Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A super False Dilemma with the LHC

A few weeks back David King, the former Chief Scientific Adviser for the United Kingdom, pulled out the old False Dilemma trick in criticising the Large Hadron Collider. It's taking a higher priority for funds and minds than solving the Earth's major challenges (such as climate change, population growth, and poverty in Africa):
"It's all very well to demonstrate that we can land a craft on Mars, it's all very well to discover whether or not there is a Higgs boson (a potential mass mechanism); but I would just suggest that we need to pull people towards perhaps the bigger challenges where the outcome for our civilisation is really crucial."
Forgetting that he is insulting all the climate and alternative energy scientists out there, this is simply a False Dilemma. The way the King of science puts it, the less astute observer, someone impressed by his authority, might be led to believe there is some kind of choice between (supposedly) frivolous pure research and (worthy) applied research that will eventually save the world. I tend to think a third choice is more realistic – we’ve more than enough money and scientists to do both.

Now that I’ve dealt with the King’s simplistic and fallacious point, I’ll discuss it by pretending he does have a point. Let’s look at the cost of the LHC. The total cost of the project is expected to be €3.2–6.4 billion. That is, less than 10 Billion USD. This is chicken feed in comparison to other human endeavours. Why pick on the LHC? Why not the Summer Olympics:
A total of an estimated US$42 billion were spent on the 2008 Olympic games in Beijing, making it the most expensive games ever; the British Olympic Association has announced that no more than US$19 billion will be spent on the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, while the 2000 Sydney Olympics and 2004 Athens Olympics cost US$7 billion and US$15 billion respectively.
Crowning athletic achievements or scientific achievements – which is more important? There’s a really top notch False Dilemma for you.

Hell, why not mention the Goodna Bypass – a motorway being built in my neck of the woods. Its projected cost is about US$2 Billion - for a flipping road. ($file/Business%20Case%20Report.pdf)

HRH of Science, and others who say much the same, also ignore (or blithely dismiss) a few other key points. One, there already are billions of dollars being spent on research into the problems he cites – if you want a large research grant, mention climate change. Two, there are already many technological solutions to the problems he cites – we don’t necessarily need more science, we need more political will. Three, as far as "putting the best minds to it" goes, how about we let scientists work on what they are most interested in? This will probably get the best work out of them, including those working on the problems he cites. Four, pure research forms the basis of new technology. Who would have predicted the WWW in the 60s? Did any Sci Fi writer? Guess who invented it – computer scientists at CERN. Now that they have even more data to handle they’re working on The Grid. And who knows what else will result from this cheap as chips project, including breakthroughs that could lead to revolutions in energy? Five, there is a shortage of scientists and students entering science related careers all around the world. The LHC has sparked massive interest, many comparing it to the Apollo missions. I don’t know that I’d go that far (not being around for the Apollo missions), but this is inspirational science at its best and could more than likely lead to more interest in science.

Here's an example of King attempting to dismiss the fact that the WWW was invented because of the need for it at CERN:
"People say to me: 'well what about the world wide web? That emerged from Cern'. Brilliant. Tim Berners Lee was the person who invented that. What if Tim Berners Lee had been working in a solar [power] laboratory? Perhaps he would have done it there as well. The spin-out would have come from the brilliant individual."
Brilliant, no doubt. But it seems to me he came up with the WWW because there was a specific need for it. As far as I know a solar power lab doesn't need such computer power and the ability to share the mass of data produced at CERN? I'm happy to be shown to be wrong of course... I think King could call his point The Argument from "in my imagination". In my imagination Tim Berners Lee would have invented the world wide web no matter what, therefore CERN is a waste of time and nothing good has come of it that wouldn't have happened anyway.

And I’ll leave you with this thought. The LHC is a joint international effort on a scale never seen before, with the aim of trying to understand the fundamentals of the universe. It makes me immensely proud to be human.

Ps: They've fixed all the problems with the LHC with a spare part they found rushed in from Russia or China or somewhere where quality components come from and it's back online - see the live webcam here - do it - it's sweet.