Via the Bad Astronomer comes one of the most pathetic abuses of
probability that I’ve ever seen. I’m simply amazed that this idiot was willing
to go on television and say this.
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The crank in question is Walter Wagner, the moron who tried to use a lawsuit
to stop the LHC from being activated. (Just that much, already, is amazingly silly;
he sued in Hawaii, but the LHC is in Geneva, Switzerland. How does a Hawaiian court
have any jurisdiction?)
Anyway… Wagner claims that the LHC could destroy the earth. See, there’s a tiny theoretical chance that the right collision in the LHC could create a microscopic black hole. According to Wagner, if that happens, the black hole will swallow the entire earth.
That claim is, itself, based on some pretty bad math. The only theory that predicts
that it’s possible to create a microscopic black hole also predicts that such a black
hole would evaporate – that is, would completely disappear in a burst of energy – immediately. The
exact same math that predicts that you could create a black hole in a high-energy collision also
predicts that the hole would be destroyed before it had time to do any damage. If you tweak it so that the black hole lasts longer, the energy requirements change so that it’s no longer possible to create it in the LHC. To make the black hole last a microsecond is absolutely beyond the
energy of any collider that we could ever build on the earth.
But let’s skip that – demonstrating that is pretty complicated. To get an idea of
the level of understanding of the guy who claims that there’s a real danger, let’s just
take a look at what he says.
When asked what the probability of the LHC destroying the earth is, he says 50%. Why?
Because either it could happen, or it couldn’t – therefore, there’s a 50% chance of it happening.
You could argue that that’s naive Bayesian reasoning – but if you did, you’d be an idiot. Classic Bayesian arguments about stuff like this would say that you use 50/50 as an initial prior in the absence of any other information; then you adjust that based on whatever
other information you have available. For Mr. Wagner’s stupid argument, it’s based on
a complex physical theory – a complex physical theory which provides lots of information
which you can use to update your probability estimate.
Mr. Wagner’s 50/50 claim is based on the fact that he’s absolutely clueless about how any of
this stuff works. He clearly doesn’t understand probability, and he clearly doesn’t understand
But he’s awfully funny.