Cause for ConCERN?

The journalist, that unhappy beast, is motivated in his writing by the desire to sell more stories, and hence, the better he writes to this end, the more demand there will be for his stories, and the more he will have to write.

But like any market, there are forces of supply and demand. By providing what the public wants, the journalist increases their appetite; and the more he feeds them, the hungrier they get. There has to come a point where demand catches, and passes supply.

What can the journalist do but use what he writes to provoke new stories into existence? This is extremely common. A jounalist who writes an exposé of political corruption may trigger an official inquiry (new story) that leads to accusations, allegations, resignations (new stories). A journalist who writes about the potential of a new, untried cancer treatment will cause desperate cancer sufferers to try to obtain the treatment before it has been proved to be safe and effective (new story), and they suffer as a result because it is neither safe nor effective (new stories).

Editors don't judge news on some mysterious notion of "newsworthyness" or public spirited "need to know". It is judged on how much more news the news is going to create. They have to because they are enslaved by the demand that they create, and the only way to feed the demand is to manufacture more news.

Reporting the switch-on of the LHC honestly and faithfully would have resulted in no new news:

"The LHC is going to be switched on at CERN. It is the biggest project of any kind ever undertaken by mankind. It is going to start producing experimental data over the next few months, which will take many more months to be analysed, and then scientists will argue for many more months over whether anything has actually been discovered."

This, of course, engenders apathy. Consequently, journalists have given a lot of undue attention to the handful of scientists who went to the trouble to calculate the probability of the LHC creating a world-swallowing black hole or some other equally catastrophic exotic entity. Never mind the fact that the calculations show that the possibility is vanishingly small. Never mind the fact that the very existence of black holes is known only mathematically and through indirect observation, and that if those mathematics are correct then any mini-black holes will emit (Hawking radiation) faster than they can consume matter, causing them to "evaporate". Never mind that the various exotics (singularities and whatnot) are entirely hypothetical.

What matters in reporting this is that the calculations have been made at all. On the fundamental journalistic dogma that "there's no smoke without a smoking gun" (or something), the very fact that anyone is seriously considering the possibility of world-eating black holes being created in France suggests that there is a real risk, however small, that this may occur.

Consequence? People with nothing but money and time to waste between their ears bring court cases to try to prevent CERN from destroying the earth. Which is news, of course, since everyone likes to laugh at the ignorant looneys.

Scientists only make it worse, of course, because their professional discipline prevents them from being dismissive. I've yet to hear any scientist respond to these claims with "don't be silly." That may be an impolite (and unscientific) answer, but it is a responsible one. Giving a carefully worded answer convinces people that you've thought carefully about it and that persuades them that it is a real possibility. Being dismissive may seem cavalier, but it shows that you aren't concerned.

A lot of attention is payed to superconductors, and the fantastic speeds at which the protons whizz round the accerator, and the huge energy levels at which they collide. I suspect scientists are reluctant to point out what the actual energy (as opposed to energy level) of a handful of protons is. It is disappointingly small when compared with the budget, and the people paying for it have faith in place of knowledge.

The best thing about CERN is that it is a sure thing. If it finds nothing, then we're wrong about most of what we think about the Universe. If it finds anything, it will be things that we've never seen before, and some mainstream views will be wrong - it will be possible to choose between possibilities that currently compete on theory, using observation. That is unimaginably cool, and the folks at CERN are heroes for doing what they've done.

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