I slept through the Higgs boson announcement on July 4. Whatever the news that the Large Hadron Collider physicists would be trumpeting in the middle of the New York night, it wasn’t going to change by 9 a.m. No, what I would be monitoring throughout the day were the press releases and media coverage. Would they be sensitive to the nuances of science?
As I’ve argued before, confusion in the media about the meanings of “prove” and “theory,” especially when that confusion is fostered by scientific institutions engaging in hyperbole, gives science deniers the chance to claim that one “theory” is as good as the next because, hey, evolution and the Big Bang haven’t been “proved” either. The Higgs announcement promised to be the kind that would penetrate the public consciousness. For many people, it would define what science does and how it does it.
The week hadn’t started well. “Proof of ‘God particle’ found,” read an APNewsBreak headline that Monday, two days before the official announcement.
Sigh. Whatever it is that the ATLAS and CMS researchers found, it wasn’t “proof.” Extraordinarily strong evidence, evidence so strong that physicists everywhere will proceed as if the Higgs exists, but not proof. But because the source was AP, the story as well as the sensibility behind the headline was soon appearing everywhere.
So much for the news coverage, at least in advance of the event. What about the official announcements?
I woke up Wednesday morning to an inbox filled with press releases. The most important, I figured, would be the one from CERN, the governing organization for both experiments; it would set the standard for the press releases and media coverage to follow. I read the subject line:
Cautious. Measured. Accurate. “Is Consistent With”—I liked that.
I read the next press release.
“May Be.” Nice. No, excellent.
The qualifiers were unmistakable. Would the news coverage reflect that respect for the scientific method? I switched to Google News and began reading.
Not that every media outlet resisted the opportunity to sensationalize (“Origin of the universe revealed“). But overall the tone was celebratory yet sensitive—a tough balance, but one that accurately reflects the scientific method, and one that, in this case, reflected the example set by the discoverers and their press representatives in the initial press release.
Maybe the press release had to be nuanced; if you’re writing an announcement for the ages, you’d better get it right. Or maybe it could simply afford to be; if you’re saying that the Higgs was likely observed, you don’t have to oversell the result in the hope of getting a write-up on a couple of websites. Whatever the motivation, the result was laudable. The CERN p.r. department did its job, and as a result the media by and large got the result right, to the benefit of both science and society.
Just don’t get me started on this “God particle” business.