By oversimplifying the complex human story of how big science done by big collaborations like Event Horizon Telescope, the mainstream media got many things wrong. The task of the media is to inform the general public. So, while they do have to simplify complex topics they also have to faithfully represent them.
Social media reflects the level of understanding created in the average person by both our educational system and the major media. Being a adjunct prof at community colleges teaching introductiory to intermediate level courses this was not surprising to me.
I knew this kind of reaction was comming. "I'm hardly immune. When I woke up to meme after meme of what I could only assume was Sauron's butthole, " https://t.co/KRyFmjBnpY— Hontas Farmer (@Hontas_Farmer) April 11, 2019
The image is not technically a photograph.
The first mistake was that the media did not correct the misconception that the image the Event Horizon Telescope would produce was a literal photograph. Even using the phrase “out of focus” to describe how it looks. What radio telescopes do is measure the amount of radiation at a specific frequency coming from a source. Radio telescopes measure the radiation* field in the neighborhood of a source. That measurement of radiation intensity at a given position is then mapped and these intensity maps are the “images” one gets from a radio telescope. The maps of intensity can only be as sharp as the angular resolution of the telescope which is determined by the wavelength divided by distance, or baseline, between the telescopes.
So no, the image is not a photograph a better term for it would be a intensity map. However image is a good accurate enough word for it.
The lone scientist trope.
Then there is the common misconception and science story telling trope of the lone (or nearly alone) scientist. Large science experiments have been collaborative efforts for a long time. In the last two decades science has stopped ignoring this fact. Many past observational and experimental achievements we tend to attribute to one or two people may, by todays standards, be considered the product of collaboration. For example, now it is common for undergraduate students to be involved in research. When I was an undergraduate student it was considered a rare honor and one would not get their name on the paper. Before my time the task of being an undergraduate student was to absorb knowledge. Now some collaborations name as authors on the papers anyone who ever turned a screw in service of the project.
It is in that context that the media should inform the public of the singular significance of any one person’s contribution to a plurality’s achievements. If they do not, a person who has not paid attention to this kind of thing for a living, even though intelligent and generally educated, can reasonably get the misconception seen below.
That one person the media chooses to focus on for story telling purposes practically did it all by themselves. Somehow, most media both did not call Dr Bouman by her title and at the same time implied to the barely interested public that she did all the work. Typical…just typical.
This does a disservice to Dr Bouman who created the specific algorithm, evolved from previous work to create the image, and to the likes of Dr Doeleman who conceived of and organized the collaboration and all the over 200 people who worked on EHT to gather the data that went into the algorithm. Almost all such computer code builds on previous code. Which gets a citation. This takes nothing away from the significance of her work and is a very standard part of science If the media needs heroes to hilited with that many people every identity group will likely have one representative. Each of those fine people are links in a great chain of knowledge creation that lead to that historic image.
Even in theoretical physics, where one or two people are the typical number of authors, we rely on the work of others… which gets a citation. Newton used input from astronomers and natural philosophers that came before him. In my own work I am relying on data from LIGO and Planck to compare my models to and refine them. String theorist usually collaborate in teams of two or three. As a theoretical physicist, it may just be my brain working on one small part of a puzzle…but I am not alone. Even the sole author of a paper usually must thank and acknowledge the input or influence of others.
The lone scientist trope makes for a good story but it rarely if ever applies.
Here are tweets from major media and well followed accounts which got it right.
Congrats to the amazing team, Shep Doeleman, Katie Bouman, and everyone from @ehtelescope! Here’s the moment where they saw the #BlackHole image for the first time. It’ll give you goosebumps! Watch the premiere of Black Hole Hunters Friday @ 9PM to see more. #EHTblackhole pic.twitter.com/mn5zGI81Eb— Smithsonian Channel (@SmithsonianChan) April 10, 2019
A viral meme which echoed some of the problems caused by major medias misreporting caused a combination of a sexist backlash and a righteous effort to correct public misconception. (Which of course in the tribalized world of social media can got a transgender woman of color called sexist at least once, somehow.) This very fine tweet from a member of the EHT collab does a good job of correcting both of those wrong headed ways to think about this achievement.
(1/7) So apparently some (I hope very few) people online are using the fact that I am the primary developer of the eht-imaging software library (https://t.co/n7djw1r9hY) to launch awful and sexist attacks on my colleague and friend Katie Bouman. Stop.— Andrew Chael (@thisgreyspirit) April 12, 2019
Of course it is not sexist to merely point out a woman’s work was part of a team effort. It is sexist to act like “all the real work was done by men”. These achievements are the work of many people... that is simply a fact which takes nothing away from anyones part in the whole project.
(Also I did not write "850,000 lines of code" -- many of those "lines" tracked by github are in model files. There are about 68,000 lines in the current software, and I don't care how many of those I personally authored)— Andrew Chael (@thisgreyspirit) April 12, 2019
Big science collaborations due to their sheer size a demographic cross-section of society. Even with the inequalities which do exist a collaboration the size of EHT likely has at least one person of every color, kind, and creed. Which makes it very disappointing that anyone could feel somehow left out and wanting to lash out. I give the media a D and the bulk of humanity a C- for our collective reaction to this.
The same day we transcend in a global effort to understand nature, millions of years of base...BABOOON LIKE.. tribalism brings us right back down.
*It is a misconception of the public to hear “radiation” and think only of A bombs and dental X-rays. Radio waves and normal light are also radiation. The light from the screen you look at to read this is a form of low energy radiation.
But it's important to set the facts straight and let the collaboration and its people be heard and celebrated for their true accomplishments as part of the many challenging aspects of this project.— Sara Issaoun (@SaraIssaoun) April 12, 2019
It is not often that one finds a facebook posting that is as good or better than news items both mainstream and better than what I was able to do with this. Misty S Boyer does a good job of explaining some of the details. It seems she did the reading of the papers necessary to fully understand the topic at the very least (I have looked to see if she was on the EHT team too and apologise if I simply haven't been able to find that out.) She has good citations and references for everything.
In short, while on social media negativity moves at the speed of light and positivity moves at the speed of sound, eventually the positivity gets there. On this story Eventually a full balanced picture comes into sharp enough focus. As over time so will our images of black holes get sharper.
On a completely different topic….
This weekend I am a delegate elected to the Illinois Education Association’s Representative Assembly (IEA RA). My supporters and I am going to try to get through some key changes to how elections are conducted within the IEA. Democracy is something one fights for not a natural self-sustaining right. My new business item passed. Union elections will be a little less crooked in the IEA