Monday, 15 September 2008

ANALYSIS: web 'must separate rumour' from science

As a source of apocalyptic rumour and panic, the internet can't be beaten. Once upon a time, doomsayers were confined to preaching, pamphlet/book printing or - in usually quite extreme cases - bagging mainstream media attention to propagate their ideas, but now anybody with a copy of Dreamweaver and a broadband connection can be all over the internet like a rash.
Now obviously the flap over the LHC was something more than that, since those who launched the biggest legal challenge against the switch-on were scientists themselves, but you don't have to have an intimate understanding of Google's listing system to find websites that put an apocalyptic slant on scientific discoveries or ideas both old and new. Polar shifts, the conjunction of planets, asteroid strikes, shooting stars, even messages in the layout of the pyramids in Egypt - all these ideas and more (worse?) find a home on the World Wide Web. It's a boon for us - since it makes these people all the easier to find - but it also means the mainstream media are more likely to pick up on the latest predictions and by broadcasting them they encourage others to find or believe in them. It's a vicious circle that's not really been addressed by a loony-ignoring scientific community before.
It is therefore a sign of how significant the LHC flap was that Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the man who gave birth to the internet, has said he is "increasingly worried" about the way the web has been used to spread "disinformation".
Speaking to the BBC News website in advance of an announcement about a Foundation he has helped create that he hopes will improve the World Wide Web, Sir Tim has voiced concern about the use of the web to spread fears that flicking the switch on the LHC could create a Black Hole that could swallow up the Earth. He also linked this to general 'scientiphobia' such as the spread of rumours that the MMR vaccine could cause autism.
"On the web the thinking of cults can spread very rapidly and suddenly a cult which was 12 people who had some deep personal issues suddenly find a formula which is very believable," he said. "A sort of conspiracy theory of sorts and which you can imagine spreading to thousands of people and being deeply damaging."
It's obvious why the misguided interest in the LHC should provoke his ire - his pioneering work on the web was done at the collider's home of CERN at Geneva - but it must also be truly galling to see what could be one of the most important experiments in the history of mankind reduced to the status of a freakshow by journalists whose attention helped explode bog-standard apocalyptic scaremongering into a real 'silly season' summer story.
Sir Tim's solution? Systems that would give websites a label for trustworthiness once they had been proved reliable sources. Whether this is in any way workable or not, it's significant that the father of the internet (who thanks to his connections at CERN is also a major figure in the wider scientific community) has chosen to tackle such people head on, rather than ignore them lest the attention almost legitimise their ideas.
But did scientific rebuttals destroy the MMR allegations and lay parents' minds at rest? The downward spiral of uptake rates for the vaccine would suggest otherwise and it can be argued that suspicions of science, and those 'in charge', run much deeper than those behind paternalistic action plans maybe realise.
Apocalyptic ideas are ultimately an expression of our fear of the unknown, of things that come outside the world's received wisdom - they feed on uncertainty and the LHC just proves that no scientist can ever give the 100% guarantee of what will happen in an experiment (otherwise, what's the point of doing it in the first place?)

So bear in mind that Robert J Oppenheimer, who created the world's first atomic bomb, ordered extensive calculations to prove that the detonation wouldn't set off a chain-reaction in the upper atmosphere which would engulf the planet in flame - which may well represent the first quantitative risk assessment of human extinction, something that has continued on and off for almost 70 years.

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