A defence of Étienne Klein, the French scientist telling porkies on the timeline
Thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope, we’re being treated to new images of outer space on a weekly basis, each more detailed and perplexing than the last. It’s kind of exhilarating, peering into the heart of chaotic spiral galaxies, dying stars, and cosmic cliffs. And who’s to blame us if, in all the excitement, we mistake a scientist’s savoury snack for an image of a distant star?
French scientist Étienne Klein ran into this problem recently, when he posted a photo of a slice of chorizo against a black backdrop to his 90,000 Twitter followers, jokingly captioned: “Photo of Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Sun, located 4.2 light years from us. She was taken by the JWST. This level of detail… A new world is revealed day after day.”
Unsurprisingly, if you’ve been on the internet for more than ten minutes, the joke went straight over the heads of thousands of his followers, despite the fact that the photo from “deep space” looked, very obviously, like a slice of sausage.
“Well, when it’s time for the aperitif, cognitive biases seem to have a field day,” wrote Klein in a follow-up tweet. “Beware of them. According to contemporary cosmology, no object belonging to Spanish charcuterie exists anywhere but on Earth.”
Even then, though, several comments claimed that the scientist was being irresponsible by spreading misinformation, as an acclaimed physicist and director at France’s Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission.
“Misinformation is dangerous, we believe in almost everything we are told and we don’t have doubts when a scientist provide[s] information,” read one reply. “And to have played like this makes you loose [sic] credibility. Shame.” One galaxy brained take even suggested that these kind of jokes are the reason that people believe in flat Earth conspiracy theories(?).
Eventually, Klein was forced to respond to the controversy surrounding his photo (which, again, looks very much like a slice of chorizo, and not much like a giant star floating in space). “In view of some comments, I feel compelled to clarify that this tweet showing an alleged snapshot of Proxima Centauri was a form of amusement,” he wrote. “Let us learn to be wary of arguments from authority as much as of the spontaneous eloquence of certain images.”
Admittedly, it is confusing to have an expert – AKA one of the people who are supposed to help us dispel fake news on social media – enjoy a little space-based trolling at our expense. But Klein is right. We shouldn’t automatically trust a random tweet just because the account has a PhD in their bio, especially when it would only have taken us two seconds to look closer and identify the space sausage for what it really was.
“I come to present my apologies to those whom my hoax, which had nothing original about it, may have shocked,” Klein wrote in a final statement last week. “I simply wanted to urge caution.”
Read tips on how to spot more fake news on social media here, and take a look at (real) images from the JWST in the gallery above.