So the always humorous, unabashedly nerdy xkcd recently published this comic:

astrophysics

This hits close to home for me, in many ways.

First, this is an every day experience for me. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t get an email, or worse, a phone call, from some wanna-be who has the next theory of everything. I try to be polite. I even read some of what I get sent. Mostly this is a waste of my time. News flash: at most, only one of you can be right. If the next Einstein is buried somewhere amongst these unsolicited, unrefereed, would-be theories, I wouldn’t know, because I do not have the time to sort through them all.

Second, it is true – it is a logical possibility that what we call dark matter is really just a proxy for a change in the law of gravity on galactic scales. It is also true that attempts to change the law of gravity on large scales do not work to explain the dark matter problem. (Attempts to do this to address the dark energy problem are a separate matter.)

Third, it is a logical fallacy. The implication of the structure of the statement is that the answer has to be dark matter. One could just as accurately turn the statement on its head and say “Yes, everybody has already had the idea, maybe it isn’t modified gravity – there’s just a lot of invisible mass on large scales!’ It sounds good but it doesn’t really fit the data.”

The trick is what data we’re talking about.

I have reviewed this problem many times (e.g., McGaugh & de Blok 1998, Sanders & McGaugh 2002, McGaugh 2006Famaey & McGaugh 2012, McGaugh 2015). Some of the data favor dark matter, some favor modified gravity. Which is preferable depends on how we weigh the different lines of evidence. If you think the situation is clear cut, you are not well informed of all the facts.* Most of the data that we cite to require dark matter are rather ambiguous and can usually be just as well interpreted in terms of modified gravity. The data that isn’t ambiguous points in opposite directions – see the review papers.

Note that I was careful above to say “galactic scales.” The scale that turns out to matter is not a size scale but an acceleration scale. Galaxies aren’t just big. The centripetal accelerations that hold stars in their orbits are incredibly low: about one part in 1011 of what we feel on the surface of the Earth. The only data that test gravity on this acceleration scale are the data that evince the missing mass problem. We only infer the need for dark matter at these very low accelerations. So while it is not possible to construct an empirically successful theory that modifies gravity on some large length scale, it remains a possibility that a modification can be made on an acceleration scale.

That the mass discrepancy problem occurs on an acceleration scale and not at some length scale has been known for many years. Failing to make the distinction between a length scale and an acceleration scale is fine for a comic strip. It is not OK for scientists working in the field. And yet I routinely encounter reasonable, intelligent scientists who are experts in some aspect of the dark matter problem but are unaware of this essential fact.

To end with another comic, the entire field is easily mocked:

bloomcountydarkmatter

The astute scientific reader will recognize that Mr. Breathed is conflating dark matter with dark energy. Before getting too dismissive, consider how you would go about explaining to him that our cosmic paradigm requires not just invisible mass to provide extra gravity, but also dark energy to act like antigravity. Do you really think that doubling down on ad hoc hypotheses makes for a strong case?

*Or worse, you may fall prey to cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias.

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3 thoughts on “xkcd’d

  1. Note that although this is rarely mentioned in cosmology (or astrophysics) conferences, there are also attempts to modify gravity to explain baryogenesis (or matter-antimatter asymmetry) called Chern-Simons gravity. There are also attempts to modify gravity to provide an alternative to inflation or scalar field models of inflation and also attempts to avoid big-bang singularity.

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