The debate about D-Wave‘s “quantumness” shows no signs of abating, hitting a new high note with the company being prominently featured on Time magazine’s recent cover, prompting a dissection of the article on Scott Aaronson’s blog. This was quickly followed by yet another scoop: A rebuttal by Umesh Vazirani to Geordie Rose who recently blogged about the Vazirani et al. paper which sheds doubt on D-Wave’s claim to implement quantum annealing. In his take on the Time magazine article Scott bemoans the ‘he said she said’ template of journalism which gives all sides equal weight, while acknowledging that the Times author Lev Grossman quoted him correctly, and obviously tries to paint an objective picture.
If I had to pick the biggest shortcoming of the Times article, my choice would have been different. I find Grossman entirely misses Scott’s role in this story by describing him as “one of the closest observers of the controversy“. Scott isn’t just an observer in this. For better or worse he is central to this controversy. As far as I can tell, his reporting on D-Wave’s original demo is what started it to begin with. Unforgettable, his inspired comparison of the D-Wave chip to a roast beef sandwich, which he then famously retracted when he resigned as D-Wave’s chief critic. The latter is something he’s done with some regularity, first when D-Wave started to publish results, then after visiting the company and most recently after the Troyer et al. pre-print appeared in arxiv (although the second time doesn’t seem to count, since it was just a reiteration of the first resignation).
Scott’s resignations never seem to last long. D-Wave has a knack for pushing his buttons. And the way he engages D-Wave and associated research is indicative of a broader trend in how blogs are changing the scientific discourse. For instance, when Catherine McGeoch gave a talk about her benchmarking of the DW2, Scott did not immediately challenge her directly but took to his blog (a decision he later regretted and apologized for). Anybody who has spent more than five minutes on a Web forum knows how the immediate, yet text only, communication removes inhibitions and leads to more forceful exchanges. In the scientific context, this has the interesting effect of colliding head on with the more lofty perception of a scientist. It used to be that arguments were only conducted via scientific publications, in person such as in scientific seminars, or the occasional letter exchange. It’s interesting to contemplate how corrosive the arguments between Bohr and Einstein may have turned out, if they would have been conducted via blogs rather than in person. But it’s not all bad. In the olden days, science could easily be mistaken for a bloodless intellectual game, but nobody could read through the hundreds of comments on Scott’s blog that day and come away with that impression. To the contrary, the inevitable conclusion will be that science arguments are fought with no less passion than the most heated bar brawl.
During this epic blog ‘fight’ Scott summarized his preference for the media thusly
“… I think this episode perfectly illustrates both the disadvantages and the advantages of blogs compared to face-to-face conversation. Yes, on blogs, people misinterpret signals, act rude, and level accusations at each other that they never would face-to-face. But in the process, at least absolutely everything gets out into the open. Notice how I managed to learn orders of magnitude more from Prof. McGeoch from a few blog comments, than I did from having her in the same room …”
it is by far not the only controversy that he courted, nor is this something unique to his blog. Peter Woit continues the heretical work he started with his ‘Not Even Wrong’ book, Robert R. Tucci fiercely defends his quantum algorithm work when he feels he is not credited, Sabine Hossenfelder had to ban a highly qualified String theory troll due to his nastiness (she is also a mum of twins, so you know she has practice in being patient, and it’s not like she doesn’t have a good sense of humor). But my second favorite science blog fight also occurred on Scott’s blog when Joy Christian challenge him to a bet to promote his theory that supposedly invalidates the essential non-locality of quantum mechanics due to Bell’s theorem.
It’s instructive to look at the Joy Christian affair and ask how a mainstream reporter could have possibly reported it. Not knowing Clifford algebra, what could a reporter do but triangulate the expert opinions? There are some outspoken smart critics that point to mistakes in Joy Christian’s reasoning, yet he claims that these are based on flawed understanding and have been repudiated. The reporter will also note that doubting Bell’s theorem is very much a minority position, yet such a journalist not being able to check the math himself can only fall back on the ‘he said she said’ template. After all, this is not a simple straight forward fact like reporting if UN inspectors found Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass distractions or not (something that surprisingly most mainstream media outside the US accomplished just fine). One cannot expect a journalist to settle an open scientific question.
The nature of the D-Wave story isn’t different, how is Lev Grossman supposed to do anything but report the various stances on each side of the controversy? A commenter at Scott’s blog was dismissively pointing out that he doesn’t even have a science degree. As if this were to make any difference, it’s not like everybody else on each side of the story doesn’t boast such degrees (non-PhDs are in the minority at D-Wave).
Mainstream media reports as they always did, but unsettled scientific questions are the exception to the rule, one of the few cases when ‘he said she said’ journalism is actually the best format. For everything else we fortunately now have the blogs.