How Do We Know What We Know?

musings on scientific knowledge

The fear is unfounded

The start-up had been preceded by some well-publicized hysteria on the fringes, with alarmists worrying that the L.H.C. would create a black hole that could swallow the earth. (The fear is unfounded.) There was also a cern subplot in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, in which Illuminati steal anti-matter from the L.H.C. in order to evaporate the Vatican. (Also not a concern—it would take an impossible amount of time and energy to produce enough anti-matter to make a bomb.) source

I have to say, it’s so nice to read a news article that actually just says when fringe opinions are fringe opinions. This gets into one of my things about the language of science, which is that we don’t like to say things are impossible: that’s like asking your next experiment to prove you wrong. We know we don’t know everything about the universe; finding the impossible stuff is the point. But that tends to give lay observers the sense that things are more probable than they are, because in other situations people round “deeply unlikely” down into “not at all possible,” and many scientists won’t.

Take the thing about the LHC destroying the universe. Before it was turned on, could we say with absolute certainty that it wouldn’t? No, because we can’t say anything with absolute certainty. But were any physicists involved with the experiment saying their last goodbyes to family members? No. (Well, perhaps jokingly.)

I like the phrase “the fear is unfounded.” It captures the right sense: not that the thing is impossible, but that it’s sufficiently unlikely that one need not worry about it.

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