According to a widely disseminated story (see this) the Large Hadron Collider broke only hours after it started operations last week. This is an atrocity and an example of something seriously, endemically wrong with science more generally.
Why is the fact that the LHC broke right away an atrocity? Well, actually, that it broke is not the atrocity. The atrocity is that you are only hearing about it now, a week after the fanfare linked to the startup. There are only three possible explanations for this:
1) They forgot to mention it . Slipped their minds. Oops, sorry, I guess I didn’t think you’d think it important. And so on;
2) CERN has made the transition from a publicly funded international effort with a great deal of openness and self acclaim to a secret project of the type we might expect to see run by the American Bush Administration or some other such less than reputable entity; or
3) The explanation, that is entirely unacceptable, that I offer here, as a hypothesis.
There’s a word for what I’m going to talk about here, but a lot of you have asked me to not use this word any more. Naturally, I would always ignore such requests, but in this case since I want you to read this post I’ll comply. You can fill in the blanks.
I’m guessing that the LHC breakdown was not announced because it looked bad. All the work, all the run-up, all the fanfare, then the thing konks out on day one. However, from an engineering and scientific point of view, to be honest, I’m rather surprised that it did not konk out on hour one.
The LHC is the largest, most complex, difficult to bla bla bla science project ever bla bla bla. Which we get. And which causes us to not be surprised if the thing breaks down a shitload of times before getting their first long-term run. Press and public who do not get that simply need to be edumacated. It is not appropriate to bend the truth to match the moronosity of the audience when it comes to big huge expensive touted-through-the-roof science project. No.
And that makes the failure to announce the breakdown an atrocity. You see: The LHC is a machine that is designed to seek a particular truth. This truth hidden in very small things, (and thus) in very high energy places. True, this may be a quantum mechanical truth, and thus a truth resting on probabilities, but it is still scientific truth.
Not marketing truth. Not the ‘truth’ of frami… oops, sorry.
The hubris. It hurts. That these scientists think that they can and should do this is wrong and, frankly, scary. I for one do not believe that the LHC is going to make little black holes that would eventually suck the earth into themselves. But I’ll tell you this: The reason that I know that this is not going to happen is not because any scientist ever explained this to me. I asked for such explanations, and I got bullshit, I got incomprehensible formulas, I got insults, I got “a we’re very smart and this is what we believe” and I got hubris. Then, I went and looked into the science and figured it out for myself. I had to do that because the science community that is linked to or interested in this project seems often to act with a misguided sense of self importance, and an insulting belief that others cannot possibly comprehend what they are talking about on any level. And now, we see evidence that this same community seems to feel that actual truth about actual complexity about actual complex things is something we should not be allowed to share in.
Yet it should be seen as their job to help the rest of humanity understand these things. Or, well, don’t bother funding it, if you ask me.
Imagine yourself a judge. LHC is in the dock. The charge: “The machine is not safe.” The Defense: “We are safe. We can’t explain why to you because you won’t get it, but we would never lie.” I believe that the decision to keep secret the breakdown of part of the LHC on day one would be sufficient evidence to disregard this defense (the part about “we would not lie”) and hold the defendant over for trial. With bail to be set rather high.
And that argument only refers to the political and social credibility of the project. What about the scientific credibility? Is this machine being operated by bureaucrats? By the marketing department? By fra….. ooops..???
This is a problem that really is endemic to science. We see everywhere the assertion that science (or this or that science, or most commonly “ego” as anthropologists would say) is unbiased and objective, non political and honest, truth seeking and untruth slaying. But when real questions are asked of science and scientists, these assertions are not relevant. Addressing the questions is relevant. I am not a fan of science studies. Some of the craziest people, saying the most offensive and embarassingly wrong things, are science studies people. But you can see what motivates them when you look at the clubby, defensive, self aggrandizing and self serving rhetoric we see on the surface.
And this sort of thing which I am this morning so annoyed at is not restricted to framers. (Sorry, had to mention it once.) Framing just takes this to a new “scientific” level. No, it is endemic. There are many topics that one can raise and ask questions about where the primary and often only response you will get from the related scientific community is pretty much the same: “Shut up, we know what we are doing.”
They are looking for a better name for the Large Hadron Collider. How about the Large Hubris Club?