CERN’s Large Hadron Collider has been in the news a lot recently, and the undertone of fear is frequently present in the angle the stories take. I don’t really want to spread the worry, since it appears that there’s not much to be alarmed about, but I’ve been having some thoughts about alarmist tendencies in the media, and figured I’d share.
It’s no secret that more people are interested in reading a story that involves potential “doomsday” then some benign tale about eggheads doing their incomprehensible nerd research in some distant location. And I suppose fear and mystery can help scientific projects get funded, what with keeping the public interested and all. Still, making people worry unnecessarily does a disservice to them and can hinder the progress of knowledge.
Even though this article presents the position of scientists at CERN, its structure and language seem to to give more weight to the worries than they really deserve. Physicists are very reluctant to state that anything is “impossible”, since the world of physics is filled with a great many improbabilities, and not so many definitive impossibilities, and this reluctance is easily misinterpreted. The title, “Some fear powerful atom-smasher”, should probably read more like “Three people in Hawaii, only one of whom cn be readily identified in the news as having a physics background, fear the powerful atom-smasher”.
I think this may be my favorite rendition of that Associated Press article though. The body of the text contains a prominent distraction, placed before any actual information, about the potential risk, asking readers “Is the giant particle smasher worth the risk?” check “yes”; check “no”, giving AOL News readers the opportunity to “vote” their opinion. Perhaps it’s been a slow week for the Lohans and readers would like their opportunity to get their irrelevant-poll-taking fix elsewhere.
I jest, but the presence of such a poll goes past marketing to a short-attention-span audience and into the realm of irresponsible journalism. It gives readers the impression that, based on the small bit of information contained in the article, or perhaps even just the few sentences before the poll, they will be able to make an informed decision on the matter. The fact is, there are very few people on the planet who posses enough knowledge about the situation to accurately assess the risks. Everyone else has to rely pretty much entirely on the opinions of the experts as reported in the press, rather than employing our own logic in addition, as you can do with most subjects in the news.
Reading the comments sections in many of the articles I perused made me feel uneasy in a mobs-with-torches kinda way. In fact, check this out. I’m not sending you here for the content of the piece, though, to assuage any fears, I assure you that it is full of false premises, bad logic and an apparent lack of physics knowledge. I do want to direct you to the comments, where the secret scientist terrorist plot to destroy Earth is unmasked. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Comment 69 is my favorite:
I suppose that LHC experiment will be completely silent. However, negative consequences inside the human noosphere will be distributed gradually and almost imperceptibly — new strange illnesses, fatigue, increased frequency of depressions and psychic deviations. The powerful LHC electromagnet may strongly interfere with the system of collective subconsciousnesses (noosphere).
These arrogant pseudoscientists think they know everything about this world. But all they really know is a fake atheistic psychology.
LHC people are terrorists! Poor innocent Europeans even do not know that they are hostages. Europe is doomed. It is possible that massive psychic deviations and very strange illnesses may be observed during these 2008-2012 years.
STOP LHC TERRORISTS !!!
If someone could explain to me exactly what a “noosphere” is, it would probably only add to my amusement. Also, if physicists are “pseudoscientists”, I would like to know who is doing the hard science in this man’s world. In my experience, physicists are some of the most acutely aware people of how little they know about nature. I would also like to know what this guy’s profession is. I’m picturing a person who gets all his books from a shop that also sells rocks with various powers, healing pyramids and tarot cards. Twenty bucks says he believes his pet is psychic.
Before I dog-pile on those who mistrust the establishment too much — in that way, they are sort of my people, after all — I should mention that I’m also wary of some of the internet commentators who blindly scoff off all the concerns. As I said before, there aren’t too many people in the world who really understand enough about this to have truly informed opinions. I think it would be a saner world if we all recognized the limitations of our own knowledge when forming opinions.