Sunday, September 14, 2008

LHC - The Big Money Wringer?

Anyone who follows my blog often enough will know that I have a highly skeptical view of the public's understanding of science, and physics in particular. And from what I've read, I'm not the only one. This brouhaha over the LHC and the catastrophic black hole is simply my latest evidence. It isn't so much that they are concerned and asking question, but rather the way some people actually have decided for themselves on the issue without understanding (i) what the physics is (ii) what the overwhelming majority of the experts in the field have said. I know of NO particle physicist who is even the least bit concerned about such things, and they, of all people, should know THE MOST. Yet, some people pay more attention to people who, at best, have only a "interactional expertise" in such area. This is why I always say that a large part of the general public cannot tell not only the validity of the information they are given, but also the nature of the source that they get such information from.

Now along comes another category of the general public, the one that I would categorize as pure, plain, LAZY! This is the group of people who EXPECT to be told and educated about something that takes others years and years to learn, and they expect to know everything there is to know about something simply from reading newspapers or some short article. If not, they can't be bothered by it and simply attribute something to whatever they think is valid. This "writer", if you can call him that, is one example. He seems to think he knows what the LHC is for.

Originally, I theorized the Large Hadron Collider is something that “other” news Web site switches on whenever it needs two cars to collide so it can post a good wreck picture, but then I realized the general ineptitude of the typical driver makes such a device totally unnecessary.

So what’s the real purpose of the LHC?

Elementary, my friends. Scientists intend to use the LHC to wring more cash from governments whenever they’re threatened with funding cuts. Scientists will do this by threatening to subject our leaders to a lengthy explanation of what the LHC is and this Higgs Boson thingy it’s supposed to find.

Frightened by unfamiliar things such as facts and evidence, our leaders will cough up big money so they breathe a sigh of relief and go back to arguing about really important stuff like pigs and lipstick.

1. This is an example where the word "theory" is used in different context in meaning in science versus ordinary usage of it. What he is doing here is equivalent to "guess work" in science. One doesn't theorize in science when making unfounded guess work like this. A theory in science is based on more established and verified foundation.

2. Why does he have to "theorize" at all? It takes NO EFFORT to find the CERN website, for example, to know what the fuss is all about with the LHC. Even if one doesn't know how to find the CERN website, the news surrounding the LHC the past few weeks would have contained enough information from many mass media outlets that one can easily pick up the reason for the LHC. Hint: it isn't just to find the Higgs, thankyouverymuch. Does one actually think that one can justify the building of a multi-billion dollar facility JUST to find one thing? Honestly?

3. It is that easy to get money for high energy physics, especially here in the US, by simply putting out mumbo-jumbo to the politicians? I'm sure this person is kidding, but people who read this do not know that. Considering the FACT that (i) funding for high energy physics in the US has continued to DECLINE for at least the past decade and (ii) the US will no longer have ANY active particle collider experiment once the Tevatron shuts down, where is the evidence that the LHC is simply nothing more than a money cow?

This person is simply LAZY. Lazy in educating himself on the stuff he writes on, and lazy in checking facts to support the stupid statements that he has made. And someone likes this can write a column in some newspaper? I can see garbage like this being spewed on blogs and some private websites, but a newspaper, even a local one? Is there no longer any form of quality control or even demand that what one say can be verified? Do we simply publish more of personal opinions, no matter how wrong it is, rather than facts? How many people would read crap like this and be influenced by it?

It is difficult enough to defend science on what it can do. It is nearly impossible to defend science based on lies and errors in understanding. If the public simply just don't care to evaluate and do some homework in evaluating the validity of the information they are given, be it in science, politics, economics, medicine, etc., then they deserve the mess that they're in.



Jay Alt said...

Dothan, AL has nice people, good bbq and desserts. Stop at Dobbs and wash 'em down with sweet tea. Ask your waitress if The Eagle has undermined her confidence in high energy physics.

The editorial was obvious an attempt at humor.
Writing that doesn't use smiley faces may be confusing for some.

Peter Morgan said...

Physics funding in the US is in dire enough straights that Zz doesn't take humor in this vein very well. He knows it's humor, but he's "highly skeptical view of the public's understanding of science", so I guess he doubts their general intelligence, hence their ability to understand humor.

Limited funding is part of the reduced excitement at new Physics since the SSC closure. The controversy over string theory has also brought Physics into disrepute on the theory side, leading to a strong impression that Physics may have entered a period of groupthink, which is a turn off to teenagers if ever there was one (though a few will be cross enough at how stupid the argument is that they'll want to get into it). Then there's the much increased excitement in biotech in competition. It's galling to lose good science students to other fields.

It's possible to be optimistic about Physics, but not easily if you work on big experiments. Small and medium size smart experiments are bubbling away, and so is bizarre theoretical Physics. Most of these will come to little or nothing, but there's hope in each of them. I think the best hope for the LHC is expressed pretty well by Brian Greene, at the end of an NYT op-ed, "But the most exciting prospect of all is that the experiments will reveal something completely unanticipated, something that forces us to rethink our most cherished explanations."