The Skeptical Teacher

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

Conversation with an Anti-LHC Lunatic

Posted by mattusmaximus on June 5, 2009

As a quick follow up to a recent post – LHC Lunacy & Doomsday Scenarios – I wanted to share with you an online discussion I had with a physics woo on this topic.  The conversation with James Blodgett, who seems to have a history of opposing the Large Hadron Collider on pseudoscientific grounds, is recorded on the Science & Technology subforum of the JREF Forum.

Allow me to, as a lesson in the kind of thinking employed by many pseudoscientists, point out some of the more egregious statements & arguments by Mr. Blodgett and why they are so off-base…

Argument #1

There is a well-developed debate on the collider issue.

Wrong.  Statements like this are designed to give the uninformed reader the impression that there really is some kind of merit-worthy argument within the scientific community on this subject.  In fact, there is no real debate among the community of physicists about the safety of the Large Hadron Collider – the consensus is that it is safe. Period.

This particular line of argumentation is very similar to that of creationists when they claim there is a “debate about evolution.” The implication behind these words is that evolution is “just a theory” or just a guess and not supported by facts.  Hence, by employing the same kind of argument, Blodgett attempts to cast doubt on the safety of the LHC and other particle accelerators.

Argument #2

[RC] mentioned the blog with the topic “The LHC, Black Holes, and You”. … The most interesting thing in that blog is the reification of some rather crude accretion calculations, indeed the calculations and formula are not shown so that we can check, only a rough description of the method and the results. As a demonstration of the crudity of these ”calculations,” two respondents to that blog already disagree.

What Blodgett does here is cast doubt on the calculations by a theoretical physicist about what would happen to Earth in the worst case scenario of the LHC generating a planet-eating black hole – the result is that not much would happen at all. The problem is that he is basing his entire criticism of the calculations on the fact that someone on the blog comments disagrees.  At no point does he ever critique the math, nor does he even attempt to make any kind of mathematically-oriented argument.  Whenever he cites probabilities, such as that the odds that the LHC will create a black hole are 1 in 1000, he never does a calculation nor does he say where the numbers actually come from.

One respondent summed up the flaws in this line of argumentation as follows:

You know what’s even cruder than his [RC’s] math? No math at all! Perhaps you can provide calculations we can examine, for accuracy?

And, as I said, no such calculations were ever provided… merely the assertion that the estimates were correct.

Argument #3

I would love to seriously try to consider some of the science and some of the math behind the collider debate. However, this place is basically a kangaroo court, so I don’t see that as possible here.

Blodgett was addressing the many physicists who were taking him to task in that JREF Forum thread.  Of course, it is easy to see right through this particular argument, as it is little more than a straw man coupled with conspiracy mongering.

Argument #4

I am not a physicist, so I could use help with some of the units, but I do have a master’s degree in statistics, so I can usually follow and sometimes generate the math.

So here Blodgett admits that he isn’t trained in physics, yet when his ideas are torn to shreds by actual physicists (some of whom actually work on particle accelerators and the LHC!) he retreats into the realm of “common sense must be right” kind of thinking.  Of course, if science has taught us anything, it’s that common sense isn’t that trustworthy, especially in the realm of physics.

Also, it is interesting to note that he makes much of his supposed mathematical background, yet all through the thread at no point does he ever back up his arguments with any actual mathematics.

Argument #5

This one is my absolute favorite.  In order for you to fully appreciate the hilarity of it, you must first see a post I made…

They run the Tevatron at FermiLab pretty much 24/7/365, unless there is need for a shutdown, and they’re slamming proton and anti-proton beams together quite often. The energy levels of these collisions are about 1 TeV, which is only 7 times less than the LHC (it’s supposed to top out around 7 TeV).

According to the data we have on cosmic rays, as many have pointed out in this thread, it is not uncommon for those events to have energies within this range.

Two points:

1. Naturally occurring cosmic ray interactions of this order of energy have been pelting the Earth for billions of years. And there has yet to be any Earth-destroying ill effect. This point has been made repeatedly.

2. FermiLab has been conducting artificial experiments of similar energy levels for as long as the Tevatron has been operable (about 10 years or so). The manner in which the collisions in the Tevatron take place are similar to those of the LHC (two counter-rotating beams colliding). The fact that we have already been conducting experiments of this energy level (on the order of 1 TeV) to no Earth-destroying ill effect also shows how misguided and incorrect JB’s arguments are.

End of story, JB. You lose.

And now, for the ultimate in physics woo, take a look at Blodgett’s response to my criticism…

Since accretion is supposed to be slow, previous colliders might have already created a black hole. Particle detectors might not see it if it is uncharged. I don’t worry about that since nothing can be done about it. In some models , colliders create a black hole every ten years or so of operation, so it is possible that current colliders are about to create a black hole. This might be a reason to shut current colliders down.

So in Blodgett’s fantasy land, the evidence that all of the current colliders, including the Tevatron which operates in a similar fashion to the LHC and at the same energy levels (TeV), have not produced any danger whatsoever in the form of planet-eating mBHs is an argument in his favor?  Folks, this is a perfect example of what I like to call the “heads I win, tails you lose” kind of thinking that many pseudoscientists employ.  It speaks to a fundamental flaw in their arguments, namely that these arguments cannot be falsified at all.

There you have it – a brief glimpse into the thinking of a physics woo-meister.  Take note of these various methods of argumentation, because whether it is a physics woo, an anti-vaxxer, or some New Age psychic guru, you’ll be seeing them around in some form or another.

10 Responses to “Conversation with an Anti-LHC Lunatic”

  1. James Blodgett said

    Post 699a

    Mad scientist MattusMaximus ignores my points to quote out of context. You will hear a lot of that from his version of “scientist.” There is currently a debate on whether particle colliders might be dangerous. The mad scientists take the position that “nothing could possibly go wrong.” That is an almost literal quote. The scientific director of CERN was quoted in the New Yorker as instructing CERN scientists not to say that the probability of disaster is low, but to say it is zero. “The probability of disaster is zero” is mathematically identical to “nothing could possibly go wrong.”

    The disasters contemplated are literally destruction of earth. Real if speculative scientific theories say that colliders might produce black holes or strangelets. In the worst case, black holes could swallow Earth, and strangelets could catalyze conversion of Earth into a small ball of strangelets.

    The history of the collider debate has been an erosion of safety factors.

    In 1999, a group of physicists associated with the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven produced a study that said that black hole production required energy beyond the reach of any collider, and that a collection of strangelets would be electrically positive on its surface and not attract normal matter. [1]

    Within months, developing physics eroded the “safety factor” that colliders could not make black holes. In a new development in physics, unrelated to the collider issue, several string theorists began publishing papers, based on new theory, predicting that colliders would make black holes. [2] [3]

    CERN had an even larger collider in the works, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). In 2003, CERN published a safety report. [4] This report anticipated black hole production, touting the great science that could be done if black holes were available for study. Black hole production would be safe, the report said, because they would dissipate instantly in a burst of Hawking radiation. [5]

    At about the same time, and unrelated to the collider controversy, physicists published papers questioning the fundamental theory behind Hawking radiation, a radiation that has never been seen. [6] [7]

    Another safety factor mentioned by both studies was the claim that a collection of strangelets would be electrically positive on their surface and not attract normal matter. In 2006, a paper was published predicting that a collection of strangelets would be electrically negative on their surface. [8]

    Another safety factor was the claim that an analogy between colliders and cosmic rays demonstrated collider safety. Giddings and Mangano later agreed that this safety factor as applied to earth was not definitive, and had to extend it to consider neutron stars and strangelets. [9] This may save the analogy, but it also validates collider opponents when they claimed that the earlier version was not adequate.

    Finally, I think because of the erosion of safety factors, because of pressure from collider opponents, and because of some contact between the two sides, CERN was persuaded to do another (LSAG) safety study. [10] Collider advocates tout the fact that they did three studies, who could ask for more? Actually, the three studies were a sign of weakness. The second two were necessary because safety factors confidently asserted by the first two eroded. This raises questions about whether physics in this area is stable enough to produce definitive safety factors. Subsequent to the LSAG studies, two scientists (Rössler and Plaga, [11] & [12]) have suggested reasons why those studies might be wrong. Rössler and Plaga have been criticized by LSAG scientists and others, and have responded to that criticism. Recently a group at Oxford published a paper saying that the low probabilities of disaster given by collider advocates cannot be correct because the probability that science is wrong, as calculated several ways including retractions to scientific journals, is higher the low probabilities presented. [13]

    [1] W. Busza, R.L. Jaffe, J. Sandweiss, and F. Wilczek; “Review of Speculative ‘Disaster Scenarios’ Brookhaven, 2000

    [2] Steven Giddings and Scott Thomas, “High energy colliders as black hole factories: the end of short-distance physics,” Physical Review D 65(5) (2002) 056010.

    [3] Savas Dimopoulos and Greg Landsberg, “Black holes at the Large Hadron Collider,” Physical Review Letters, 87(16) 161602, (2001).

    [4]J.-P. Blaizot, J. Iliopoulos, J. Madsen, G.G. Ross, P. Sonderegger, and H.-J. Specht, “Study Of Potentially Dangerous Events During Heavy-Ion Collisions At The LHC: Report Of The LHC Safety Study Group” CERN, 2003

    [5] Ibid, pg 12. “Thermal processes” in this context means Hawking radiation.

    [6] Adam D. Helfer, “Do black holes radiate?” Reports on Progress in Physics. Vol. 66 No. 6 (2003) pp. 943-1008.

    [7] William G. Unruh and Ralf Schützhold, “On the Universality of the Hawking Effect,” Physics Review D 71(2005) 024028.

    [8] G. X. Peng, X. J. Wen, Y. D. Chen, New solutions for the color-Favor locked strangelets Physics Letters B 633 (2006) 314-318.

    [9] Steven B. Giddings and Michelangelo L. Mangano, “Astrophysical implications of hypothetical stable TeV-scale black holes, Physical Review D, 78, 035009 (2008)

    [10] John Ellis, Gian Giudice, Michelangelo Mangano, Igor Tkachev, and Urs Wiedemann, (Large Hadron Collider Safety Assessment Group(LSAG)) “Review of the Safety of LHC Collisions,” CERN June 2008.

    [11] Otto Rössler, “Abraham-Solution to Schwarzschild Metric Implies That CERN Miniblack Holes Pose a Planetary Risk,” (2008)

    [12] Rainer Plaga, “On the potential catastrophic risk from metastable quantum-black holes produced at particle colliders” (2008). arXiv:0808.1415v2.

    [13] Toby Ord, Rafaela Hillerbrand and Anders Sandberg, “Probing the Improbable: Methodological Challenges for Risks with Low Probabilities and High Stakes”

    • mattusmaximus said

      Welcome, James. I find this wall of text very interesting, but none of it addresses the fundamental criticisms brought up in both the JREF thread and in my blog post. Again, those criticisms are

      1. You are misrepresenting the consensus in the physics community that the LHC, and particle accelerators in general, are safe.

      2. You are not, despite claiming to know mathematics, showing any math at all in your arguments.

      3. You are implying that the physics community is somehow part of a conspiracy to cover up the truth, despite the repeated efforts of physicists to show the LHC is indeed safe.

      4. You admit to not being trained in physics, and you cite many sources which are not experts on the subject or you cite expert sources out of context. And despite all of this you expect to be treated seriously by actual physicists?

      5. You continually ignore the fact that particle collisions on the order of 1 TeV and in a similar manner to those proposed at the LHC have already been conducted. The Tevatron at FermiLab has been conducting such experiments for 20+ years, to no ill effect. In short, what you fear has already been done many times, and the Earth hasn’t been destroyed.

      Lastly, you make the mistake that many pseudoscientists make: no matter what the criticism, no matter what flaws or fallacies are found in your arguments, you cling to them anyway. Being persistant in this case doesn’t make you any more correct – it just makes you foolish.

  2. Ben Burch said

    “Mad Scientist?” Have you been watching too many old B&W monster flicks on “Creature Features?” Do you imagine yourself as the dashing hero of the piece, Clark Kent, who is really Superman? Hilarious, little man. Really funny.

    Because there is not a LOW probability of the earth/solar system/universe being destroyed by LHC, there is a ZERO probability.

    Now, there are things scientists do that you can make the case are potentially really dangerous. Genetic technology has that tiny, tiny possibility of creating a superbug we cannot endure, for example. But the LHC is just not one of those things. So, why don’t you go bother Genentech?

  3. James Blodgett said

    Mad scientist MattusMaximus has a simplistic checklist that says that true science is falsifiable. “What fools the rest of the world, only I am falsifiable,” the mad scientist cackles. But he never gives up an inch of his mad science, despite evidence that shows it to be false.

    The idea that science is falsifiable is mainly attributed to Karl Popper. There is some logic behind it, but much that passes for science is far from easy empirical test. For example, string theory is notoriously protean in that it can predict almost anything, so it is difficult to falsify. Here is a quote from the Wikipedia article on falsifiablity: “Many contemporary philosophers of science and analytic philosophers, notably W.H. Newton-Smith, Kurt Hübner, John W. N. Watkins, A. J. Ayer, Mary Hesse, Geoffrey James Warnock, Arnold Levison, Jennifer Trusted, Anthony O’Hear, George N. Schlesinger, Adolf Grünbaum, Alan Musgrave, R. H. Vincent, Henry E. Kyburg, Jr., John Worrall, Herbert Feigl, L. Jonathan Cohen, Wesley C. Salmon, Ilkka Niiniluoto, Raimo Tuomela, Colin Howson, Hilary Putnam, David Stove and Richard C. Jeffrey, are strongly critical of Popper’s philosophy of science. “

    The mad scientist objects to my pointing out a logical result of a theory proposed by collider advocates. An early “nothing can possibly go wrong” statement based a low probability of trouble on a calculation that the probability of trouble appearing was very low EACH YEAR, and the collider in question, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven, was designed to operate for a limited number of years. The logical implication is that the absence of trouble after a limited number of years of operation does not totally rule out trouble in later years. I do agree that most theories that predict trouble predict with it with a higher frequency, and those theories are ruled out by a short period of successful operation.

    Poincare said that experimental evidence rules out some hypotheses, but there are always a plurality of hypotheses remaining.

    The current CERN position , echoed by mad and idiot scientist Ben Burch, is that there is NO probability of trouble. That is true if their theories are true, and it is official CERN policy. CERN’s scientific director was quoted in the New Yorker as instructing CERN scientists not to claim that the probability of trouble is low, but to claim it is zero. But there are other theories that predict trouble. I agree that the later are speculative, and therefore I would assign them a relatively low probability of being true. But CERN and its associated mad scientists do not even conceive that their theories could be falsifiable. “How could our lovely mad science possibly be false?” Others disagree. Toby Ord of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford questions the low probability of trouble touted by collider advocates on the grounds that the probability that science is wrong is higher than that. [Toby Ord, Rafaela Hillerbrand and Anders Sandberg, “Probing the Improbable: Methodological Challenges for Risks with Low Probabilities and High Stakes”]

    • mattusmaximus said

      Hmmm, still no mathematics to back up the argument. And, I might add, the Tevatron operating over at FermiLab (doing TeV proton and anti-proton collisions on a daily basis) still hasn’t generated any planet-eating black holes despite about 20+ years of operation. We’re still here, despite many many experiments of exactly the variety which JB fear-mongers about so much.

      Both of these facts should give the objective reader plenty to work with when evaluating the validity of JB’s claims.

  4. James Blodgett said

    Idiot Ben Burch, not really smart enough to be a scientist at all, questions my use of the term “mad scientist” and wonders if I imagine myself to be superman. I am only following the convention of politeness established for this thread by Mattusmaximus, who calls me a lunatic. Apparently both imagine themselves to be Clarence Darrow in the money trials, smiting the unscientific critics of evolution. Unfortunately for them, one of the requirements to be a hero defending science is to be on the right side. Since the probability of trouble is low, they may technically be on the right side if we luck out and trouble does not actualize. But it is a sad day for science when the hubris of mad scientists risks destroying the earth to prove themselves right, while mouthing that classic quote from the mad scientist genre, “nothing could possibly go wrong.”

    • mattusmaximus said

      If all you have left to go on, JB, is ad hominim attacks, then you’re truly scraping the bottom of the barrel. And, for the record, I did call you a lunatic… but I at least waited to evaluate the validity (or lack thereof) of your arguments before labeling you such. I call you a lunatic precisely because of the erroneous and pseudoscientific nature of your arguments, and because after having the errors in your arguments pointed out to you repeatedly by physicists who are well-trained in this particular field, you insist upon clinging to these end-of-the-world notions and claim you know more than those same experts.

      It is a very interesting study in human psychology, reading these comments…

  5. Ben Burch said

    OK, James, if you are so smart, please tell us the mathematical reasoning behind your paranoia?

    You can’t, can you?


  6. Ben Burch said

    Oh, and, if you think the Universe will be destroyed, shouldn’t you be getting a bomb belt strapped on to shut down the LHC?

    Remember to test it after you strap it on, just to be sure.

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