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Some feedback on the Large Hadron Collider

by Brian Dunning, Feb 25 2010

The ATLAS detector at the LHC. Photo courtesy of CERN.

As Skeptoid listeners know, occasionally I like to go the Listener Feedback files to hear what people have to say. I found a note from Nick from Albuquerque, who disagreed strongly with the way I discussed the safety of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. I offer my response to his criticism herewith. He began:

I find it disheartening that someone who purports to be a common-sense skeptic of zany theories is completely incapable of making a logical, evidence based argument.

Now, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve established a decent reputation for making good, rational arguments (see this page for a bandwagon fallacy supporting this assertion). When someone starts an email to me with the statement that I am “completely incapable of making a logical, evidence based argument”, it tells me something about what to expect in their following paragraphs. I was not disappointed:

The fifth paragraph is the first paragraph of argument, and is also a great fallacy. Boiled down it essentially says that LHC is not dangerous BECAUSE other planned colliders were bigger. This is a classic “begs the question” fallacy; so how do you know those weren’t just as dangerous?

I’m afraid you made this up completely on your own. That paragraph does indeed compare the size of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider to that of other colliders, but it’s to give general background and perspective. If you feel you found a statement in this paragraph where I claimed this is why the LHC is safe, please bring it to my attention. In those five sentences I can find nothing remotely like that. Did you think before you wrote this?

The sixth paragraph is fallacious in that it withholds essential evidence from the reader. Cosmic ray collisions are photon collisions, photons have no mass. The whole point of the LHC experiment is to collide particles that DO have mass. Cosmic ray collisions also happen at random angles and trajectories, creating different results than the LHC collisions which will be head-on.

This time you’re simply wrong. You are probably thinking of solar radiation. Solar radiation and cosmic rays are not the same thing. Only a tiny fraction of cosmic rays are photons; the vast majority are massive, energetic particles. You have not even the most basic knowledge needed to discuss this subject. Before you make a charge like this, you should take the trouble to at least look it up on Wikipedia (at a minimum) to have some vague clue what you’re talking about. Here is a link to the Wikipedia page on cosmic rays for your benefit.

The point of this paragraph was to illustrate that the biggest collider of all, the universe, has been performing the Large Hadron Collider’s experiments, at up to tens of millions of times its energy levels, and has been doing so constantly for billions of years with not a single detectable consequence. And that, Nick, is just one reason physicists consider the LHC to be safe.

The next argument, that CERN’s own study into their own collider shows no risks is a false authority fallacy; an institute given $10 billion to build the project is not objective in evaluating its dangers. Following that is probably the best argument that the author makes. Yes, a long complex chain of unlikely conditions does make something unlikely.

CERN is not a false authority. CERN physicists are among the best authorities; and are the ones at greatest personal risk of death or injury if they’re wrong. They’re also not the only ones who have studied this (not remotely). I would agree with you that independent studies are generally most desirable, and we have them, in droves. Every valid theoretical argument ever developed (inside or outside CERN) supports its safety. Yes, there are some people who dispute this, but none of them has ever put forth a sound theoretical argument indicating any possibility of danger.

The point: Danger IS highly unlikely, but based on the available evidence, not the fallacious assertions above.

Thanks for clearing that up, and for pointing out my “fallacious assertions” that you so eloquently “corrected” for us. Danger is not merely highly unlikely, it’s vanishingly unlikely. If there is such a thing as a quantum of probability, CERN destroying the universe probably has less than 1 quantum. If so, then it would be accurate to say it is impossible. But I’ll leave that question to CERN’s physicists, if it’s not too “fallacious” to do so. Nick, you should probably think about doing the same.

21 Responses to “Some feedback on the Large Hadron Collider”

  1. MadScientist says:

    I was laughing hysterically with the “cosmic rays have no mass”. Nick can be a stand-up comedian at physics meetings. I’m just not sure if people will laugh at him or shout at him and throw things.

  2. Joe says:

    Also random angles includes head on colisions.

    In the great words of Brian Cox
    “Anyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the earth is a twat”.

    I think that gives you the backing of the CERN physicists Brian.

  3. Richard says:

    Whatever. Don’t you guys remember the Black Mesa incident?!! :)

  4. greg says:

    Brian, just out of curiosity, did you ever read the Tennessee (I believe) Law Review article (also posted to arxiv) which discussed the legal issues and merits surrounding lawsuits that sought to deal with the potential world-destroying capability of experimental sites such as the LHC? I thought it was a fascinating look at the issue from a rational perspective of someone outside of the scientific/physics community. If you haven’t read it yet, you might want to check it out.

  5. Robo Sapien says:

    They should just fire up the LHC in 2012, since the earth is going to be destroyed anyway.

  6. tmac57 says:

    “The next argument, that CERN’s own study into their own collider shows no risks is a false authority fallacy; an institute given $10 billion to build the project is not objective in evaluating its dangers.”
    This seems to be the new favorite ‘fallacy of the day’ to misuse and misinterpret. it keeps creeping in to the comment sections on a regular basis these days.

    • Max says:

      The cranks, as well as some revolutionaries, have always said that we shouldn’t trust the authorities because they have a conflict of interests or they’re too close-minded. They just found a way to say it in three words.

  7. Apparently he’s never heard of the Oh My God Particle.

  8. Darren says:

    As to the chances of LHC destroying the earth, an acquaintance of mine put it this way: “that has about the same chance of occurring as you spontaneously evaporating while shaving”.

    • Robo Sapien says:

      That actually happened to me this morning, I wasn’t able to get to work until I re-condensed on the outside of a cold glass.

  9. Ben says:

    I have just discovered the facepalm particle!

  10. splicer says:

    Brian I’m curious about colliders. I know that we have several here in the U.S. and am wondering what kind of science we will be seeing out of them in the future. I expect that the LHC would perhaps make some of what they do obsolete but I don’t understand what they all do, or how.

  11. Jason M says:

    Ouch. I was actually starting to feel sorry for Nick by the end. But then again, who decides to enter into an argument about particle physics without having any idea of what cosmic rays are? A nice illustration of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which I think has already been pointed out on this blog. Bertrand Russel’s quote about it is great:

    “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

  12. kabol says:

    i’m not too proud to say i wouldn’t want a LHC in my backyard.
    i’m also not too stupid to realize that what i want and what i get won’t always match.

    manhattan project.

  13. stargazer9915 says:

    If the LHC collided that much stupidity with another just like it, then maybe they would find the higgs boson.

    …Or, maybe the cosmic rays have already gotten to this one’s brain and took out the few smart particles he already has. And yes, ad hominem works when it’s true.

  14. keith 'merv' swift says:

    Wow! when did Plato reincarnate? Did I miss something in logic class? Fallacy??? Are you kidding me? Excuse me while I apply some leaches.
    The only ‘fallacy’ here is that perhaps you stopped thinking too soon. Yup, particle acceleration has been going on now for quite some time with no notable side effects. I, for one, am glad that being hit on the head by an apple didn’t stop a young man from wondering why…

  15. OJB says:

    Unfortunately the most ignorant people are often the hardest to convince. I constantly find this when debating global warming deniers and creationists. They just don’t know enough to know they are wrong. Its like debating quantum theory with a 3 year old!

  16. slancio says:

    Hey Brian… nice job deconstructing this guy.

    I’m a long time listener to your podcast… I just had to write in to tell you that I always pictured you as a fat, pasty, nerdy looking computer geek. I have NO reason to have done so… just always did. I was surprised to finally see your picture.

    Thought you’d get a kick out of that.

  17. Herlin says:

    It might have saved them a lot of time and money to have understood the composition and structure of the particles before they built the machine. Ignorance is bliss.