The social experiment of the scientist who passed off a slice of salami for the star Proxima Centauri

The social experiment of the scientist who passed off a slice of salami for the star Proxima Centauri

And once again they fell for it en masse, on Twitter. With the difference that in this case the fake news was for a good purpose, nobody got hurt and maybe someone even learned their lesson. The story began a few days ago, Sunday 31 July, when the French physicist and philosopher of science Étienne Klein posted on his Twitter profile a photo of a circular object with different shades of red, on a black background. The scientist, who is also director of the Commissariat à l'énergie atomique et aux énergies alternatives (Cea) accompanied the image with the announcement that it would be a new shot of extraordinary beauty by Proxima Centauri (the star closest to the Solar System, 4.2 light years from Earth) collected by the James Webb space telescope, which has been talked about so much from mid-July onwards after the publication of new and very detailed images of the Universe. And all this, of course, immediately generated a wave of fascinated wonder and amazement, as only images collected from space can do.

Too bad that this time the published image was not at all original. As Klein himself then wrote by self-replying to his own tweet, the one framed in the photo was not the spectacular star disk of Proxima Centauri, but a much more terrestrial slice of salami, to be precise, spicy Iberian chorizo. In the meantime, however, the tweet had already literally traveled around the world, reaching such popularity (first on social media and then in the media) that the photo of Proxima Chorizo ​​- at least at the time of writing this article - became the first result of Google using Proxima Centauri as search key.

Twitter content This content can also be viewed on the site it originates from.

Scientific superficiality or authority-effect? Even if at a glance the photo of the salami has many similarities with the way we imagine a photographed star might appear, in reality it is enough to look a little closer to notice that something is wrong. Very sharp but at the same time rather irregular edges and brighter areas that are all too rounded to begin with. But also, on a more theoretical level, the strangeness of having a new image of a star that is after all our neighbor collected with a telescope that has been built to look much further into space, or back in time if you prefer. . In short, at least for the most passionate and knowledgeable on the subject, some doubts regarding authenticity would have been more than legitimate.

Many factors, on the other hand, contributed to making the content literally viral. other kind than the alleged scientific illiteracy. First of all, the provenance from a verified Twitter account, with almost 100 thousand followers and which is the official profile of a highly respected and appreciated scientist, in France and beyond. Next to this authority-effect there is also the time factor, since it is no coincidence that the joke came just in the weeks when there is a lot of talk about the James Webb telescope, and each new image quickly becomes very popular. And finally the obvious urge to re-share, which has also claimed some important characters among the victims of this joke.

The debate opened by this case Although the episode itself can be branded as a divertissement summertime, a case of scientist humor (as Klein himself later branded it) or as a completely negligible fact (or if anything of interest only for France), in reality the case opened a debate in the following days that it is extended from social networks to international media. Klein first tried to self-unmask the hoax by writing an enigmatic "when it's aperitif time, the cognitive biases of damage to crazy joy", then he had to make the question more clear and didactic (again via Twitter) , then he went on to apologize to all the people who protested because they felt deceived, finally he tried to draw a moral by inviting them to be careful and to cultivate a critical spirit, to be wary of a news only because it is seen online or is reported by a person deemed authoritative, and so on.

In a broader sense, however, some open questions remain. For example, at the end of this small but significant story the formative effect of having shown once again how easy it is to fall victim to fake news will prevail or - vice versa - the hoax will continue to circulate online, since there are usually many more people invested by the virality of a fake content compared to the subsequent debunking? Or, is it appropriate for a person of such great fame, visibility and authority, even institutional, to adopt these aggressive techniques to sensitize people, with the risk of generating qui pro quo and destroying their own credibility? But above all, with a little Augustan lightness, what other cured meats could be used to simulate the photographs of space objects?

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