Thursday, October 31, 2019

Media manipulation: the Nobel Prizes and religion

James Peebles
The 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics has been assigned to cosmology and divided among three scientists: James Peebles, a Canadian, who receives half the prize for his theoretical work; and Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz, who have shared the other half for having discovered the first planet outside the solar system that revolves around a star in the main sequence.
The theory of the Big Bang was proposed in 1931 by George Lemaître, as a consequence of the extension to the past of the Hubble-Lemaître law. In 1948, Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman predicted that, if the Big Bang theory is correct, there must be a cosmic background radiation with a temperature close to 5 Kelvin. In 1965 Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered the existence of such cosmic radiation, whose temperature turned out to be close to 3 Kelvin. That same year, Robert Dicke, James Peebles and other collaborators reasoned that the radiation discovered by Penzias and Wilson is precisely the signature of the Big Bang predicted by Alpher and Herman. During the 70s, Peebles was one of the leading theoretical cosmologists who studied the field of the formation of the great cosmic structures (galaxies and groups of galaxies). For these works he has now been awarded the Nobel Prize.
The search for planets outside the solar system, which move around other stars, has been carried out during much of the twentieth century, although all initial attempts failed. The problem is that extra-solar planets are, from our point of view, too close to their stars, whose brightness makes them disappear. To discover them you have to resort to indirect procedures, such as the detection of periodic changes in the intensity of the star light, which decreases when the planet passes between the star and ourselves and increases when it is not in front of it. It is also possible to locate the existence of a planet by detecting periodic movements of the star itself, as the focus around which the planet and the star rotate does not coincide with the center of the star and departs further from the center the larger and closer the planet that causes the oscillation.
The red circle shows the position of 51 Pegasus
The first confirmation of the discovery of extra-solar planets took place in 1992. They are planets that revolve around a pulsar (a neutron star). Three years later, in 1995, Mayor and Queloz discovered the first planet that revolves around an ordinary star that is still in the main sequence, the same as our sun. This is 51 Pegasi, a fifth magnitude star located about 50 light years from us. This discovery earned them the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics.
When the name of the recipients of the Prize was announced on October 10, 2019, the major Spanish newspaper El País hurried to publish two interviews with two of the winners. On October 11 he published that of Michel Mayor, which was assigned the following headline:
There is no place for God in the Universe
Let’s look at the part of the interview that gave rise to that strong statement:
Interviewer question: Giordano Bruno, who was burned by the Church in the seventeenth century, proposed that there are many other solar systems in the universe, which does not fit with the Christian account of creation. What is the place of God in the universe?
Answer by Michel Mayor: The religious vision says that God decided that there was only life here, on Earth, and created it. Scientific facts say that life is a natural process. I believe that the only answer is to investigate and find the answer, but for me there is no place for God in the universe.
It seems surprising that a person who has just received the Nobel Prize proves so clearly his ignorance. The idea that there are no other inhabited stars besides the Earth is not due to the dogmas of any religion. It was a consequence of Ptolemaic cosmology, i.e. of science. If that is the reason for Major’s atheist claim at the end of the paragraph, he is totally wrong. It also shows that he does not know the history of cosmology, a science he is supposed to be dedicated to; that he has not investigated the issue. This is unworthy of a scientist.
But let's look at the other interview, the one with James Peebles published by El País, where the interviewer also brought up the issue of religion. This is Peebles's answer:
If you ask me about the influence of religion in my work, I would say that religion has nothing to say to us. But I would also say that we have nothing to say to religion. They are different areas and many people feel comfortable that way.
It follows that Peebles thinks that science and religion are compatible with each other, although independent. However, the headline assigned by El País to this interview was the following:
Religion has nothing to say to me about my work
By taking out of context a part of Peebles’s answer it makes him seem an atheist, and says the opposite of what he actually said.
The selection by El País of the headlines of the two interviews is biased, as the two interviewees talk about many more things, apart from religion. It is also a misrepresentation, because in one of the cases the interviewee's words are manipulated. It is, in short, a clear sample of the famous journalistic aphorism:
Never let reality spoil a good headline
Given that many readers just read headlines, without going into the text, headline manipulation is a way to deceive the reader.

The same post in Spanish
Manuel Alfonseca

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