What is Science? What is Hype?

“The most important scientific revolutions all include, as their only common feature, the dethronement of human arrogance from one pedestal after another of previous convictions about our centrality in the cosmos.” –Stephen Jay Gould

Tuesday, I talked about an alternative theory to cosmic inflation.

Whereas cosmic inflation gives you a uniform, flat Universe, that’s the same temperature everywhere, with a predictable spectrum of fluctuations, the alternative model gave none of those things, but did give those regions of concentric rings with low fluctuation amplitude.

In detail, of course, it turns out that inflation is very likely to give you those things, too! Inflation also tells us another very important thing, that is largely ignored in science news today.

Image credit: Ned Wright.

The important info? Inflation wipes out any information about the Universe that existed prior to the minuscule fraction of a second prior to the end of inflation and the Big Bang!

Image credit: Robert Piccioni.

If this is correct, it means we do not have any information whatsoever about what the Universe was like prior to the very end of inflation.

And it’s very tempting to ask what came before inflation. (Because we don’t say, “It’s turtles all the way down.“) Quite honestly, it’s a question I think about quite frequently. But — at this point in the game — it’s a philosophy question, not a science question. We observe steps one through five above, but the rest is 100% conjecture at this point.

And the scientists who’ve written about their preferred models, people like Steinhardt and Turok, Baum and Frampton, and Penrose (among others), are of course free to speculate. But physically, there’s no connection to anything that’s been observed that’s different from what “standard” inflation predicts.

And that’s what makes it hype.

Image credit: R. Klopping.

And there’s no shortage of this type of hype out there. Infinite quantum parallel Universes. The Multiverse. String Theory. Tachyons.

In many ways, they’re some of the most interesting ideas out there. They’re fun to think about, they’re beyond the limits of what we can observe (often even in principle), and some of them may, in fact, turn out to be correct!

But until they predict something observable that’s different from what the alternatives (i.e., the standard, accepted, verified stuff) predict, they’re hype, and not science. (At least, they’re not science yet.)

The interesting discussion in the comments of Tuesday’s post prompted me to write this, and so I’d like to know what your answer is to the title of this post.

What is science? What is hype? And, for you, personally, how do you distinguish between the two?