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Creating A Science Sensation

by Kirsten Sanford, Mar 13 2009

Why is it that crackpots get so much air time? Is it because they yell louder than anyone else?

While that is probably true (non-crackpots see the world logically, and don’t understand how it could be any other way. Hence, no yelling.), the factor driving the publicity engine is controversy. The media loves controversy because it is usually fueled by emotion, and emotion gets peoples’ attention.

I just received a press release for Terence Witt’s book “Our Undiscovered Universe”, his treatise on the physics of the universe. The book and the ideas it contains have been reviewed elsewhere at length, and found to be lacking theoretical soundness. So, I will refrain from discussing the ideas here.

However, I think it is important to consider how different individuals within the media institution might react to a press release like the one I received.

This is [name redacted] and in a few weeks Terence Witt will be releasing his new book through Emerald Book Company.  In it he is disputing the Big Bang Theory and it is called Our Undiscovered Universe. This is an issue we all have a stake in.  Where do we come from?  Is it possible the universe was always here?  Let’s have a thought provoking discussion.    Mr. Witt would be happy to take the side that the universe always existed.

Terence Witt is a visiting scientist at Florida Institute of Technology and is work was recently publishing by Physics Essays.  He resides in Melbourne, Florida and is the former CEO of Witt Biomedical Corporation.

You can learn more at www.OurUndiscoveredUniverse.com.   I would be happy to set up a debate.

Thanks.

The first things I notice are the attempt to create personal controversy – we all have a stake in how the universe was formed, not just scientists! – and then to get me to agree to a debate or “thought provoking discussion.” Now, these tactics set off my alarm bells, and I immediately check his credibility to find that he is mostly self-published. He has yet to publish in Arxiv, and only white-papers are available on his websites. He does have a single paper related to his renegade ideas published in “Physics Essays” as of last year.

I wonder if an uninformed producer would see the same potential problems to booking Mr. Witt for an interview? Instead, they might see the controversial hook as appealing, and the idea of a debate as beneficial (it is always good to present all sides of a story).

The tactics used in the press release are one reason why pseudoscience continues to make such an impression through the media. Shouldn’t real-science publicity efforts use similar methods in order to be heard?

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21 Responses to “Creating A Science Sensation”

  1. Brian says:

    Interesting point.

    In an effort to present a unified front, biologists in particular have been downplaying the importance of their various disagreements regarding the details of our evolutionary history. Perhaps this is a mistake in the long term? Perhaps instead we should be encouraging biologists to highlight their differences for the benefit of the mass media? The downside of giving creationists ammunition may wind up more than balanced out by the opportunities of delivering solid information to the public.

  2. Rogue Medic says:

    Since that is one of the few reasons I write my blog, I agree.

    We need to get people to understand science. We need top get them to think about the things we may take for granted. In medicine we take too much for granted, yet the research in medicine is among the weakest in science.

    Perhaps we make up in dogma for our shortcomings in science.

    Happy Friday the 13th. :-)

  3. MadScientist says:

    BS sells (just look at all those fad diet books). That and $\int e^x$.

  4. SeanJJordan says:

    I think you’re on to something there, Kirsten. Journalists are always looking for an interesting angle (and often, that’s how the stories are assigned by editors!) so they can search for a conflict. Why? Because it makes it easier to find sources so they can write a story! Many publications require a minimum number of sources so that they’re not just reprinting press releases. And editors love underdog stories, because the idea of one person against the establishment makes for better reading.

    People in the scientific community aren’t generally very press savvy; they’re used to publishing their work in journals or presenting it at conferences, where like-minded people will be, instead of sending out press releases written for mass audiences that include a hook and some riveting copy. As one researcher once told me, “It’s hard to write with an angle when you’re used to reporting exactly what happened.”

    Perhaps universities and research institutions need to start hiring PR reps who can help to get the media interested in real research without compromising the integrity of what’s being found?

  5. Max says:

    If the majority of the country rejects evolution and believes in various nonsense, then shouldn’t the skeptics and scientists be the ones who challenge the status quo?

  6. John Karabaic says:

    I’m not sure that science journalism is in a worse state than financial journalism (Did you see Cramer get spanked on the Daily Show last night?) or political journalism (Watch any White House press conference, past or present.)

    Journalists have a fixed set of narratives which they use in writing their stories. The exceptions are those who can make up new narratives…Robert Krulwich in science and Michael Lewis in finance come to mind.

  7. Wade Watson says:

    There is a steady market for such weak “science”, of course– the fundamentalist Christian religious market. These people will latch onto anyone called a scientist who in any way seem support (or at least not dispute) their bibical creation view. Thus, we will never see an end to this sort of thing.

    I like your idea of real science publicity efforts taking an aggressive approach to get legit information to the public. Perhaps a charismatic and telegentic real science proponent such as you could pull this off. I’ll be watching, Kirsten.

  8. Creating with marketing and PR words excitement or ‘buzz’ which doesn’t already exist in a given scientific finding is cheap and tawdry, a lowering of oneself to the necessarily low standards of conduct of the pseudos.

    What makes the standards of conduct necessarily low for the pseudos is the fact that their science is bogus – they are forced to rely on hype because the substance is not there.

    If Science had a mother, she would be castigating Science on this idea of mimmicking how the pseudos hype their nonsense, “Oh, and I suppose if all the others jumped off a cliff, you’d jump right after them!”

    Science ought to hold itself to a higher standard. If the problem is that the general public doesn’t grasp the importance of a given scientific finding, book, article, etc., the solution is not to put on a cheap suit and hype it like a snake oil salesman. In this we would be treating a symptom, not the disease, and treating it poorly at that. The ‘disease’ remains abysmally bad science education in public schools.

  9. Max says:

    New Age pseudoscience doesn’t necessarily appeal to fundamentalist Christians.
    http://www.carm.org/religious-movements/new-age-movement/biblical-responses-new-age-movement

  10. Brian says:

    Brian – (doppleganger! ;)) I agree. Science doesn’t have a good champion right now. We have Dawkins, but he comes off as angry (regardless of how much I agree with him). We need a “Kent Hovind” on our side. Someone who is great at speaking. Great at debating. Someone who understands how to work a crowd. Someone who won’t lose to logical falacies like so many who debated kent did. I saw a debate with Michael Shermer, where kent walked away with it. I hate to be a prick, but in that debate, Shermer didn’t do a good job of showing how kent was wrong. Granted, Kent was an amazing debater, but we need people willing to get out there in the front lines, who really know their stuff, and can bring a lot to the table in a way that the public can understand.

  11. Bob says:

    I think that real science should still strive to be heard, but it doesn’t need to lower itself to controversy and normal advertising techniques for the mass media. Real science gets through to the public through learning annexes (libraries, colleges, research institutions, museums, textbooks, etc.). These are the places you go to when you really want to know something, not the next Oprah show.

    We shouldn’t worry too much about someone like Terence Witt (who hasn’t found a big base to really tap into other than “bored Americans”). What we should be focusing on is when pseudoscience starts replacing real-science in where we learn (see the learning annexes list). Places like the Creation Museum and areas where creation science is being placed next to, if not on higher up, than evolution. If Terence Witt tries to go towards this despicible process, then the scientific community should bring the hammer down on him and hard.

    After all, the draw of pseudoscience might even be seeing a discussion of various hypotheses that you may never have thought about, but that’s only the first part of the scientific process. Pseudoscience doesn’t have the true evidence of real science.

  12. arun says:

    very nice blog and all post is very luxury

  13. Mastriani says:

    Although it would appear that DA’s position is correct; bad science education is a/the major culprit, there is another problem.

    NatGeo aired their special on Blue Whales a week ago; I was glued, as always, nature is simply astounding, especially at 400 tons of it in a single organism. My daughter was supposed to be paying attention to it, as we were watching together. It was obvious she wasn’t. When asked why she wasn’t interested in the show, the reply was that “science isn’t interesting, it’s boring”. That was like a sledgehammer to the face, actually just sat there dumbfounded for a moment.

    After a bit of lengthy discussion, it became apparent what another major issue is, just as Dr. Sanford pointed out: sensationalism.

    Youth in this country are incessantly bombarded with sensationalist tripe, garbage and non-information. So “discovery” from the scientific frontiers just doesn’t quite give the proper biochemical punch to the cerebrum in comparison.

    No clear answer seems to make itself apparent at this time …

    Great article, the real world ending for the central theme seems rather bleak though.

  14. Max says:

    A special on blue whales would’ve bored me to tears when I was a kid. They don’t even have teeth!

  15. I think that real scientists don’t use such methods of publication because it would be disingenuous to do so. Science isn’t about attracting eyeballs to sell to advertisers–it is about the careful examination of data to reach an understanding of the natural universe. Showmanship and snake-oil charm need not apply.

  16. sonic says:

    “Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers in the preceding generation … Learn from science that you must doubt the experts. As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”

    “Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt.”

    “Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle: permit us to question — to doubt — to not be sure. I think that it is important that we do not forget this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained.”

    Richard Feynman

    “We have no right to assume that any physical laws exist, or if they have existed up until now, that they will continue to exist in a similar manner in the future.”

    Max Planck

    I will take Feynman and Planck over any living scientist on the nature of science. (And yes, I feel free to recognize their ignorance)
    If you can’t imagine that the ‘big bang theory’ and ‘the theory of evolution’ won’t be laughable farces in 100 years, you have no business teaching science. It is those who teach these (and any other aspect of current science) as indisputable fact that makes science a religion and therefore properly shunned by any thoughtful person.

    “Should we teach the controversy?” You thought science was something other than controversy?

  17. MadScientist says:

    @sonic:

    I don’t know about the ‘Big Bang’ – cosmology is too weird to me.

    However, I doubt anyone will be laughing at evolution in 100 years or even in 1000 years. Not everything is known and the theory as a whole will continue to be refined, but I doubt it will be thrown away.

    Have a look at Newton’s laws of mechanics. Even Newton was aware of severe deficiencies (there were a number of things he couldn’t explain) and yet Newton’s laws still stand. It’s just that on a scale of very big and very small things don’t work so well and even Newton was well aware of that horrible rock called “Mercury” which just didn’t quite behave as anyone’s model predicted – an unfortunate side-effect of the (incorrect) assumption that gravity acts instantaneously. Then again, Newton wasn’t to blame for that – how do you design an experiment on earth with Newton-era technology to demonstrate that gravity isn’t instantaneous? Newton never seemed content with his explanation of colors either, and no one could satisfactorily explain polarization of light, but those challenge would remain for over 200 years. Newton was an ardent mystic and I laugh at that part of Newton’s history, but no one laughs at his pioneering work in mathematics or the more notable of his contributions to physics.

  18. Julian says:

    @#16

    So you’ve decided have nothing to say on Neurologica isn’t enough?

  19. See this review of “Our Undiscovered Universe” by Terence Witt from a professional physicist:
    http://web.mit.edu/~bmonreal/www/Null_Physics_Review.html

    Also see my review at http://homepages.ihug.co.nz/~fiski/ouu_review.html

    The flaws of this crackpot book are many and include:
    * Redefining the concept of infinity as a length with magnitude.
    * Defining a line as a series of points written as zeros, treating them as numbers so that they add up to zero and then treating the number zero as a point again!
    * A really bad atomic model “proving” that a electron orbiting a proton has a ground state that it cannot decay from by creating a new physical law.
    * Using the high school description of a neutron as a proton plus an electron and not realizing that this is just his atomic model!
    * Postulating that galaxies have “galactic cores” which are super massive objects that are not quite black holes and not realizing that the centre of the Milky Way is well observed. These recycle stars into hydrogen. Oddly enough astronomers have not noticed dozens of stars vanishing from the galactic centre in the many images that they have taken over the last few decades.

    Conclusion: Bad mathematics and even worse physics.

  20. sonic says:

    MadScientist-
    Newton’s mechanics are wrong. The formulae will give you wrong answers 100% of the time. The answers are close enough for many engineering applications and are therefore a useful fantasy.
    The Newtonian determinisitic clockwork universe gave us the philosophy of deterministic materialism- a philosophy that continues to infect the world of rational discourse and has entrapped many great minds.
    It is unfortunate that his work- brilliant and valuable as it is- is still taught as ‘law’.

    The point I’m trying to make is that science is a method of discovery, not a list of facts, and if we want to excite people we will be better off stressing the discovery aspect.

  21. Science is a method of discovery that has produced a list of facts, and continues to do so. The method and its product may not be declared mutually exclusive just to satisfy your philosophical viewpoint.