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The trouble with… talking about physics March 9, 2007

Posted by dorigo in Blogroll, internet, personal, physics, politics, science.
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The New Scientist article about Higgs bumps did get me into some trouble, although not of the kind I could have predicted.

While I was away on vacation a few days ago, the article I discussed earlier this week appeared, and it caused concern among some of my collaborators. A few of them thought I had disclosed restricted CDF information to the reporter, maybe to try showing I was a more important person than I am, others found the claims unsupported and damaging to the image of our collaboration.

I did find that the article contained several inaccuracies, and I was not pleased by the misquoting of my thoughts, but I was enjoying my vacation in Mexico too much to feel concerned.  However, I failed to realize that the article had hurt the feelings of those who feel that CDF plots and results, while blessed and approved for public consumption, must not be discussed privately by members of the collaboration – the more so if while doing that one embarks in speculative remarks.

Of  course, I do not share that view. I believe that doing outreach, explaining physics results to non-physicists, is very important, and that is my motivation to keep running this blog. I do not think I harm CDF if I explain how they measured the top production mechanism, as I did yesterday, for instance.

At any rate, I must respect my colleagues’ views. And to be honest, I was indeed partly responsible for the rumor which ended up causing interest in New Scientist and other magazines. I could have been a bit more careful: if I had been, probably the final result would have been the same for all practical purposes, but my name would not have appeared in the article, and I would have been free from criticism of any kind from my peer.

So, I decided today I would come clean with my CDF collaborators, apologizing for what I thought was my share of guilt in the appearance of the New Scientist article. By writing an apology of sorts in the CDF internal newsgroup, I wanted to show I can accept criticism, and I feel no shame in admitting a mistake, even if I think it was a quite innocent one. All for one interest: the well-being of the CDF collaboration, one of the longest experiments ever – 25 years and counting! Indeed, Long Live CDF.

Before I go to the text I wrote in the CDF forum today, let me tell you what is the real trouble I got in, which was unexpected, as I wrote above. While I was away, my colleagues in Padova  got concerned not so much by the article, but by the reaction of CDF to it, and the possibility of being fingered by the collaboration as sharing the guilt with the perpetrator – me. I find that strange, because I think our CDF collaborators outside Padova know me rather well, for good or bad, and showed several times in the past they could tell apart my own views -at times, radical- from that of a renowned, esteemed group as CDF-Padova. Anyways, in an act which I consider rather peculiar, the leader of my group in Padova wasted no time, and sent a mail message to some of the collaborators who had expressed concern, disclaiming liability of the group for what had happened, but by doing so casting it on me, without just process.

I really got upset to find out I had been kept out of the loop: I had received no mail message warning that there was a situation to take care of, or asking for my opinion, or telling me to take action; nor phone calls (my cell phone does work in Mexico). The mail message, although not urgent, was written while letting me in the dark. I was put in carbon-copy at fait accompli, that was all.

Now, the trouble is that I find this unacceptable, but for some reason my colleagues think this is normal. I of course want to keep a good relationship with each and every one of my colleagues in Padova, but ensuring that something like what has happened will never happen again will require some talking – and time spent arguing is never well spent.

Ok. Now that you know the story, here is the text I wrote in the CDF news forum today. 

Dear colleagues,

I wish to offer an apology to those of you who, having read the recent New Scientist article about the Higgs boson, have felt outraged by the claims contained there.

Let me state straight away that the apology is coming directly from myself – I received no formal complaints, nor did anybody twist my arm to write here or the like, thank God.

And let me also say first that the inaccuracies, the blatant mistakes, the quoting me out of context, and the wrong identification of myself as the leader of a group (Julien Donini is the leader of the group who did the Z->bb analysis) contained in the article are not my fault, but the result of a rather aggressive reporter’s will to make things more intriguing than they are.

However.

I was indeed partly responsible, together with other bloggers, commenters, theorists and experimentalists who spend time on the internet to discuss physics, of the spreading of a rumor in the internet, which eventually percolated up to the press. Of that I apologize – my aim was that of getting readers interested in the physics that we do in HEP, and the discussions on the Higgs were part of a long series of posts where I have been discussing the tricks of bump hunting and the pitfalls one has to avoid, a series which had started in November last year in my blog. I did not imagine back then that we would get the attention of New Scientist, the Economist, or whatever. I think I know better now.

I apologize because I know some of you felt betrayed. But I did not show or disclose unblessed material in my blog – that I do not really want to do. My biggest sin, if you ask me, is that I did post a blowup of a blessed plot, to show some points in a data-fit dancing around the fit line, to make a point in a post. And discussing a feature of that plot that CDF had not discussed during the blessing process (fortunately, I should add, since it is indeed irrelevant).

Now, I know that besides this incident with New Scientist, a bubble which will soon blow leaving no scar, some of my colleagues – like L.[edited], with which I had an amicable exchange of emails on the subject – think that even blessed CDF material should not be discussed in any way in a blog, not even for a didactical purpose. Some feel this is okay but it may only happen after a conference has given the authors the opportunity to discuss their work; well, it looks like there is even those who think that upon being a member of CDF I have a blood pact which prevents me from having a private life which includes a private blog where, along with pictures of my kids, I post hot new results trying to make them digestible to the occasional non-physicist.

I am open to discuss the matter with any of you. I can be stubborn and I indeed have in the past within our collaboration, but I am a good listener, and I am sure I can learn from different opinions, maybe even how to behave.When last December I posted the blessed W mass result, and soon thereafter I was explained that the authors wanted to keep the number secret until the wine and cheese talk, I did take everything off my blog until after the talk. I want to keep blogging about physics because I think it is important to do outreach, something I realized better when I was offered to be part of Quantum Diaries in 2005, and I touched with my hand the sore need for a gap filler between scientific journals and sports magazines. And, to keep blogging, I do not need your consent, but I appreciate it, and I surely wish to avoid getting the enmity of my peer.So, to summarize: I think that explaining new results to the general public is a good idea. If you think this is okay for CDF, but you believe that the blogging steals something from the authors, and you are not unconcerned with the lack of outreach in our daily job, I have an offer to make.

If you bless your analysis, and you are willing to write about it, keeping the explanations at a level similar to that of Fermilab Today “result of the week” or just a bit more detailed, I am happy to host you in my blog. It is not a very high-traffic site, but it is one of the few sites where experimental HEP results are discussed for the benefit of laymen.

Sincerely,
Tommaso

Comments

1. Kea - March 9, 2007

Gee, this is tough. It must be difficult working with such a large, organised group of people, who have many differing opinions about ‘exposure’. Of course, I agree with you that blogging is a really good way to expose the general community to the process of physics and the concepts involved. The problem is that a lot of Respectable People haven’t realised yet the importance of blogging in science to the media. My colleagues here, for instance, mostly think its all a joke and a complete waste of time, when one should be focusing on writing papers.

They say the invention of blogging is a bit like the invention of the printing press, and in some ways I think that is true. It does change the way we communicate information. Go bloggers!

2. Charles Tye - March 9, 2007

Dear Tommaso,

I have not posted on you blog before, but I have enjoyed lurking for some time. As a non-physicist with a great interest in fundamental physics, I have greatly enjoyed your candid insider accounts of recent Z->bb signals.

At all times you have been clear about the status of the results – what is your own opinion and what is blessed by CDF. Frankly, I can’t understand what this fuss it about and I doubt I am the only reader of your blog who feels this way.

I wouldn’t worry too much about New Scientist. These days they will print anything that they think will cause a sensation. If you have come under criticism from your colleagues it reflects less well on them than it does on you. Please tell them that not everybody believes everything they read in New Scientist.

Also tell them that your posts, together with John Conway’s over at Cosmic Variance leave a very clear impression of HEP experimentalists as careful and conservative scientists who go to extraordinary lengths not to fool themselves, let alone others.

Please keep up the interesting posts.

3. dorigo - March 10, 2007

Hi Kea,

yes, life is tough for a free thinker in a large colony of ants. And that despite my high esteem of most of my collaborators in CDF – we have real brains there, and people with lots of great qualities. But for some reason, there is a real worship of the word “consensus”, as if by getting 500 people saying yes together we are sure that the world is ours and that we must fear no evil from the outside evil powers of a non-scientific, dumb, irrational world where everybody is ready to jump at conclusions which damage our image or our funds or our careers.

On the other hand, I have to say – and I did mention it in the post – that CDF is a really, really long-lived experiment. Some of us are together since 1978!!! And many of those who put together the first stones are still there! Bellettini, Bedeschi, Menzione, Giromini, Ristori… I must make no names for fear of getting others angry, so I just cite a few italians in CDF who were there from the first moment, in the years 1978-1980.

So, while I do have my opinions, I have to be honest, and say that ok, we have a baroque way of dealing with the dissemination of results, and we have quite a few “policemen” who will be quick to denounce the occasional felony. But that did work astonishingly well!!

As for people not realizing the importance of blogs, well, let them live in the dark. They will realize it one day, and it will be too late for them. Yes, go bloggers!

Cheers,
T.

4. dorigo - March 10, 2007

Dear Charles,

thank you for speaking up. I do appreciate your feedback a lot, in a moment when I am exposed to attacks by colleagues who do not understand what a blog is and what its functions are.

Also, the New Scientist article is incorrect in some points, but it really is no big deal. The press contains such nonsense at times, we must be grateful to NS for the advertising of the Tevatron!

Cheers,
T.

5. Sean Carroll - March 10, 2007

As a theorist, I can’t really put myself in the shoes of the members of a large experimental collaboration. However, my outsiders impression is that the big HEP collaborations are far too reluctant to let people talk about their results (after they’ve been blessed, of course). There is a balance between being too open, letting out rumors before results are solid, and too closed, preventing physicists from sharing their passion for their work with a wider audience. Within HEP, the thinking is often too far on the “closed” side, which is ultimately no good for the field.

All of which is to say, keep up the great work. Talking about physics is fun, and maybe even educational.

6. Tony Smith - March 10, 2007

Tommaso, you said, about the CDF Z to bb analysis, that you “… did post a blowup of a blessed plot, to show some points in a data-fit dancing around the fit line, to make a point in a post. And discussing a feature of that plot that CDF had not discussed during the blessing process

some … colleagues … think that even blessed CDF material should not be discussed in any way in a blog, not even for a didactical purpose.
Some feel this is okay but it may only happen after a conference has given the authors the opportunity to discuss their work …”.

In light of that, I apologize for sending you an e-mail (so I could attach plot images that I do not know how to include in a blog comment) question that referred to CDF’s blessed Z to bb plot. Please feel free to ignore the question (possibly only a uselessly naive inquiry from an outsider) and I will try to refrain from mentioning such stuff outside my own website, e-mails, etc.

As to how collaborations affect physics, here is a quote from Burton Richter’s paper at hep-ex/0001012
“… In the 500-strong collaborations of today, we already have a bureaucratic overlay to the science with committees that decide on the trigger, data analysis procedures, error analysis, speakers, paper publications, etc. The participating scientists are imprisoned by golden bars of consensus …
There is a danger here.
Will we set up the experiments that can only find what we expect to find?

LHC starts up in 2005 and we all hope to find out what is beyond our standard model. The experiments are huge and the sociology will be complex.
Beware of too many boards and committees. …”.

In the interest of harmonious consensus within the relevant Collaborative Hive Minds, I will try to refrain from further comment here about historical events within collaborations and about my opinions on the utility of free discussion,
except to mention that the use of the term “blessed” reminds me of doctrines/dogmas within organized religious collaborations.

Tony Smith

7. riqie arneberg - March 10, 2007

Far too many researchers take a parochial attitude to discussions open to the unwashed public. Please remember that it is the unwashed among us who elect the politicos who will fund, or not, your increasingly expensive research.

Scientific inquiries, like flowers thrive in the light, and whither in darkness. When conservatism prevails, the scientific establishment will become the twenty first century equivqlent of the church. FSM please let it not be so!

8. Joerg - March 10, 2007

It should also be noted that what you write here is of great worth to other physicists. I work in geophysics, so the world of particle physics is not really accessable to me, but I have great interest in it. Everyone who wants to keep results only locked away in papers in conference talks also wants to keep that away from other physicists? I have trouble enough keeping up with half the research in the tiny corner of my field, how can a mere PhD student like me keep informed about other fields in the same science?

9. Blake Stacey - March 10, 2007

For scientists to oppose competent popularization of science, Carl Sagan once said, is an odd way of courting suicide.

10. Fred - March 10, 2007

On the surface, your CDF collegues’ major concerns seem to be about the integrity of the program and the proper presentations of the experimental results and analyses. Hopefully, they will also focus on promoting and receiving public support (like this Blog specifically does), as stated by Riqie before, because the funding that your field deserves is woefully inadequate. A look at the U.S. Office of Science admin. Dr. Orbach’s budget proposal of March 7, 2007, http://www.er.doe.gov/News_Information/News_Room/2007/Budget/SC-DOE_DrOrbach_FY08BudgetTestimony_March72007-fin.pdf, lacks the dynamics that are needed to secure the realistic support for its’ projections. HEP funding increases are anemic, http://www.er.doe.gov/Budget_and_Planning/Budget_Rollouts/DrOrbach-FY2008-SCBudgetRollout-Feb05-stakeholders.pdf, and a 9 – 10 billion dollar total investment by the year 2016 is almost laughable when it is compared to commitments to other endeavors. My faith in Dr. Orbach’s direction, along with previous statements made from his office, is waning. A budget spread too thin with many conditions attached. It’s also disturbing to hear that inspirational scientists like Tony have to consider restriction more than they ordinarily would.

11. Arun - March 10, 2007

IMO, there are a couple of things I think you could do differently.

First, to simply attribute the results that you discuss to “people in the CDF collaboration”. If readers want names, refer them to the preprints or publications. This way, people who don’t want to be mentioned in a blog because they are in a collaboration that includes you will have their wishes respected. You also then don’t get dragged into issues of priority, leadership, etc.

Second, direct anyone from the press to the CDF Press Office.

I hope you will keep blogging with undiminished enthusiasm.

12. dorigo - March 10, 2007

Hi all,

many thanks to all who expressed support to this blog or to me personally. Of course, among me, the other bloggers, and commenters here, we are a quite biased sample. But there seems to be a “consensus” here that discussing physics results openly in a blog or an internet forum cannot be wrong.

So, I concur with Sean when he says “Within HEP, the thinking is often too far on the “closed” side, which is ultimately no good for the field”.

I also concur with Riqie, who put it quite clearly and to the point:
“it is the unwashed among us who elect the politicos who will fund, or not, your increasingly expensive research. Scientific inquiries, like flowers thrive in the light, and whither in darkness. When conservatism prevails, the scientific establishment will become the twenty first century equivalent of the church.”

And Joerg, of course large collaborations like CDF would answer your question “how can a mere PhD student like me keep informed about other fields in the same science” with “go read arxiv preprints”, but of course this is not what people have the time to do if they want to stay informed in several disciplines. And reading the New Scientist is maybe not the answer, either.

Arun: I think there is no concern with respect to the names that I at times make to give recognition to some of the authors of analyses. At least, I have not received any input in that direction, other than a reproach from a collaborator when I slipped into saying “my plot” to refer to a plot which he had actually crafted. But, of course, it could still be or become an issue.
However, the second suggestion you make I think is worth considering with greater attention: indeed, I have blogged about physics results from CDF for over two years now, and the complaints I received came only when the press got interested and got my personal views on some issues. Of course, I think I am entitled to have an opinion, but I understand that the exposition I get by talking about results that ultimately belong to the collaboration as a whole (but I do think they belong to humanity, and not to CDF) can be disturbing to some. So I will be more cautious in the future, and redirect the journalists if I feel they are after things that my experiment’s establishment can answer with more authority than myself.

Tony, you need not apologize of course!! Please keep making useful and intriguing questions whenever you feel like. If I have to be careful, that does not apply to my readers! Also, thank you for the Richter quote, which I remember having read some time ago but had forgotten about.
Finally, historic remarks are nowhere anything that my experiment can criticize, so please don’t worry about that. I am actually considering a post on the issues behind the delayed publication of a few results by CDF in Run I, and the negative impact the story had in the collaboration.

Cheers,
T.

13. dorigo - March 11, 2007

Fred, I am as worried as anybody in CDF about the problems of funding of our experiment and others. But I think some of my colleagues overrate the importance of the image of their experiment and are unjustly frightened by being seen as “untrustworthy” if their data is used to speculate without the proper level of scrutiny.

The CDF data is an intellectual property of CDF because it was so hard and took so much effort to build and run the experiment that collected it. So it is right to prevent anybody else from using our data to publish a paper or becoming famous, before we have had all chances to do so ourselves. It would be unfair to those who worked so hard – it is indeed like stealing. That is why some see as little short than a traitor even who, like me, just uses published data to get the spotlights (this is what they perceive), failing to understand that the freedom to discuss openly the preliminary blessed material the collaboration produces is important and should not be suppressed.

And I agree, the fact that the restraint I have to keep -being a member of CDF- is felt even by conscious readers here such as Tony is really too much.

Cheers,
T.

14. Tripitaka - March 12, 2007

Love your work Tommaso, still it may be easier to leave others to talk to the press, the ideas will still be twisted of course to make a good story but at least you won’t be responsible.

“…but for some reason my colleagues think this is normal”

IMHO it is perfectly normal …for political situations to foster fear and a narrow focus in otherwise public-spirited individuals. That’s life.

15. dorigo - March 12, 2007

In principle I agree, Tripitaka: if they get to know about a CDF result from my blog and want to talk about the result, I should direct them to the CDF spokespersons.

However, what reporters usually do is to put it personal, to make a sneaky attempt to collect more information than they should/would otherwise. That is a trap which is hard not to fall into: I am a private individual, and I run a private blog, and if somebody is interested in the blog and its contents and my opinions, of course he or she cannot ask to the spokespersons. The reporter is entitled, so to speak, to ask me, and I am entitled to answer.
So it is the responsibility of the press, ultimately, or the honesty of those who write the articles. I have not fallen in the trap of disclosing non-public material, but I have however felt I could express my personal opinions on a public CDF plot. If then I am quoted out of context and my affiliation becomes important in the article, when it was clear I was speaking for myself, that I cannot really control.

…Maybe it would indeed be easier to shut up and hang the phone!

Anyways, about the second issue, I do agree, it is “normal”, in the sense that it is human. It still leaves a bitter flavor.

Cheers,
T.

16. Valerie Jamieson - March 12, 2007

Dear Tommaso

I’m the physics features editor at New Scientist and like many science journalists read physics blogs with keen interest. I’m also an ex-particle physicist and appreciate the pressure you must be under at Fermilab for disclosing information in your blog that many of your collaborators consider private.

You write about the inaccuracies, blatant mistakes and misquotes in New Scientist’s article. Bashing New Scientist is a fashionable sport, yet we are the first to admit when we get things wrong. Why don’t you write to us, pointing out the factual errors? We will be happy to publish a correction in the magazine.

Should New Scientist have covered the story about a possible Higgs signal? Of course it should. We reflect what is happening in science. That means writing about potential discoveries and preliminary results reported on blogs, in talks and pre-prints, as well as published results in peer-reviewd journals.

New Scientist’s story reflects the drama that first appeared in your blog and, later, in John Conway’s post on Cosmic Variance. The story makes clear no-one is claiming to have found the Higgs. In fact, it quotes both you and John Conway as saying that the signal is most likely a fluctuation. Finally, as John Conway points out in Cosmic Variance, he fact-checked the story before publication and he says it is largely accurate.

New Scientist’s stories are often picked up by other newspapers and magazines. That’s a reflection of our timeliness and the genuine interest of a story.

Finding the Higgs would be a truly momentous discovery. When the CDF and D0 teams have analysed more data, we will know if they have bagged one of the biggest prizes in physics or witnessed a statistical fluke.

17. dorigo - March 12, 2007

Dear Valerie,

since you are not alien to HEP, you well understand that some soft
spots in CDF were stimuated by the article in NS. I personally do not
object to the article itself, and indeed I do not regret having tried to
be helpful in three phone interviews and one email exchange with Anil (the contents of the email is in plain view in one of my blog posts, as a series of Q and A, see entry of march 1st).

Having said I do not object to the article in general, its tone,
or its scope, I have to tell you that a couple of things in it created
trouble to me within my group. I believe I had been clear with
Anil that I was speaking for myself, and that I was part of a group and not its leader (I had been the leader for three years until 2005). These things were misrepresented in the article (“another team, led by Tomasso Dorigo”). I understand that your reporter may have been misled by my talking about “my plot” (which was meant to be a way to make it clear it was “as opposed to Conway’s or D0’s”), but that’s just how things went.

About mistakes, I think that Anil mentions “a few anomalous events”
at 160 GeV. That is simply wrong. In fact, we have not seen anything
anomalous: not single events, nor the dancing of the points around
the fit line -which is a fluctuation of no statistical significance. The inset in the bb mass plot is shown a data minus fit histogram: so one is not dealing with a few events, but tens of thousand of events to which a background parametrization (subjected to huge systematics uncertainties) is subtracted. There indeed is nothing anomalous.

About misrepresentations, another one is that “[the team] too has found hints of some unknown particle at 160 GeV”. The team I belong to has not found anything like that, but rather I, as an individual, have at one point been speculating about it. The difference is subtle for an outsider, but giant for the collaboration!

Oh, and my name is Tommaso, two m’s and one s.

Now, all these are, admittedly, only slight inaccuracies which are
common in any article dealing with scientific work, not just Anil’s.
I do not blame him for that, his job is not easy.
However, they were enough to cause a lot of concern in CDF, and for
that reason, I criticized NS in my blog: somebody has to share the
guilt, since I do not feel it is all on me.

Now, I am sorry to say I cannot sponsor a retractatio in your magazine, since I fear we would be causing even more stir. Let’s just forget about the issue. If, on the other hand, the spokespersons of my experiment deemed it useful, they will let you know.

Best regards,
Tommaso


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