Editors, Please Stop Misquoting Hawking

If you’ve been following science news recently, you’ve probably heard the apparently alarming news that Steven Hawking has turned his back on black holes, or that black holes can actually be escaped, or…how about I just show you some headlines:




Now, Hawking didn’t actually say that black holes don’t exist, but while there are a few good pieces on the topic, in many cases the real message has gotten lost in the noise.

From Hawking’s paper:


What Hawking is proposing is that the “event horizon” around a black hole, rather than being an absolute permanent boundary from which nothing can escape, is a more temporary “apparent” horizon, the properties of which he goes on to describe in detail.

Why is he proposing this? It all has to do with the debate over black hole firewalls.

Starting with a paper by Polchinski and colleagues a year and a half ago, the black hole firewall paradox centers on contradictory predictions from general relativity and quantum mechanics. General relativity predicts that an astronaut falling past a black hole’s event horizon will notice nothing particularly odd about the surrounding space, but that once past the event horizon none of the “information” that specifies the astronaut’s properties can escape to the outside world. Quantum mechanics on the other hand predicts that information cannot be truly lost. The combination appears to suggest something radical, a “firewall” of high energy radiation around the event horizon carrying information from everything that fell into the black hole in the past, so powerful that it would burn our hypothetical astronaut to a crisp.

Since then, a wide variety of people have made one proposal or another, either attempting to avoid the seemingly preposterous firewall or to justify and further explain it. The reason the debate is so popular is because it touches on some of the fundamental principles of quantum mechanics.

Now, as I have pointed out before, I’m not a good person to ask about the fundamental principles of quantum mechanics. (Incidentally, I’d love it if some of the more quantum information or general relativity-focused bloggers would take a more substantial crack at this! Carroll, Preskill, anyone?) What I can talk about, though, is hype.

All of the headlines I listed take Hawking’s quote out of context, but not all of the articles do. The problem isn’t so much the journalists, as the editors.

One of an editor’s responsibilities is to take articles and give them titles that draw in readers. The editor wants a title that will get people excited, make them curious, and most importantly, get them to click. While a journalist won’t have any particular incentive to improve ad revenue, the same cannot be said for an editor. Thus, editors will often rephrase the title of an article in a way that makes the whole story seem more shocking.

Now that, in itself, isn’t a problem. I’ve used titles like that myself. The problem comes when the title isn’t just shocking, but misleading.

When I call astrophysics “impossible”, nobody is going to think I mean it literally. The title is petulant and ridiculous enough that no-one would take it at face value, but still odd enough to make people curious. By contrast, when you say that Hawking has “changed his mind” about black holes or said that “black holes do not exist”, there are people who will take that at face value as supporting their existing beliefs, as the Borowitz Report humorously points out. These people will go off thinking that Hawking really has given up on black holes. If the title confirms their beliefs enough, people might not even bother to read the article. Thus, by using an actively misleading title, you may actually be decreasing clicks!

It’s not that hard to write a title that’s both enough of a hook to draw people in and won’t mislead. Editors of the world, you’re well-trained writers, certainly much better than me. I’m sure you can manage it.

There really is some interesting news here, if people had bothered to look into it. The firewall debate has been going on for a year and a half, and while Hawking isn’t the universal genius the media occasionally depicts he’s still the world’s foremost expert on the quantum properties of black holes. Why did he take so long to weigh in? Is what he’s proposing even particularly new? I seem to remember people discussing eliminating the horizon in one way or another (even “naked” singularities) much earlier in the firewall debate…what makes Hawking’s proposal novel and different?

This is the sort of thing you can use to draw in interest, editors of the world. Don’t just write titles that cause ignorant people to roll their eyes and move on, instead, get people curious about what’s really going on in science! More ad revenue for you, more science awareness for us, sounds like a win-win!

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