The Easterbrook Idiocy Supercollider

I generally like Gregg Easterbrook’s writing about football (though he’s kind of gone off the deep end regarding the Patriots this year), but everything else he turns his hand to is a disaster. In particular, he tends to pad his columns out with references to science and technology issues. I’m not quite sure what the point of these is supposed to be, other than to demonstrate that he, Gregg Easterbrook, is so much smarter than the average football fan that he knows, like, rocket science and stuff. The problem with that is that his knowledge of rocket science seems to owe more to Star Trek than any actual science education, because the science interludes in his ESPN columns range from the seriously mistaken to the jaw-droppingly stupid.

His most recent effort is just a masterpiece of dumb, though. This is a desperately stupid bit of work, even by the standards of desperately stupid science interludes in Gregg Easterbrook columns. He packs more dumb into these nine paragraphs than I would’ve thought possible in a major media outlet. This isn’t your ordinary, everyday stupid, it’s Discovery Institute stupid.

Let’s start at the beginning:

Scientists Discover That If You Slam Members of Congress Together Under Pressure, Money Is Released: High-energy particle accelerators cost taxpayers large sums but stand little chance of discovering anything of practical value. Promoted as quests for understanding of the universe, particle accelerators serve mostly as job programs for physicists, postdocs, and politically connected laboratories and contractors. Yes, abstract experiments of bygone days produced great discoveries, and yes, the quest for abstract knowledge is inherent to human nature. But most experiments from the bygone golden age of physics were done at private expense, not using tax subsidies. Albert Michelson and Edward Morley did not demand that Ohio taxpayers provide them with a decade of luxury while they refined their ideas.

I’ll pause here for a moment to let Gordon Watts recover from the suggestion that he’s living in luxury at taxpayer expense.

So, yeah, science used to be the province of independetly wealthy members of the aristocracy, who could fund their research out of their private fortunes. That was a huge boon to the tax-paying public, no doubt about it. I’m not sure how that Wikipedia link supports his idea, but let’s just pretend that it does.

But while we’re looking back to the low-tax golden age of yesteryear, why stop with gentleman scientists of the late 1800′s? If you go back a bit farther, you find a time when members of the military were expected to supply their own weapons and uniforms. I mean, just think of the tax savings if we switched over to privately funded jet fighters and battle tanks!

Look, I’m no huge fan of the expense of modern particle physics, but this is just idiotic. Modern science is expensive because the questions being asked and answered are more complicated than they were in the days of Michelson and Morley, and the apparatus is correspondingly more complicated. The business is much more technological than it used to be, just as warfare is more technological than it used to be, and it’s no longer reasonable to expect private individuals to be able to fund scientific research out of their own pockets.

And let’s look at that tax savings, shall we? He uses a bunch of different numbers to stand for the cost of particle physics, the largest of which is $30 billion, which I think is the full cost of the proposed ILC, including both American and European contributions. Let’s use that for an upper bound– if the full cost of the project came from US taxpayers in a single lump sum, that would work out to about $100 a head (divided over a population of about 300 million). That’s not a trivial sum of money for a lot of people, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the $1,500 per head price tag of the Iraq war to date. And building a particle accelerator doesn’t require waterboarding anybody.

(Well, strictly speaking, neither does the Iraq war, and I can’t say with certainty what might happen in Alberto Gonzales were put in charge of ILC construction…)

But his column isn’t restricted to idiotic griping about the cost of research (I’m particularly fond of the claim that the whole reason for particle physics funding is “to stop physicists from complaining about the level of tax subsidies they receive.” Yeah, because we have that kind of influence)– no, this kind of ultra-hot, ultra-dense stupidity can only be achieved by colliding at least two forms of idiocy at speeds approaching that of light, so we also get a hefty dose of exaggerated concerns about disastrous possible effects, starting with quoting Martin Rees as saying that an accelerator mishap could collapse the Earth into “an inert hyperdense sphere about 100 meters across,” and building up to what may be the best dumb argument against fundamental physics research ever:

Are we really sure it is history’s greatest idea to be re-creating the conditions that existed when the universe exploded?

Assume the Big Bang was how it all began. During this event, vast amounts of matter and radiation materialized from nowhere, the light-speed barrier was broken, space became curved, matter-antimatter annihilation destroyed millions of times the mass of the present universe, and other fairly wild stuff happened. A localized Big Bang Lite caused by a particle accelerator is unlikely, but why are we going out of our way to engage the risk?

Truly, the mind boggles at the number of misconceptions required to write these sentences.

But wait, there’s more! Lest you thought that all Easterbrook brought to the table was a bone-deep misunderstanding of complex technical issues, he also demonstrates a distressing inability to parse simple English sentences:

Physics featherbedding note: Normally clear-headed Science magazine, flagship of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, last winter ran an article on why physicists privately are hoping the new ultraexpensive atom smashers won’t find the ultimate elementary particle, the very thing they are designed to find. Wait — they are hoping the $30 billion worth of projects will fail? Here’s the reasoning: If the machines actually do discover what causes matter, how will science lobbyists justify billions more euros and dollars for additional atom-smasher subsidies in the future? Science wrote with a straight face, “Many particle physicists say their greatest fear is that this grand new machine, the Large Hadron Collider, will spot the Higgs boson and nothing else. If so, particle physics could grind to a halt.” If the mystery of matter is solved, how could taxpayers be compelled to continue paying the restaurant tabs of physicists!

OK, there’s a fundamental technical misunderstanding at the heart of it (namely, that the Higgs boson is the only thing that researchers at the LHC are looking for), but even with that, it takes some real contortions to get from that sentence– particularly the phrase “their greatest fear is”– to “physicists are rooting for the LHC to fail.” How has this man avoided landing a job in the media relations apparatus of the Bush White House?

Feh. Now I have stupid all over me. If you have the same problem, I recommend a cleansing visit to Dave’s ten-minute explanation of quantum theory. As for me, we’ve got a new refrigerator being delivered today, so I need to go clean a couple of years’ worth of crud off the floor beneath and behind the old one. Which promises to be more intellectually gratifying than reading Easterbrook writing about physics.

Comments

  1. #1 Dave
    November 21, 2007

    I couldnt agree more. There is a fundamental misconception in the public between basic and applied research. Its amazing to think that somehow the LHC is applied research (as in applied to find the Higgs Boson). That being said, Easterbrook does have a point about going for it on 4th down more often.

  2. #2 Jamie Bowden
    November 21, 2007

    You’re just one of them egg head physics professors, so of course you support this gigantic waste of time and money you big meanie!

  3. #3 The Famous Racing Greyhound
    November 21, 2007

    Thank you for this. I’ve read Easterbrook’s football column ever since its days at Slate, but I can’t anymore — the insipidities about science are just too distracting. A few weeks ago he had a long comment about the search for dark matter and how observation doesn’t currently agree with theory, and he concluded with a snide “But trust us, we’re experts!” Well, yes, they are — if science were easy, anyone could do it. (I certainly can’t.) But my favorite example is from an article a few years ago, in which he argued that the release of endorphins at the time of death, which allows a less traumatic death, was the best argument for a caring God, because natural selection wouldn’t be able to explain this. Gah! But I agree with him about going for it more on 4th down.

  4. #4 Carl Zimmer
    November 21, 2007

    Easterbrook doesn’t limit himself to physics. I’ve fact-checked a few of his howlers having to do with biology.

    As for physics, the stuff Easterbrook pulls from the Science article is classic quote-mining. Here’s the original article. It explicitly states why physicists would be dimsayed if the collider found the Higgs and nothing else: because then physicists would have to find a new method for probing even deeper questions about physics. “Finding only the Higgs would give physicists little to go on in their quest to answer deeper questions, such as whether the four forces of nature are somehow different aspects of the same thing.” Funny how Easterbrook couldn’t find room to include that part of the article

  5. #5 Stephen
    November 21, 2007

    Haha, one of my favorite posts in a while. The snark is strong with this one. Easterbrook must think the entire point of the Apollo mission was to invent Velcro.

  6. #6 Mike Kozlowski
    November 21, 2007

    I fast forward past all those little paragraphs, so never see them, but yeah, that’s dumb.

    (Well, except for the bit about the funding. I think it’s very legit to wonder whether the discoveries we’d make with a giant collidey thing are really worth the pricetag.)

  7. #7 Bert Chadick
    November 21, 2007

    “Discovery Institute stupid” Nice. I’m going to use it.

  8. #8 Opiwan
    November 21, 2007

    May I suggest you read Football Outsiders instead (www.footballoutsiders.com) to fill your need for football analysis? Better analysis (STATS!), less morbid stupidity. Easterbrook is unreadable these days. He makes me stabby.

  9. #9 smm
    November 21, 2007

    I appreciate your comments and agree with your motivation, but I have to say, this reads like Lubos could have written it…just substitute ‘Gregg Easterbrook’ with ‘Garrett Lisi’. (Enjoy the traffic boost dropping that name gives you ;)

  10. #10 tyler
    November 21, 2007

    This is a beautiful thing.

    I also like his football columns. His insights into some of the tactical details are quite interesting. Because of that, I have in the past defended him when he has committed egregious acts of idiocy in his “science” writing. But this one is beyond the pale, and I have:

    1) written, to him, the first true flame email I have written in at least ten years; it actually makes your post seem like a model of restraint, though it is from an amateur viewpoint (which is part of why I find it so infuriating – if *I* have a better understanding of physics than someone, that person is not trying very hard or simply not very bright);

    2) formally issued an apology to all working physicists, regardless of field, for my error in previously defending him; and

    3) vowed never to give him another page-view.

    smm, never compare anyone to Lubos. It’s not fair. Sometimes flaming is justified…I think Lubos comparisons may be covered by some science-blogging analogy to Godwin’s Law (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin's_law)

  11. #11 Tim Lambert
    November 21, 2007

    Way ahead of you on this one: Gregg Easterbrook is a waste of space

  12. #12 Neil B.
    November 21, 2007

    One of the sad things: the government under Bush is already spending lots of science money, just on the wrong things like a repeat moon shot, politically-connected new energy (corn ethanol) and not better approaches (but he does talk of switch grass, at least.)

  13. #13 Sally
    November 21, 2007

    I think it was when he started posturing about the “normally clear-headed Science magazine” that I ripped my eyes out of my head and burned them. That guy was a douche when he was writing at Slate, and he’s a douche now. He will still be a douche, I predict, when the Higgs Boson is discovered.

    Once again, I am forced, by circumstances beyond my control, to trot out the hoary old cliche about a little knowledge and danger.

  14. #14 Erik V. Olson
    November 21, 2007

    no, this kind of ultra-hot, ultra-dense stupidity can only be achieved by colliding at least two forms of idiocy at speeds approaching that of light.

    Ahh. This would require, of course, idiocy and idiocy-bar. Too bad that idiocy-bar is much easier to make in the real world than p-bars.

  15. #15 Jonathan Vos Post
    November 21, 2007

    “And building a particle accelerator doesn’t require waterboarding anybody…. and I can’t say with certainty what might happen in Alberto Gonzales were put in charge of ILC construction…”

    There’s no evidence that waterboarding anyone, or anything, will give us a good prediction of the masses of Higgs bosons.

    This overlaps the thread on dubious proof methodologies. Proof by torture. Previously unsolved equations were cracked by threats, intimidation, and attack dogs.

    Bugs Bunny: “… batten down the hatches!”

    supporting character: “But, Captain, we’ve already battened down the hatches.”

    Bugs Bunny: “Well, batten them down again. We’ll teach those hatches!”

  16. #16 Abstruse
    November 22, 2007

    “this kind of ultra-hot, ultra-dense stupidity can only be achieved by colliding at least two forms of idiocy at speeds approaching that of light”

    I laughed so hard a lil bit of pee came out.

  17. #17 John Phillips
    November 22, 2007

    If stupidity had mass, Easterbrook would have a black hole between his ears the equal of the one at Milky Way Central.

  18. #18 peter
    November 23, 2007

    I find it funny that a couple people earlier mentioned that they thought easterbrook was right about going for it more often on 4th down, and way up at the top there chad mentioned that he thought easterbrook had gone off the deep end about the patriots.

    while recently easterbrook has chided the pats for going for it on 4th down…

    does anyone have the contact number for his editor, (does he have one?)

  19. #19 Thomas
    November 23, 2007

    I think it was Carlo Rubbia who during a lecture in Stockholm when he received his Nobel prize suggested that one of the reasons particle physics was so great was that it was so expensive that it could drain a non-negligible amount of money from the military, since they both to a large extent competed about the same budget for national prestige. (You don’t really think politicians hand over all that money because they are interested in the basic science?). Instead of a dozen nuclear missiles you got a particle accelerator, and despite Easterbrook’s misgivings the nuclear missiles are a lot more likely to kill us.

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