Cosmology Is in Crisis — But Not for the Reason You May Think

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Science is advancing rapidly. We are eradicating diseases, venturing further into space and discovering a growing zoo of subatomic particles. But cosmology — which is trying to understand the evolution of the entire universe using theories that work well to describe other systems — is struggling to answer many of its most fundamental questions.

We still have no idea what the vast majority of the universe is made of. We struggle to understand how the Big Bang could suddenly arise from nothing or where the energy for “inflation,” a very short period of rapid growth in the early universe, came from. But despite these gaps in knowledge, it is actually human nature — our tendency to interpret data to fit our beliefs — that is the biggest threat to modern cosmology.

Cosmological concerns

The picture of the cosmos we now have is one that is dominated by two components, dark matter and dark energy. These account for 95% of the energy content of the universe, yet we do not know what they are. This is an issue for cosmologists and indeed is rightly lauded as one of the most important problems in physics — explanations for the nature of dark energy range from proposals to scrap Einstein’s theory of relativity, the addition of a new fundamental field of nature, or even that we may be seeing the effects of neighboring parallel universes.

But the dark energy problem is not the one that threatens to undermine cosmological experiments. In cognitive science, confirmation bias is the effect where people tend to unconsciously interpret information in a manner that leads to a selection of data that confirms their current beliefs. For cosmologists, this means the unconscious (or conscious) tuning of results such that the final cosmological interpretation tends to confirm what they already believe. This is particularly pernicious in cosmology because unlike laboratory-based experiments we cannot rerun our experiment many times to investigate statistical anomalies — we only have one universe.

Nothing wrong with naming a nebula after what it looks like though, in this case a horse head. (Image Credit: Ken Crawford/Wikimedia Commons)

Nothing wrong with naming a nebula after what it looks like though, in this case a horse head. (Image Credit: Ken Crawford/Wikimedia Commons)

A study that surveyed all the published cosmological literature between the years 1996 and 2008 showed that the statistics of the results were too good to be true. In fact, the statistical spread of the results was not consistent with what would be expected mathematically, which means cosmologists were in agreement with each other — but to a worrying degree. This meant that either results were being tuned somehow to reflect the status-quo, or that there may be some selection effect where only those papers that agreed with the status-quo were being accepted by journals.

Unfortunately the problem is only going to get more difficult to avoid as experiments get better. Ask most cosmologists what they think dark energy will be, and you will grudgingly receive the answer that it is probably a vacuum energy. Ask most cosmologists if they think Einstein’s theory is correct on cosmic scales, and you will grudgingly receive the answer that yes, it probably is correct. If these assertions turn out to be true, how can we convince the wider scientific community, and humanity, that any cosmological finding is not just the result of getting the answer we expected to get?

Ways forward

There are three solutions to this problem that are equally important. Blind analysis is the most straightforward and obvious thing to do, and has also been the most talked about. In this case the aim is to create data sets that have randomized or fake signals in them, where the scientists doing the cosmological analysis are blind — meaning do not know if they are working on the true data or the fake.

Blind analysis, and control samples, are commonly and successfully used in biology for example. The problem in cosmology is that we have no control group, no control universe, just one, so any blind data has to be faked or randomized. Blind analysis has started to be used in cosmology, but it is not the end of the story.

In addition to blind analysis there are two further approaches that are less widely practiced, but no less important. The first is a systems engineering approach to experiment design. In this approach, each tiny aspect of an experiment has a list of demands or requirements and result-independent tests that it must pass before it is used. The idea is that if each sub-section of an analysis passes these tests then the entirety should produce unbiased results. The second is transparency — by publishing data and codes in an open way for anyone to download then there is no place to hide tuned parameters, and dodgy data.

By using these three approaches — blinding, systems engineering and transparency — the next generation of cosmology experiments should be able to convince people that confirmation bias is not a factor in understanding the cosmos. Without them, by looking to the heavens, the most interesting thing we may find is ourselves.


The ConversationThomas Kitching, Lecturer in Astrophysics, UCL

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Banner Image Credit:Hubble eXtreme Deep Field, NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Discussion — 28 Responses

  • Kurt Stocklmeir January 9, 2016 on 11:09 am

    this is my theory – I have talked about it for years – gravity gets more strong as it travels there is not any dark matter Kurt Stocklmeir

    • Toni Deveson Kurt Stocklmeir January 9, 2016 on 6:06 pm

      Sadly, gravity doesn’t travel. Back to the drawing board.

      • Henrik Wichert Toni Deveson January 10, 2016 on 3:37 am

        I’m in no way an expert. Don’t we just know not enough about gravity?
        If gravitons exist wouldn’t it mean than gravity travels?
        And Kurt could rephrase his theory to “the greater the distance gravity gets stronger…”.

        • Martin Mayberry Henrik Wichert January 11, 2016 on 10:47 am

          gravity does NOT travel!

        • Angel Rodha Henrik Wichert January 11, 2016 on 12:10 pm

          Graviton doesn’t exist either. It’s just a convention name for something nobody has watched in any form and way.

      • Edward N. Haas Toni Deveson January 11, 2016 on 9:32 am

        “Esoptrics, the algebraic logic of the mirror (a/k/a Dynamic Mirror Theory)” is the name of the cosmological theory I’ve been honing since 1957. Though a handful of philosophers and scientists have praised it, most react either with indifference or with ridicule; and so, what I’m about so say about gravity shall probably not fare well with you, dear reader, whoever you are. Still, because writing cosmology is such a delightful pastime (and intellectual activity able to fend off Alzheimer’s per many a medical doctor), I’ll now proceed anyhow to burden you with my words.

        In Esoptrics, gravity travels at as much as 2^256 times light speed. How so? In Esoptrics, there are 2 major orders of reality: unencounerables vs. encounterables.

        Unencounterables are called such, because no finite mind can ever experience their internal characteristics. We can describe them solely in the terms of what their effects upon the encounterables say of their behavior patterns. Encounterables are called such, because finite minds can easily experience their internal characteristics, and that’s what we’re doing when we experience our sense images. The former are “non-inhereing” and “non-parasitic”, because they persist forever regardless of whether or not they are intimately bonded to another. The latter are “inhereing” and “parasitic”, because they persist only as long as they are intimately bonded to another, which is to say intimately bonded to that sub-order of unencounterables whose role it is to generate the encounterables.

        The 2 sub-orders of unencounterables are called “piggyback forms” and “carrying generators”. Each can be usefully described as a COMPOSITE state of excitation logically divisible into 6 kinds of COMPONENT states of excitation usefully described as 3 sets each of 2 mutually opposed kinds usefully described as: (A vs. B), (A’ vs. C), and (B’ vs. C”). Every form is a BALANCED composite state (cf. with Science’s “bosons” and “force particles”) and every generator an UNBALANCED state (cf. with Science’s “fermions” and “matter particles”). In Esoptrics, every form (boson) is forever logically concentric with a generator (fermion) in a duo-combo, and duo-combos often become concentric to produce multi-combos. Every duo-combo engages in what’s ultimately rectilinear locomotion by means of its carrying generator as the latter uses some other duo-combo’s piggyback form as a “space envelope” and collection of a definite number of “u-spaces” (a/k/a “logically sequential, component, micro-states of excitation”). Every duo-combo engages in what’s strictly curvilinear locomotion as its form (boson) rotates (per our way of speaking) around its center and as the same is done by the other form providing its generator with a “space envelope”.

        All generators are of the same one species. Forms are of 2^256 species. Esoptrics distinguishes the species from one another by recourse to a concept it calls the 2^256 levels of “ontological distance” and “OD” for short. The difference between OD & OD is the intensity of the 6 component states of excitation. At OD1, every form’s composite state is usefully describable as: (XA + XB) + (XA’ + XC) + (XB’ + XC’), where X = the minimum intensity. At OD2, the composite state = (2XA + 2XB) + (2XA’ + 2XC) + (2XB’ + 2XC’); at OD3 = (3XA + 3XB) + (3XA’ + 3XC) + (3XB’ + 3XC’); etc. for 2^256 steps. At OD1, every form’s composite state can be usefully described as having a dia. of 1.46946×10^-46 cm.; at OD2, twice that; at OD3, 3 times that; etc; until, at OD2^256 = 1.579×10^77 times that = 1.79844×10^13 light years per our geometrical way of speaking. Every form’s every composite state of excitation can be usefully described as a gravity wave exerting a tugging force upon any and every composite state falling within its diameter. Forms can move up and down in current OD at the rate of one OD per 7.2×10^-96 sec. (In Esoptrics, that’s an alphakronon and K for short) per our way of speaking. At that rate, a form can go from OD1 to OD2^256 in 2^256 K = 6.21959×10^-19 sec. and, thus, can be usefully described as a gravity wave which goes almost instantaneously from exerting its tugging force over an area of only 10^-46 cm. in dia. to one almost 18 trillion light years in diameter. For Esoptrics, Newton was closer to the truth of gravity than Einstein was. Since this is already too long, I’ll quit here.

        • Heinrich Spindeln Edward N. Haas January 15, 2016 on 3:25 pm

          What you said doesn’t even make sense.

      • moppenrow Toni Deveson January 11, 2016 on 6:01 pm

        How about Gravitational Waves? Do not waves imply movement?

      • Harold Katcher Toni Deveson January 13, 2016 on 1:41 pm

        Yet gravity does travel and at the speed of light when mass appears (as when a photon becomes an electron-positron pair, or by relativistic mass increase at great speeds). If it did not, then scientists would not be looking for gravity waves, which would cause a fluctuation in space time as gravity first reaches some point in space.

    • Kurt Stocklmeir Kurt Stocklmeir January 11, 2016 on 12:17 pm

      all forces get more strong as they travel Kurt Stocklmeir

      • Kurt Stocklmeir Kurt Stocklmeir January 12, 2016 on 11:45 am

        for years I have talked about – it could be true gravity waves and anti gravity waves get more strong as they travel – all forces get more strong as they travel – inertia gets more strong as it travels – I think there is not any dark energy – if there is dark energy and if it emits a force the force gets more strong as it travels there is only a small amount of dark energy Kurt Stocklmeir

    • moppenrow Kurt Stocklmeir January 11, 2016 on 6:16 pm

      Gravitational Waves?

  • Pete Kratsch January 11, 2016 on 7:55 am

    Everything is electric from the atom all the way up to the universe and everything in between. Gravity is just a subset of the electro-magnetic force. As long as cosmology views space as a neutral vacuum where gravity is the only driver… we will never advance beyond our current accepted understanding.

    • Shawn Eastland Pete Kratsch January 11, 2016 on 8:22 am

      Agreed!!!!!

    • Harold Katcher Pete Kratsch January 13, 2016 on 1:41 pm

      Nonesense.

  • esgar jimenez January 11, 2016 on 8:44 am

    If dark energy or dark matter were to be replicated experimentally using the LHC, would it be physical data? And it seems the state of “physical” matter doesn’t interact directly with dark energy and dark matter. So could it be possible for black holes to have the same principles?

  • Edward N. Haas January 11, 2016 on 10:00 am

    @ esgar jimenez: Assuming you’ve read my prior post above, I here continue so: In Esoptrics, what are commonly called “dark” matter and energy are such only for us. How so?! Matter and energy can move thru the Universe at any one of 2^256 OD levels. If some matter or energy is moving thru the Universe at an OD level far enough above the level being used by our own environment’s bits of matter and energy, then we’ll not be able to detect the former to the same extent we are able to detect the latter; and so, the former shall appear radically different from the latter, despite there being no radical difference between them . It’s merely a case of realizing that — contrary to Einstein’s picture of a FOUR dimensional space-time in which THREE of the dimensions are space’s and the 4th time’s — space time is actually a FIVE dimensional medium in which FOUR of the “dimensions” are space’s and time’s is the FIFTH. More precisely, “space’s” 4th dimension means, in Esoptrics, that the Universe is a collection of “space envelopes” (i.e.: forms) each of which is a force field logically divisible into a definite number of “u-spaces” (a/k/a: logically sequential, component, micro-states of excitation) = in number to the cube of twice the form’s current OD, and, since each of these “space envelopes” is currently at a particular one of the 2^256 levels of OD, current OD level is the 4th “dimension” of space.

    As, of course, I said above: Few are those willing to pay any attention to Esoptrics beyond what’s needed to hurl a few insults at it. So be it! They do me no harm.

  • Waitingfor4MOST January 11, 2016 on 10:11 am

    While I agree with what you said about improving methods I think you may want to take a closer look at the paper. From their data section:

    “We have made use of the NASA Astrophysics Data System 2 to generate our dataset by carrying out an automated search of publication abstracts for the years (1990-2010). We limited the search to published papers which include cosmological parameter values and their error bars in the paper abstract itself.”

    So there in lies an issue, they have assumed these results are independent but we don’t actually know if their automated search included joint parameter constrains in which case we wouldn’t expect them to deviate much from datasets like WMAP which some tests require (or other priors) to measure these parameters. They also don’t seem to have made any allowance for updated results which clearly are not independent. Sadly we don’t know as they didn’t publish their data but I personally would hold back on calling it a crisis, the authors only find this correlation in a couple parameters.

  • Martin Mayberry January 11, 2016 on 10:45 am

    The whole problem with this article is in the second sentence the word “EVOLUTION”. since evolution is a lie and anti-God science believes it, you have no foundation for anything else in the paragraph no hope finding any truth if you foundation is built on a LIE!

    • Angel Rodha Martin Mayberry January 11, 2016 on 12:15 pm

      Go to your Church to preach your flock… Here you are being just ridiculous.

    • Dave Andrews Martin Mayberry January 12, 2016 on 3:48 pm

      May the sky friends be with you.

      “You can’t convince a believer of anything; for their belief is not based on evidence, it’s based on a deep-seated need to believe.”
      -Carl Sagan

      • Heinrich Spindeln Dave Andrews January 15, 2016 on 3:27 pm

        You are the proof intelligent design is either not intelligent, or not design.

  • Angel Rodha January 11, 2016 on 12:23 pm

    Agreeing with your three approaches I share this example of independent experimentation.

    “The Brown University professor Richard Gaitskell, a principal investigator and co-spokesperson of LUX—a major dark matter detection experiment—spoke at Harvard in December 2013. In the colloquium he gave to the many rapt physics department members in attendance, he gleefully described how he and his collaborators hadn’t yet discovered dark matter. The measure of his experiment’s success was, curiously enough, that it had ruled out many of the dark matter candidates that a large class of models and even some (now) spurious experimental results had suggested.”

    Excerpt From: Lisa Randall. “Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs.” iBooks.

  • Vincent Sauve January 11, 2016 on 2:19 pm

    I’m happy to hear that the field is recognizing the problem of bias and herd mentality, even though that is not a word you used in your article.

    I have been writing about this for more than a couple decades. I’m hope these tools you spoke of will be implemented widely.

    Your page seems to not allow me to paste a link to my web page that critiques the Big Bang cosmology so if you would like to visit it use Google and type bigbangcosmythology, and another page, mistakescosmologistsmake.

  • Tim January 11, 2016 on 5:29 pm

    Dark energy? It’s just a glitch in the matrix.

  • TPV January 13, 2016 on 2:13 am

    Well, here are my thoughts.

    First of all the Universe has no ‘brains’ like we do, it does not think.
    Our physical observations of the universe do not represent what is actually there,
    our brains do that. Time, Space and everything else that we perceive do not really exist.

    It is very convenient and very tempting to give ‘Gravity’ a universal role, but it is only one of our many perceived
    notions.

    With our recently perceived ‘discovery’ of Dark Energy & Dark Matter we now find ourselves at a loss.
    Now days Quantum physicists tell us that Dark Energy exists even between subatomic particles,
    and recent experiments have shown that a change in the state of one particle effects the state of another,
    at infinite distances. I had predicted this many years ago. How ?

    Very simple logic, and try to visualize this; If we accept that ‘Our 3-Dimentional Universe’ must be infinite in all directions, and by this I mean going infinitely outwards and inwards and from any given point within its ‘infinity’, then we are in effect in one and the same place, no mater where we might ‘think’ we are (remember our brains are at work here). Everything is ‘connected’ as one infinite entity, and it just ‘is’, ‘was’ and ‘will be’ forever, we can call it ‘existence’.

    A ‘Brainless Universe’ indeed.

  • Stephen Marino January 13, 2016 on 3:05 pm

    I don’t see the problem. We take measurements; We use that data to create theories. In time, better tools come along that give us better measurements. If our theories are good, they will be close to the new data. If our old data was bad, or our interpretation of it was bad, new data will show this.

    We only have one universe to observe, but we have new/better ways to observe it. We test our old data based on the new.

  • Vishram Naik January 14, 2016 on 9:19 pm

    This comment is not directly into this discussion right now it is to begin with tangential in the sense interlinked thoughts have been self proposed regards Knowledge(Primarily scientific) & Human Identity using contradiction,which apparently permeates the animate and non-animate, as a vehicle of engaging.

    One thought which following the law of UN-intended consequences is a COMMON SYMBOL FOR ALL INTELLIGENT LIFE

    It is from astrophysics/cosmology plucked out as a low hanging authentic fruit from the top left corner of the Pioneer 10 plaque.The symbol a easy draw unlike say the UN symbol is the schematic representation of the hyperfine transition of Hydrogen along with the binary one as depicted in the Pioneer 10 plaque–Frd.15 Jan 2016