Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Breaking news: UC scientist finds that the universe really isn't all that much like a brain

Sometimes I get really mad at the way popular media reports science.

Science does what it does by being precise.  Precise measurements of data; precise analyses of these data; precise use of words to describe assumptions, methodologies, conclusions.  Not, of course, that it is always free from error.  Like any human endeavor, its practitioners can make mistakes or draw erroneous inferences.  But this brings up the other critical aspect of science -- it self-corrects.  Bad science seldom lasts long, because peer review acts as a first-line defense, and even after publication, others in the field replicate, question, and test the conclusions that the researchers came to.

But then, of course, popular media get involved, and the first thing they often do is to muddy the waters.  They can't just report the damn story; they have to make it sound flashy and appealing, and as a result, they do a pretty good job of vaguing things up in the minds of non-scientists.

A particularly egregious example of this was published in Huffington Post yesterday.  The title of the piece immediately put my skepti-senses on red alert: "Physicists Find Evidence That the Universe is a 'Giant Brain.'"  The author, Michael Rundle, goes on to tell the reader that Dmitri Krioukov, of the University of California - San Diego, has shown that the universe has a lot in common with the brain.  The article starts out thusly:  "The idea of the universe as a 'giant brain' has been proposed by scientists -- and science fiction writers -- for decades.  But now physicists say there may be some evidence that it's true.  In a sense."

So, right off the bat, you're led to a woo-woo conclusion -- that the universe is some great big sentient intelligence, and the stars and nebulae and galaxies and all are the neurons.  Isn't that all just... cosmic?

The problem is, that isn't what Krioukov et al. are saying.  At all.  And Rundle himself hints at it, later in the article, although he sounds like he's kind of hesitant to bring it up:
The team's simulation modeled the very early life of the universe, shortly after the big bang, by looking at how quantum units of space-time smaller than subatomic particles 'networked' with each other as the universe grew.

They found that the simulation mirrored that of other networks. Some links between similar nodes resulted in limited growth, while others acted as junctions for many different connections.
For instance, some connections are limited and similar - like a person who likes sports visiting many other sports websites - and some are major and connect to many other parts of the network, like Google and Yahoo.

No, it doesn't quite mean that the universe is 'thinking' - but as has been previously pointed out online, it might just mean there's more similarity between the very small and the very large than first appearances suggest.
It doesn't quite mean that the universe is thinking?  How about it doesn't mean that AT ALL?  Let's take a look at the actual press release from the University of California about the research.  Oh, hey!  Look!  All we have to do is read the first two paragraphs:
The structure of the universe and the laws that govern its growth may be more similar than previously thought to the structure and growth of the human brain and other complex networks, such as the Internet or a social network of trust relationships between people, according to a new paper published in the science journal Nature’s Scientific Reports.

"By no means do we claim that the universe is a global brain or a computer," said Dmitri Krioukov, co-author of the paper, published by the Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis (CAIDA), based at the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) at the University of California, San Diego. "But the discovered equivalence between the growth of the universe and complex networks strongly suggests that unexpectedly similar laws govern the dynamics of these very different complex systems."
Did you catch that?  It ain't subtle.  By no means do we claim that the universe is a global brain.  Right from one of the co-authors of the study.  So what's the HuffPost headline?  Let's take another look, shall we?  "Physicists Find Evidence That the Universe is a 'Giant Brain.'"

Krioukov et al. did a very intriguing piece of research; to show how the model of a networked system -- like the brain, or a social network, or the internet -- could have the same basic pattern, or map, as a model of the interactions between particles in the early universe.  Nowhere, nowhere does he say that the universe is brain-like in any other fashion.  But that's exactly the conclusion that Rundle would lead you to believe, isn't it?  If you don't think that this is how your average reader would interpret Rundle's article -- and especially any readers who already had woo-woo tendencies -- take a look at one of the posts from the comment section (you'll have to trust me that I copied this verbatim; there's only so many times you can write [sic] in one paragraph):
You need know the theoretical model of primordial galaxies made by Matrix/DNA Theory, where cells systems are exactly copies of those galaxies models. If neuronal cells are exactly like galaxies, the human brain must be a exactly copy of the Universe. But... we need remember that logics demands that there are living beings with brains and consciousnesses everywhere. My idea is that we are a kind of genes building some region or part of an embryo. Since our brain is shared by regions of functions, maybe the whole earth's consciousnesses is responsible by some region of Universes' embryo brain. Andromeda is responsible by other region, and so on. Finally: all humans will be one cosmic planetary mind, and all planetary minds will be one universal mind. Beautiful. You mist love and help any human being and any other lifeform conscious of this universe, because they are you and you are they, into one.
Wow.  I would feel so beautiful and universal and planetary, if I hadn't just finished slamming my forehead against the desk repeatedly.

Okay, I know people are gonna believe weird stuff.  It's kind of inevitable.  No matter what, there are going to be some uncritical thinkers out there.  But fer cryin' in the sink, we don't need the purveyors of popular media out there making things worse.  If they're going to report on science, the least they can do is not to interject their own crappy understanding of scientific principles into the freakin' headline.

All right, all right, I'll calm down, now.  I realize I shouldn't get so wound up about this stuff.  Isn't good for the blood pressure.  Maybe I should just relax and concentrate on soothing thoughts.  Maybe they'll be sent in from the "Andromeda region" of my brain.  Wouldn't that just be cosmic?

1 comment:

  1. Site traffic is more important than accuracy. This seems deliberate. For a few extra hits on their site, they were willing to make a scientist correct people ad nauseam, for the unforseeable future, as to the actual conclusion of that study. It's rude and dastardly behavior... or the soup du jour.

    As you've stated many a time, situations like these serve to increase the resolve of those who do good works.

    Vultures circle, waiting for you to fall, eager to swoop in a claim a piece of you. If you stop to deal with them, you won't have energy left to escape the desert. Better to just keep walking. As long as you do, they get nothing. And when you do get out of the desert, remember; they'll still be there, circling endlessly, waiting for another. Pity them.