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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.

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Comments

Stephan Unrau

What is the explanation that satisfied those who stopped talking science after high school? I like science, but imagine a day where an experiment goes wrong in nanotechnology, particle physics, bio weapons, or genetics. When doing high level experiments, there is little chance we accidentally destroy a fundamental part of the universe. Doing low level experiments, unsure of the outcome, we risk creating or destroying an unknown fabric. For example, the ozone layer, cancer, DDT, plastics, electromagnetic radiation, all were experiments at low levels that caused damage and we still don't know the true effect. The atomic bomb, although intentional, is a good example of what can happen. I have read why the LHC will not destroy the world or create a black hole that will swallow up the earth, and the explanation is that the LHC will not do anything that is not already done by the universe. Although the hypothesis does state they are wishing to confirm or deny the existence of a hypothetical particle and to witness the disintegration of a black hole by radiation. I am fairly sure the LHC will not destroy the earth with the current plan of experiments. Yet we all know pharmaceutical companies releasing a new drug that is unlikely to cause any extreme harm. In other words: they are not really sure, just really curious. I value the work being done, but can hardly agree that regular people who suspect potential problems are 'conspirators’ and the terminology is inappropriate. Extreme caution should be taken with any experiment of this nature, and I believe the appropriate studies have been taken for this first series of tests at the LHC. The common perception that it may be dangerous is not a cause for discrimination, as it is an animal trait responsible for our survival. Scientists so sure of the outcome being safe are inexperienced with life's unexpected turns. Marie Curie would agree. The LHC is scary due to the potential for harm, now and in the future.

Posted September 18, 2008 11:25 AM

Claudio

Windsor

Just goes to show how powerful the internet really is eh? A little misinformation can do quite a bit of damage, or at least a fair bit of disservice to a given cause.

I have no fears at all concerning the experiments being performed at the LHC, any more than I fear a killer asteroid catastrophically slamming into the earth. Statistically speaking, in either case the chance of the Earth being obliterated is NOT zero, but the chances of it happening is very remote and I am okay with that. At least with the LHC we have some semblance of control, and the men and women in charge of the experiments are extremely educated individuals. While its true that it is not entirely known what results these experiments will yield, these scientists have made a very educated guess at what the expected outcome will be. In other words, they are not stumbling eyes-closed in the dark.

I'm going to show my geekiness hear a bit but I remember a quote from the 4th Star Trek movie. Said McCoy to Spock: "Jim feels more confident in your guesses than most other people's facts."

Posted September 20, 2008 09:27 AM

Jean

Detroit

The Large Hadron Collider experiment is of wrong doing, the scientist are playing with our world and any thing can go wrong, look the hackers of young teenagers got into there computers. So any one else can' this is an invitation for the terrorists. I feel that Bush has done great damage to the united states and he should of stop this action of what the scientist have done. Bush is suppose to be a Christian. Well he isn't one and he surely is playing the part of God in so many ways.

Posted September 21, 2008 07:43 AM

Theresa Thistle

Ontario

My first reaction is...How dare Tim Berners-Lee think he can decide, for us all, what's conspiracy and what isn't. How dare anyone! I am NOT a child. I do not need cencorship. I, and I alone, will decide what's crap and what isn't. Who the hell are you to tell me I can't view, read, listen, or talk about anything I damn well please? Get over yourself! Worldwide offline laws recognized by most countries such as child porn or promoting violence, copyright laws, commiting fraud, etc. should also apply online. But that's the extent of it. We don't burn books in my country. We are free to express our views providing they don't promote violence or hatred towards a group. But I am free to write about the fact I may find someone to be a mook. I am free to proclaim the moon is made from cheese and to promote said view. That's freedom. Someone give Mr. Tim a shake.

Posted September 22, 2008 01:52 AM

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