New Scientist, the EmDrive and the Wobosphere

shnood: (roughly) an imposter; a person oblivious to just how trivial or wrong his ideas are.

“Were there any interesting speakers at the conference?”
“No, just a bunch of shnoods.

“The magazine New Scientist loves to feature shnoods on the cover.”

Note: someone who’s utterly contemptible would not be a shnood, but rather a schmuck.

— Scott Aaronson (27 May 2006)

Those of you interested in the way the Wobosphere functions as a disputation arena (“We Can Fact-Check Yo’ Ass!”) may be interested in the following sordid tale of intrigue and skullduggery. I originally wrote most of this last October, in a lengthy comment on David Brin’s blog. The moral of the story, insofar as I can find one, is this: if you say that you can move your car forward by bouncing a soccer ball back and forth inside it fifty thousand times, you’ll get a quizzical look (at best). If you say the same thing but with “microwave photons” instead of soccer balls, you’re reporting on cutting-edge science!

Back in September, New Scientist magazine published an article on the “EmDrive”, a machine purportedly able to propel itself using microwaves bouncing inside a box. Those of us who remember the Dean drive and umpty-ump other wonder machines have no trouble recognizing this as the same old stuff: like all the wonder-powered spacedrives before it, it can only putter forward by violating the conservation of momentum. New Scientist‘s reportage provoked science-fiction writer Greg Egan to write an open letter saying he was “gobsmacked by the level of scientific illiteracy” the magazine showed.

So it goes, as they say on Tralfamadore. Claims of exotic spacedrives fuelled by violations of fundamental physics are, sadly but understandably, about twopence a dozen. The aspect of the affair which Egan found truly disturbing — indeed, reprehensible — was the way New Scientist glibly provided a “news” piece full of pseudoscientific gibberish purely to justify how the EmDrive might work. (Their argument really pushed the limits of the absurd, too: Einstein’s relativity has momentum conservation built into its mathematical structure, so you can’t use relativity jargon like “reference frames” to sidestep the conservation law.)

Egan posted his letter to the moderated Usenet group sci.physics.research, and the physicist John Baez put a copy on the blog he co-hosts, The n-Category Cafe. This spurred enough people to write New Scientist that the magazine opened a blog thread to discuss the issue, opening with a self-exusing note from the editor, Jeremy Webb. (Said note, as far as I can tell, satisfied nobody.)

Discussion also continued simultaneously at the Cafe, eventually including Baez, Egan, the science writer Jennifer Ouellette and others. During this merry back-and-forth and round-about, lots of physics people spoke their minds, but naturally physics is only part of what New Scientist covers. In order to sample other viewpoints, I posted links to the relevant pages on a Pharyngula open thread. A commenter there, “Lab Cat”, pointed out an article New Scientist ran last April about “Water: the quantum elixir”.

So, off I trundled to Respectful Insolence, where this topic had just come up as “Your Friday Dose of Woo” (probably putting the idea in Lab Cat’s mind). Then back to The n-Category Cafe to talk about it over virtual hot chocolate, and a little later Prof. Baez cross-posts a message to the Cafe and to the New Scientist blog.

Jeremy Webb wrote:
We should have made more explicit where it apparently contravenes the laws of nature…

Good, I’m glad we agree on that. But I hope it’s clear: this article is not an isolated problem. It seems that New Scientist is moving to embrace flaky science, by reporting on it without letting ordinary scientists explain why it’s baloney.

For example: your article on a faster-than-light drive designed using Heim theory, a run-of-the-mill crackpot theory that has never passed peer review in any reputable journal.

For example: your article about the chemical properties of water, which brings in homeopathy and “Masaru Emoto, who is said to have proved that water responds to the emotions of those around it“. It mentions that most scientists regard this as ridiculous. But, it doesn’t explain why. Maybe they’re just old-fashioned?

For example: an article about how “Researchers around the world are opening their minds to the possibility that the phenomenon of anti-gravity is not just science fiction“. It mentions that “Most respected physicists still scoff at the idea” — but it doesn’t explain why. Maybe they’re just too conservative?

The Shawyer article is just the latest in this pattern. You quote an engineer as saying the Emdrive is “a load of bloody rubbish”, but you don’t clearly explain why: it violates conservation of momentum! Instead, we get a cock-and-bull story about “changing reference frames”, as if somehow relativity and “the strange nature of light” provided exceptions to this well-established law:

Hang on a minute, though. If the cavity is to move, it must be pushed by something. A rocket engine, for example, is propelled by hot exhaust gases pushing on the rear of the rocket. How can photons confined inside a cavity make the cavity move? This is where relativity and the strange nature of light come in. Since the microwave photons in the waveguide are travelling close to the speed of light, any attempt to resolve the forces they generate must take account of Einstein’s special theory of relativity. This says that the microwaves move in their own frame of reference. In other words they move independently of the cavity — as if they are outside it. As a result, the microwaves themselves exert a push on the cavity.

It’s great fun to report on crackpots — done right, it can be highly educational. In fact, I can even recommend some more to you — I know a lot of them!

But surely you can afford some writers who don’t make up their own wild new theories. And, surely you can get some reputable scientists to explain why the theories you’re reporting on are generally considered nutty. No?

(As Baez very justly points out, New Scientist pulled a fast one when they titled their pet thread “Emdrive on Trial” and not “New Scientist on Trial”, which is what really concerned the first people to speak up. Again, wonky spacedrives are too common to count; it’s the magazine’s editorial policy we care about. By the way, all the links in the above quotation are from the original.)

Now, all this was fun, and I sure idled away productive life-time hopping from one blog to another. (I bet the Internet could even substitute for real friends! Has anyone ever tried that out, and if so, how did it work?) It does strike me as inefficient: all these people in different places obviously cared enough to write about it, but without my going all evangelical, would the biology fans at Pharyngula have heard the physicists’ complaints at The n-Category Cafe? This is important, because the problem is not restricted to physics. Julia Hockenmaier wrote, in connection with an entirely different piece of bad New Scientist reportage,

My flatmate in Edinburgh had a subscription, so I used to read this over breakfast. I don’t recall ever seeing a computer-science/AI related article that didn’t seem like complete fiction…

Which prompted Mark Liberman to say,

Oh well, I guess I was fooled by the packaging into thinking that this is a publication that takes science (and engineering) reporting seriously.

Towards the end, the Cafe discussion started getting less than civil, so commenting on that thread was turned off and a few comments were deleted. (The thing which replaces blogs will have to solve this problem, or rather make it easier for people to implement whichever workable solution they prefer! Trolls are probably an inescapable product of human psychopathology, but we could sure do a better job of handling them than we do right now.) As the discussion was winding up, Prof. Baez said:

I also think we’re seeing the emergence of a science blogosphere somewhat analogous to the political blogosphere, which among other things can catch some of the mistakes of the “mainstream media”.

(Among other things — alas, including a bunch of really silly, annoying things.)

Now, why has it taken so long for a scientist to say this?

One lesson of the Bogdanov Affair which nobody seemed to emphasize was that our peer-review system is shoddy and imperfect, but the disputation arenas provided by the Internet can take up some of the slack. The deduction is almost trivial: if the Net hadn’t caught the papers in question, the fraud would have gone undetected. All the brouhaha which erupted after the story hit Usenet happened because the system worked, but too late — or rather, the “wrong” part of the system did the necessary job.

(It’s sort of neat: when one studies the Bogdanov Affair, one can follow the progress of debate from Usenet to blogs, web forums and eventually the Wikipedia. What can I say — the people involved keep up with the times!)

During that sorry incident, it was the electronic disputation arena which saved the dignity of the profession. Unfortunately, nobody realized how valuable that ability was, and we continued to muck forwards. Hello, George Deutsch, who didn’t graduate from Texas A&M after all. Hello, Ben Domenech, the creationist plagiarist snared by the Amazon search-inside feature.

As Fox Mulder might say under similar circumstances, “Do you see a pattern forming here, Scully?”

I have gone on at much greater length than I intended to ramble. I have too much in common with the Mencken character in Inherit the Wind, who has only been in love “with the sound of my own words, thank God.” (At least it’s a requited love, most of the time.) To give this tapeworm of a tale something like a moral, suffice to say that we need to study online disputation far more carefully than we have done so far, with a historical eye.

But of course, pure speculation is what New Scientist gobbles up with french fries and coleslaw.

— Scott Aaronson (30 March 2007)

6 thoughts on “New Scientist, the EmDrive and the Wobosphere”

  1. Thinking blue-sky-like (at serious risk of being labeled ‘shnood’): collaborative filtering could be very useful as one of the building blocks for troll-handling. Not for slick operators like the Bogdanovs, but for that commenter who won’t shut up. Different people’s votes are weighted differently, based on how well they predict your feelings. Posters, not just posts, can have ratings.

    There are lots of subproblems, like ensuring a vote means more than “I liked the title enough to click”, figuring out whether or how to factor in the intensity of someone’s feeling (I’m told Slashdot gives you a limited number of votes, but each counts for more), attracting good voters, and on and on. Note that if your system successfully overweights votes and content by good, thoughtful contributors who successfully predict a lot of folks’ feelings, that in itself can attract them.

    Hmm, that really gets me thinking: the right vote that someone will give if they’re an expert or look closely at something is often quite different from the vote that most people will give. It might be useful if you saw not only recommended/not-recommended content but little snippets from your favorite voter explaining why. So when the troll’s post is hidden you also see “don’t engage, he won’t shut up,” or your vote against the New Scientist article comes with “this is gussied up like science, but it’s redonkulous; see this guy’s reply.”

    Enough of that. There’s this company with thousands of comp sci Ph.D.s, access to a larger Internet audience than anyone else, $1 billion operating profit last quarter, and a habit of working on whatever seems cool. If the social aspects of a solution were so easy to figure out, they’d’ve patched Blogger months ago.

    In conclusion, I love how Pharyngula uses <blockquote class=”creationist”> to set a quote’s background to creationist_idiot.gif. Although I just discovered this feature, I’m already sure your blog needs it for Web 8.0 compliance.

  2. It occurs to me that the blagotubes really need some kind of end-all aggregation site that uses Trackback links and/or spidering to take these grand, rambling discussions and toss them into a lovely threaded/tree structure. Only a really appropriate graph would have to take into account the fact that blog conversations don’t fit into a nice threaded model. But I think you get my broad point about connecting up all the conversations.

    I noticed that coturnix had a big roundup of all the framing posts over at Science & Politics. It seems to me that generating and updating such a thing automagically, even if it required some basic input (like an initial post) to start going, would make a really useful tool.

    And possibly an even bigger timesink than Wikipedia.

  3. The algorithm:

    We’re already hard at work implementing Web 3.11 for Workgroups. Web π will follow in the next fiscal year.


    Neat idea. (I’ve wished for something similar, too, thanks to the Michael Egnor blogswarm, the fr*ming kerfluffle and a few other incidents.) Think we could make money off it?

    Note that Google’s Blogsearch has a “References” feature which shows all the posts cited by the post you click. . . but that’s a far cry from an actual graph structure.

  4. Sure we can!

    Since I’m not a programmer, you can build it. And then I’ll manage you, help count the money, and take 75% off the top. Deal?

    (Admit it, that’s still better than most programming gigs.)

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