One of the major topics in the “cryptonews” over the past two weeks has been about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Europe, operated by CERN. The LHC is the largest, most powerful collider experiment to be built, and it was “switched on” last Wednesday (September 10, 2008). The collider operates by sending protons (as clouds of hydrogen gas that have been stripped of their electrons) around the 17-mile tunnel at close to the speed of light, in opposite directions, smashing them into each other and observing the results.
The purpose of this post is not to get into how colliders work, what the experiments are looking for, nor even to really address all the doomsday scenarios that have come out by “scientists” who are suing CERN to try to stop it. Rather, the purpose of my post is to talk about correlation vs. causation and what it means when scientists say that something will or will not happen.
First off, after the LHC was activated, people have been attempting to link it to hurricanes and earthquakes. There were two in indonesia, one in Japan, and others elsewhere. However, according to CERI, the Center for Earthquake Research and Information, there are over 55,000 earthquakes that are felt per year, and over 7000 that can cause damage. That’s nearly 20 earthquakes per day that can cause damage. Large earthquakes (magnitude 6 or larger) occur about once every three days somewhere on Earth.
My point here is that earthquakes happen. They may be in the news more often around other events in an attempt to link them to drum up ratings. In addition, you are more likely to take notice of a reported earthquake if you are actually looking for it, trying to correlate it with another event (e.g., the LHC being fully activated). There are two things going on here: Confirmation Bias, and the logical fallacy of confusing association with causation.
Confirmation bias is where you believe in something, and so when any event occurs that confirms that belief, you remember it, but when an event occurs that refutes it, you forget it. For example, I may think that Student A is brilliant and does well in all her assignments. That’s my bias. If she turns in her next assignment and gets 100% correct, my bias is confirmed. If she misses a question, though, I am likely to not remember that she missed it later on, or I’m likely to rationalize it away as a potentially unfair question. This is the same thing with any geologic disturbance that people are claiming is a result of the LHC.
Confusing association with causation is a logical fallacy whereby all because two things may happen at the same time, you automatically assume they are related. For example, if I saw a bird fly by my window and at that same moment a light bulb went out in the kitchen, I would think that the bird caused my lightbulb to blow out, even though, in reality, one had nothing to do with the other.
The second aspect I wanted to address is what it means when a scientist says something will or will not happen. What they are actually saying is that, given all the evidence and our current understanding of how things work, the likelihood of the event happening (or not happening) is very close to 100% (or 0%). A good scientist will never say that something is impossible. Saying that would require an infinite amount of knowledge.
The reason this is relevant is that some people are saying that there’s a tiny possibility that the LHC would produce something that would destroy the Earth or Universe. Yes, it’s possible. It’s about as possible as the LHC creating a flying unicorn that poops rainbows. Given everything we know and have verified about particle physics, the LHC producing something that destructive will not happen. But, there is always the possibility that something unknown could happen.
This is why scientists generally do not call things the f-word: “Facts.” There is no “Fact of Gravity,” or “Fact of Nuclear Physics.” Science deals with “Theories,” which is about equivalent to how many in the public think of “Facts.” A scientific theory is one that has been verified by countless experiments, different lines of evidence, and has withstood attempts to disprove it. The Theory of Relativity has so far been confirmed by everything we’ve thrown at it. Our theories show that the LHC is perfectly safe. But fear-mongers throw around “theory” as if to say, “Scientists don’t know what they’re talking about, after all, it’s just a theory.”