Thursday, April 11, 2019

Black hole image and science reporting

Many times I have wanted to write about the atrocious way in which science is misreported by journalists, how this is complicit with capitalism, feeds an anti-science agenda, and confirms conservative biases. You wouldn't think that the astounding new images of the M87 black hole would be the place to start. And indeed it's far from the worst example. But maybe it's useful to consider for precisely that reason.

Journalism is fixated on the story. It needs to turn a chaotic world of interactions into a simple, linear narrative that an eight-year-old can follow. But your life is not a story. It is not linear, with clear demarcations of good, evil, and so on. A moment's consideration will realise that no life is a clear progression from A to B, because even if this path is indeed one of the "journeys" (another word journalists love) you are "on", that's far from the only dynamic.

A focus on the story must omit everything that doesn't fit. It must heighten drama, find (and then simplify) conflict, and so on. It must validate the heroic or brilliant individual that is the engine of change. Science reporting is a perfect example of this. Time and again the Great Man fallacy is advanced. Although, whenever possible, journalists will do all they can to find an attractive person for their headline article.

This focus on individualism is complicit with two myths in the neoliberal world: democracy and capitalism. Because each has, at its heart, a focus on the individual who must be in conflict with everyone else around her, in a battle for supremacy in which "there can be only one". Only one athlete can be victorious. Only one party can win the will of the people. Only one movie is "the best". It doesn't matter who you step on to get to the top. Resources are there to be consumed. Etc.

This myth denies social structures, cohesion, collaboration, and sharing. It undermines everything that is good about people, every ethos except the self-serving need to beat out the competition.

Hannah Devlin is Science correspondent for The Guardian. I'd like to highlight her article “Black hole picture captured for first time in space breakthrough,” because it's a good example of what science journalism can be. But it also highlights the biases I've only briefly sketched.

In this case the lead is the image itself, as it so often is with astronomy. We have had plenty of confirming data about black holes over many decades, but until one is imaged (transduced into visual light frequencies) it's not really compelling to many readers. That is understandable. Ocularcentrism is alive and well. (A matter for another post.) This is why astronomical agencies spend so much time and money on producing still and moving images.

Early on we find out that “The breakthrough image was captured by the Event Horizon telescope (EHT), a network of eight radio telescopes spanning locations from Antarctica to Spain and Chile, in an effort involving more than 200 scientists.” This confirms that the venture was collaborative, spanning borders, and is not a matter of nationalism or any other petty self-interest. In the fifth and sixth paragraphs we get quotations from individuals, but it's clear they are spokespeople. The article focuses on the facts and is easy to understand for a general audience. So far, so good.

Further down the page we get the story. Here's an individual to focus on. Katie Bouman, as a student, developed a crucial algorithm. With no outside data, it's hard to know how important her contribution was. The NASA press release makes no mention of her by name. Neither does the home page of the Event Horizon Telescope. Scientists operate with a very different ideology. Everyone on a science team makes a “crucial” contribution. Bouman's own statement confirms this: “We’re a melting pot of astronomers, physicists, mathematicians and engineers, and that’s what it took to achieve something once thought impossible.” This is not just being modest. It's a statement of a truth that, as a scientist, she would know well.

Two facts confirm the narrative bias at work in the article. The information comes with a picture of a young, smiling, attractive woman. And her appellation is the diminutive “Katie”, though in her scientific work she is Katherine L. Bouman. I'll let you determine how sexist this is.

So, bound up in one article we get an excellent “explainer” for the general public and an example of the fallacies at work in science journalism.

For the record, these are the 218 individuals who make up the The Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration Team. You won't see this list in any reporting. Every single one of these researchers was “crucial.”

Kazunori Akiyama
Antxon Alberdi
Walter Alef
Keiichi Asada
Rebecca Azulay
Anne-Kathrin Baczko
David Ball
Mislav Balokovic
John Barrett
Dan Bintley
Lindy Blackburn
Wilfred Boland
Katherine L. Bouman
Geoffrey C. Bower
Michael Bremer
Christiaan D. Brinkerink
Roger Brissenden
Silke Britzen
Avery E. Broderick
Dominique Broguiere
Thomas Bronzwaer
Do-Young Byun
John E. Carlstrom
Andrew Chael
Chi-kwan Chan
Shami Chatterjee
Koushik Chatterjee
Ming-Tang Chen
Yongjun Chen
Ilje Cho
Pierre Christian
John E. Conway
James M. Cordes
Geoffrey B. Crew
Yuzhu Cui
Jordy Davelaar
Mariafelicia De Laurentis
Roger Deane
Jessica Dempsey
Gregory Desvignes
Jason Dexter
Sheperd S. Doeleman
Ralph P. Eatough
Heino Falcke
Vincent L. Fish
Ed Fomalont
Raquel Fraga-Encinas
Per Friberg
Christian M. Fromm
José L. Gómez
Peter Galison
Charles F. Gammie
Roberto García
Olivier Gentaz
Boris Georgiev
Ciriaco Goddi
Roman Gold
Minfeng Gu
Mark Gurwell
Kazuhiro Hada
Michael H. Hecht
Ronald Hesper
Luis C. Ho
Paul Ho
Mareki Honma
Chih-Wei L. Huang
Lei Huang
David H. Hughes
Shiro Ikeda
Makoto Inoue
Sara Issaoun
David J. James
Buell T. Jannuzi
Michael Janssen
Britton Jeter
Wu Jiang
Michael D. Johnson
Svetlana Jorstad
Taehyun Jung
Mansour Karami
Ramesh Karuppusamy
Tomohisa Kawashima
Garrett K. Keating
Mark Kettenis
Jae-Young Kim
Junhan Kim
Jongsoo Kim
Motoki Kino
Jun Yi Koay
Patrick M. Koch
Shoko Koyama
Michael Kramer
Carsten Kramer
Thomas P. Krichbaum
Cheng-Yu Kuo
Tod R. Lauer
Sang-Sung Lee
Yan-Rong Li
Zhiyuan Li
Michael Lindqvist
Kuo Liu
Elisabetta Liuzzo
Wen-Ping Lo
Andrei P. Lobanov
Laurent Loinard
Colin Lonsdale
Ru-Sen Lu
Nicholas R. MacDonald
Jirong Mao
Sera Markoff
Daniel P. Marrone
Alan P. Marscher
Iván Martí-Vidal
Satoki Matsushita
Lynn D. Matthews
Lia Medeiros
Karl M. Menten
Yosuke Mizuno
Izumi Mizuno
James M. Moran
Kotaro Moriyama
Monika Moscibrodzka
Cornelia Müller
Hiroshi Nagai
Neil M. Nagar
Masanori Nakamura
Ramesh Narayan
Gopal Narayanan
Iniyan Natarajan
Roberto Neri
Chunchong Ni
Aristeidis Noutsos
Hiroki Okino
Héctor Olivares
Gisela N. Ortiz-León
Tomoaki Oyama
Feryal Özel
Daniel C. M. Palumbo
Nimesh Patel
Ue-Li Pen
Dominic W. Pesce
Vincent Piétu
Richard Plambeck
Aleksandar PopStefanija
Oliver Porth
Ben Prather
Jorge A. Preciado-López
Dimitrios Psaltis
Hung-Yi Pu
Venkatessh Ramakrishnan
Ramprasad Rao
Mark G. Rawlings
Alexander W. Raymond
Luciano Rezzolla
Bart Ripperda
Freek Roelofs
Alan Rogers
Eduardo Ros
Mel Rose
Arash Roshanineshat
Helge Rottmann
Alan L. Roy
Chet Ruszczyk
Benjamin R. Ryan
Kazi L. J. Rygl
Salvador Sánchez
David Sánchez-Arguelles
Mahito Sasada
Tuomas Savolainen
F. Peter Schloerb
Karl-Friedrich Schuster
Lijing Shao
Zhiqiang Shen
Des Small
Bong Won Sohn
Jason SooHoo
Fumie Tazaki
Paul Tiede
Remo P. J. Tilanus
Michael Titus
Kenji Toma
Pablo Torne
Tyler Trent
Sascha Trippe
Shuichiro Tsuda
Ilse van Bemmel
Huib Jan van Langevelde
Daniel R. van Rossum
Jan Wagner
John Wardle
Jonathan Weintroub
Norbert Wex
Robert Wharton
Maciek Wielgus
George N. Wong
Qingwen Wu
André Young
Ken Young
Ziri Younsi
Feng Yuan
Ye-Fei Yuan
J. Anton Zensus
Guangyao Zhao
Shan-Shan Zhao
Ziyan Zhu
Roger Cappallo
Joseph R. Farah
Thomas W. Folkers
Zheng Meyer-Zhao
Daniel Michalik
Andrew Nadolski
Hiroaki Nishioka
Nicolas Pradel
Rurik A. Primiani
Kamal Souccar
Laura Vertatschitsch
Paul Yamaguch

P.S. Here is the series of science articles announcing the research results.


1 comment:

robin said...

By contrast, this BBC article hypes the individual while burying the team aspect below the fold. It even manages to include a fallacious image from the NASA team that makes the rounds on social media.

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