Lying is generally bad

I’m a bit slow getting to this: Sean Carroll,¬†Matt Strassler, and probably others wrote about it days ago. But I’m still irritated about it, so I’ll go ahead.

CBS News says this about the Higgs boson:

The Higgs boson is often called “the God particle” because it’s said to be what caused the “Big Bang” that created our universe many years ago.

This is wrong. There is absolutely no sense in which the Higgs caused the Big Bang.

Just to be clear, this is not a case of oversimplifying or leaving out some technical provisos. It’s just completely wrong. It’s about as accurate as the following:

The Higgs boson is the key to making a delicious flaky pie crust.

Actually, that analogy’s not really fair: the Higgs has far more to do with making a pie crust than it does with causing the Big Bang. After all, there’s chemistry involved in making the pie crust. Chemistry depends on the mass of the electron, which (unlike the Big Bang) crucially depends on the Higgs.

It’s not too surprising for a news outlet to make this mistake. You might be tempted to say that physicists brought it on ourselves by stupidly calling the damn thing the God particle. In general, there’s some truth to this accusation, but in this instance, physicists¬†(plural) aren’t to blame — one physicist is. CBS was directly quoting famous science popularizer Michio Kaku.

CBS got this wrong, which is forgivable. Kaku, on the other hand,¬†lied about it, which is much worse. That is, the person who wrote the CBS article presumably and reasonably believed that the statement was true. Kaku certainly knew it was false when he said it. Whatever one may think of him as a science popularizer, there’s no doubt that he’s a competent particle physicist, and no competent particle physicist would believe that statement.

Kaku has a history of exaggerating and embellishing when he talks about science. I understand the desire to simplify when explaining things to a general audience, but there’s a big difference between simplifying and lying. Every time a scientist does this, he erodes the credibility of all scientists just a little bit.

Strassler’s blog post is aptly titled Why, Professor Kaku? Why? Not having access to the inside of Kaku’s brain, I don’t know, but it seems to me the most plausible guess is the following:

  • Kaku wanted to convey the idea that the Higgs is exciting (which is true).
  • It’s hard to explain why the Higgs is exciting (also true).
  • Everyone knows the Big Bang is exciting (definitely true).
  • So he decided to convey the excitement by linking the Higgs to the Big Bang.

Personally, I think flaky pie crust is quite exciting, so I think he should have gone with that.

Published by

Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

One thought on “Lying is generally bad”

  1. Someone on the Planck data release news conference (that I stayed awake until 3am to watch) tried to insinuate that the Higgs is responsible for inflation, which their own data rules out. I’m sure he meant that the idea of scalar fields is, after the discovery of the Higgs, no longer conjecture, but that’s certainly not what came across. I was very afraid I’d wake up in the morning seeing loads of “Planck scientists find Higgs responsible for Inflation” headlines, but fortunately media outlets showed restraint and actually for the most part interviewed experts before running the story.

    Incidentally, it’s called the God particle because Dick Teresi’s editor thought his preferred Goddamn particle moniker (aptly chosen for its ability to evade detection at the Tevatron) was too sensational.

Comments are closed.