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

Gravitational Waves Were the Worst-Kept Secret in Science

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:

Rumor of a gravitational wave detection at LIGO detector. Amazing if true. Will post details if it survives.

— Lawrence M. Krauss (@LKrauss1) September 25, 2015

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.