For anyone who hasn’t seen the first ever picture taken of a black hole here it is. The image was assembled five days ago using data from a global telescope array that collected around 5 petabytes of data (1 million gigabytes) which was then compiled using this vast amount of data to give you the image you see here, now on my blog.
But I haven’t come here to discuss the implications of the black hole or the methods used to give us this image of a collapsed star located 55 million light years away from the nearest Krispy Kreme. Rather, I want to talk a little more about the process of science and the way things work now.
Who Dun It?
It wasn’t too long after the discovery that the media found and latched onto a key player in the story, Katie Bouman. Although the project had over 200 people working on it, much of the media immediately hooked on Bouman, claiming it was her code that was ultimately responsible for the image. Bouman even gave a TED talk on a method for photographing black holes two years ago (although the method she refers to in the talk was not used on this project). People went so far as to compare her to Rosalind Franklin. The reaction to this was just as you might expect it.
People went to the publicly available GitHub Repository and started trawling through the code to see who contributed the most, and as it turned out, Bouman did not have the most “significant” contribution. In fact, she came in fourth place with 2,410 lines contributed in 90 commits (submission), far behind the first place holder, a graduate student named Andrew Chael who had 850,275 lines over 566 commits. The natural reaction was to point fingers at the media for pre-emptively trying to hoist a woman for the sake of a narrative based on someone else’s work. That is, until Chael responded in a Twitter thread asking everyone to calm down and urging caution with the narratives that had been presented. And this is what needs to be talked about – our narratives.
Credit in Science – Then and Now
It really isn’t Katie or Andrew who is responsible for this picture coming together. It was a team of more than 200 scientists who put this thing together with varying levels of responsibility on the whole thing, the head of which is a Dr. Shep Doeleman at the Department of Astronomy at Harvard University. As Andrew Chael said in his thread, while he did write an enormous amount of code, this was one of the most vetted images in the history of science.
Bouman herself said in a Facebook post, “No one algorithm or person made this image, it required the amazing talent of a team of scientists from around the globe and years of hard work to develop the instrument, data processing, imaging methods, and analysis techniques that were necessary to pull off this seemingly impossible feat.”
Part of me wants to blame the media for getting this whole thing wrong, but I don’t think we really can. The fact is that science has changed a lot over the last thirty years, in fact, it’s changed a lot over the last five years. The people who tried to elevate Bouman as the architect of the project and the ones who tried to tear her down were wrong about the same things. What was previously accomplished by one or two people in a lab tossing a bunch of ideas back and forth between over a few games of tennis and coming up with internally consistent models for things like how the structure of DNA looks is now accomplished by massive teams consisting of dozens of people with major and minor contributions to the final paper. These days, it’s hard to give people credit since most of these projects don’t really have a good pipeline for who’s ultimately responsible in everyone’s eyes. Journalism aside, even science never really had a proper conversation about what the best practice is for this sort of large-scale project.
SAM has a point here. In academia there are several roles you can bring to a project: you can come up with the idea in the first place, in which case you can make the argument that the project would have never happened without you; you can manage and coordinate the analysis, in which case you can make the argument that the project would have never happened with you; you can collect the data, in which case you can make the argument that….I suppose you get my point, but the bottom line is that when deciding who is going to be first and last author on a project there is not a protocol because it’s hard to say who did what.
Everyone did something, but at the end of the day for many of these large projects it’s necessary that someone is selected as a Bouman type of character (a figurehead of sorts) for every project, for better or for worse because someone needs to be accountable both to the media and colleagues for what happens/happened on a project. In my own world of anthropology, I can think of two good examples of what happens when this is done the right way.
A Tale of Two Studies
The first example I can think of is with the Rising Star Team that announced the discovery of a new fossil hominin named Homo naledi from South Africa in 2015. The finds, dating to about 250,000 years ago have generated a number of important changes in our paleoanthropological thinking, but also, nearly as importantly, changed a number of things about the process of scientific publication for the field. The fossils, first discovered in a relatively remote cave, were extracted by a team of six women (now known as the Underground Astronauts) recruited as qualified cavers and paleontologists which were then described by a team of 47 scholars (many of them early career researchers) led by Lee Berger. In a first for the field, the finds were then published in open access journals, and Lee and his team were hailed for such a progressive move in science.
Basically almost everyone on this team received the credit they deserved (as far as I’m aware) and Lee served as a good example of how teams need some sort of a figure head. The Dinaledi study has had a very present and obvious spokesperson, and the media has done a great job of representing it as collaborative while also allowing Lee the space to coordinate the narrative that has come with such a monumental find. Furthermore, if something were to go wrong with the project, we also know exactly who it is we’d be pointing fingers at.
Which leads me to my next example: David Reich. If you’ve read this blog before, you have probably read where I wrote about the media controversies revolving around ancient DNA’s simultaneous leader and pariah at least a couple of times. The reason for this is that Reich and his lab are constantly in the media being dragged one way or another for different ongoings in the aDNA world. What you see in the media is also happening about three times as much in many of anthropology’s scientific conferences and endless symposiums about genetics. Now, while people deny they’re singling Reich and his lab out, it’s pretty obvious they’ve had a bead on him for a while. Part of the reason being is that it’s easiest to target the biggest lab to air your grievances because it’s much easier for them to take the heat- I doubt that one of these days that Harvard’s Med School is going to cut funding to the lab because they didn’t include the native tribes they got their samples from in their acknowledgements slides. Besides, they recently got a $15 million grant to keep doing what they’ve been doing (and even that upset people).
That said, for many of these talks that people are criticizing, Reich isn’t even there. Often it’s a graduate student or collaborator giving the presentation. This is exactly why David’s name needs to be one of the first that come to mind when you see projects come out of his lab. Giving people like Lee and David credit as the PI (principal investigator) is not a matter of these guys having an iron fist to steal the credit out from beneath their plebeian underlings, this is a matter of accountability and who’s going to take the heat when things go wrong.
Giving Katie Bouman credit for being a female scientist on the Event Horizon Telescope project is a right thing to do, and she rightfully deserves it. Andrew deserves his credit, as well. But what people need to be careful to remember is that we are no longer in the days where Rosalind Franklin and her student Raymond Gosling are going to make a graph that’s gonna grabbed off a table. We’re in a brave new world when it comes to science, and pre-emptively giving people not just credit but complete provenance to a project is a dangerous thing now, both for their reputations and for the reputations of everyone else on the team who had equal contributions. That doesn’t mean plagiarism and nepotism won’t happen- it is; but next time you’re wondering who to give credit to, let the scientists figure that one out (they may not have, yet) and be careful about trying to do this job for them.
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