Question E: The Dark Matter Crisis continues: on the difficulties of communicating controversial science
There has been an unsuccessful attempt to close down The Dark Matter Crisis. Here is the story (and an email by Jim Peebles): UPDATE: The guest post is now online.
As regular readers of our blog know, and first-time readers may be able to guess from this blog name, Pavel and I mostly write about the problems and shortcomings of the dark matter hypothesis. One aspect of our research is to test dark matter models on cosmologically small scales such as the Local Group of galaxies. Over the past years, our research and those of others has revealed that numerous model expectations of the dark matter hypothesis are not met by observations. This led us to the conclusion that we should consider a paradigm shift in how we understand the dark matter phenomenon. Maybe, we thought, a modification of the laws of gravity, one possible approach being Mordehai Milgrom's MOdified Newtonian Gravity (MOND), could solve these issues.
Doing research that identifies shortcomings in a widely-held assumption and that is skeptical of a mainstream hypothesis is certainly a very interesting and rewarding endeavor for a scientist. It is closely connected to the fundamental scientific method of falsification and holds potential for groundbreaking discoveries. However, working on a controversial scientific topic also has its downsides. For one, papers criticizing basic assumptions are less attractive to be cited in mainstream publications. And before publication, controversial science already faces a more challenging peer-review process. For example Ashutosh Jogalekar explains in his blog The Curious Wavefunction:
“[...] reviewers under the convenient cloak of anonymity can use the system to settle scores, old boys’ clubs can conspire to prevent research from seeing the light of day, and established orthodox reviewers and editors can potentially squelch speculative, groundbreaking work.”
In addition to these 'formal' scientific interactions via academic publishers, there is also communication amongst scientists. For instance, early PhD students, who are still in the process of learning about the business of doing science, may be looking for advice from mentors and other more experienced scientists. Unfortunately, when the talk comes to controversial areas of science, students are often discouraged from getting involved in non-mainstream research (note, however, Avi Loeb's opposite advice). This begins with the commonly expressed belief that such research might “hurt your career”, but sometimes even more direct warnings are made. For example, a few years ago a professor told me that he would never hire someone who has published even a paper on MOND. A fellow PhD student got a similar piece of “advice” while visiting a different university, where one scientist advised him that he should only publish results which are negative for MOND, but nothing in support of it.
For people who are just starting in science, especially, such comments may be alarming. Graduate students do not yet know much about the job market. They therefore tend to believe what the 'old boys' tell them. To researchers who have a bit more experience, such warnings are often incomprehensible since they know by then (if they didn’t already initially) that it is entirely unscientific to withhold research results that do not fit a pre-determined picture.
The difficulties of working in a controversial field of research do not stop here. Communicating such science to a wider audience can also result in problems. While the public is generally very interested in the challenges faced by prevailing theories, there are difficulties to overcome. One of them is the question of how to differentiate completely unscientific things (the paranormal, creationism, ...), from actual, albeit controversial, science.
A promising approach to overcome this difficulty is to discuss controversial science publicly. This way, the public can follow and be part of the debate, learn that arguments are backed by references to peer-reviewed research and see that hypotheses need to be tested through comparison with observational data—essentially the public gets to view the scientific process as it is applied in any branch of research. By demonstrating that scientists stick to facts, respond to opposing arguments and do not resort to emotionally driven rhetoric, we can adequately demonstrate the strengths of science.
The strength of the scientific method over dogmatic beliefs should always prevail in order to be able to contemplate the possibility of paradigm shifts. This is indeed a complex idea to explain, and presenting research results as absolute truth is something scientists should be prepared not to do. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Sometimes, some people profess the ideas they subscribe to as the scientific or absolute truth. Such claims of absolute truth completely contort the nature of science. It is certainly going too far when science bloggers, in an attempt to protect their preferred mainstream theory, demand that a scientists' blog be closed because their views differ. Scientists who publish their research in scientific journals, who go through the peer-review process and who in the end publish slightly unorthodox but nonetheless valuable ideas, should not be censored from the science blogosphere.
Unfortunately, this is what happened to our blog, The Dark Matter Crisis.
A popular science blogger demanded that SciLogs.com discontinue our blog and has, for a short time, succeeded. We would like to use this occurrence as an example of the reactions and difficulties faced when doing online communication of controversial science topics. The incident demonstrates why debate in science must be based on objective facts and not be driven by personal opinions. It illustrates the dangers of mixing scientific convictions with personal goals and emotions.
Why we started the Dark Matter Crisis blog
In late 2009, Pavel and I wrote an invited article for the German popular science magazine Spektrum der Wissenschaft about dwarf galaxies as tests of cosmology. During the process, Spektrum asked us to also start an accompanying science blog on SciLogs.eu, to provide a place for discussions that might arise due to the controversial nature of our work. We were very hesitant initially, but after talking to students and colleagues we agreed to start a blog. What convinced us to blog was the possibility to get in touch with readers, which would allow immediate feedback and discussions, and the ability to continuously provide current information about our active field of research. When the Spektrum article was published in July 2010, the blog The Dark Matter Crisis went online, too. We blogged on it for about two years, and then agreed to move The Dark Matter Crisis to the new SciLogs.com network. The first article on the SciLogs.com blog was published on January 3, 2013.
The discontinuation of The Dark Matter Crisis
On January 28, we received an email from the SciLogs.com community manager. The email informed us that our blog had been discontinued and that we would no longer be able to update it, although the blog’s archive would remain on the site. The short explanation provided was that the “thesis pushed by The Dark Matter Crisis is now overwhelmingly considered incorrect by the scientific community and as such cannot be considered sound enough to be promulgated by SciLogs.com”.
As we blog mostly about our own and related research, such a justification not only attacks our blogging but also hits at the very heart of our scientific work. Consequently, the first reaction to this email was shock, quickly followed by many questions. Which “theses pushed” by our blog “is now overwhelmingly considered incorrect”? That the currently prevailing hypothesis of cold dark matter has serious problems? This certainly is not considered overwhelmingly incorrect, as there are many scientists working on addressing these problems, both within the framework of standard cosmology (e.g. Mutch et al. 2013, Fouquet et al. 2012), as well as by modifying it (e.g. Lovell et al. 2012, Macció et al. 2012) or even by taking a completely different approach (e.g. Famaey & McGaugh 2012). Also, we were invited to start the blog because of the controversial nature of this topic.
Furthermore, at the time of discontinuation, the SciLogs.com version of The Dark Matter Crisis had only one blog post thus far. The sole post presents the recent discovery of a co-rotating plane of satellite galaxies around Andromeda reported in Ibata et al. (2013, Nature). It discusses possible implications which are right now actively debated among scientists. In fact, that blog post was, as far as I can tell, the only one on the web to provide a detailed explanation as to why the Nature paper might be a threat to Einstein's theory of gravitation, which was explicitly alluded to by numerous publications, but explained by none (most articles in classical media focussed on the 15-year-old co-author of the study). Surely, it is not the aim of SciLogs.com, as a service to provide information to the public, to censor a blog that was communicating science to the public. Therefore, we concluded that this blog post could not have been the reason for the discontinuation.
But even expanding the scope to the old SciLogs.eu blog, we cannot see where we push a thesis which is not scientifically sound. Our blog posts are full of references to peer-reviewed publications. While we often discuss non-mainstream interpretations, we always remain within the realm of science and discuss an active field of research. For example, we frequently mention alternatives to dark matter which try to explain the missing mass phenomenon by non-Newtonian gravity laws. As an active scientist in this field, one can certainly not say that this is not scientifically sound and “overwhelmingly considered incorrect”. Just looking at the number of citations to the first paper about MOND by Milgrom, shows a citation count that has been constantly rising over the last few years and is currently at 1066.
So, what might have triggered the decision to discontinue our blog?
What Who has triggered our blog's discontinuation?
Digging around on Twitter revealed several interesting discussions which were obviously related to the discontinuation of The Dark Matter Crisis. It turns out that a former-scientist-turned-blogger, who had spent a few years doing research in cosmology (publishing 5 first-author papers with now 88 citations), demanded the discontinuation.
The blogger (@StartsWithABang) contacted @scilogscom on January 24 by replying to a 15-day old tweet that announced our blog's move to the new domain. He tweeted “Bummed that @scilogscom is in the business of promoting contrarian scientist viewpoints.”, and asks the SciLogs.com community manager (@notscientific) “[Why] are you allowing @scilogscom to promote contrarian voices that undermine public understanding of [science]?”, adding “You have taken on "Dark Matter Crisis" blog, whose mission is to undermine all of physical cosmology & promote MOND.”
The two agreed to discuss the issue via email, with the blogger adding that he was “*personally* worried that you are promoting clicks & false controversy over quality science content”, and states that he is “very, VERY disappointed about this move that @scilogscom has made”.
By now the SciLogs.com community manager has explained to us what happened after these tweets. He and the publishing director responsible for SciLogs.com unfortunately assumed that the blogger's criticism was justified. They decided to close our blog without conferring with others or asking us for a statement. After we complained about the discontinuation, they performed an internal investigation, which involved reaching out to astrophysicists and other people, and have realized that discontinuing our blog was a big mistake. We attribute SciLogs.com’s poor judgement to two factors: neither the community manager nor the publishing director has an (astro)physical background, it was the first time that SciLogs.com had experienced an attack against one of its blogs.
So, the result was that four days after the tweets about The Dark Matter Crisis were posted, our blog was discontinued. Interestingly, only a few hours later the blogger who complained about our blog tweeted: “Shout out to the @SciLogscom team, esp. @notscientific and @laurawheelers, for stepping up & vetting their #science blogs for quality!”. (@laurawheelers was not involved in the decision to discontinue our blog. She only referred @StartsWithABang to SciLogs.com’s community manager.) @StartsWithABang added “They are storing the archives, but the blog is inactive and will not be continued”. While until then this situation was only an example of one blogger attacking our blog and our research with contorted accusations, the reactions of a few other Twitter users were disheartening. Some of them, science communicators and even an active astronomer, welcomed the blog’s discontinuation. One would have hoped that they would see the value of our science blog, regardless of their own opinions on the controversial topic we blog about.
Some slightly earlier attacks
The incident seems to be related to a recently published paper by us: Kroupa, Pawlowski & Milgrom (2012). When the paper appeared on the preprint server arXiv on January 18, this lead to a short discussion on Twitter, during which the same blogger who would later led to the short-timed discontinuation of our blog, made some pretty harsh accusations against “the MOND zealots”, whom he seems to call a mix of skeptics and liars and deniers who trot out misinformation and undermine confidence in science. In reaction to our paper, he published a blog post in which he claims to rule out MOND with one graph. Unfortunately, his blog post does not address any of the issues discussed in our recent paper, nor does it address those discussed in many other papers over the recent years.
In reaction to the accusations and contorted depiction of our research, I submitted a comment to the blog post. It asks for a clarification of the accusations and tries to start an objective discussion. There was no reason to censor it. Nevertheless, the comment was not published the first time, so I submitted it again the following day. Again, it was not published. I then decided to ignore the issue and the blogger in the future, as a factual debate seemed to be undesired and emotion-laden quarreling on the web is a waste of time. However, as our blog was actively attacked only a few days later by that very same blogger, the comment is being published here for transparency:
“When I understand your Twitter tweets from yesterday correctly, you think that "Kroupa and some of the other MOND zealots" are, at least to a certain extend, liars and deniers who "trot out misinformation & undermine confidence in science". Is this what you were saying or did I misunderstand something? My honest opinion is that this would be unnecessarily aggressive, insulting, unprofessional and unscientific as it does not help to establish a well-founded discussion of the scientific issues.
The fact that you do not address the numerous problems of LCDM, many of which are mentioned in the recent paper, does not help shaping a discussion. In your blog post, you base your argumentation on only one problem of MOND: the the strong oscillations in the matter power spectrum. However, according to e.g. Famaey & McGaugh (2012), this problem is not as clear-cut as you claim. They write: “the non-linearity of MOND can lead to mode mixing that washes out the initially strong signal by z = 0”, and even suggests a more robust test.
More fundamentally, basic logic tells us that falsifying one hypothesis does not provide information about the validity of an opposing one. Just to give an example: Disproving that the world is a disk does not prove that the guy who is claiming that the earth is donut-shaped is right. As it turns out, the earth is neither a disk nor a donut, but essentially a sphere. Nevertheless, you jump from this graph to a conclusion about “MOND, MOG, TeVeS, or any other dark-matter-free alternative”. In addition, if you would consider the numerous failures of the LCDM model in a similar way like those of MOND, according to your argumentation we would have to give up on both, modified gravity theories and dark matter.
As a last note, I'd like to point out that in our recent paper we do not present MOND as the final answer. The fact that there is not a single “MOND”, but many different attempts to construct a full theory of modified gravity (see Sect. 6) already demonstrates that more work needs to be done. But in order to search for a solution of the many problems LCDM has on scales of many Mpc and below (where MOND is very successful), scientists should be encouraged to investigate this possibility. That is what a paradigm shift is, in my opinion: acknowledging that there are problems and being open-minded for new or alternative explanations, without hiding the problems that these alternatives may themselves face. As we acknowledge in the paper, mass discrepancies in galaxy clusters and building a consistent cosmology are real challenges for MOND, but there exist more or less convincing answers to these problems in the various effective covariant theories that have been proposed to date (see e.g. the list of theories in Famaey & McGaugh 2012 and their Section 9.2). Even if most of these tentative new explanations will turn out to be unsuccessful, I am sure there still is much to learn about the Universe. We have made this clear in the final sentences of our paper, too: “Understanding the deeper physical meaning of MOND remains a challenging aim. It involves the realistic likelihood that a major new insight into gravitation will emerge, which would have significant implications for our understanding of space, time and matter.”
So, I don't think there is any lying, denying or misinformation involved on part of us as active scientists. It is just that the Universe is a hard nut to crack. Having the strength to admit that none of the current models are the final answer should in fact increase our confidence in science.”
It is ironic that in a comment on this very blog post, the blogger suggests to a critical reader that if he does not like his way of blogging, the reader could get his own blog. Only a few days later the blogger seems to have worked towards the discontinuation of our blog ...
The aftermath and an upcoming guest post
After being informed about the discontinuation and after having discovered the background story on Twitter, we got in touch with the staff responsible for SciLogs.com. As mentioned before, they quickly realized that the discontinuation of The Dark Matter Crisis was a mistake. After discussing the issue with Richard Zinken, the publishing director of Spektrum der Wissenschaft (who is also responsible for the SciLogs.com blog network), he and the community manager apologized for the incident. We have accepted the apology and understand that mistakes can happen. During the last weeks, we worked together with the SciLogs.com team, thinking about what would be the best way to re-open the blog and how to handle the recent events in a constructive way. Together with Richard and the community manager we developed this blog post on the difficulties faced when communicating controversial research.
Together, we also decided to invite a guest blogger to The Dark Matter Crisis, preferably a cosmologist who is skeptical about our views. We hope that this helps to shape the debate and keep it at a scientific level, in contrast to the seemingly emotionally driven attacks which misshape the public's view of how science handles controversial research. We have asked a few colleagues for such posts, and are content that one experienced scientist has agreed to act as our guest blogger. We know that he is well-respected in the field.
His guest post will go online tomorrow.
UPDATE (March 09 2013): In a recent blog post, supposedly trying to shut off people working on dark matter alternatives forever, the blogger attacking us wrote: "Courtesy of Scott Dodelson, I present to you the one graph that incontrovertibly settles the matter." We now rather offer you a guest blog post on that matter by ... Scott Dodelson.
In the meantime, Jim Peebles, Albert Einstein Professor Emeritus of Science at Princeton University, gave us his explicit permission to publish the full, unedited email in which he explains that he would not like to be our guest blogger. We would like to thank him for this and, given our recent experience, fully understand that he prefers to not start blogging:
Sorry for the delay. I have been thinking about your email, and have decided that I will not contribute a commentary on your situation.
I agree with many of your points. The behavior of [SciLogs.com] is silly; this is not the way of science. As you indicate, the community is remarkably optimistic about galaxy formation within the standard LCDM cosmology. I consider this an example of the human herd instinct. With you I distrust talk of precision cosmology; we are still seeking an accurate cosmology. But I think we differ on the weight of evidence for LCDM. I am deeply impressed by the variety of independent lines of evidence that point to LCDM, and conclude that the case for LCDM as a useful approximation to reality on the scale of the Hubble length is about a good as one gets in physical science. No one can prove that there is not another cosmology without dark matter that fits the data as well as LCDM, and no one can prove that there is not another theory that works as well as quantum mechanics. I expect we both put the odds on the latter as too low to matter. I feel close to the same about the former.
You are entirely entitled to take the approach I see in your blog, but I do not want to state my opinion on your blog. I don't want to take up [blogging] anywhere!
In addition, you can have a look at a recent article in New Scientist: “Dark matter rival boosted by dwarf galaxies”. The article mentions James Binney, from the University of Oxford, who says that he “believes that some sort of MOND-like behaviour may manifest itself on small scales”, while Avi Loeb, of Harvard University, being skeptical about MOND, nevertheless states that: "The theory deserves a lot of respect."
We believe that all astronomers, whether skeptical or not of our controversial research, are able to agree with Loeb's statement, and it is in this spirit that we would like to continue our endeavours in online science communication.