Illustration of the event horizon of a black hole, by Nicholas Forder/Future Publishing via Getty Images
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The BBC’s black hole baloney

Auntie makes a cosmic error

If you are a science journalist, you seemingly can’t go wrong when you are handed an exclusive story that combines Stephen Hawking, black holes and a solution to one of the biggest paradoxes in science. Thus it was that BBC science correspondent of 24 years and honorary president of the Association of British Science Writers, Pallab Ghosh, got his hands on a scoop

With such attractive buzz words the actual story almost didn’t matter. Broad narrative strokes were required to support a black hole breakthrough solving a problem highlighted by the icon of all things difficult and profound, Stephen Hawking. It was a science journalist’s dream or it would have been if it had been true. This sorry tale shows how sloppy journalism, an overly pushy university PR department and even some scientists themselves conspired to produce a misleading story.

Black holes are keepers of fundamental secrets

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

The new research said yes, information can escape because black holes have a newly recognised property named “quantum hair” — a subtle information trace around the black hole that somehow encodes what went into it. The BBC quoted one of the authors of the recent work, Professor Xavier Calmet of the University of Sussex, saying “the problem has been cracked”.

It was not a very well explained article but its deficiencies go deeper than that. The fact is, it isn’t true. The scientists behind it knew this very well, and their institutions’ press office and journalists could have easily established that with a simple Google search. As the article was being prepared, the BBC was told again and again it wasn’t true, by a world expert in black holes. The story was just too good, as they say, to let the facts get in the way.

In October last year Professor Calmet and others published a paper on the internet about the black hole information paradox. It was not new and it did not directly address the information paradox. It reported the limited finding that some information can get out of a black hole. The result was not unexpected, and was known earlier, but the University of Sussex — the home institution for two of the authors of the paper — decided to aggressively publicise the research and called the BBC offering them an exclusive.

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 asking for comments. He told them the press release “skipped over the state of the scientific field and claimed a dramatic result well in excess of what was claimed in the paper itself”. He insisted to the BBC that this work didn’t represent a fundamentally new perspective, but Mr Ghosh kept pressing him to modify his response into one that would fit his story. Raju told him, “It would be demonstrably incorrect to attribute this insight to the recent work… it is not true, as the press release suggests, that this paper is the first to point this out… I think you can check this easily even as a non-specialist.”

Even more concerning than a journalist fixated on pumping up a story, some of the scientists concerned were not bothered that it was being misrepresented. Two of them told professor Raju in an email that he shouldn’t take the University of Sussex PR department too seriously since they were just “doing their job” and getting the science right was “only secondary”.

The story is entertainment skirting the event horizon of parody

The BBC report was delayed by the Ukraine invasion, and professor Suvrat hoped his caveats would be fairly represented in the article. When it did appear he was dismayed to see it was described as “revolutionary”. In the end, despite his asking that the BBC reporters use his full quote, they truncated it so that it better fit the idea of a breakthrough.

The black hole information story is not “news you can use”. It’s more like science entertainment that skirts the event horizon of parody. Most science news is more relevant to our lives (energy, climate, medicine) which should not be infected with the same sloppy attitude, but it sometimes is. Sometimes of course, a journalist has to persist in the face of obstacles and deal with those who don’t want a particular story to see the light of day, juggling different views as to a story’s worth, but the black hole information story is not one of those. It was just plain misleading.

It’s not the only recent example of the BBC reporter’s black hole baloney. When the International Event Horizon Collaboration released their image of the black hole at the centre of our galaxy, Mr Ghosh ran a report on the TV that said it was the “glue” that stops the stars of our galaxy flying apart. Not so. Our galaxy’s central black hole weighs four million times more than our sun, but the stars that circle it weigh 10,000 times more.

Scientists and universities want publicity. There is nothing wrong in that, but they are not the gatekeepers to the public: journalists are. In the end it comes down to a journalist’s judgement and the assumed bond of trust they have with the audience. Pushy, misleading, over-hyped press releases are common and are usually put in their place by a little research, and the ability to dump a story if it turns out to be not as good as it seems.

Scientists, institutions and universities can become addicted to their profile if they are not careful. In some cases Ph.D students are pressured to tweet frequently about their work, even if they don’t want to. But profile and visibility are not worth more than content. This is the way fake science news prospers.

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