A Short Visit to Commentland

About ten days ago I came across an article in the msnbc.com site’s cosmiclog section about the issuing of a safety report by CERN, the major European high-energy particle physics experiment facility, located in Geneva. The report was meant to answer concerns raised about possible catastrophic consequences of operating the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which, after years of construction, is about to commence operation this summer.

The safety report is an interesting document, not only for its content, but also for the reason for its production, which was objections, including law suits, raised by private individuals based on some otherwise obscure speculations by a few theoretical physicists about novel particles and microscopic objects that might be produced in proton collisions at the never-before-attained (in the lab) energies of the LHC.

I was particularly interested in the topic because it followed in rough outline a movie scenario I had imagined around thirty years ago. That scenario, which was sketched in an earlier post called Dangerous Experiments, was based on a physics graduate student’s having determined that high-energy experiments about to be conducted in a new particle accelerator would destroy the universe.

I am working on a note about the issues, which I aim to post here in a few days. In the meantime, however, I am going to present some observations on the comments posted online about the cosmiclog article, since I found the comments themselves to be interesting for what they said about the commenters, who to some degree must represent people that read science news posted online.

First, I should mention that this was a moderated comment section. All comments had to be read and approved by a moderator before they were posted. This procedure aims to eliminate spam as well as personally abusive comments, examples of which anyone that has read unmoderated comment sections will have encountered. Published comments are the “normal” non-commercial responses to the article. I even contributed a few comments myself.

I have gone through the comments trying to assign them all to categories. This was obviously a subjective and rather arbitrary process. I present the results of this exercise below in the hopes they may be of interest. Some comments fall into more than one category and, in a couple of obvious cases, a category is a subcategory of a more inclusive one. There were 156 comments in all, and I list them by categories below with the most numerous examples first.

Note that there were a few comments that I placed in the category of organized opposition, meaning that I thought those comments were from people already committed to opposition and who were there to rally people to their cause. Where noted, certain categories (e.g., Skepticism about scientists’ competence or objectivity) do not include the comments deemed part of the organized opposition.

A few comments may have fallen through the cracks, as I had a few categories of one comment only that I dropped and whose exemplars may not have appeared elsewhere. This was a laborious undertaking I won’t repeat for a while, so I hope someone will find it amusing if not enlightening.

The categories and numbers in each follow.

Comments containing statement or clear inference that LHC experiments are a real gamble, whether deemed worth taking or not (organized oppositon excluded): 17

Comments mentioning religion and/or the Bible in some way: 16

Humorously intended end-of-world comments: 15

Comments containing negative opinion or portrayal of physicists: 12

Comments containing blatant physics errors or nonsensical physics statements: 10

Uncategorizable useless comments: 10

Comments making erroneous, inadequate, or unclear attempts to correct physics mistakes in other comments: 10

Comments expressing skepticism about scientists’ competence or objectivity (organized opposition excluded): 10

Casual or humorous comments about desirability of mini black hole: 9

Comments containing antireligious statements: 8

Comments using physical arguments of CERN safety report to reject danger: 8

Comments expressing the idea that progress is more important than the potential danger without estimating the danger: 7

Comments referring to the Mayan calendar: 8

Comments expressing concern about specific points in CERN report (organized opposition excluded): 6

Comments with a reference to fiction or poetry: 6

Comments expressing belief that danger is minimal without specifically referring to the report: 5

Comments used to make an unrelated political point: 5

Comments attacking report by apparent organized opposition: 5

Comments attacking funding for particle physics per se: 5

Comments containing defense of physicists: 5

Comments largely concerned with criticizing many previous comments: 5

Comments adequately correcting physics mistakes: 4

Humorously voiced regret that no black hole or end of the world: 4

Comments stating or implying that physicists carried out experiments or tests they thought potentially catastrophic in the past: 4

Comments raising “overlooked” dangers of LHC: 3

Comments rebuking others for misunderstanding Mayan calendar: 3

Comments supporting the LHC experiments from a religious standpoint: 3

Comments expressing view that LHC catastrophe would be a great way to go: 2

Comments expressing view that if it’s the end, so what?: 2

Comments wondering whether any of the commenters are competent to judge: 2

Comment using Bible to reject idea that LHC will directly bring about the end of the world: 1

Ironic or sincere appreciation expressed for an erroneous comment: 1

Sarcastic expresson of approval of a previous comment: 1

Comment questioning non-scientist judge’s competence to decide queston: 1

Comment supporting use of non-scientist judge: 1

Irrelevant musing on the end of the world: 1

Misanthropic outpouring: 1

Oblique reference to attempt to stop experiments by force: 1

Call to arrest and jail those pushing the project: 1

Comment promising this blog post: 1

One of the most striking things in the comments was how very few were the commenters that showed much physics knowledge. Of course, many of them didn’t pretend to know physics, and I wouldn’t advocate limiting comments to people knowledgeable in physics. After all, if the doomsday scenario were correct, we would all perish. I do have a problem with people who pretend to physics knowledge they obviously don’t have though. Some of those who took upon themselves the task of educating their ignorant fellow commenters unfortunately demonstrated only a misguided self-assurance and the ability to throw around terms like “general relativity” without physical understanding.

I only made one comment dealing with an erroneous physics statement (two billiard balls with equal and opposite velocities were said to come to a dead stop upon colliding), and it turned out to be one that a few others corrected. There were just too many erroneous or fuzzy statements. It would have been too much work to correct them all, and when comments don’t really make much sense in the first place it’s hard know what to say except this is gibberish. I suspect such comments are meant mainly to impress, and they usually don’t have an obvious point that needs to be taken on. But I shouldn’t speculate too much on the motivation.

It’s obvious that a substantial percentage of the commenters saw an opportunity to display their wit; and, given the democratic nature of the forum, there was no high standard imposed on the level of humor attained. Some people post a comment without reading all that have already been posted, so very similar comments appear multiple times. This accounts for the repeated comments of the “Great! I can use a miniblack hole to vacuum the house!” type, as well as the multiple corrections of the erroneous statement about the billiard ball collision.

As might have been expected, I suppose, given the end-of-the-world theme, there were a number of short, humorously intended comments of the “Oh no! We’re doomed!” type. I didn’t note a single one that said this was an obvious fulfilling of a Biblical prediction, but there was a good bit of discussion of the Mayan calendar, which is due either to start a new cycle or to bring our world to an end, depending evidently on your interpretation, sometime in 2012. There was one commenter who felt sure the LHC could not directly bring about the end foretold in Revelations since other necessary events had not yet occurred, but he left open the possibility that it could be the start of a domino effect, which in any event did not worry the securely saved writer, who asked if other readers were as confident of where they would spend eternity.

One of the supposed dangers of the LHC operation is the creation of mini black holes, which might in time gobble up the Earth. The mini black hole idea sparked a number of humorously meant comments about how handy these might be for waste disposal etc. Well, for a while anyway.

There were a few misanthropic comments of the “Good, this will eliminate a blight from the universe,” sort. And there were political references to our government’s propensity to wage war etc.

At a certain point people involved in the campaign to stop the experiments seem to have gotten wind of the discussion going on, and a small flurry of comments highly critical of the report as a whitewash and with links to anti-LHC websites appeared. I think I may have let a couple of earlier comments of this type slip through the filtering, but that’s not a big deal.

I was surprised at the number of people that accepted the notion that running the experiments was a serious gamble, but one worth taking for the sake of progress, sometimes based on the anticipation of unlikely future applications that might result from knowledge gained by the LHC experiments.

Of course there were those who thought it was a gamble not worth taking, including some that saw it as just another example to add to earlier ones in which physicists had risked destroying the world through reckless experiments or tests, the atomic and hydrogen bomb tests usually being cited.

One commenter (anticipating the call by NASA’s James Hansen to arrest oil company executives for fostering doubt about anthropogenic global warming) maintained that anyone pushing the project forward should be arrested and jailed.

I would recommend to CERN that they have people monitoring online science news forums such as cosmiclog and googling away to see when the issue of LHC safety is being discussed online, in order to minimize the number of uncontested erroneous statements. The anti-LHC folks are obviously on the job, if their arrival in this observation forum is typical.

I’m not sure what I expected, but going through these comments was a bit disheartening for me. Maybe comment sections become dominated by people who like seeing their comments on the screen, which ends up discouraging those with something more of substance to say from commenting. I know I quickly saw the erroneous physics statements—not to mention the irrelevant posts on the commenters’ favorite topics of religion or anti-religion—start to swarm like gnats, and a swarm of gnats is something you want to get away from.

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