Worst. Article. Ever – A Litany of Pop-Science Sins

The current story-du-jour (sort of) in dodgy science is the re-emergence of a derivative of the EmDrive and how it has apparently been “validated by NASA”. I’m not going to delve into the physics of it or the potential problems, those things are best left to elsewhere because it’s boringly controversial (though almost certainly bollocks).

Yet Facebook recently exposed me to this article and I just have to shove my thoughts here. Sorry to name-and-shame YourNewsWire.com for this, but this is the last in a long chain (see below) and so you get top billing in this. What the fuck are you doing?

Ignoring the science for a moment, let’s go into what is wrong about the reporting. From the top.

Headline

“NASA Has Created Engine That Defies Physics, No Fuel Needed” – switch a few words around to make it “Has NASA created…?” and Betteridge’s Law would practically explode! But let’s go through it.

“NASA…” Nope. As Corey Powell’s Discover Magazine article points out, this is a few fringe guys paid by NASA spending a few days dicking about with stuff on the off-chance it works (after all, the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background taught us not to dismiss oddities out of hand). Still, this is “NASA Has…” in the same way that the “United Kingdom has” written this very blog.

“…Has Created Engine…” again, no, this is NASA (well, the men-in-a-shed paid by NASA) testing a variant of a drive that has been around for years, with dubious physics underpinning it and some odd testing conditions around it.

“That Defies Physics”, again, no, you can’t defy physics. At least, not in the sense the article is implying. If something works, it clearly works. It isn’t defying anything. Things might readjust our present understanding, but they defy nothing. Okay, I’m being picky there.

“No Fuel Needed”, right, so this might come across as unforgivable pedantry over definitions too, but suggesting a lack of fuel needed gives the impression of the drive being associated with free energy. “Fuel” is really just any high energy substance that can covert to a low energy substance, and free up that energy for work. In that respect, even solar energy requires “fuel” – it’s just being burned 8 light minutes away. The EmDrive and its derivatives claim to use no propellant, which is kinda synonymous with “fuel”, but this does conflate the concept of a reactionless drive with free energy and perpetual motion.

Choice of Image

The USS Enterprise? Really? You’re discussing  a reactionless drive that claims to produce minute quantities of thrust that, at best, might be useful to orientate a satellite rather than using a gyroscope…

Besides, everyone knows you should be using the definitive version.

So, pop-science is supposed to “capture the imagination” – whatever that means – so associating the right illustrations is essential. But associating this sort of thing with a science-fiction starship famous for its faster-than-light travel is simply lying. It’s there for the clickbait only. It’s the same as the old trick whereby news articles would randomly associate news stories with celebrities in order to boost search rankings. If it was the ’90s, it would be saying “this drive could take us to Mars, the Mars as seen in Britney Spear’s latest music video Oops I Did It Again“. See how insane that is?

Gold Medal Churnalism

Of course, I said this one I named-and-shamed is the last in a long chain of regurgitated articles.

  • It’s actually a complete copy-paste of something from TheRunDownLive (March 12th)…
  • …which itself was an “originally posted on Higher Perspective (Undated)”, and the less said about that site the better…
  • …which itself is a rehash of the WiredUK piece that dates from July 2014. And we can do the same thing again with its headline of “Nasa validates ‘impossible’ space drive”.

Now with churned and re-churned articles making their way around the internet, is it any wonder so few people trust science and the scientific method? When the primary goal of a web-based news source is to trigger as many clicks as possible, you simply cannot trust the content to accurately report on science, which is supposed to transcend hype and avoid outright lies. As we’ve seen before, science has enough trouble dealing with university press offices without authors on the distribution end fucking it up, too.

Content (Or Lack Thereof)

So, the rest of this now focuses on the piece as written by Higher Perspective

Of course, I completely trust science reporting from a site with "wellness" and "spirituality" sections.

Of course, I completely trust science reporting from a site with “wellness” and “spirituality” sections.

The trouble is that at this stage we’re not reporting science as re-written by an over-enthusiastic copywriter in a press department, but a site that is absolutely riddled with woo and bullshit all over. And this is where we get to the real bad pop-science writing.

It’s Oh So Quiet… Shhhhhhh…

At this point in the chain, the headline has become “NASA Quietly Tests Engine That Uses No Fuel And Violates The Laws Of Physics” – repeating a few errors discussed above and adding the new thing of “quietly”. This is pretty common in conspiracy theory bullshit. If you don’t make a song and dance of the result, then sure, you’ve done it quietly, but why? Why did you do it quietly? Obviously it’s a conspiracy to cover things up and keep this result from the world because Big Oil needs its profits and of course your free energy device has been buried by the faceless New World Order! It couldn’t possibly be that the result doesn’t actually deserve the song and dance because it is, in fact, a few people dicking about and doing something that probably will amount to nothing. And it definitely isn’t “quiet” because it’s 6 months out of relevance…

Dismal Representation of Criticism

Let’s look at the description:

It works by bouncing microwaves in an enclosed chamber, thus creating thrust. Shawyer was never able to get anyone interested in his device, despite numerous demonstrations. His critics simply rejected the device entirely, pointing out that it violates the conservation of motion.

Yeah, that’s what the critics did. They just dismissed it because of a lone reason. They didn’t, of course, point out numerous flaws in the experiment, the theory, the explanation and the general haphazard claims made by the people who tested it – including the odd case of the version designed not to work actually working, for some reason – as Jon Baez totally didn’t do. On more than one occasion.

The only way you could know anything about the EmDrive or Cannae Drive and not know about the myriad and highly specific problems with and criticisms of the theory and experiment is if you deliberately ignored it. It takes literally seconds on Google to find these points and read them and grasp that there’s a lot of problems with it and that dismissing it is more than just mere healthy skepticism.

Quoting “NASA”

NASA explains:

NASA explains? Did NASA as an abstract entity explain? Or did all 18,000+ employees explain at once? Stop trying to play on the use of the big name when it’s just one person you’re quoting. You can still get the same effect with “Dr Bulsh Hite, lead researcher on the project with NASA” without the aggrandizement and outright misdirection.

It continues:

“Test results indicate that the RF resonant cavity thruster design, which is unique as an electric propulsion device, is producing a force that is not attributable to any classical electromagnetic phenomenon and therefore is potentially demonstrating an interaction with the quantum vacuum virtual plasma.”

That’s all just a fancy way of saying that we’re not completely sure. Wired speculated that the process involves pushing against a cloud of particles and anti-particles that are constantly popping in and out of empty space. And that’s about the point where this humble writer is lost.

Again, about two seconds on Google proves that this is a “fancy way” of saying “we’re just making shit up”.

And while I don’t want to blow a disproportionate amount of time on two words, this “fancy way” irks the shit out of me. It’s this kind of ignorant folksiness that really doesn’t belong in pop-science.

If you’re reading a pop-science article, you want to know that the person writing it is qualified to know about the subject. Because that’s the point of having writers. If everyone, if every person reading the article, had enough experience to grok the primary literature, they’d do that. Journalists and writers are there to take the complicated primary material and translate it. A writer, particular in popular science and science reporting, has an obligation and duty to translate what they’re given accurately. If someone is writing but has no clue what they are writing about, what use are they? How do they know they’re doing good?

How can they be sure they’re not piling yet more misunderstanding upon misunderstanding – as Higher Perspective, I Fucking Love Science, Wired and countless others do?

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