Black hole conspiracies

by Paul Jay, CBC News online

As the man credited with inventing the web, Tim Berners-Lee knows a few things about knowledge and how it is shared and disseminated. He also knows more than most about the Large Hadron Collider, since it was while working at a CERN-run Swiss laboratory that he first developed the system of online links called Hypertext Transfer Protocol.

And he tells the BBC, he's a bit freaked out at the amount of misinformation about the LHC, particularly the talk that a black hole created in the particle collider would destroy the Earth.

"On the web the thinking of cults can spread very rapidly and suddenly a cult which was 12 people who had some deep personal issues suddenly find a formula which is very believable," he said. "A sort of conspiracy theory of sorts and which you can imagine spreading to thousands of people and being deeply damaging."

Berners-Lee's solution, as told to the BBC, is to develop a new system that would label some websites as more trustworthy than others. But to some extent, search algorithms like Google's do just that - giving extra weight to websites that are popular, and so presumably more trustworthy.

It got me thinking about my own articles on the LHC, particularly the reader reaction to the mere mention of the black hole conspiracies. Most of the reaction from science-savvy readers can be summed up as "why on Earth are you giving these theories the time of day?"

One answer is that, in the course of an average week, I get asked about the LHC about a dozen times, and in each case, they are asking: "Is the world coming to an end?" I'm not talking about scientists here, but rather everyday people who stopped taking science after high school: my wife, my in-laws, the person who cuts my hair, old university friends ... in each case, I patiently explain what I know, based on my own research and the words from scientists working in the field. And most people come away satisfied with the explanation.

To not explain, to simply brush off the comments as misinformed, is what allows the conspiracy theories Berners-Lee is talking about to prosper.

Allowing everyone a voice in scientific debate, even those voices we think of as misinformed, may not be the best way to inform the masses about how the world works. But there is value in the process; for what these forums may do is point us to the areas of education where maybe there is work to be done.