dedicated science pages (similar to what The New York Times and The Hindu continue to publish to this day), and that by the close of the decade, all those sections had either been truncated or assimilated into the rest of the paper. Dan and Malcolm agreed that this was because science news wasn’t bringing in the money.

Next, as the 2000s labored on, publishers began to realize that science writing could be cool as well as impactful when done right, and there were, and continue to be, a lot of people to do it right. At this point: I believe remaining unmindful of the exact reasons why science journalism saw a decline and then an improvement in prospects endangers our ability to keep science journalism always relevant. It seems social forces cannot be entrusted with this task because why else would dedicated science sections disappear and then start from scratch in building a case to reappear?

The economic forces hold the key.

In this context, science journalists shouldn’t be concerned only for the wellbeing of their beats or the people or the trees or whatever but also for the future of their unique profession. They should not be completely insulated from the business side of their work, and this goes far beyond simple populist ideals and toward engendering an entrepreneurial streak of thinking about new forms of publishing and channels of revenue, at least specific to as exacting an enterprise as science journalism.

This is what I expected our guests to talk about when I asked my question. But I think now that I got my audience wrong, not to mention my lousy wording.

What do you think?