The Large Haldron Collidor is poised to be one of the greatest scientific accomplishments of the 21st century. It may tell us a great deal about the origins of the universe and reveal the secrets of particle physics. But why has this device engendered a community of conspiracy theoriests and what is it about large-scale government science projects that cause people to whisper about rumours and disbelieve the official line? This paper will investigate these questions.
Strange ideas and misconceptions slip into physics perhaps more than any of the other sciences. Surveys have often found that even college graduates carry unreliable ideas or even completely wrong ideas about the phases of the moon or the cause of the seasons or why the sky is blue. For the last few years, a number of prominent physicists have found themselves battling a flood of conspiracy theories regarding the moon landings, as the internet has opened up chat rooms and websites for amateur theorists to chew the cud. Its important that real scientists fight back against misconceptions as these strange ideas have a real possibility of undermining peoples belief in science and the credibility of scientific authorities. The goal of this analysis will be to examine the culture surrounding the large hardon collidor, CERN, and look at some of the possible explanations for why conspiracy theories surrounding this organization are growing.
To begin with, it is interesting to take a close look at the American educational system to see just how much elementary physics is not taught, or not taught well. The average person is unable to answer straightforward questions such as “Why is the sky blue?” or “How long does it take for light from the sun to reach the Earth?” Because of the quantity of scientific illiteracy in this day and age it should be surprised that conspiracy theorists are able to seize a large part of the public attentions on questions such as the particle collidor—one of the signal scientific achievements of the 21st century. This is a sad situation. Specific instances of incorrect physical knowledge among regular people are not cause for concern. Not everyone is going to care about physics. But like in other sciences, the general public often displays a pattern of misconception and ignorance on these issues, and with physics in particular is more than willing to believe wild claims such as the collidor will create a black hole that will destroy the world.
It is always interesting to examine the reasons why people embrace such theories. Most of these people lack political power in the first place, which can help explain why they seek it through mass communication and an effort to convince others to follow their own ideas. They feel empowered by “taking on” the government and establishment. Delusions of grandeur soon follow. Another important element to consider is the hobby aspect of conspiracies about CERN. This is a kind of mystery that people can spend hours devoting themselves to in an effort to unravel it all. Every new detail they find out about can be added to the hypothesis they are building. This people are playing at science using the same basic framework of real scientists to deduct facts and conclusions, but their standards are much lower and they are much more easily swayed by extraneous information. They feel themselves becoming a part of history as they delve into the minutiae of the momentous occasion. They feel themselves becoming important. A feeling perhaps they have never felt before in any of their other endeavours. An example of the recent theorist entering the public sphere can be found in the Dan Brown movie Angels & Demons where CERN creates antimatter that could destroy the world.
As one writer would later say of conspiracy theorists, all the confounding facts of the momentous occasion are “examined like runes and held up to the light like talismans, small shards of some awful psychic puzzle” (Cocks). This is a very useful statement as it shows us the propensity of some people to come up with myths and fantasies when they have difficulty believing what the government tells them. They latch on to extremely complex theories. For the moon landing conspiracy thousands of people would have to be involved, but no one has ever come forward with hard evidence. The complexity of the hoax would require much more work than actually sending someone to the moon. And the implications of such a conspiracy—the government is massively lying to its citizens and with impunity—beggars belief. The same is true of CERN and Hardon Collidor.
The truth is that in cases like this we should turn to Occam’s Razor:
The simplest explanation is usually the right one. Detectives use it to deduce who's the likeliest suspect in a murder case -- you know, the butler did it. Doctors use it to determine the illness behind a set of symptoms. This line of reasoning is called Occam's razor. It's used in a wide variety of ways throughout the world as a means to slice through a problem or situation and eliminate unnecessary elements.
When weighing evidence and cause and effect, this is an important principle that can tell us a lot. There is a lot of money and fun to be had making up stories about conspiracies and shadowy groups and injecting political intrigue into everything; the truth is often a lot less interesting.