Missing Mass Hysteria

It’s usually very satisfying to see science get covered in the popular media. Even if the story gets a little simplified or, more likely, garbled, press coverage often succeeds in getting at least a bit of the truth across. My own field of astrophysics has more popular appeal than many other branches of physics, but can nevertheless involve complex theoretical ideas and difficult observations that can be difficult to disseminate in a form suitable for public consumption. For the most part, the press do a good job for astronomy but occasionally news stories emerge that are simply ridiculous.

Take this one, for example, which begins:

A Monash student has made a breakthrough in the field of astrophysics, discovering what has until now been described as the Universe’s ‘missing mass’. Amelia Fraser-McKelvie, working within a team at the Monash School of Physics, conducted a targeted X-ray search for the matter and within just three months found it – or at least some of it.

What makes the discovery all the more noteworthy is the fact that Ms Fraser-McKelvie is not a career researcher, or even studying at a postgraduate level. She is a 22-year-old undergraduate Aerospace Engineering/Science student who pinpointed the missing mass during a summer scholarship, working with two astrophysicists at the School of Physics, Dr Kevin Pimbblet and Dr Jasmina Lazendic-Galloway.

On the face of it, this sounds an extremely interesting story not only because it apparently involves a major scientific breakthrough, but also because the result was achieved by an undergraduate student working on a summer programme. Unfortunately, however, a little digging reveals that there is much less to it than meets the eye. I know of many astronomers around the world who think the Press Office at Monash University is guilty of shameless exaggeration in the press release that initiated this bubble. This sort of deliberately misleading distortion is very bad for science, as it almost inevitably ends up splattered in unrecognisable form all over the media, especially the downmarket end.

Here is the abstract of the actual paper which this story is supposed to be about:

Most of the baryons in the Universe are thought to be contained within filaments of galaxies, but as yet, no single study has published the observed properties of a large sample of known filaments to determine typical physical characteristics such as temperature and electron density. This paper presents a comprehensive large-scale search conducted for X-ray emission from a population of 41 bona fide filaments of galaxies to determine their X-ray flux and electron density. The sample is generated from Pimbblet et al.’s (2004) filament catalogue, which is in turn sourced from the 2 degree Field Galaxy Redshift Survey (2dFGRS). Since the filaments are expected to be very faint and of very low density, we used stacked ROSAT All-Sky Survey data. We detect a net surface brightness from our sample of filaments of (1.6 +/- 0.1) x 10^{-14} erg cm^{-2} s^{-1} arcmin^{-2} in the 0.9-1.3 keV energy band for 1 keV plasma, which implies an electron density of n_{e} = (4.7 +/- 0.2) x 10^{-4} h_{100}^{1/2} cm^{-3}. Finally, we examine if a filament’s membership to a supercluster leads to an enhanced electron density as reported by Kull & Bohringer (1999). We suggest it remains unclear if supercluster membership causes such an enhancement.

You won’t find anything in there about finding the “missing mass” of the Universe, nor will you find it anywhere else in the paper, because they haven’t. The “targeted X-ray search” involved stacking old ROSAT observations of filaments that were discovered and catalogued in previous papers; this study merely matched them to existing X-ray data. ROSAT ceased operations in 1999. The results do give some evidence for a higher electron density than previously thought in some of the filaments, so it’s a fairly interesting “incremental” paper, not by any stretch of the imagination revolutionary.

I’ve got nothing against Amelia Fraser-McKelvie, who seems to have done some solid scientific work during her summer internship, and who may not have played any role in spinnng the shameless press release that led to this story getting into the world’s media. However, the more senior scientists involved in this work should not have let the story come out in this form.

47 Responses to “Missing Mass Hysteria”

  1. The problem with the press release is that it talks about “missing mass” when it should say “missing baryonic matter”, that is, baryons inferred from big bang nucleosynthesis and other indirect measurements, but which have not previously been detected in emission. You can see why the press office oversimplified it, but I agree the academics involved shouldn’t have let it go out in this state.

    I’m not sure whether or not there has been a previous clear detection of the filament IGM in emission; if not this does sound like an important result (although not quite up there with detecting the non-baryonic component). Even if one or two filaments were previously detected, a good statistical measurement is important, so kudos to the authors.

  2. Rhodri Evans Says:

    It seems, as you say Peter, that it is the senior scientists and the Monash University press office who should be held responsible for releasing a misleading press release on the significance of this work. It certainly generated interest, I had several people contact me asking me if it was true that an undergraduate had cracked a problem that astrophysicists had been working on for 50+ years. And yet, if the press release had reflected the true nature of the paper’s results, it may not really have been worthy of a press release at all.

    I have had the misfortune to work with people who were quite happy to grossly exaggerate the nature of things in which they were involved, and it does the whole community a great disservice.

    Whilst it is wonderful to see science stories make it into popular newspapers, and to see some astronomy stories grabbing the odd headline, it does no service to the credibility of scientists if we allow exaggerated or false claims to be made by overzealous university press offices.

    As all practicing researchers know, the progress of science is usually very slow. Far too slow for the media to be interested in the incremental advances that most published research provides. Real breakthroughs are few and far between, but sadly it is only these breakthroughs that the media are interested in covering.

    I have been on the radio in the last week, and will be on TV in 2 weeks, talking about this “rogue” or “orphan” planets story that seems to have transitioned from a Nature article to the popular media. How significant this orphan planets discovery is we shall have to wait and see, but there is no doubt it has generated a lot of interest. I am happy to talk about it as I see it as an opportunity to make people aware of the huge amount of research that is going on in the exoplanet community, and talk about the techniques used, their limitations etc. I also point out that searching for host stars within 10 AUs of the orphan planets is not an exhaustive search.

    Intelligent readers/viewers are more than willing, I find, to hear about the uncertainties and caveats inherent in most of our research. Unfortunately, the downmarket press are not interested in such subtleties, and it is these newspapers that far too many people read.

  3. [...] on a bunch of subjects, including the Bayesian approach to probabilities (one of my obsessions), media coverage of science, physics puzzles, and a lot more. (I’ve just mentioned the science topics, but he writes [...]

  4. Interesting. I wonder how long it will be before the Space Mirror Mystery gets into the news? It can solve every problem :D

  5. Manuela Says:

    Peter,
    you have strangely been too polite. The paper is not much more than a bunch of rubbish, indeed the kind of project you correctly give to a summer student. Worse (at least in my view) of all, its science is based on stacking!
    Despite of that, as I have already commented on my page, I was astounded by the shamelessness (if the word exists otherwise I am sure you can get what I mean) of the press release. Missing Matter what? Just get some filaments which are optically selected, do some X-ray stacking and see what you get…plus, if I remember correctly, there was also an issue on the number of ‘detections’ (4 out of 41? and BTW would anybody find 41 filaments in total representative of the whole universe???).
    My colleagues (all Milky Way-star forming people where I currently work) all came to me as soon as they read the press release on the most important italian newspaper as they indeed believe dit (and why shouldn’t they?)..and if scientists which are not precisely in the same field do buy such rubbish, why shouldn’t the wider public do so? And worse of all, in the italian newspaper a lot of weight was given to the fact that the student was not a professional researcher but indeed just doing some internship on a very short-term project (Title: a student finds in three months what astronomers have been searchign for for the past 50 years). Message that gets across? Those useless parasites paid with our money just waste their time while it only takes some ‘pure’ soul to work everything out in three months..and this happens right at the time when in Italy (but also in the UK, etc) public research is getting massive cuts!!
    So screw the whole monash gang for such a lame behaviour. And no, I would not save the student in this all shameful process…just check the photo associated with the italian press release (http://www.repubblica.it/scienze/2011/05/27/news/studentessa_scopre_massa_universo-16824482/index.html?ref=search). don’t they remind you of some guys from the justice league???wonderwomen (2) and ironman or what???? would anybody with a clean conscience pose for such a photo?

    • telescoper Says:

      Manuela

      I must have mellowed in my old age. Fortunately, you are still young…

      Peter

    • “Those useless parasites paid with our money just waste their time while it only takes some ‘pure’ soul to work everything out in three months…”

      if this attitude does exist in the italian media and public, i’d be astonished if it came about solely due to this one story (misleading as the press release may be). isn’t it more likely that its a perception that has been built up over a period of time? what is needed is a storying saying “dedicated hard work by astronomers yields big result”…

      which is pretty much the subtext of every other press release the media must see. perhaps unsurprising that they spun this one in the direction they did?

    • telescoper Says:

      There was a similar story in the Daily Fail about how some geezer had taken a picture of M31 from his back garden that looked just as good as a Herschel image:

      http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1344649/Steve-Loughrans-photographs-deep-space-garden-Cambridge.html

      The thrust of that article was definitely along the lines that these professional astronomers are a waste of money. The story was bollocks of course, because the Herschel image was in the far-infrared not optical, but that distinction was clearly lost on the Daily Mail Reporter.

    • peter: i’m not so sure – that story simply states that the amateur’s photo can “comfortably sit alongside” the herschel image – and from the look of his images (which are good) i think that is true. if you read the quotes, he’s certainly not claiming any more (in fact he makes no mention of the herschel data, so i assume this is two distinct stories bolted together).

    • Kevin Pimbblet as Iron Man…?

    • “There was a similar story in the Daily Fail about how some geezer had taken a picture of M31 from his back garden that looked just as good as a Herschel image:”

      Glad you explained the reason. For a moment I thought they had confused the Herschel spacecraft with William Herschel. (Yes, a modern back-garden telescope can rival his 18th-century constructions.)

    • Alastair Says:

      The Daily Fail did at least state that Herschel was a NASA satellite so missed a chance to claim it was a waste of European taxpayers money! Or that astronomy caused cancer.

    • Tom Shanks Says:

      Is Kevin Pimbblet Ironman because he gets rust on his pants? Maybe they did find the missing baryons after all!

  6. Bryn Jones Says:

    I cannot comment about the case being discussed here, because I have not read the research paper, and have not seen the media hype.

    However, I would be careful about criticising the authors of a research paper for what press releases might have said. It is entirely that researchers will not have seen or will not have been consulted about press releases.

    I got an insight into the way universities and some journals hype research findings several years ago. A group of researchers including me made a useful breakthrough in a field. One piece of work was published in Nature. Suddenly I started receiving telephone calls from journalists as the publication date and time approached. Somebody was hyping our work, and it wasn’t me. The four leading collaborators on the project all seemed to generate a lot of media attention, and a series of pictures of me appeared on the BBC website with a link to it as one of the main four items of news on the BBC’s UK News page (and that on the day of a cabinet reshuffle). Believing in a duty of scientists to engage with the general public about science, I responded soberly to requests for information, but went to some effort to describe the work accurately and tried to put it in context.

    It appeared to me that the public relations section of my university (that was the University of Nottingham) was hyping my work. I suspected that the journal was probably doing the same. It appeared that the university’s administration believed that getting the name of the institution into the media was a good thing, presumably because it might generate more applications for student places. This same process seemed to be occurring in the institutions of some of my collaborators.

    So we should be careful about blaming individual researchers for hype surrounding some papers: other people with vested interests may be responsible for exaggerating the work. Beware of university press officers.

    • Manuela Says:

      Look at the photo I sent the link in my last post. To me it looks like the formidable trio was perfectly aware of the public outcome..less (hopefully for them) about the scientific relevance of their work

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Yes, that is a silly picture.

      But I could post a link to the BBC publicity about me as an example of a scientist being asked to have his photograph taken next to a wall, agreeing innocently, then later being surprised by the outcome.

      But I’m not going to do that: it would be too embarrassing for me.

    • telescoper Says:

      Bryn, Other people have a copy of that picture, you know….

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      That may now be covered by a superinjunction …

  7. Maybe it’s a Melbourne thing – we did have “Dark Energy is Real” out of Swinburne recently.

    • telescoper Says:

      And Melbourne seems such a nice place…

      My theory that MonASH might have developed an inferiority complex after the cricketing events earlier in the year. Geddit?

  8. David Whitehouse Says:

    The mark of a good press officer, be they from a journal or from a university, is that they can produce something that is newsworthy without misrepresenting the science, bearing in mind that scientist and journalist speak in different tongues. If they fail, and most do, then it’s up to the reporter to redress the balance. Most do not.

    The media is full of strained science stories. Often journals and universities don’t care much as, from their point of view, all they want is their name in the media (repeatedly) and the specific details of any one story do not matter. They are after a cumulative effect that influences politicians, the public and supporters.

    If a story gets mangled or a press release is awful then remember it for next time, but don’t worry or take it too seriously. It’s just news. The public don’t remember the details – yesterdays news, today’s fish and chip wrapper etc.

    Other communities know this (politicians, celebrities) and it will always be thus. The good thing is that it is in the news.

    Astronomy is very newsworthy for many reasons. It’s romantic, amazing and relatively easy to understand (at a news level) and other sciences would kill for such coverage.

    In these cash-strapped times there is only one thing worse than being talked about….

    • Rhodri Evans Says:

      David – having worded press releases which have been largely unchanged by the press office of a university where I used to work; and seen the same press office release grossly exaggerated press releases authored by an ex-colleague, I wonder what checking a reputable news organisation does of the veracity etc. of the press releases coming out of universities?

      Did the BBC cover this story on its web pages (sorry, I haven’t checked), and if so what angle did it take? Was it as sensationalist as other news outlets seem to have been? Is the onus on the science correspondent to weed through the hype which may exist in a press release to see if the work is truly worthy of being big news, or is the onus on the press office of the university to release a factually correct, non-hyped story?

      I suspect press offices are under pressure to “sex up” the work being done at their institutes, as getting a university’s name in the press is, usually, seen as desirable. Of course, it can miss-fire, as it may have done here for Monash.

  9. In defence of press officers: I have worked with some very good ones, and they’ve always very carefully checked the text of any press releases with me. In general, the problem is not so much the press officers as the fact that there are many people along the chain without scientific or technical expertise. What these people do know about is how to tell a story, but they often don’t appreciate the effect of glossing over what seem to them to be mere technicalities.

    In this case, I think the press release could have been worded better, and the faculty staff could therefore be open to some criticism, but I think it was the right decision to highlight the summer student’s work in a press release of some sort – though I think the ‘finding the missing mass’ angle was ill-advised over-hype. It *is* a nice story when a summer student’s work is publishable, and I like to see solid work by career-young people get noticed. Also, I’m particularly pleased that the summer student got to lead the paper.

    As for the comments on stacking analyses: they do require readers to think about the methodology, but perhaps not everyone is cut out to do that or has the time… For the rest of us though, there are rich seams to be mined. I have to declare an interest here in that many of my own papers have used stacks, but it’s often surprised me how some people can be dismissive of stacking in very general terms with essentially no justification, while routinely passing no comment on, say, correlated error bars in clustering measurements. This is not to say that clustering measurements are in any way dishonestly represented (everyone knows that the data points can be correlated), but simply that the same or equivalent critical benchmarks are not being applied. Some stacking analyses are more reliable than others (I’ve been sharply critical in print of one or two in the past), but in very general terms, I for one would be much more well-disposed to give credence to a 3 sigma detection of a mean flux, than a 3 sigma measurement of some higher-order statistic like an angular correlation length.

    • A glance at Stephen’s web page shows that I have an Erdös number of at most 4: several intermediates (3) to Djorgovsky (2), then like Stephen through Babu (1) to Erdös (0). Stephen also mentions another route via Max Tegmark (at most 2) and H.S. Shapiro (1) to Erdös (0). Since H.S. Shapiro is the father of Max Tegmark, I wonder if part of the motivation for that father-and-son paper was the reduction of Max’s Erdös number. :-) (Max has an ApJ abstract in the form of a poem, so I wouldn’t put it beyond him.) Come to think of it, I can go through Rusin (3) to Tegmark (2) and thus also have an alternate route.

      Maybe I should buy George or Max a drink. :-|

      I’m not even a professional musician, but have played with Sven-Olaf Wussow, who has played with Abi Wallenstein, who has played with Zabba Lindner, who has played with Jack Bruce, who has played with Eric Clapton and Clapton is God. :-)

      Now to calculate my Hefner and Flint numbers. ;-)

      6 degrees of separation probably gets one anywhere, so within a broad field (say, astronomy, physics, mathematics), 4 steps to Erdös is not really that hard.

    • Another glance at Stephen’s web page causes me to urge all readers here to check out the excellent music there!

  10. Anton Garrett Says:

    “It *is* a nice story when a summer student’s work is publishable…”

    Here’s a nicer story of the same sort. I know somebody who published three papers without knowing about it. The results in them came from her final-year undergraduate thesis; her project supervisor realised the quality but could not find an address for her after she had left, so he wrote them up and gave her co-authorship. (The work was in anthropology.) I discovered this by accident upon idling around with the Science Citation Index in pre-internet days. When I told her, she was astonished!

  11. Manuela Says:

    I really do not understand why everybody here is discussing about press offices. It might as well be that they overstated a result to make it more juicy for the media. However, this ‘result’ must have been given to them by some of the authors and that simply and plainly that ‘result’ was definitely not worth a press release. So, who is the one really to blame??

    Having said that, and getting a bit into the clustering topic since it was raised by Stephen’s comment, I have recently seen some Nature publication and joint press release basically based on nothing (and in fact giving wrong results) made by a very big team and after about a month I am still on some scientific shock, honestly more for the Nature publication than for the press release. It seems to me that nowadays papers get published more because of the ‘fame’ of the authors/teams than for the quality of the work. And I can quote the very same answer I was given twice throughout the years by two different editors of ApJ
    to my objections that these two papers not only were pointless, but also wrong (one very badly wrong: the guy still did not have clear the distinction between proper and comoving coords and believe me it was not some kind of distraction mistake). Anyways, what I was told was that I was right but then the authors were ‘important’ people so that they had to be published anyways.

    I must say that I more and more find this whole astronomy market fully disgusting…

  12. David Whitehouse Says:

    Rhodri

    A good journalist never takes a press release at face value. It’s part of a correspondents role to quality check them and advise an editor, who may take the advice or not. Too often these days press releases are posted almost verbatim – it’s called churnalism.

    I read the Monash press release. Had it been on my watch it would have headed straight for the bin.

    • telescoper Says:

      David,

      Out of interest, roughly what fraction of press releases from university departments go straight in the bin?

      Peter

  13. David Whitehouse Says:

    The vast majority, deservedly so.

    • Rhodri Evans Says:

      David,

      your comments are very interesting. I can only assume that the media (mainly tabloid press – and I include the Daily Fail in that category) who picked up and ran with this story did little or no fact checking. I would imagine it is not uncommon for university press offices to “sex up” their press releases, after all they are there to generate media interest in things the university does.

      Can I also assume David that the BBC did not cover this story on its webpages? (I still haven’t checked, I’ve been too busy :) )

  14. Tom Shanks Says:

    Think there is a risk of being too hard on Fraser-McKelvie et al. I have had a look at the paper and I think its quite a reasonable piece of work, nice and simple. Their stats stand up to at least a cursory inspection even when you don’t assume Poisson statistics. All that’s missing is a few further checks on the robustness of the results.

    So Amelia – I wish you all the best for your future astronomical career.

  15. David Whitehouse Says:

    What’s wrong with the Daily Mail? Personally I sometimes have a problem with their health/medical stories but their science and technology section (especially online) is impressive.

    I wouldn’t know if the BBC it, or even if they got the press release.

    Some outlets just slap up the press release, some re-write it slightly, while others will just take the quotes and use the best bits. there is no universal approach, even within outlets.

    Take a look at the RAS’s or the AAS’s press releases and see how much of them is used without change. For me, for a reporter to put their by-line on a piece they have to have done more than cut and paste.

    The object of a press release is to get some media action, so a good press officer will target different outlets in different ways, as part of a strategy (there are some press offices that seem to think all that is involved is circulating the same press release.)

    The first post on this thread illustrates a good point. Whilst a press officer would put ‘missing mass’ in a press release, they would never, ever, put ‘missing baryonic matter.’

    • Rhodri Evans Says:

      What is wrong with the Daily Mail? I assume you mean with their science coverage, and not their politics? :)

      I’ve done a quick search of the BBC news website, and cannot find the story mentioned anywhere.

    • What’s wrong with the Daily Mail? Their science coverage may will be excellent, but some of us can’t quite get past the xenophobia and scaremongering on the front page…

    • Rhodri Evans Says:

      My wife, much to my embarrassement, buys the Daily Mail on a Saturday, she claims for the TV guide. By Saturday afternoon, after an hour or so of reading it, I am usually in a state of rage at its ridiculous xenophobic, anti-European attitude.

      But, a friend of mine said to me many years ago that one should read a newspaper that does NOT agree with one’s politics, to challenge one’ s ideas. Certainly the Daily Mail doesn’t agree with my politics, but I don’t see much challenge in seeing through its right-wing stance either.

    • telescoper Says:

      The Daily Mail crossword is terrible.

    • Rhodri Evans Says:

      I’m sure the Daily Mail’s crossword’s solutions are “asylum seeker”, “European Super State” and “Global Warming is a left-wing consipracy”, whatever the questions.

  16. [...] of the winners are Australian undergraduates, so this award probably won’t be considered newsworthy by the mass media. Believe it or not, [...]

  17. David Whitehouse Says:

    For myself, I was only commenting on the Daily Mail’s coverage of science.

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