‘Anyone who thinks the Large Hadron Collider will destroy the world is a t**t.’

This week is Big Bang Week at the BBC, with various programmes devoted to the switch-on of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) on Wednesday morning.  Many of these programmes are covered in this week’s issue of the Radio Times—the BBC’s listings magazine—which also features a short interview with Professor Brian Cox, chair of particle physics at the University of Manchester.  Asked about concerns that the LHC could destroy the earth, he replies:

‘The nonsense you find on the web about “doomsday scenarios” is conspiracy theory rubbish generated by a small group of nutters, primarily on the other side of the Atlantic.  These people also think that the Theory of Relativity is a Jewish conspiracy and that America didn’t land on the Moon.  Both are more likely, by the way, than the LHC destroying the world.  I’m slightly irritated, because this non-story is symptomatic of a larger mistrust in science, particularly in the US, which includes things like intelligent design. [… A]nyone who thinks the LHC will destroy the world is a t**t.’ (Final word censored by Radio Times.) [1]

Who counts as a nutter and a t**t on this reckoning?  It is true that anyone who thinks there is a 100% chance that the LHC will definitely destroy the world is confused—but it’s probably also true that not many people really think this.  On the other hand, if anyone who thinks that it is worth taking seriously the (admittedly very slim) possibility that the LHC will destroy the world is a t**t, then there are many apparently very clever t**ts knocking about in our universities.  Among these are several of my colleagues: Nick Shackel has previously blogged here about the risks of turning on the LHC, as has Toby Ord; and Rafaela Hillerbrand, Toby Ord, and Anders Sandberg recently presented on this topic at the recent Future of Humanity Institute-hosted conference on Global Catastrophic Risks.  And, despite having chatted to each of these people about the LHC at some point or another, I’ve never heard any of them express sympathy for the view that the Theory or Relativity is a Jewish conspiracy or that nobody landed on the Moon.  So, are they t**ts or not?

Caution about the LHC may anger Professor Cox because it is ‘symptomatic of a larger mistrust in science’, but the readers he influences may oppose it for less lofty reasons.  In response to a news story in March about a couple of LHC critics in the US who have launched a lawsuit to prevent CERN from switching it on, public comments included, ‘These people are totally off the wall’, ‘This is science, not science fiction’, ‘This is possibly the dumbest lawsuit I have ever heard’, ‘So what!’, and ‘Y’know this sounds like the same sort of stupid idiotic crap you’d hear back in the early ages of the steam engine’.  None of the commenters quoted appear to have any knowledge of the risks involved in running the LHC, and so it seems plausible that their opposition to the lawsuit stems from little more than a judgment that the belief that the LHC might destroy the world is a bit silly. 

Silliness-aversion is not confined to internet discussion boards.  It is present in academia too.  Robin Hanson and Anders Sandberg have remarked that various research topics—such as discovering whether aliens exist and guarding against the threat of zombified robots—seem to be given a wide berth by researchers, not because they are unpromising or unimportant, but because they are too silly.  That serious issues might be neglected by intelligent people because of a pervasive view that they are silly is disturbing, to say the least.  Those who are qualified to engage in (and get paid for) academic research typically have years of experience of defending their views against sophisticated and sometimes ferocious criticism, and that they are capable of being cowed by the prospect of being sniggered at seems almost unbelievable.  It is especially incredible when we consider that most of us, if asked, would no doubt insist that if you truly believe that something is worth doing, you should ignore the mockery of others and go ahead and do it: this sentiment is drummed into us as children, and is immortalised in endless fairy tales and movies like Billy Elliot.  Academics, then, should really know better.

But then, so should anyone.  If we expect a child to rise above his classmates’ sniggering when he takes up ballet or stamp collecting, surely an adult should be capable of doing the same when she is called a t**t for worrying about the destruction of the earth?  Professor Cox seems to be urging those who oppose the LHC to stop listening to the nutters, use some intelligence, and get behind it.  However, there is just as strong a case for urging those who have got behind it to stop listening to the bullies, use some intelligence, and give some serious consideration to whether they should oppose it.

Added later: [1] Professor Cox has posted a response to this quotation here.

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