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There are many excellent journalists who write about science, scattered among the newspapers, magazines and broadcast media in this country and abroad. It was therefore disappointing to discover a recent example of shoddy journalism with potentially serious consequences.
An article in the New Scientist appeared on December 5, under the headline "No sign of the Higgs boson". The headline was accurate, but the story strongly suggested that the Higgs doesn't exist, when in fact all that one knows from the experiments done at the LEP accelerator at CERN is that it hasn't yet been found. Toward the end of the article there were a few comments by well-known physicists, which at least alerted the reader to the fact that the non-existence of the Higgs is not a unanimous opinion.
The New Scientist compounded its felony in an accompanying editorial, which said "Researchers at CERN, the center for particle physics near Geneva, have ruled out most of the likely energy slots where the particle might lurk and now reckon it more probable that the Higgs is the product of an overactive imagination."
Within days several other news sources had reprinted the essence of the New Scientist story. None of them did any further investigating of any significance on their own. BBC News, usually a reliable source, headlined "God particle may not exist", using the name for the Higgs that appeared as the title of the 1993 book by Leon Lederman and Dick Teresi. Other headlines were: "Divine Myth: five-year quest for 'God particle' is fruitless" (Agence France Presse); "Analysis casts doubt on Higgs Boson" (UPI); and "Physicists: No sign of 'God particle'" (CNN). The headline in the Sun, the largest circulation British newspaper went straight to the bottom line: "Six billion pounds wasted on 30-year 'God' hunt." Some of these stories included the mild rebuttal that had appeared in the New Scientist; others did not, reinforcing the impression that the case was virtually closed.
With this kind of mindless reporting, there was little chance of a fair hearing for the leaders of the four major experiments at LEP, who, together with the heads of two of CERN's working groups, e-mailed a protest to the New Scientist on December 10, in which they said ".the theory makes predictions for the mass of the Higgs boson. In fact it tells us that the mass is probably lower than 200 GeV. On the other hand, from the results of our direct searches.we conclude that the mass is larger than 114 GeV, which is perfectly compatible with the above prediction-hence our dismay concerning the report that we have ruled out the existence of the Higgs boson."
These journalistic miscues are indeed cause for dismay. With Fermilab's search for the Higgs just getting into high gear, and with the LHC at CERN under construction, the misinformation propagated by these news stories can seriously jeopardize a major program of physics research. While it is possible that some members of the LEP experimental teams sought to manipulate the press by exaggerating the significance of their failure to find the Higgs, if the reporters had followed elementary principles of good journalism they would have talked to enough people to strike the proper balance and to convey the true state of affairs.
Science journalists face the often daunting task of understanding new developments in science, and transmitting the information accurately to the public. Indeed, the embargo system employed by Science and Nature, with which we have taken issue in the past (see APS News, August/September 2000 and March 2001), is defended by its practitioners on the grounds that it is crucial for journalists to get the story right, even if they are denied the opportunity to talk to the scientists and to report the news when they first discover it.
Whether one approves of embargoes or not, one cannot argue with the paramount importance of accuracy. Its unfortunate absence in this instance is we hope, not destined to be repeated.
— Alan Chodos
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