Dark Matter: The Science of Selling Headlines

Despite never having been actually observed, measured or tested empirically, hypothetical ‘dark matter’ is a regular feature of scientific reporting.

One would suppose that the existence of dark matter is relatively settled science, as often as it is discussed in scientific literature and journalism. Most people would be surprised to find out that dark matter is just sort of a guess to fill in gaps of knowledge. It is a sort of abstract placeholder for what is not known. Yet more and more it appears to be used as an assumption in scientific hypotheses, which creates a confirmation bias loop.

“Dark matter and dark energy are mysterious, unknown substances that are thought to make up more than 96% of the universe. While we may have never directly seen them, they beautifully explain how stars and galaxies move and how the universe is expanding.”

While many scientists seem to be jumping into this loop sort of naively, there are others who may be knowingly exploiting dark matter for ulterior purposes.

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The most scandalous culprits doing this are scientists themselves, who take advantage of popular and exotic-seeming ideas in order to get funding. Dark matter is certainly a trendy idea, and definitely seems exotic. It sounds almost like something out of a science fiction story. As human beings we are drawn into such mysterious ideas. And so if you want human beings to fund your research, it is always easier to do when that research is based on something exotic, mysterious and appealing.

“Slowly but surely, this tiny opposition to dark matter grew from just two physicists to several hundred proponents…dark matter is our generation’s ether.”

I have no way of getting any figures on what kind of money gets spent on science based on dark matter every year, but I can almost guarantee that it tops many other more practical scientific endeavors which could solve immediate issues of living human beings. Scientists will almost always argue that you never know what you will discover when exploring something completely different, which is true, but is also an irresponsible use of after-the-fact justifications being given before the fact. While there is human suffering and desire, you would think that would be top priority. But priorities make for hard sells, and scientists know that unless they want to trade in their beakers and telescopes in for spatulas and brooms, they need to go where the money is. And the money is in ideas that pique the human imagination, even when they do not realistically meet human needs.

There is a big difference between a justified belief and an empirical fact, so the question remains – can justified beliefs ever be truly scientific?

Given that kind of complexity, I can certainly understand why scientists end up following the money. I can generally understand why just about anyone in today’s world would make a few sacrifices to do what they love, rather than being swept into some unfulfilling or soul-sucking line of employment. However it is not my empathy at stake, but the relationship of science to society which stands to be compromised if such dishonesty remains at the heart of scientific endeavors and decision-making.

“However, the reality is that dark matter’s existence has not yet been proved. Dark matter is still a hypothesis, albeit a rather well-supported one”

The second scoundrel certainly needed no help in compromising itself, but was happy to anyway. Of course I am talking about the media. While scientists might find the unexpected while doing unnecessary research, the same is hardly true of science reporting. Science reporting creates the sort of subject populism which drives scientists into the pragmatics of funding, while also misleading the public, and all just to sell ad space. The unscrupulous nature of scientific reporting could have little if any benefit in the long run.

“Unfortunately, rather than illuminating the inner workings of the scientific enterprise or explaining science’s importance as an institution, mainstream news publications tend to instead leverage its superficial narrative potential.”

In the media there is a word for those who rely on the exotic, mysterious, appealing and entirely unverified – sensationalism. In the media dark matter makes sensational headlines, and so reporters follow the scoop, regardless of the veracity of the science or the dangers of misleading the public. Dark matter sells ads and that is the journalistic bottom line, not the science itself.

“The biggest question really seems who is to blame? Is it irresponsible journalists, incentivized scientists propagating bad science, or the media  which seems to pick up these ideas and infiltrate the public with incorrect ideas”

However the media cannot and will not, in the immediate future, be trusted to correct the problems they have created. That would not be at all in their interest, considering the public are also generally unreliable in changing their media consumption habits to address sensationalism. Perhaps the the best solution available to us right now is that scientists themselves avoid working with the media as much as possible, and putting forward their own efforts to inform the public. Those efforts should include admissions about gap fillers, and in the case of dark matter always include the uncertainty of its existence as a caveat aside any claims of its possible existence.

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