True, false, who can say?

If you’ve been paying attention to the interwebs over the last week or so, you may have been aware of a series of papers written Holger Nielsen & Masao Ninomiya (here, here, here, and here).  I don’t want to get too mired in the paper itself, but to put their arguments simply:

  1. It may be that in the realm of unexplored physics future events are able to affect the present.
  2. It may also be that nature abhors excessive numbers of Higgs bosons — the particles responsible for giving mass to other particles. If you’ve also been paying attention, you may recall that the principle goal of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is to produce lots of these Higgs bosons.
  3. Perhaps the all of the recent problems with the LHC are nothing more than nature preventing future production of Higgs bosons.

Their concern is that since the universe wants to stop us from making lots of Higgses, then it may do so explosively, perhaps by a catastrophic failure that causes lots of real damage. They argue that the universe could give us a chance to defend ourselves in the following way: we pick a card out of a deck of a million, and if it’s, say, the number “1” (a one in a million chance) then the plans should be canceled forthwith.

Ludicrous, right? And not just on the surface.

But why, if they’ve been writing about this for over 2 years, has the blogosphere suddenly exploded with derision? About a week ago, Dennis Overbye of the New York Times, wrote a very highly referenced essay refers to them as, “A pair of otherwise distinguished physicists…” and adds, sarcastically:

You might think that the appearance of this theory is further proof that people have had ample time — perhaps too much time — to think about what will come out of the collider, which has been 15 years and $9 billion in the making.

Unsurprisingly, Overbye’s essay has been picked up all over the internet — and the N&N papers have mostly been eviscerated on science-oriented blogs (and to an even greater degree, in the comments section). Among serious scientists, critiques have ranged from dismissive outrage (e.g. from Peter Woit, author of Not Even Wrong) to a more nuanced “wrong, but not quite crackpottery” (from Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance).

I don’t want to spend too much space here commenting on the N&N papers and whether they’re correct. They’re not. For instance, they introduce an “imaginary component of the Action”, a concept which is completely nonsensical when compared to everything we know about physics. And another thing… See? I almost fell into the same trap of turning my entire attention to Nielsen and Ninomiya, when I really want to concentrate on Overybye, and why he wrote the article he did.

To his credit, it’s clear from his essay that he doesn’t believe the result. He includes snippets like:

As Niels Bohr, Dr. Nielsen’s late countryman and one of the founders of quantum theory, once told a colleague: “We are all agreed that your theory is crazy. The question that divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct.”

This is the sort of evasive non-committal remark we might expect from a scientist who says something like, “Interesting, if true.” What bothers me about Overbye’s article — and let me say that I’m normally a great admirer — is that it smacks of the same sort of journalistic negligence that we’ve seen in so much political reporting over the last 10 years: A claim is put forward, a few people comment on the significance, and the reader is (ostensibly) left to judge for him or herself.

Forgetting, for the moment, that crackpot theories make all physicists look bad, there’s the more basic question of whether there’s currently enough information to determine whether or not N&N are crackpots, or at least enough information to determine whether or not they are almost certainly wrong. If we simply didn’t know enough, that would be one thing, but we do; both Carroll and Woit put forth very cogent arguments, even if they come to slightly different conclusions about the merits of N&N’s papers or of Overbye’s article.

This should be contrasted with quantum mechanics, which Overbye refers to in the quote above. Yes, quantum mechanics sounds “crazy”, but it was introduced as necessary, once physicists starting understanding the particle/wavelike nature of light, the structure of the hydrogen atom, the two slit experiment, and radioactive decay. There was direct experimental evidence that the Newtonian universe we’d come to love was somehow inherently flawed.

But angry forces from the future sabotaging the LHC?

This sort of story reminds me of nothing so much as the journalism surrounding the existence of WMDs in Iraq, John Kerry’s war record, or the more recent discussions about what are or are not in the various health-care proposals. When outrageous claims are made, ideally, a journalist should call a spade a spade.

In science, it becomes a tougher question. As been pointed out by countless others, there’s a divide between those who do science and those who effectively report on it and present it to the public. How is a science reporter to know when someone in one of the hundreds of scientific disciplines and sub-disciplines is making an accurate, well-justified claim? They can ask other experts, of course, and good journalists (including Overbye) do.

But there’s one detail that often forgotten. When we (scientists, that is) are asked to referee a paper by a reputable journal, we’re usually given weeks, and we spend our time looking at every equation, comparing the paper to those that have come before, asking our colleagues who are more expert than ourselves, etc. We also write our reports anonymously.

When asked by a reporter whether an article that we may or may not have read in great depth is true, and knowing that our name will be quoted, what else can we say except, “Interesting, if true?”

-Dave

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