Science vs Marketing

I saw a paper some months ago by former Sussex colleague Xavier Calmet and collaborators that attracted quite a lot of press coverage largely based on a press release from the University of Sussex that claimed:

Stephen Hawking’s famous black hole paradox solved after hair-raising discovery

(If you want to learn more about the black hole information paradox you could start here.)

The press release is pure unadulterated hype. The paper in Physical Review Letters is actually rather good in my opinion but it says next to nothing about the black hole information paradox. Unfortunately the Sussex press release was picked up by the BBC’s science editor Pallab Ghosh who turned it into a very garbled article. Unfortunately Ghosh has quite a lot of form when it comes to producing nonsensical takes on science results. See, for example, this piece claiming that recent results from the Dark Energy Survey cast doubt on Einstein’s general theory of relativity when they do nothing of the sort.

Fortunately in the case of the black hole paper David Whitehouse has done a good job at demolishing the “BBC’s black hole baloney” here so I don’t need to repeat the arguments.

What I will mention however is that there is an increasing tendency for university press offices to see themselves entirely as marketing agencies instead of informing and/or educating the public. Press releases about scientific research nowadays rarely make any attempt at accuracy – they are just designed to get the institution concerned into the headlines. In other words, research is just a marketing tool.

This isn’t the only aspect of the marketisation of universities. If an academic tries to organize a public engagement event or do some schools outreach activity, the chances are their institution will hijack it and turn it into a marketing exercise, aimed exclusively at student recruitment. Universities are increasingly unconcerned with education and research and obsessed with income.

Forget the phony controversies about woke politics and free speech manufactured by right-wing press. The real culture war in modern universities is between those who believe in the intrinsic value of higher education and those who see it simply as a means of generating profit by whatever means possible. As in any war, truth is the first casualty.

5 Responses to “Science vs Marketing”

  1. I’m not sure I fully agree here. It is up to authors to approve the text of the press release. At least I usually edit the PR together with the press officers. So if the authors approved an overhyped university PR, that’s on them, I’d say. (obviously it’s hard to control what other press outlets down the line may make of it)

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t know the extent to which the authors were involved in concocting the press release, but it is true that they don’t seemed to have made any effort to distance themselves from it.

  2. Paul Hayes Says:

    Even more concerning than a journalist fixated on pumping up a story, some of the scientists concerned were not bothered that it was being misrepresented. [David Whitehouse]

    Even more concerning is how often scientists are the originators of misrepresentation (especially when it comes to matters quantum: “two places at once” and other quantum nonsense is usually the physicist’s fault rather than the journalist’s).

  3. David Whitehouse Says:

    Interesting comments. What are your thoughts about this?

    • telescoper Says:

      My immediate thoughts are that it’s almost 30 minutes long and I don’t have time to listen to it!

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