I found a strange paper on the ArXiv last week, and was interested to see that it had been deemed to merit a press release from the Royal Astronomical Society that had been picked up by various sites across the interwebs.

The paper, to appear in due course in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, describes a study of the positions and velocities of small satellite galaxies and other object around the Milky Way, which suggest the existence of a flattened structure orientated at right angles to the Galactic plane. They call this the “Vast Polar Structure”. There’s even a nifty video showing this arrangement:

They argue that this is is evidence that these structures have a tidal origin, having been thrown out in the collision between two smaller galaxies during the formation of the Milky Way. One would naively expect a much more isotropic distribution of material around our Galaxy if matter had fallen into it in the relatively quiescent way envisaged by more standard theoretical models.

Definitely Quite Interesting.

However, I was rather taken aback by this quotation by one of the authors, Pavel Kroupa, which ends the press release.

Our model appears to rule out the presence of dark matter in the universe, threatening a central pillar of current cosmological theory. We see this as the beginning of a paradigm shift, one that will ultimately lead us to a new understanding of the universe we inhabit.

Hang on a minute!

One would infer from this rather bold statement that the paper concerned contained a systematic comparison between the observations – allowing for selection effects, such as incomplete sky coverage – and detailed theoretical calculations of what is predicted in the standard theory of galaxy formation involving dark matter.

But it doesn’t.

What it does contain is a simple statistical calculation of the probability that the observed distribution of satellite galaxies would have arisen in an exactly isotropic distribution function, which they conclude to be around 0.2 per cent.

However, we already know that galaxies like the Milky Way are not exactly isotropic, so this isn’t really a test of the dark matter hypothesis. It’s a test of an idealised unrealistic model. And even if it were a more general test of the dark matter hypothesis, the probability of this hypothesis being correct is not what has been calculated. The probability of a model given the data is not the same as the probability of the data given the model. To get that you need Bayes’ theorem.

What needs to be done is to calculate the degree of anisotropy expected in the dark matter theory and in the tidal theory and then do a proper (i.e. Bayesian) comparison with the observations to see which model gives the better account of the data. This is not any easy thing to do because it necessitates doing detailed dynamical calculations at very high resolution of what galaxy like the Milky Way should look like according to both theories.

Until that’s done, these observations by no means “rule out” the dark matter theory.

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