Sunday, June 26, 2022

BBC’s Black Hole Baloney | David Whitehouse | The Critic Magazine

IIf you’re a science journalist, you can’t go wrong when you’re handed a special story that combines Stephen Hawking, black holes, and the solution to one of science’s biggest paradoxes. Thus it was that the hand of Pallab Ghosh, 24, BBC science correspondent and honorary president of the British Science Writers’ Association, got its hands. a scoop,

With so many catchy words the actual story almost didn’t matter. Supporting a black hole breakthrough required broad narrative strokes, solving a problem highlighted by the icon of all things difficult and profound, Stephen Hawking. It was a science journalist’s dream , Or if it were true. This sad story shows how lax journalism, an overly pushy university PR department, and even some scientists themselves conspired to create a deceptive story.

Black holes are the keepers of fundamental mysteries

Black holes are strange creatures made of twisted space from which no light can escape. They are the keeper of the fundamental secrets of space and time. A constant problem has been their so-called information paradox. Does the information going into the black hole ever come out again, or is it completely gone from our universe? By information I mean what kind of object it absorbs: for example a star is arranged differently than a planet. Are such differences significant? The twin pillars of modern physics disagree. Einstein’s general theory of gravitation says no. Quantum theory, which deals with the very small, says yes.

New research says that yes, information can be saved because black holes have a newly recognized property called a “quantum hair” – a microscopic information trace around a black hole that somehow captures the things going into it. encodes. The BBC quoted one of the authors of the recent work, Professor Xavier Calmette from the University of Sussex, as saying “the problem has been debunked”.

It was not a very well explained article but its shortcomings go deeper than that. The truth is, it’s not true. The scientists behind it knew this well, and press offices and journalists at their institutions could easily establish it with a simple Google search. As the article was being prepared, the BBC was repeatedly told by a world expert on black holes that this was not true. The story was too good, as they say, to let the facts get in the way.

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In October last year Professor Calmette and others published a paper on the Internet about the black hole information paradox. This was not new and did not directly address the information paradox. It reported a limited discovery that some information could be ejected from black holes. The result was not unexpected, and was known at first, but the University of Sussex – the home institution for the two authors of the paper – decided to aggressively publicize the research and made the BBC a special offer to them.

One of the world’s leading experts on black holes, Professor Suvrat Raju of the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research in India was contacted by the BBC and sought comment. He told them that the press release “left on the state of the scientific field and claimed a more dramatic result than what was claimed in the paper”. He insisted to the BBC that the work did not represent a fundamentally new perspective, but Mr Ghosh continued to pressure him to make his response fit his story. Raju told them, “It would be clearly wrong to attribute this insight to more recent work … This is not true, as the press release suggests that this paper is the first to point it out … to me. Looks like you can easily spot it even a non-expert.”

Even more worrying than a journalist, some concerned scientists didn’t seem to care that it was being misrepresented. Two of them said in an email to Professor Raju that they should not take the PR department of the University of Sussex too seriously because they were just “doing their job” and correcting the science was “merely secondary”.

Story is entertainment beyond the event horizon of the parody

The BBC’s report was delayed by the invasion of Ukraine, and Professor Suvrat hoped that his warnings would be properly represented in the article. When it appeared he was dismayed to see that it was described as “revolutionary”. In the end, despite his asking that BBC journalists use his quote throughout, he truncated it so that it better fit the idea of ​​a success.

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Black hole information story is not “news you can use”. It’s the kind of science entertainment that skirts the event horizon of the parody. Most of the science news more relevant to our lives (energy, climate, medicine) shouldn’t be infected by the same sloppy attitude, but sometimes it is. Sometimes of course, a journalist has to face obstacles and deal with people who do not want to see a particular story in broad daylight, adding different views as to the value of a story. But the black hole information story is not one of them. It was just plain confusing.

This isn’t the only recent example of a black hole ballooning, from a BBC reporter. When the International Event Horizon Collaboration released its image of the black hole at the center of our galaxy, Mr. Ghosh ran a report on TV saying it was the “glue” that kept our galaxy’s stars from falling apart. Not so. Our galaxy’s central black hole weighs four million times that of our Sun, but the stars that orbit it weigh 10,000 times more.

Scientists and universities want publicity. Nothing wrong with that, but they are not the gatekeepers of the public: journalists are. Ultimately it depends on a journalist’s judgment and the perceived bond of trust they have with the audience. Pushy, misleading, over-hyped press releases are common and usually require little research in their place, and the ability to dump a story if it’s not as good as it sounds.

Scientists, institutions and universities can become addicted to their profiles if they are not careful. In some cases PhD students are pressured to tweet about their work repeatedly, even if they don’t want to. But profile and visibility are not more valuable than content. This is how fake science news thrives.

Nation World News Desk
Nation World News Desk
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