Information control from CERN January 27, 2009Posted by dorigo in news, physics, science.
Tags: cern, LHC, science outreach, scientific blogging
A piece by Matthew Chalmers titled “CERN: the view from inside” has appeared yesterday on Physics World’s web site. It is an insightful interview to James Gillies, head of communications at CERN.
The interview focuses mostly on the media coverage of the LHC startup of last September 10th, and the steps that made it a global success, with an estimated exposure of one billion people. The point is made that now “LHC” can be used out of context without problems, but I hope the revenues to science are larger than that.
More interesting to us science bloggers is the description of how information on the September 19th incident was provided by CERN, and the measures that were put in place to prevent unwanted, uncontrolled news from leaking out in blogs and other unauthorized media. The LHC logbook was edited, pictures of the incident were password-protected. I do not think this is too worrysome: the management decided it was the best thing to do under the exceptional circumstances, and I do not blame them for being tight.
The piece ends up discussing the restrictive policy of the lab and its experiments to blogging. The point is made that unconfirmed rumors damage science, but the matter is not really discussed in detail in any way. People keep claiming that discussion of unconfirmed signals is nocuous to Science, but I continue to hear that it is nocuous to their interests. Do director generals want to be the ones releasing important lab information to protect us, or to protect their chair ? Do principal investigators insist that results are released only after a publication is sent to the journal to avoid waves of imprecise physics from being distributed to unarmed citizens, or to increase their exposure when they make an announcement ?
I insist on being naive on this matter. I think that scientific results on basic science do not belong to their discoverers, nor to the experimental collaboration: they, as much as the data they are based upon, belong to the people.
In the Physics World interview, Gillies claims that the lab will act to counter the public discussion of not-yet-confirmed three-sigma effects (the article mentions this corresponds to a “less than 1% chance for a statistical fluke”, but I guess it was Matthew to get this inaccurate to simplify matters for his numerically-challenged audience -the probability is actually 0.3%). Well, I think the laboratory will have to be very careful to get down to the level of bloggers: the CERN management seems to talk and think as if blogging was a controllable phenomenon, but believe me, it ain’t. Not until they close the whole internet thing down.
In May 2007 an anonymous comment left in my blog on a large signal of supersymmetric Higgs decays seen by the D0 collaboration in events with four b-quark jets started a runaway phenomenon which ended on the New York Times and on Slate, plus other media around the world. The D0 collaboration was not happy about it, but what could they do ? The answer is simple: nothing. I wonder whether the CERN experiments have aces up their sleeves instead…