The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

The Large Hadron Collider – Where Does Science End & Pseudoscience Begin?

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 20, 2009

Where does legitimate science end and questionable pseudoscience begin?  It’s a good question, and one brought up in my mind due to a story about the theory behind the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) which has gotten a lot of attention in recent days.  Two theoretical physicists have come up with a theory by which they propose to explain why the LHC might never detect particles like the Higgs Boson… sabotage from the future.

Yes, you read that right – sabotage from the future. I’ll let the article explain it a bit more…

The Collider, the Particle and a Theory About Fate

Then it will be time to test one of the most bizarre and revolutionary theories in science. I’m not talking about extra dimensions of space-time, dark matter or even black holes that eat the Earth. No, I’m talking about the notion that the troubled collider is being sabotaged by its own future. A pair of otherwise distinguished physicists have suggested that the hypothesized Higgs boson, which physicists hope to produce with the collider, might be so abhorrent to nature that its creation would ripple backward through time and stop the collider before it could make one, like a time traveler who goes back in time to kill his grandfather.

Holger Bech Nielsen, of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, and Masao Ninomiya of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics in Kyoto, Japan, put this idea forward in a series of papers with titles like “Test of Effect From Future in Large Hadron Collider: a Proposal” and “Search for Future Influence From LHC,” posted on the physics Web site arXiv.org in the last year and a half.

This sounds like a crazy idea, to be sure, but we should take care not to have a knee-jerk reaction against anything that is outside our realm of everyday experience.  After all, the physics of the two great pillars of 20th century physics – general relativity & quantum mechanics – are both extremely weird… but they’re true.  You should see the faces of my students as I go through and explain in meticulous detail the experiments and the variety of everyday technology around them which confirms these strange aspects of our physical universe.  So, we should be careful about simply dismissing anything “weird” as nonsense.  Remember, a good skeptic will endeavor to separate fantasy from reality by a careful application of the scientific method & logical reasoning.

But, in this & similar cases, how do we make the distinction?  Before such a notion is dismissed outright we should reserve judgment and ask ourselves some questions to gauge whether or not this is actual science or crackpot stuff.  Here’s a good start…

Q: Is the research supported at all by known physics?  Has it been proposed in the appropriate venue?

A: In this case, the work of Nielsen & Ninomiya does seem, at first glance, to have at least some support within the community of theoretical physics.  They have published their work within respected journals that are peer-reviewed by others well-versed in the subject matter.  Now this, in and of itself, does not mean there is any validity to their theory because it very well could be (and, in my opinion, probably is) dead wrong, but it does mean that they’ve taken the first appropriate step in establishing their work at worthy of scientific merit.

It should be noted that many pseudoscientific physics cranks – and pseudoscientists & woo-meisters in general – never even make it to this first step, despite constant claims that they are “doing science.”

Q: Is there any method by which these ideas can be tested or potentially falsified?

A: This is the real biggie, in my book.  Because no matter how mathematically & theoretically elegant and well-written out a physics theory may be, it means squat if its proponents cannot (or will not) propose any mechanism by which their ideas can be tested out or otherwise shown to be potentially false. And, despite the craziness of their proposed theory, it sounds like they might just have taken a step in this direction…

Dr. Nielsen and Dr. Ninomiya have proposed a kind of test: that CERN engage in a game of chance, a “card-drawing” exercise using perhaps a random-number generator, in order to discern bad luck from the future. If the outcome was sufficiently unlikely, say drawing the one spade in a deck with 100 million hearts, the machine would either not run at all, or only at low energies unlikely to find the Higgs.

Now, I don’t know whether or not this test would have any real validity to it – that is something other professional particle physicists would have to hash out.  It could very well be that this is a very bad experiment to propose because it has holes a mile wide in it, or it could turn out to be the key to unlocking a new batch of physics mysteries.  There simply isn’t enough information now to say for sure.  So we just have to allow the scientific process to churn on as it deals with this particularly interesting question, and for now no conclusions can be drawn.

However, I will point out one thing which I don’t like about the article outlining Dr. Nielsen and Dr. Ninomiya’s work, and that has to do with what was said in this paragraph…

“It must be our prediction that all Higgs producing machines shall have bad luck,” Dr. Nielsen said in an e-mail message. In an unpublished essay, Dr. Nielson said of the theory, “Well, one could even almost say that we have a model for God.” It is their guess, he went on, “that He rather hates Higgs particles, and attempts to avoid them.”

This malign influence from the future, they argue, could explain why the United States Superconducting Supercollider, also designed to find the Higgs, was canceled in 1993 after billions of dollars had already been spent, an event so unlikely that Dr. Nielsen calls it an “anti-miracle.”

This displays sloppy reasoning of the highest order, in my opinion, and it shows that even mathematically brilliant physicists can fall prey to the most simple logical fallacies. In particular, Nielsen is illustrating the fallacy known as the argument from probability – he states that it is incredibly unlikely that the SSC would have been canceled by the U.S. government, so therefore it somehow constitutes evidence for his idea.  I find this to be an overly broad definition of an “unlikely event” and positive evidence – with such loose & broad interpretations, one could take just about any “unlikely” event and attribute it to the “future sabotage theory.”  In this form, Dr. Nielsen’s reasoning also smacks of the incorrect cause, argument from ignorance & the moving the goalpost fallacies.

So, what’s the bottom line here?  I think the ideas proposed by Nielsen & Ninomiya are both provocative and interesting, especially since I’m a physics geek, but that simply isn’t enough to gain a new idea respect in the realm of science.  Thus, until much, much, MUCH more evidence & testing comes to light on these questions, I shall remain as I currently am… skeptical.

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8 Responses to “The Large Hadron Collider – Where Does Science End & Pseudoscience Begin?”

  1. Another well known physicist, Professor
    W. Pauli, (Nobel laureate) worked
    with Dr. Carl Jung for many years,
    (1932-1958).
    Their conclusions relate to the
    nature of “acausal connections” in
    the space-time continuum. Simply
    meaning that unrelated events can
    come together in ways that defy
    our common sense notions of cause
    and effect. Jung termed these
    connections a “synchronicity principle.”

    • Charlie Mitton said

      I’m very interested in synchronicity and have written a book that deals with the subject.It is a central idea in Robert Anton Wilson’s books.The two important ones are The Cosmic Trigger and Coincidance. He believed that that there may be form of macroscopic quantum mechanics therein. He cites literature as an area for this and deals with James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. My work deals more generally with this idea.There may be something there. A way in which similar principles operate. Possible?

      • mattusmaximus said

        I suggest that you try publishing your work in a peer-reviewed physics journal. That would be a good first step.

      • Charlie Mitton said

        I have, since posting my reply to Todd Laurence been editing my book according to various synchronicities which have cropped up in the intervening period. My research has led me to the belief that the foundations of relativity, quantum theory and genetics are all decidedly shaky. Stephen Hawking, for instance years ago, opined that to ask what happened before the big babg is meaningless. Yet since then several eminent physicists have posited the idea of a metauniverse or prespace. Quantum theory has for a long time been an area of philosophical debate. Hawking was recently taken to task by philosopher Christpher Norris in an edition of the journal Philosophy Now. The point is that scientists can make things work and make predictions but in so doing are able to ignore certain basic inconsistencies. I have come to believe that there is an acausal connecting principle and that I can demonstrate it. It takes the form of an experiment in which one cannot know the initial conditions. This type of counterfactuality and also backwards in time causation can be shown a posteriore and probabilistically. It may however mean that the human mind may have to be seriously considered as a player in a theory of everything.

      • Dr. Linda Ann Jones said

        I have to note that Charlie says big ‘babg’ instead of big ‘bang’.It must be a Jungian slip. He must of course believe in Jungian archetypes, one of which is the eternal feminine. The heady effect of gravity during the Planck epoch could clearly be experienced subjectively through orgasm where the generative length of the male principle gets it on with the eternal feminine. Quantum gravity is said to exist at this epoch but cannot be accessed through even the largest collider reactor. This could at last be the revenge of subjectivity that we post-Rimbaud philosopers seek.
        One cutting edge physicist, Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute in Canada has spoken of ‘baby universes’ which can show heridetary facets at the macroscopic level. Smolin is one of those scientists, along with Sir Roger Penrose and Neil Turok, who was on a BBC Horizon programme recently about nothingness being at this point an area worthy of study. Can objective science access it though? Maybe it can only be experienced by union subjectively with the eternal feminine.

  2. [...] an opinion on quantum mechanics through the eyes of an atheist, and the Skeptical Teacher discussed the furry line between science and pseudoscience. Then for the Psychology Subcommittee, Andrew Bernardin presented another report on the [...]

  3. [...] The 122nd edition of the Skeptics’ Circle is out at Young Australian Skeptics. My picks: Effort Sisyphus on how skepticism has improved his health, J. R. Braden of The Gaytheists on debating a creationist cousin, and The Skeptical Teacher on that silly claim that the LHC will be sabotaged from the future… [...]

  4. R.M.Healey said

    Charlie ‘ Bad Boy ‘ Mitton, died in 2011.

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