Pay Per View

In Science by Brian Koberlein7 Comments

This morning I woke to find a request in my email. A journalist was writing a story on new research and wanted me to comment on what pitfalls there might be in the model. It seemed like a pretty standard request, but I was wrong. 

To begin with, the journalist didn’t give me a link to the research paper, they gave me a link to a popular article from a competing website asking whether black holes were actually holograms. The article tried to explain mind-blowing ideas about higher dimensions, and even featured a video clip where Matthew Mcconaughey explains M-theory in True Detective.

It’s too early for this. I haven’t even had a morning cuppa.

Okay, so I pour myself a cup and settle in to the task of tracking down the actual paper. A couple of Google searches later I have the actual paper (behind a paywall, natch) and start reading. Of course it uses the holographic principle, which is a mathematical technique that involves making journalists confuse it with “is a hologram.”

It turns out the article is interesting, but has very little to do with the holographic principle. It’s actually a study of how quantum and classical descriptions of thermodynamics can give the same entropy results for black holes. Not a radical idea, nor some hologram heresy, but solid work towards bring together quantum theory with gravity. At this point I’ve already spent two hours on it, which I could do today because I have the time, and the article was interesting enough that I might get a post out of it.

Time to reply to the journalist. While they were looking for a “this is interesting, but..” reply, what they got was a tearing apart of the popular article and a basic summary of what entropy and thermodynamics are, how they relate to black holes, what the holographic principle actually is, and what the research paper is actually about.

But here’s the thing: articles on “black holes are holograms” are already gathering page-view money, and the journalist who emailed me is under pressure to get an article out quickly. They might go through what I sent them and write a thoughtful rebuttal to the hologram hype, but that wouldn’t get nearly the pageviews that Matthew Mcconaughey will. It would be easier and more profitable to simply gather a quote from someone else. I may have just wasted a couple hours this morning, but I hope not.

The thing is, the journalist actually tried to do the right thing. Seeing some sensational article they tracked down someone who might understand it as a reality check, and that’s why I took the time to reply. But if they write a more accurate article as a result it will cost them money. That’s where we are at this point. In the pay per view economy science writers lose money by taking the time to get it right.

I’m not sure how to fix this problem, but maybe one way is to draw attention to good science writing. If you see a popular science article that took the time to get it right, think about writing their editor. Tell them you liked the article because of its clarity and accuracy, and that you’d like to see more science writing like this.

Maybe then news sites will understand that science journalism can be more than pay per view.


  1. Who’s your editor? I want to write him/her and tell them how fantastic I think the articles you write are. 😉

  2. A friend of mine once asked me to translate to Russian one article named “Universe as a hologram”. Needless to say that he was very disappointed afterwards, because he imagined some mind-blowing revelations and instead got some “dull”(for him) info about the holographic principle.? (sorry for my bad English)

  3. Sad commentary on science writing on the net, but thanks for trying! Extra points for doing the work before the cuppa, and to Forbes for recognizing quality.

  4. Almost seems connected like the loop theory I’m trying to prove but the only thing I suggest is keep on your work and don’t get sidetracked you did the right thing explaining thermodynamics and giving them a reality check thank you for sharing Brian Koberlein Sir I get questions about a fifth force that’s a super light boson only 34× heavier then a electron so life can be very interesting do what you do good friend, You hit ((((Forbes,Big achievement ))))have a good Tuesday ?✌

  5. Can you post your response to the journalist? I bet we’d all learn something from it. Then you’d get two posts out of it.

  6. Well, I did what you said. I thought about writing your editor…

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