A 50% Chance of Doomsday ?

May 4, 2009

Thanks to Bruce Schneier for this story …

You may have seen news stories from time to time about the development of the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] at CERN, the European physics research center in Switzerland.   Scientists are anxious for the completion of the project, because the LHC will enable them to perform experiments with elementary particles at considerably higher energies than has been possible to date.  (Higher energy particles are also more massive, following Einstein’s famous relationship, E = mc².) It’s been hypothesized that experiments at the LHC may lead to unambiguous detection of the Higgs Boson (sometimes nicknamed the “God particle”), whose existence is predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics, but has never been observed.

Some people have expressed  concern about  potential danger from experiments at such high energy levels.  (For example, the LHC can collide opposing proton beams at 7 TeV.  One tera-electron-volt is 1,000,000,000,000 electron volts.)  These energies correspond to those that existed in the universe very shortly after the Big Bang.  There has been speculation that the collisions might create a black hole, which might do great damage.  Reviews of the question by competent physicists, endorsed by the American Physical Society, have concluded that there is no reason for concern.

However, it seems there is a high school science teacher named Walter Wagner who thinks this is wrong, and that there is a 50% chance that the Earth will be destroyed..  The Daily Show on the Comedy Central network picked up the story.  His method of assessing probabilities is certainly novel:

“If you have something that can happen, and something that won’t necessarily happen, it’s going to either happen or it’s going to not happen, and so the best guess is 1 in 2.”

If you watch the Daily Show segment, Mr.Wagner is interviewed by John Oliver.  What is most disturbing is the section of clips from “serious” media that take him seriously.

Bruce Schneier says, “This may be the stupidest example of risk assessment I’ve ever seen.”  In terms of mathematical illiteracy, I’d say it ranks right up there with the Indiana legislature’s attempt to set the value of π by statute.

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