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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Thursday, September 26, 2013

6 Signs of Overblown Hype in a Science-Related Article

The internet has a huge amount of hype, overstatement, and exaggeration. Web sites often have headlines that are misleading and overblown. The reason why is easy to understand. The metric of success for any web site is the number of visitors it gets, and the revenue generated by the site depends directly on the number of visitors. The more sensational a link title, the more likely a user is to click on it. For example, a news web site knows that it will get few web clicks if it accurately titles an article, “Man spots unidentified figure in woods,” but the web site knows that it will get lots of clicks if the article is entitled, “Mystery figure in woods: was it Bigfoot?”

But surely the hallowed realm of science is one that is not very subject to all this hype, overstatement, and exaggeration, right? Wrong. These days there seems to be about as much breathless overblown hype in science-related stories, as there is in any other type of stories. To help you detect this type of overblown hype, I will now list 6 warning signs that a science-based web article you are reading is overblown hype.

Sign #1: the story is not based on any new experiments, observations, or product developments

The most reliable type of science-based story is one that is based on new experiments, observations, or product developments. An example from today's new is the story “Most Crowded Galaxy Discovered, 54 Million Light Years Away.” This is based on actual observations done in a particular region of the sky.

If you, however, read a story that is based simply on some new analysis of old data, take it with one grain of salt. Additional grains may be added if any of the criteria below are met.

Sign #2: the story is based on the work of only one scientist (or one scientist and a few colleagues) in a little-known university or college

Another possible sign of overblown hype is when we see a science-based story that is based on the work of only one scientist or one scientist and a handful of other scientists working with him. An example is the recent paper in the Journal of Cosmology by Milton Wainwright and four colleagues (at the University of Buckingham and the University of Sheffeld), in which they make the extraordinary claim that traces of extraterrestrial life are floating around way up in the atmosphere. If the paper was made by a larger group of scientists working at more well-known universities, we might have more faith in them. Today important scientific discoveries are often announced in papers with as many as fifty co-authors.

Sign #3: the title of the story asks a question, or uses the word “may”

Web writers know that you can basically get away with the flimsiest and most speculative claims, as long as you add a question mark at the end of the title (or use a phrase such as “may be” or “may not”). So whenever you see a web story with a title such as “Our universe may be merely a simulation” or “Did Johnson arrange for assassination of Kennedy?” you should not expect that you're going to be getting a discussion that is more fact than speculation.

Sign #4: the story is rich in speculation, regardless of whether it is identified as speculation

Be suspicious of any story that it is based on speculation. The problem is that an internet story will typically use the terms hypothesis, theory, or model rather than use the plain word speculation, because it sounds more authoritative to use those words. However, the words "model" and "hypothesis" are just fancy words for guesswork or speculation. The term theory was once used only for speculations that are abundantly backed by evidence, but nowadays any old guess is referred to as a theory. Remember that almost all speculations do not match reality.

Sign #5: the story is contrary to a long-established scientific consensus

If we read a story entitled “Scientists propose new theory of dark energy,” that by itself does not raise much of a warning flag, because there is no scientific consensus about dark energy, which is a huge scientific mystery. But if a story is entitled “Sunspots may be the cause of global warming,” that should raise suspicions, because the story is contradicting a long-established scientific consensus that global warming is caused by man-made activities such as carbon dioxide pollution.

Sign #6: the story is based on scientific work-in-progress that hasn't actually been published in a scientific journal

When some work by scientists actually gets published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, it has more credibility than some work-in-progress that has not yet been published by the journal. You never know whether such a scientific paper is going to be rejected for publication because it can't stand up to the scrutiny of the peer-review process.


Having listed these tips, I have some homework for you. You can practice looking for these warning signs by examining the the recent story “Did a Hyper-Black Hole Spawn the Universe ?” My homework question is: does this story display any of the warning signs I have listed? If it does, how many does it display? The answer is found below.

Answer to Homework Question:

The story above shows every one of the warning signs listed above. The story is not based on any new observations, evidence, or product developments (sign #1). The story is based on the work of only three scientists at lesser known institutions (sign #2). The title of the story asks a question (sign #3). The story is rich in speculation, and actually consists of nothing but speculation (sign #4). The story is contrary to a long-established consensus (sign #5), as it quotes someone suggesting the Big Bang is just a mirage. The story is based on a scientific paper that hadn't yet been published in a scientific journal when the story appeared (sign #6). In short, this story is an almost perfect example of breathless, overblown science-related hype.