September 15, 2008

So-Called ‘God Machine’ Will Prove Nothing, Even If It Works

NOW that the euphoria and hype surrounding the search for the Higgs boson - using the Large Hadron Collider at Cern - have eased somewhat, it is perhaps opportune to raise a couple of important questions on the methodology of physical science, which seem to have been largely ignored or forgotten in the meantime.

It is a tenet of the scientific method that physical experiment should be performed to test out theories, and in such manner as to be unbiased and amenable to independent replication for evaluation and verification.

This particular experiment is to be conducted with use of huge resources in terms of apparatus, computing power, personnel, time and so money. The cost alone is given at around GBP5bn. This gives rise to two important implications.

First, it is conceivable that this experiment could be repeated at Cern using the same (or largely the same) apparatus, computers and personnel, although at prohibitive cost. That repetition would not be replication in the accepted scientific sense. Any inbuilt biases, not to say errors and inaccuracies of the existing set-up (the sheer complexity of which must cause suspicion of possible flaws leading to spurious outcomes) would likely persist. However, and more importantly, it is not conceivable that this experiment will be repeated elsewhere from scratch, which is exactly what is required for true replication.

Thus the outcome of this particular experiment cannot in the traditional sense be independently evaluated or verified. In short, it will "prove" nothing, whatever it might indicate.

Secondly, there is danger of inbuilt bias in this whole project. With so much invested in discovering the Higgs boson in terms of time, money, apparatus, including computing power equivalent to 30,000 PCs, and personnel, and so much at stake in terms of potential notoriety and professional kudos that await any discoverers, there is surely a great danger surely of institutional prejudice at work in the search for this elusive particle. That means the possibility of shortcuts being taken, eyes being blinded and hoods being winked to inconvenient or contrary indications. It is disconcerting to see that Higgs himself is so committed to such a discovery, while Stephen Hawking so committed to a contrary outcome, that they have even agreed to a GBP100 wager . Media reports have been bursting with partisan but opposing predictions and a Nobel prize has already been putatively awarded. Where has scientific objectivity, indeed reality, disappeared to?

The assertion often made that, "if the Higgs boson exists, the LHC cannot fail to find it" is very wide of the mark and spurious by the accepted standards of the scientific method and objectivity. At best, all that could be truly asserted is that this particular experiment indicated "one-off" the possible existence of the possible Higgs boson.

To that extent, I await with only the mildest of interest the outcome of this particular experiment, "proving" nothing, and all for that enormous expenditure of effort and resources.

Darrell Desbrow, Overholm, Dalbeattie, Kirkcudbrightshire.

Originally published by Newsquest Media Group.

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