Ω Journalistic Malpractice: MIT Professor: Battery Fix Could Ground 787 Until 2014 | Forbes

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I responded to an article posted on Forbes.com which is generating a lot of traffic and is being cited far and wide. Unfortunately, the original article is fraught with problems, not the least of which is that neither the subject MIT professor nor the author is an expert in the systems in question—or even aviation, for that matter—and that they are both speculating about the cause, the fix, or the likely result is nothing more than fortunetelling. You’d do better to use a Magic 8 Ball.

Here is my response:

I am disappointed in this reporting. It is sensationalistic, purely speculative, and does not deserve the bandwidth it is generating on the internet.

While Professor Sadoway certainly has the credentials to understand and comment upon Li-ion batteries, he has no firsthand knowledge of the failure. Though the article says as much, it is clear that this professor and Mr. Cohan are seeking an ill-deserved spotlight.

Mr. Cohan regurgitates Sadoway’s speculation about a total redesign of the battery pack to incorporate a different technology—without mentioning that other technologies are also fraught with problems such as high levels of self discharge, perhaps not a desired characteristic of a backup battery. Boeing or its subtier supplier almost certainly considered all available technologies and weighed the benefits, risks and costs of each one. Professor Sadoway, unless he was directly involved in these decisions (which neither his publications nor partnerships implies he was), probably should not be speculating on what Boeing should or should not have done.

Furthermore, Mr. Cohan implies that Boeing is being cheap in its choice of pack design without understanding the design considerations which were required of the pack. (“More holes” does not necessarily mean “less expensive.” It just means there are more holes.) He further implies that a few pounds here or there is insignificant without considering the weight targets promised to the airlines and the trades required to meet these targets—and the financial penalties of not meeting those targets. Though these assertions should be made if indeed they are true, consulting a battery expert whose knowledge of the event and of the design is limited (at best) and whose expertise is not in the field of the assertions is poor reporting practice.

Mr. Cohan is listed as a contributor to Forbes.com and has quite a list of credentials, and I do not question either his or Professor Sadoway’s expertise in their respective fields. However, the result of a financial expert’s quoting a battery expert about a subject on which neither is an expert nor of which either has first-hand knowledge is tantamount to journalistic malpractice. Even though Mr. Cohan is not necessarily a credentialed member of the press, given that this article is being quoted far and wide, it is incumbent upon the editors of Forbes.com to vet this sort of reporting and ensure that it is either improved with substantial facts or is deleted for lack of substantive content.

(Disclosure: I am an electrical engineer working for a major aerospace corporation—and I hold a long position in the corporation—which has significant content on the 787. I do not, however, have any direct involvement in the event. I’m not even sure who makes the pack; my company may make it, for all I know. That having been said, my point here is purely regarding the lack of journalistic quality found in this article, and I will not veer off into technical territory because I have no experience or knowledge of the matter.)

This is the same speculative reporting that the Wall Street Journal took part in when citing unsubstantiated rumor about the iPhone 5 production cuts in the last few months, and it drives me absolutely nuts.

(Magic 8 Ball says “Reply Udvar-Hazy, try again”.)

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