Hype versus Miscommunication, or the Language of Importance

A fellow amplitudes-person was complaining to me recently about the hype surrounding the debate regarding whether black holes have “firewalls”. New York Times coverage seems somewhat excessive for what is, in the end, a fairly technical debate, and its enthusiasm was (rightly?) mocked in several places.

There’s an attitude I often run into among other physicists. The idea is that when hype like this happens, it’s because senior physicists are, at worst, cynically manipulating the press to further their positions or, at best, so naïve that they really see what they’re working on as so important that it deserves hype-y coverage. Occasionally, the blame will instead be put on the journalists, with largely the same ascribed motivations: cynical need for more page views, or naïve acceptance of whatever story they’re handed.

In my opinion, what’s going on there is a bit deeper, and not so easily traceable to any particular person.

In the articles on the (2, 0) theory I put up in the last few weeks, I made some disparaging comments about the tone of this Scientific American blog post. After exchanging a few tweets with the author, I think I have a better idea of what went down.

The problem here is that when you ask a scientist about something they’re excited about, they’re going to tell you why they’re excited about it. That’s what happened here when Nima Arkani-Hamed was interviewed for the above article: he was asked about the (2, 0) theory, and he seems to have tried to convey his enthusiasm with a metaphor that explained how the situation felt to him.

The reason this went wrong and led to a title as off-base and hype-sounding as “the Ultimate Ultimate Theory of Physics” was that we (scientists and science journalists) are taught to express enthusiasm in the language of importance.

There has been an enormous resurgence in science communication in recent years, but it has come with a very us-vs.-them mentality. The prevailing attitude is that the public will only pay attention to a scientific development if they are told that it is important. As such, both scientists and journalists try to make whatever they’re trying to communicate sound central, either to daily life or to our understanding of the universe. When both sides of the conversation are operating under this attitude, it creates an echo chamber where a concept’s importance is blown up many times greater than it really deserves, without either side doing anything other than communicating science in the only way they know.

We all have to step back and realize that most of the time, science isn’t interesting because of its absolute “importance”. Rather, a puzzle is often interesting simply because it is a puzzle. That’s what’s going on with the (2, 0) theory, or with firewalls: they’re hard to figure out, and that’s why we care.

Being honest about this is not going to lose us public backing, or funding. It’s not just scientists who value interesting things because they are challenging. People choose the path of their lives not based on some absolute relevance to the universe at large, but because things make sense in context. You don’t fall in love because the target of your affections is the most perfect person in the universe, you fall in love because they’re someone who can constantly surprise you.

Scientists are in love with what they do. We need to make sure that that, and not some abstract sense of importance, is what we’re communicating. If we do that, if we calm down and make a bit more effort to be understood, maybe we can win back some of the trust that we’ve lost by appearing to promote Ultimate Ultimate Theories of Everything.

2 thoughts on “Hype versus Miscommunication, or the Language of Importance

  1. Pingback: Stop the Insantiy, Physics is Cool Enough Without Excessive Hype!

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