How The Kanye Movement Hijacked Physics

Whether it be the discovery of liquid water on Mars, or the announcement of a ninth planet, it seems like every week this past year we’ve seen a front-page story announcing yet another breakthrough in science. So what’s going on? Have we entered a new phase of discovery? Is progress in physics somehow being influenced by Moore’s law? Or are we just hearing more about physics in the news because it’s become ‘cool’?

Unless you’re from another planet, you’ve undoubtedly heard this month’s announcement thatgravitational waves have been detected. These ripples in the curvature of space, produced when large masses such as black holes collide, were hypothesised by Albert Einstein almost a century ago and finally observed by physicists in the United States late last year.

The observation is historic to our understanding of the universe because it proves the last part ofEinstein’s general theory of relativity, and it could open up entirely new areas of physics that further unravel the mysteries of the cosmos.

What is particularly striking about this discovery is that scientists have been trying to detect gravitational waves since the 1970s. So the confirmation of their existence this month serves as an abrupt conclusion to over forty years of intense research by teams of scientists around the world.

And we seem to be hearing about researchers proving other decades-old theories with increasing frequency. In 2013 there was confirmation of the elusive ‘God Particle’, then only a year or so later we heard that Saturn’s moon Enceladus harbours a liquid ocean, and in 2015 we found both water on Mars and detected oxygen outgassing from a distant comet.

While these discoveries are momentous and seemingly increasingly frequent, perhaps one breakthrough a year is not that unusual. After all, technology has come a long way in recent times. According to Moore’s Law computer power roughly doubles every two years. So perhaps it’s not unreasonable to suggest that with improving technology scientists are more quickly able to answer questions that previously baffled them. But there may also be another reason why we’re hearing about groundbreaking discoveries more frequently.

In the past, important scientific discoveries were often reported predominately in niche publications such as Scientific American. Even ground-breaking achievements like the creation of the first artificial genome in 2010 achieved limited cut-through in mainstream media by comparison with the more recent announcements.

So perhaps then it’s not the science itself but the reporting of science that has changed. With increasing competition for audiences, media outlets have turned to increasingly sensationalist headlines and it’s possible that this is blurring our understanding of real progress. Headlines about ‘giant alien megastructures’ offer a break from yet more stories about unabated conflict and middling markets. And they are arguably still a better alternative than having to report on the latest Kanye West controversy. The problem, however, is that using science to generate page views in this way can lead to not only over-hyped but also misunderstood or misleading coverage. We first drew attention to this in 2015 in an article citing misleading claims about 2014 being the hottest year on record.

Indeed, a 2014 study found that many news stories made claims beyond those made in the peer-reviewed journal articles they were based on. This exaggerated reporting was found to originate from both journalist’s misrepresentation of scientific papers, and misleading press releases which were part-written, or at least approved, by the scientists themselves.

In another example, British researchers issued a press release claiming that they had found a chemical in the brain was associated with impulsiveness in a group of adult men. As this announcement coincided with a series of riots occurring in England, eye-grabbing headlines in numerous publications incorrectly claimed that these scientists were suggesting a direct correlation between the chemical and the country’s ongoing violence.

In conclusion, while scientists are undeniably making significant breakthroughs, we as readers also need to look beyond the headlines and be aware that the stories being published don’t always reflect the true nature of the science behind them. In our world of hyper-fast information absorption and redistribution this will not be easy to do. This is perhaps yet another example of why the economics and incentives of news reporting over the internet needs to change.

Will Reinehr is a freelance journalist and intern at Inkl.

This article is one of a series of Narratives produced by inkl to create greater awareness of some of the less visible themes, trends and directions that are shaping our society and our world.

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