The black hole of sexism and misattribution

Wilder Harwood

Have you ever heard of Dr. Katie Bouman? Well, even if you haven’t, chances are you have come across the first ever image of a black hole which has been circulating the internet for the past week. We have Dr. Bouman to thank for it. Her story, one that should be a celebration of scientific discovery and new horizons, not to mention successful female-led projects, has become a twisted odyssey of confusion, misinformation, and misogynistic internet trolls.

Although all of these elements are concerning, for me, the most pertinent issue regarding the black hole photo is the lack of recognition that Bouman has received for her work. So returning to my first question: Have you ever heard of Katie Bouman? Unfortunately, for many of us, the answer is probably no. I had come across the photo many times on various media outlets before ever hearing Bouman’s name.

Bouman is a Harvard post doctoral fellow who was instrumental in creating the code which developed and produced the spectacular image. An obvious cause of Bouman’s lack of recognition would seem to be the sexism that is prevalent in STEM fields. Although I do not disagree that sexism is a factor, I would argue that the primary reason for the general ignorance around Bouman and her role in the project is caused by how the image gained recognition through social media.

And the photo did take the internet by storm. I believe the photo’s popularity comes from the public’s fascination with black holes themselves. Who wouldn’t be fascinated with a massive and ravenous object, roaming the depths of space, gobbling up matter indiscriminately and reducing it to a singular point? I know that I am. I believe that this lore and popularized perception of black holes contributed to the wildfire spreading of the photo across not only the internet but also across specific social media platforms.

In general, the greater degree of accessibility and comprehensibility of the image would be regarded as a positive feature; more people have access to the information, and it manages to reach a younger audience who might not otherwise be interested in scientific discoveries of this nature. However, as a generation accustomed to information in swift, immediate doses, most of us probably did not look for information beyond the image; we might have simply read the headline or caption and carried on with our day as I did the first time I saw the photo online. This aspect of our media consumption definitely troubles me, as this kind of glance-over comprehension tends to lead to misinterpretation of facts and details.

I have seen many headlines, and Bouman and her team are seldom mentioned in these brief descriptions circulating with the image. In other words, even though many people may have seen the photo, few of us actually know who is responsible for procuring it. I myself have heard many people discuss the topic in my classes without once mentioning Bouman. It was only when I saw an article entitled “The Dark Saga of Katie Bouman” that I made the connection between the name and the photo. Unfortunately, even beyond the lack of credit, there is another  darker layer to the story.

In the depths of the web, there unfortunately happens to be some people who have recognized Bouman as the face of the Event Horizon Telescope Project: right wing internet trolls. Although they definitely know Bouman’s name, they have used it only to question her role in the research. This group of anonymous commenters, bloggers, and posters have been quite vocal about the impossibility of a woman leading the project to success, claiming that her involvement in the image processing has been greatly exaggerated. They have gone so far as to present another scientist on the telescope data collection team, Andrew Chael, as the man behind the mask, arguing that he deserves the little credit that Bouman has received.

Chael himself has come out in support of Bouman, but the trolls only went quiet upon the realization that Chael self-identifies as gay and therefore doesn’t represent the straight white male who they believe must be responsible for the success of the project. To me, it is deeply disquieting that people with such antiquated beliefs are able to spread conspiracies so rapidly and widely.

Although largely disregarded as sexist jargon, their questioning of Bouman’s position has definitely shaded the victory of Bouman and her team. It greatly saddens me that even when she is acknowledged, the female computer scientist still does not receive the respect that she deserves.

So what can the story of Katie Bouman teach us about how to avoid similar situations in the future? I believe the only way to learn from this dark episode is to know about it. By knowing what an incomplete or sexist narrative looks like, I would hope that as a generation we will be able to recognize when things don’t quite look right in the future. In other words, having seen and understood how social media and the internet can leave out or dispute important pieces of information, we will be able to look beyond the one line descriptions and cynical comments to dig a little deeper and make our own judgements about stories like these.