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…
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.