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All publicity is good publicity

January 24, 2010

Disclaimer: This essay was written as a part of a course I took for my PhD, called “Science, ethics and society”. It was originally written in latex, and since I did not find the perfect latex-to-html converter, I might have lost some of the editing along the way. The essay should still be readable, just remember that e.g. the subscripts/superscripts might be lost. The views presented are my own.

Yngve Inntjore Levinsen

22. of December, 2009

All pr is good pr is a well known saying; even “negative publicity” makes your company or your agenda better known and hence does more good than bad. The start-up of the new particle accelerator at CERN, LHC1 , got a lot of publicity. Google celebrated the start up date by changing its icon (see next page), newspapers all over the world were writing article upon article about the start up of the “big bang machine”. It was not all positive however. A group of scientists in Hawaii sued the American government in order to stop them to contribute to what they believed would be a dooms-day machine, creating a black hole that would destroy the earth2 . The Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet (and several others I suppose) put up a doomsday clock on their front page. A young girl in India actually committed suicide as a result3 . Scientists at CERN responded with a thorough review of potential issues [1]. Scientists are often tempted to use exciting concepts in order to gain publicity about their experiments, in this case ending up scaring people. At the same time, the media love sensational news, and use it for all it is worth. Scientists usually refrain from stating that something is a fact, or that something is absolutely impossible. They tend to rather talk about how probable/improbable something is. This understanding of hypotheses and theories is not always well understood by the public community. I will try to put some light on this “sensational science”, discussing some of the pitfalls to watch out for.

LHC – How did it become a doomsday machine?

I have now been at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland for 2.5 years. I started with a technical studentship where I wrote my master thesis, thereafter I started my PhD now soon 1.5 years ago. My background is in physics, but from a technical standpoint. I am one of those guys that are supposed to get the machine working, and keep it that way. I do not necessarily understand the outcome of the collisions all that much better than any other physicist. CERN has been around for quite a while now. It all started in the fifties, when they in 1954 started the construction of the Proton Synchrotron. This project was actually ran by a Norwegian, Odd Dahl. After the PS, several other particle accelerators has been added, with the latest being the LHC. Differing from previous particle colliders around the world, is a nominal collision energy of 14 TeV4 The world record to date is set by Tevatron outside Chicago, USA, and reads about 2 TeV. Actually, to be precise, this is true when this essay is written. Now that you are reading it, LHC has probably beaten the record (though just slightly, going to 2.4 TeV sometime before Christmas if everything goes as planned).

So, what is so important about this energy record? Well, the higher the energy, the more particles you can produce. If you know a bit about relativity and/or Einstein, you know the famous formula E = mc2 . Even Mariah Carey apparently knows this5 . If you want to produce a given particle in a collision, you need to at minimum introduce the energy that equals the mass of the particle in question. Often, you need additional energy due to other conservation laws etc that I will not go into here. The more energy the more probable it is to produce a given particle, simply put. It is always exiting when new accelerators like LHC is commissioned. Obviously, as a technician, it is wonderful just to see such a high tech and complex machine actually working. For the outsider, the machine will bring more information about what the universe is built of, and how it is all held together. For most people, this is one of the great and most exiting questions there is to answer. The energy density in the collision is so great that one can compare the state to what one expect was the condition just after Big Bang. In the first period of the lifetime of the universe, the world did not work as we know it today. Light was not able to travel through the universe, the building blocks of matter were different, the temperature was far greater than what it is today, and so on and so forth. Due to this comparison, certain people call the LHC the “Big Bang Machine”. This serves both as sort of an explanation of what one is actually creating (the condition just after Big Bang). It is also usage of an exiting concept, which is capable of grasping the public interest.

The big question then, is what precisely we are going to observe in the LHC? The answer we all know: we do not know. If we knew, we did not have to build the LHC. There are quite a few theories/hypotheses available, building a functioning universe on some basic principles which are not yet observed (and many which are observed). If we were to observe some of the particles that these theories predict, we then give a stronger fundament to believe they are actually true. The most important of these theories today is the Standard Model6 . This model builds on a small set of fundamental particles, and energy carriers for different forces. In previous accelerators, we have observed the energy carrier for the electromagnetic force, the weak force, and the strong force (the two latter being forces that are present only at atomic distances, so you might not have heard about them). There is one force left for which we have not observed the energy carrier left though, the gravitational force. The reason we have not observed this carrier, is that we have searched for it without having sufficient energy to produce it (presumably). The LHC will for sure find this energy carrier if it exists. This is the “Higgs Boson” that you might have heard of.

Other more exotic theories, like the string theory and syper-symmetry, also have plans for studies they want to carry out in the LHC. These theories are to a lesser grade accepted in the scientific community, and as a result there is more disagreement about what one expects to observe. One thing that some theoretical scientists believe might be possible to create is a black hole. This could sound scary to the common man. However, if one did produce such a black hole, the size of it had to be extremely small (much smaller than you can imagine, about 10−26 meter in diameter). This is due to the limited energy available. All though 14 TeV is a large number in the worldof the proton, it actually corresponds to about one millionth of the energy you use when you switch on a 10 W light bulb for 1 s. In addition, from the Hawking theory, we are pretty sure that it would evaporate extremely fast, and even if it did not, it would not be able to be dangerous for quite some time because of its small size. Then there is the probability of actually creating a black hole, believed to be extremely small if at all possible. Finally, there is the fact that there are particles colliding with far greater energy in the atmosphere every day. In sum, to quote T. Rothman, “the potential threat posed by a black hole is about at the same probability of an electron turning into a dinosaur ”7 .

The clash between scientists and the public

From what by most any measures should be considered a very safe experiment, we ended up with a media coverage that scared people around the world, and as mentioned, even got one young Indian girl to commit suicide. One can hardly disagree that there must be some bad communication between the scientist community and the public somewhere. I will try to put light on some of these problems that I have noticed while following the commissioning of this experiment.

First of all, there is a motivation for the scientist in gaining public interest about the experiment going on. As an example, the concept of “big bang” sounds far more intriguing than “quarks, bosons and leptons” or “the standard model”. Because the scientist is fully aware of what such a way of explanation implies, he or she might not fully understand that the public might have difficulties understanding how this does not imply a dangerous experiment. Big Bang was an explosion the size of the Universe itself, and it does take some effort to explain how such an experiment is in fact not dangerous.

This leads me to the second observation, to which extent the scientist is actually interested in explaining what he or she is doing. To quote T. Rothman again: “Physicists do not want to deal with public concerns because they believe that the LHC belongs to them and that the public is incapable of understanding the issues.” I think this is a valid point to make. As an example, many people heard about the lawsuit put forward by W. Wagner and L. Sancho in Hawaii. Most people dismissed the lawsuit as a laughable joke, without taking the time to read the details. To some extent rightfully so one could claim. The lawsuit was little more than an attempt to make some easy money (this is not the first time such a lawsuit has been put forward before the commissioning of a larger particle accelerator), and as such does not deserve a proper scientific response. A response would as well to some extent “acknowledge” the way of reasoning used by Wagner and Sancho, perhaps giving the impression that their claims to some extent might be valid. Further, as Rothman states, the scientist often tend to believe that the public is not capable of understanding his or her way of reasoning.

Following such arguments usually does not fare well outside the scientific community. One can easily be understood as arrogant by the public. Generally ignoring public concern on the basis of “rubbish arguments” is not the correct way to go about. Neither is directly replying to these “rubbish arguments”. The public concern as a total should not be dismissed on the basis on those few voices not knowing (or being willing to learn) what they are talking about, but by answering directly to these voices one is indirectly accepting their ways of reasoning, their argumentative techniques. One is accepting to discuss the issues on their terms, pretty much like having a lawsuit in a country where the opponent is deciding the laws.

I believe what rather should be done (and is done), is to properly investigate actual potential issues in a proper scientific way where the rules of argumentation is set by the science community itself. I will not go into what a proper scientific way is in this essay, see e.g. [2]. It should not be necessary to properly investigate all issues set forward by radical voices, but it is necessary to thoroughly explain to the public why the experiment is safe (and/or what potential problems one has to take into account). Such a reply is what one can see in the safety report written by the CERN community [1]. The typical counter-argument to such a response is then that the people that have written the report are biased, and cannot be trusted. The argu- ment might to some extent be correct, but I believe the responsibility of the scientists performing the experiments still ends here. No matter what the scientist put forward, such an argument can always be made, and as a result the responsibility of answering such requests must lie elsewhere (if there is a need to answer them).

Next there is the issue of the media gaining interest. Initially this is a positive thing, but media are often more concerned with sensationalism than the truth. Sensationalism sells. As an example, scientists usually refrain from using the term “nuclear” (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging dropped the nuclear part because it sounded dangerous to the public mind), whereas the media pick up this term as soon as it can be justified. In articles I have read about the “nuclear collider” known as LHC, whereas in the scientific community the accelerator is known as a particle accelerator, particle collider or more precisely a hadron collider (the latter is seldom used when addressing the public). All terms are correct, but one of them sound far more scary to the public mind. As a result I am always asked how the “nuclear reactor” is coming along when I am on vacation back home. The association in the public mind is pretty obvious (and wrong).

A final point I want to make is that scientists in fact often are a bit arrogant. They sometimes tend to believe that the public community are stupid, or at least that they will have no possibility of understanding their arguments even if they tried to explain what they were doing. Instead they ignore the concerns raised about their experiment. By having such perceptions about the public, the scientific community creates a problematic distance between themselves and the public. The trust they have in the society is reduced. I believe it is important for a scientist to be aware of and suppress such arro- gance, as it serves no good to no one. It is the public community that in the end are paying for the experiments that are carried out, and are living with the consequences. I believe some of the increased distrust in the scientific method that we have seen in the western society in the recent 20-40 years or so can be explained from such arrogance.

I would also claim that the media have a larger responsibility than what they seem to be acknowledging today. To the public they are responsible for shedding light on important issues that concerns the public, promoting freedom of speech, and being one of the corner stones in the democratic society. In recent years however, we see more and more that the media focusing on their commercial interests, with increased attention on sensational news, big headlines with what is conceived as sparse journalistic investigation together with larger and larger ads. This is not a problem limited to the scientific community, but a general problem for anyone involved with and/or relying on the media. When people get scared beyond necessity and even commit suicide like we have seen in this particular case, I believe a significant part of the blame has to be placed within the media. It is clear that without the help from the media, voices like those of Wagner Sancho or O.E. Rossler [3] for that matter, would not have a platform. Placing a doomsday–clock on the front page of a newspaper because it gets a few more clicks and sounds fun is not OK when it is scaring people to the extent that we saw in this case. I find it intriguing how the media seems to be most careful when a journalist is in danger, as the media blackout when David Rohde was kidnapped late last year8. In other cases like the coverage of the LHC start up, they seem to be more careless. I would love to see more careful and investigative journalism in the future, but I am not sure that is the direction the society is taking today.

What I would like to see in the future is that scientists to an even larger extent than today acknowledges that the public concern deserves to be heard and responded to. There is clearly still quite a bit of arrogance among sci- entists, doing little more than creating a larger gap between the scientific community and the rest of the society. At the same time I would like even more to see the media focus less on sensationalism, and more on promoting truth and knowledge amongst the public. I believe we should strive to communicate better to the outside what kind of experiments are carried out. This I believe, will help regaining some of the trust that the scientists had 50 years ago. A colleague of mine at the University once challenged me by the following statement: “Knowledge is limited by what you can communicate to others. If you cannot do so it is not anymore knowledge.” Though perhaps a bit simply put, I found the statement intriguing.

Footnotes:

1 Large Hadron Collider

2 http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2008/03/27/823924.aspx

3 http://www.techdigest.tv/2008/09/teen_suicide_ov.html

4 eV is an energy unit, commonly used in particle physics. The T stands for tera, meaning 1012 .

5 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/E=MC2_(Mariah_Carey_album)

6 http://particleadventure.org/standard_model.html

7 http://press.princeton.edu/blog/2009/02/02/metaphysics-apocalypse-cern/

8 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kidnapping_of_David_Rohde

References:

[1] J. R. Ellis, G. Giudice, M. L. Mangano, I. Tkachev, and U. Wiedemann. Review of the Safety of LHC Collisions. J. Phys., G35:115004, 2008.

[2] K. D. Knorr. Tinkering toward success: Prelude to a theory of scientific practice. Theory and Society, 8(3):347–376, November 1979.

[3] O. E. Rossler. Seven new features of black holes impart a great risk on the lhc. Submitted to Science Magazine, April 2009.

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