A Bosonic Debacle

Twitter is a wonderful thing, but it rather ruined my day on Wednesday as the news broke of a rather ridiculous piece of programming on BBC Wales. The mid-day talkshow “The Radio Wales Phone-In” was rather depressingly misleading and naive – even simply badly edited. There are a lot of different discussions around that particular broadcast and science & the media in general, but for me there is one single most important point from this little episode;

The general media are actively misleading people about science (especially the Higgs Boson), and the funding & consequences of that science. Furthermore they deliberately conflate science with pseudo-science or opinion (masquerading as fact) to “enhance” (read: confuse) the debates surrounding these issues.

The Media vs Science

There are more details to the points that can be drawn, but I think they can be roughly stated thus;

  • The BBC is to balance what the Great Depression was to politics in the Weimar Republic (only the most extreme viewpoints are aired; this degrades debate on real issues to arguments on ideology.)
  • The general misunderstanding of how science works utterly breaks any potential debate on the “meaning” of any discovery.
  • That nickname is utterly confusing the public; the media are entirely to blame for this.

“Balance”

The approach of the BBC to the breaking news of the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs Boson seems to have been to organize debates surrounding the topic – this is where “balance” comes in. The BBC is required to provide balance in its presentation of such issues, but it is the BBC’s belief that this is best done by collecting two people of completely polarized viewpoints and setting up an argument. The effect of this is always for either party to be ostensibly talking on the same topic, but in reality about utterly incompatible ideas. Case in point; the BBC Wales show. The two “experts” on the BBC Wales show were a Theoretical Particle Physicist (Peter Millington) and theologian.

I don’t really want to go into detail on why this was stupid – an angry rant probably isn’t fun to read – but the upshot of the casting of this man as an expert was that the presenter had an excuse to berate Mr. Millington with trivialities that simply shouldn’t have needed to be raised. I find it utterly ridiculous that a golden opportunity for a Physicist to talk with people about the science and consequences of the Higgs was destroyed by the presence of another “expert” who was clearly there specifically to ruin the understanding which Mr. Millington was trying to build. This was exacerbated by the presenter picking “dissenting” viewpoints such as the moon landings were fake. Such ridiculous non-issues should have been quickly dismissed (or even not aired in the first place), but they were taken absolutely seriously, which is completely baffling.

I think it’s fairly indicative of how disgusting I find the presentation by the BBC of this issue that days later I am still utterly speechless with rage.

That Nickname

You know the one I mean. Yes, the one referring to a deity. I know a huge number of Physicists; none of them (not a single one) use that name; most dislike it. This nickname is entirely in use because of the media – but it makes no sense at all for them to use it.

Imagine for a moment that the media decided to dub the LIBOR (London Inter Bank Offer Rate, also a topical thing) the “cockerel number”. Of course, this new nickname has nothing to do with the original name, but worse it might convince someone that Barclays has been breeding their own chickens! I know this example is utterly absurd, but that is exactly the equivalent of this invented nickname for the Higgs Boson. Why would any organization presenting themselves as showing non-fictional material use such a fabricated and misleading name?

And that’s the thing – the use of that name (there’s no point in dignifying the nickname with yet more use) misleads the public perception of the science. Here’s the most extreme example: some Twitter responses to the discovery of the Higgs;

Without the nickname, these people wouldn’t have made fools of themselves.

These people knew nothing about the Higgs except for it’s nickname; one little nickname some people might think is innocent. Obviously, they ‘knew’ a lot about it just from the name – but I can’t think of another situation where a name has been more misleading.

The Higgs Boson has nothing to do with religion. Nothing at all. No Physicist has soberly claimed that we now know anything about any religious topic because of this discovery. Not at all.

The fact of the matter is that science doesn’t really care about religion*. The way I see it, science and religion think of totally different things; science wants to know “how” and religion “why”. To some people, both of these things are important. However, since “why” in the religious sense isn’t something you can test science is completely uninterested in it.

Remember that science is about testing what you think to check if it works like that. If something can’t be tested, science either finds a way to do so or forgets about it. The Higgs is not a test of religion – it’s a test of a mathematical framework for mass. So far, nobody has found a rigorous way to test for the existence of a deity. Hence, assuming nobody will, science doesn’t care about religion at all.

In fact, once you understand that science isn’t concerned about religion at all you can quite happily understand one of the most famous lines oft quoted by people with a simultaneously atheistic and scientific viewpoint;

God? We have no need for that hypothesis such solutions. – Paul Dirac

The “hypothesis” quote from Dirac was, I believe, “we have no need for such solutions”. A quote closer to your one was actually given by Pierre-Simon Laplace, supposedly is response to Napoleon’s asking him where God fitted into his work. The original quotation is usually given as:
“Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là” (“I didn’t have need of that hypothesis”) – thanks to James for this!

The subtlety here is not that science can do without (or can disprove) religion – it’s that science doesn’t have to care at all. In fact, I think that Mr. Millington himself did a good job of summing this up on the BBC Wales show;

The Higgs gives particles mass, not meaning.

This is a sentiment which could do well with the addition of “and it’s not trying to”. To get back to the original point; using that blasted nickname is utterly misleading both the media and the people who consume it. Appending such a word into a name for something so on-topic as the Higgs Boson is dangerous for all parties involved, not least the physicists. The BBC (nor for that matter any other media organization) has no business using it.

To Summarize

It’s important to keep things in context – the BBC did a very stupid thing in that particular show about the Higgs Boson, but in general their presentation of it is reasonable to mediocre. Two main problems are endemic to the understanding of the Higgs by the public; firstly, the irrelevant and misleading nickname which has been pasted onto the science. Secondly, the general misunderstanding by the media that science is neither politics, philosophy or religion, and that they cannot rightly treat it as such. Finally, the BBC’s endless strive for “balance” has lead them to the point that they ruin their own debates with pointless trivialities. Frankly, if you’re a member of the public and want to know more about the Higgs; stop listening to the media, and email someone (anyone) in Physics. You’re far more likely to get something worth listening to.

Please, please, please; stop using that damn nickname for the Higgs Boson.

How This Affects Me

I’m a Physicist in my early career; as someone working their way into research, I find myself being encouraged to communicate about Physics and the work that I will do. When I see other people’s work utterly destroyed like this, to the point where I know that were in that position I would be extremely upset by now – that’s not motivating. In fact, it’s completely the opposite; I would currently much rather not publicize my work to avoid the circus that has become the public debate about science than have the opportunity to talk to the nation. I would be happy to change my mind – but only with a drastic change in the current media climate.

I was prepared to work for science’s relationship with the media, but they have to give a little too. They’ve made a fool of us in front of everyone just so they can look good, and they have a lot of work ahead if they want any trust in the future.

* That’s not to say that all scientists don’t care, but that’s different.

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About stoove

A physicist, researcher, and gamesman. Likes to think about the mathematics and mechanics behind all sorts of different things, and writing up the thoughts for you to read. A competent programmer, enjoys public speaking and mechanical keyboards. Has opinions which might even change from time to time.
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7 Responses to A Bosonic Debacle

  1. Bob Arthur says:

    Yes. This. All of the above.

    Honestly, my reaction to the BBC plastering that name throughout their broadcasts was to worry that theists would be offended that (going by reports) scientists were trying to muscle in on their turf and trivialise their beliefs as somehow “mundane”. We don’t need that kind of aggro at a time when the religious genuinely believe (rightly or wrongly) they are “under attack” by militant atheists/secularists. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the opposite reaction documented above might even be considered.

    And your point regarding “balance” at the BBC is spot on—just ask Graham Linehan, who, believing he was being invited to talk about his stage version of The Ladykillers, instead found himself one side of a “debate” as to whether or not it should have been done. See also http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DsGArqoF0TpQ&v=sGArqoF0TpQ&gl=GB

    • stoove says:

      Honestly I think that the BBC’s approach is wrong no matter who the victim is; debate should be open and fair, without editorial intervention (no matter how subtle or behind-the-scenes that happens to be). Mr Linehan is another example in a long line of people who have been implicitly victimised by the media. I think that science is especially vulnerable to this because of the time and effort it takes to make corrections to misunderstandings – time which it seems TV and Radio are unwilling to give.

  2. James says:

    Entirely agree. One small point – the “hypothesis” quote from Dirac was, I believe, “we have no need for such solutions”. A quote closer to your one was actually given by Pierre-Simon Laplace, supposedly is response to Napoleon’s asking him where God fitted into his work. The original quotation is usually given as:
    “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là” (“I didn’t have need of that hypothesis”)

    See here: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Pierre-Simon_Laplace

  3. emilyreacts says:

    Yes, yes and yes. Enjoyable post to read.

    I think the public as a whole needs a lesson in understanding the basis of scientific research and that they also need to interpret figures and results presented to them.

    It also frustrates me entirely when news articles don’t provide references to their ‘facts’ so I can’t read the research paper or check the raw data from which they make their claims. Often media don’t give a magnitude to research claims (well that’s not entirely true – all new discoveries seem to be considered massive breakthroughs without really much consideration to statistics), leading the public in my opinion to become confused and disillusioned as to what to consider as actually meaning something.

    • stoove says:

      Thanks for the compliment 🙂

      The idea that the public need to know more about the scientific method is interesting, and I agree. I myself feel that I was never formally taught how the scientific method works (though as a kid I did infer it on my own) – this is something that I think is crucial to a proper adult understanding of the world and it kinda baffles me why it’s not explicitly taught. This might well prepare people to judge somewhat for themselves the importance of research.

      As for magnitudes presented in the media, I agree (again) and also suppose that this is a more general problem (not an unknown one either; http://xkcd.com/558/ ). Perhaps all of these problems can just be boiled down to the postulate that the media treat people as if they are stupid, when very few people really fit the “everyperson” idea which the media work to when deciding how to present things.

  4. Pingback: Sensationalistic Science | UNconstant

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