Science Journalism: Not Buying The Higgs Hype
    By Hank Campbell | July 5th 2012 03:05 PM | 14 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

    I'm the founder of Science 2.0®.

    A wise man once said Darwin had the greatest idea anyone ever had. Others may prefer Newton or Archimedes...

    View Hank's Profile
    I stayed up late (California) to watch the Higgs announcement and posted various thoughts of my own, and comments from the presentations, on my Twitter feed. 

    So I saw first hand a strange phenomenon take place; a whole bunch of people got a lot of it wrong. And these were not journalists or laypeople, it was (a) other physicists and (b) other scientists, who were caught up with enthusiasm and ignored the actual results.  When I watched the presentation, I saw a careful explanation of preliminary results but the heads of the Atlas and CMS experiments knew what people wanted to see; an energy range in GeV (GeV is a billion electron volts) and whether or not it is a 'discovery' (5-sigma - one in a million chance of being wrong).

    And they got it. There was a small problem. If you only looked at one slide, it certainly looked good but even with a casual knowledge of physics, you had to notice something strange; it wasn't really 5-sigma and it was unclear if that was the Higgs that was predicted. It was in the high 4 ranges unless you leave some information out.  Tommaso Dorigo writing from the auditorium in real time had the true story, and noted things like that "CMS chose to report the negative result of low-mass-resolution channel H->tau tau" and that Atlas did not.  He wasn't not calling it a discovery, he says it is and if he says it is, well, by golly, it is.  But what is it?

    It  might not be the "Higgs" we have come to know and love, even if they call it that.  Now, obviously when they combine the experiments, this is going to be a 5-sigma discovery, it would be silly to dispute that.  I am not being pedantic, though, when I write that I want things to mean what they are supposed to mean, because the blowback from the public if they are not is substantial.  The IPCC issuing media talking points in 2006, which were quoted as data by the media, and that did substantial harm to climate science - by the time the report with actual data came out in 2007 no one paid attention, and it turned out to have some crippling errors in content and methodology and, despite recommendations by the InterAcademy Council (IAC) on how to fix the problems, the IPCC went the opposite direction and gerrymandered the membership based on social progressivism.

    The Atlas and CMS experiments do not have that problem, this is solid work, but as my Twitter feed showed, people inside science were not calibrating what it means correctly, they were caught up in hype about it. The LHC has something and were putting a stake in the ground. As Tommaso rightly noted, he was surprised (and pleased) that just this once the LHC was not afraid to announce a discovery.

    But discovery of what?  Journalists, the same people who lost their minds with praise over every media talking point from the IPCC in 2006 and did no fact checking at all, were the ones treating this actual science with some caution.  You know, being journalists.  Maybe all of the terrible science journalists have been fired and the good ones are left.  Maybe the remaining ones are jaded by hype and weekly miracle vegetable stories.

    I can be too, a little. I was never keen on building an LHC-type machine in America because I am old enough to remember the fiasco of the Superconducting Supercollider (SSC). While young, earnest fans of physics today lament that America did not build this, those who do so have no clue about technology or history.  The SSC could be called Reagan's Folly - he was such a fan of science and basic research he got sold a pipe dream, over the objections of most of the people around him.  The SSC would have been spectacular, it was just that no one had any clue how in the world to build it.  By the time it was canceled, and Democrats were right to cancel it, they were not just playing politics and sticking it to a Reagan project (for that, see Obama regarding Bush's Constellation project cancellation), it had cost half as much as the LHC had cost in 2010 and had nothing to show for it but a hole in the ground.  

    Dr. Michael Gamble, writing here, disagrees and believes that if America had stayed the course we would have a 40 TeV machine (TeV is Tera–electronvolts, trillions of electronvolts, called the Terascale by physicists) and would have found the Higgs and have gone well beyond the LHC by now.  But as an insider at the SSC, he is forgetting that the SSC had a joint confidence level of under 50%, even by the people wanting to build it.  That means they knew they could build the easy parts and hoped technology and money would show them how to build the hard parts when time came.  They insisted we should have believed that they were going to build the equivalent of the LHC's successor in the mid-1990s. 

    I was not keen on a new collider in the US, when that came up, because I think America has forgotten how to be bold in science and technology; biologists still can be, the Human Genome Project showed that, but NASA and Big Physics are more job works programs today than science endeavors; space and physics project managers simply want to get 'too big to fail' and we are right for sticking to smaller projects until we culturally get back on track. I think smaller experiments have done terrific things.

    So that circles back to the Higgs issue.  This may not be the Higgs that we expected to get.  If that is the case, it is going to require the International Linear Collider (ILC) to figure out what is going on and that means the LHC is basically the world's biggest refrigerator.  It will do other experiments, obviously, but for $10 billion and soon a two-year maintenance downtime, that is not great and not how it was sold.   Lyn Evans, former Large Hadron Collider project leader, is already pressing for the ILC.  Unlike the LHC, which is a proton-proton synchrotron, the ILC will collide electrons with positrons in the TeV range.

    The problem is, who will want to build it?  Americans are jaded and Europeans could soon be if the 'what we don't learn in physics is important too' argument is invoked for taxpayers there.  That leaves Asia, and the continuing nonsensical laments that if Americans or Europeans don't build an ILC, Asia will take over 'science leadership', whatever that means.

    Advocates will have legitimate political examples on their side.  In perspective, the entire LHC cost less money than two of the new U.S. Navy DDG-1000 destroyers rolling out some day. But rather than saying, 'you spent $6 billion on a destroyer, you should spend $20 billion on a collider'  - which is kind of like claiming you are as good as the worst writer at the New York Times, so they should give you a job - advocates should come up with a solid reason why we don't let the country that can build cheap iPads and cheap solar panels (and thus can claim technology and green energy 'leadership') build a collider on time and on budget. 

    Science is an international endeavor, it is said, and that is the mantra until it is time to fund things that are tough for the public to understand, like obscure colliders. Then scientists get neo-con nationalistic about how crucial it is to stay ahead of the world and build it in their backyard; much like neo-cons are about military technology.

    When it comes to science, Twitter enthusiasm aside, scientists rule.  When it comes to discuss policy for expensive projects, not so much. It may be instead that, for the first time in over a decade, science journalists are going to be trusted guides for the public and ask the awkward questions of science and scientists rather than simply being cheerleaders or advocates.

    If so, we welcome them back.


    I wonder what you mean by "It might not be the "Higgs" we have come to know and love, even if they call it that"
    They looked in a specific place for something that decayed into a specific set of particles and they found something that noone had found before. They found a new particle that decays exactly as they expected, so why would this not be the Higgs particle we have come to know and love.

    The Higgs "we have come to know and love" fills a hole in the Standard Model.  Unless the slides you saw were different than the ones I saw, and what you saw shows it behaves as the theory predicts it should, then it might not be what their theory says.  Right?

    It's rather clearly a new boson, no one rational denies that.  And it could be the Higgs, obviously, but this article is about hype and how people read too much into what physicists are clearly saying.
    Within statistics the observed particle behaves as the standard model predicts. Looking at enough channels, some of them will naturally lead to results more than one sigma different than the standard model prediction.

    I could see some merit in what you say if the standard model Higgs was the desirable thing to discover (from a theory and/or funding perspective), but it is the opposite: A standard model Higgs is the most boring possibility. How favouring the conservative and most boring possibility while stressing that more exciting things are possible can be called "hype" is beyond me. Anything other than a standard model Higgs would be much easier to sell with regard to funding especially.

    I agree that the perfect match to the theory is boring scientifically but I can't agree that policy makers and taxpayers feel that way.  So let me separate my science enthusiasm from the real world - taxpayers are going to balk if they are told they need another machine to discover something even more esoteric to them.

    'Hype' is regarded to people seeing an energy range and the confidence and declaring the Higgs has been found.  It may well have been found, but that is not what the results show (yet) and there is enough uncertainty to realize that the Higgs people were declaring found may not be the Higgs they are thinking of at all.
    Except that what is going on is the complete opposite of a "hype'. The most cautious and conservative assumption - the one that merely a standard model Higgs was found - is the one made by most people. You still fail to explain how or why this is a hype at all.

    If there is anything to criticize, then it might just be the unjustified simplification communicated way to often that a standard model Higgs is what we expected to find in the first place. There are at least 100 different models leading to a Higgs sector containing - along other things - one scalar with properties more or less alike a standard model Higgs. Should it turn out to be one of those, no one would stop calling that particle a Higgs boson. After all the idea was not devised within todays standard model and no one stopped using the word atom even if the word "atomos" turned out to be a bad choice.

    To follow up, it's March, 2013 and "they still haven't reached that "Eureka moment" when they can announce the Higgs boson is found" which again makes my point about the hype clouding the science.  Assuming it has no spin, life is good. But saying what you seemed to be saying - anything should be called a Higgs - is not the answer to giving people confidence in science. 
    I have to say that I, based on my experience with science journalists, stayed calm also at this CERN announcement. It was first and foremost annoying to read all about the god damn God particle again, and again. And that is the work of journalists and not scientists.

    As for big investments in science, I am in favor of it. We might not get the result we are aiming for, but history shows that we will get something. I also find it to have a value in itself - a cultural value.

    But, I come from a rich country who's mantra it is to say: why shall WE fund that? hehehe

    Bente Lilja Bye is the author of Lilja - A bouquet of stories about the Earth
    o I READ THIS FOLLOWING BLOG IN “THE TELEGRAPH” “"confirmed the existence of the new sub-atomic particle with a mass of about 125.5 GeV, which is about 133 times heavier than the proton at the heart of every atom."
    Hmm, kind of skewed logic given that Higgs-Boson is "why all matter throughout the Universe -
    from the smallest atom to the largest star - has mass."
    Bit like saying the passengers in a car weighed 133 times the the combined weight of the passengers and the car!!!
    Or have ALL the journalist mis-reported it given that I have heard this said everywhere else over the years?”

    i'm pretty sure thats not quite how it works. without the existance of the higgs boson there's no real explanantion (in the standard model) for why particles should (or should not) have mass. However if the Higgs Boson is found to exist then the Higgs field exists and this does enable us to explain "why all matter throughout the Universe - from the smallest atom to the largest star - has mass."

    'and this does enable us to explain "why all matter throughout the Universe - from the smallest atom to the largest star - has mass."'

    To explain why atoms and stars have mass we do not need a Higgs at all (ignoring for a moment the question of existence of our universe as we know it). More than 98% of the matter part of our universe gets its mass from dynamic effects within QCD. If you look at the light-quark masses they make up only 1% of the proton mass. It is these masses of elementary particles which come from the Higgs mechanism. This is a mistake very commonly made especially by non scientist journalists. Notice that all press releases from CERN always speak of the mass of elementary paricles.

    Hello Hank,

    the issue of sigmas is -well- not very interesting any more in my mind. Yes, it is  a discovery, and yes, it is a Higgs boson. Whether it is the SM or not, we'll see. But watch my next piece on the compatibility with the SM Higgs, you might be surprised by a couple of things... ;-)
    Sure, and it seems to be my saying it might not be "The Higgs we have come to know and love", meaning the Standard Model Higgs, which annoys people - along with me being critical of people on a social media site who blatantly ignored rationality.

    I also defended science journalism, which my next piece shows was a bigger mistake.
    It would have been very boring for theorists if the Higgs measurement had been exactly the standard model Higgs. With the larger than predicted gamma gamma decay and missing tau anti-tau decays, theorists have puzzles to solve that may lead to a greater theory later. The standard model Higg is really
    a theory of the masses of the W and Z particles only. The masses of the other particles are given by Higgs boson couplings to the particles without any reasons for their values.  If the experiment had found a perfect standard model Higgs, it wouldn't have left anything for theorist to figure out, and yet
    it would leave on deeper reasons for the values of the masses of particles. So I very glad that the Higgs results have some mystery left in them. The masses of the other particles are given by Higgs boson couplings to the particles without any reasons for there values.
    BDOA Adams, Axitronics
    Good article Hank.
    I also watched CERN's seminar and reviewed the slides online and thus think you titled your article well.
    Really appreciate you trying to provide a skeptical balance to the avalanche of "We found it."
    So I'm adding a link to yours in my own skeptical article "Did CERN Find a Higgs ? Well not quite. But they probably found a New Particle . . ."

    good on ya mate,