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Gravitational Waves Were the Worst-Kept Secret in Science

Two merging black holes produced gravitational waves that swept through Earth, exciting not only scientists but a frenzied rumor mill. (SXS Collaboration)
Two merging black holes produced gravitational waves that swept through Earth, exciting not only scientists but a frenzied rumor mill. (SXS Collaboration)

Now that we know the big news—scientists have observed gravitational waves, produced by a pair of merging black holes—let’s revisit the clustercuss of a quagmire in which it was announced. While the scientists kept quiet about their discovery, it quickly became one of worst-kept secrets in the scientific world.

That’s because rumor-hungry scientists and journalists refused to let the scientists looking for gravitational waves, the LIGO team, drive its own train. Given the rigor with which a breakthrough of this magnitude is evaluated, not only do these premature disclosures not serve readers, they’re irresponsible, arguably unprofessional, and potentially harmful.

It started way back in September, when physicist Lawrence Krauss sent out this tweet:

Krauss then doubled down on that rumor in mid-January, tweeting that his earlier statement had been confirmed. The disclosure primed a rumor mill that churned nearly nonstop for weeks, adding unnecessary chatter to a universe that’s already overwhelmed with sound. For a month, blog after blog after news story after tweet reported an evolving set of rumors about how, where, and what the LIGO team would announce. Earlier this week, when an upcoming LIGO press conference was announced, coverage dialed up to 11 — but at least there was something tangible to hang speculation on.

As a science journalist, I found the spectacle enormously frustrating to observe, and the coverage seemed eerily ignorant of the disaster that unfolded two years ago when a different team claimed to have detected a different species of gravitational waves.

In 2014, the team running the BICEP2 experiment at the South Pole announced the discovery of primordial gravitational waves, or imprints left over from a rapid period of cosmic expansion just after the Big Bang. But the BICEP2 team hadn’t yet submitted their results to a peer-reviewed journal; in the aftermath of the announcement, it became clear that the team’s analysis contained serious flaws, and when scientists examined the data further, the detection disappeared.

Perhaps learning from the mistakes of others, LIGO scientists have said they wouldn’t make an announcement before their paper passed peer review and was on its way to publication in an academic journal. Given that the team didn’t even submit its paper to Physical Review Letters until January 21, at the time Krauss was tweeting and reporters were writing, nobody was ready to announce anything. Nobody was going to confirm those swirling rumors, no matter how good the information we had was.

Suppose rumors of the LIGO team’s discovery were premature, and the signal fizzled beneath the weight of peer review or the scientific process. The damage – to the LIGO team, to the field of gravitational wave astronomy (especially given both historical and recent high-profile SNAFUS), to sources, to your own credibility – that could have been done by spreading these rumors vastly outweighed what little could be gained from a premature disclosure. The LIGO team would have appeared to fail at something it had never publicly promised to deliver at this point.

Conversely, to state the obvious, except for the potential loss of clicks on your page, there is no harm in waiting for the LIGO team to make their announcement.

Now, I have to wonder, is there value in reporting a rumor you can’t confirm? It’s reckless journalism. Sure, entertainment and political reporters do this kind of thing all the time, but that doesn’t make it right. How does it benefit your readers? Maybe, if you write for a publication that’s geared toward scientists, there’s merit in letting them know what their peers may or may not be up to, in lifting the curtain and taking a glimpse behind the scenes. But a general audience? I’d argue there isn’t much of a reason to jump into the fray, and many reasons to stay out of it.

With a discovery this significant, it is irresponsible to abandon professional decorum and get swept up in excitement. That’s not our job as journalists, and I’m quite sure it’s not great behavior for scientists, either. I’m not arguing that we all need to abide by a flawed and archaic embargo system, where we all agree not to publish something until an agreed-upon time, or that we need to align ourselves with scientific interests rather than doing our jobs of being objective and holding truth to power. I’m just suggesting that we hold ourselves and our motivations to higher standards and consider our decisions in the context of the audience we serve and the potential consequences.

17 thoughts on “Gravitational Waves Were the Worst-Kept Secret in Science

  1. Although you are absolutely right in every single issue you address, still… the focus is not quite right. In the sense that in the times we are, scientific community (and all those related to them) must be smarter to deal with rumors and their impact. I am not saying they are good or bad (probably the latter). I am saying they are a reality. And they will be worst.
    Thus, the same old motto apply here to all of us: learn or die.

  2. At times like this ,some of the activity like this must be registered and regulated . The news has to be published only when the regulatory body gives a go ahead to prevent such a situation.

    1. Rumors are some of the most damaging
      Sequential communications. Until people realize there are three sides to every story , yours mine and the truth; I personally prefer truth.
      Thanks
      Heather Oleary

      1. Thank-you, so the point of the rumors article is no longer an issue? With the article’s release rumors or not the data has been scientifically vetted and will be open to further scientific review by that community, correct? The article’s reports seem solid. It is an exciting catch.

      1. Tell us more ~ I have tried a few experiments but the radiation hazards and the results weren’t what I expected ~

  3. I wonder how widely you would have us apply these principles. Would we only report on politicians being accused of corruption after they had been convicted? Or is there something special about science journalism?

    By recognising professional publications as a different case you’re not far off arguing for journalists to emulate mediaeval clerics, who didn’t want ordinary people reading the bible in case they misinterpreted it. Rather than conceal the possibility of a discovery, why not just discuss it as a possibility, say that some people think they may have made a detection but no one is sure yet, and in general treat your readers like adults? Sure, some journalists will be irresponsible, but those are the ones that wouldn’t agree to be silent anyway.

    There’s value in unimpeded flow of information. I don’t think it’s desirable for secrecy to be the default until certainty is achieved. It may have some advantages, but the price tag is way too large. And the readers deserve more respect.

    1. Hi David — I see your point about the unimpeded flow of information, but this isn’t about secrecy or concealment as much as weighing the benefits and consequences of reporting . If you’re dealing with a case of corrupt politicians — assuming you have credible sources and aren’t libeling someone — the harm in NOT reporting that corruption vastly outweighs whatever might be keeping you quiet. That’s different than amplifying the statements of someone who really had no business blasting out rumors about a science experiment; in this case, the cost of not spreading LIGO rumors is essentially zero.

  4. While it’s probably not generally helpful to publish rumours about matters about which a proper publication will be made anyway soon enough there does come a point when the news is big enough and widely enough spread that the rumour itself becomes news and it is legitimate and useful to report about it as such. As somebody with only a secondary interest in physics and astronomy I was seeing comments online about this (on Twitter) and was glad of publications giving background information on what was going on.

  5. I guess those rumor-hungry scientists should not be called scientists, after all. and those journalists? They’re exuding with unethical waves.

  6. You haven’t explained the harm done by leaking this result in advance. Why not build enthusiasm, with the caveat that it could be wrong? Give the science news-consuming public more credit, I think they can handle it. Even the premature Bicep announcement–was it really such a disaster for the public? I thought it spurred fascinating discussions on the topic, and lots of great writing and discussions, not only about the science but about the self-correcting process. There was egg in the face of the scientists, but my experience as an enthusiast was positive.

  7. Unfortunately, these great scientist are already known by other scientists and those who read their journals. But the general public, which is so important to the future growth of science in America and in the world and in a climate when there are so many science hating elected officials, public relations is key. Krauss and others, and I am not arguing on behalf of Krauss, because he is more than capable of making his own case, realize that not enough time is spent by the general public upon these amazing discoveries once they are announced. The continued up-dating and “rumors” create excitement and focus on these scientists and their work. They are rock stars. Intelligent people and the general public know that science is never certain and with this announcement more questions are raised and need to be answered. Their conclusions are being reviewed by their peers, and now, after they have been published, may still be proven wrong. We can all read their data and make our own conclusions. Other can replicate their experimentation. I have a feeling that the blogger didn’t have a good experience and felt left out in the rumor mill.

  8. I agree with Allan Bracker – Put out the data for examination & enjoy help from all interested people! Cranks who seek to get 100% credit for what they think is the right thing – have to cower in their Hovels or join the real effort for the good of mankind.

  9. Prof. Krauss is the biggest skeptic around. He wouldn’t have said anything unless he was reasonably sure it would come through. Thanks to him, I actually understood it by the time they made the announcement so I was able to get really excited for the press conference.

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