Back to breathing the air of Fermilab after a full year away, I got to gauge a bit better the aftermath of the little incident created by a posting of mine in July. As often happens with internet bubbles, they look quite dramatic as they inflate, but they leave no big scars. Two months have passed, and this looks like a good time to post here some ruminations about the general issue.

Physics Experiments And Confidentiality

A particle physics experiment is typically a very complex endeavour, which takes years to build and operate, and it requires the full commitment of hundreds of scientists and a lot of ingenuity. These scientists have the right to consider the experiment "their own", and consequently protect the fruit of their hard work from external exploitation that might jeopardize the full recognition for their achievements.

On the other hand, the construction and operation of the experiment is only possible through the economical support of many institutions from around the world,  who sponsor it, fund it, pay the salary and the travel of the scientists. It is not redundant to stress that these moneys come from taxpayers.

Physicists know very well how critical it is the continuous flow of funding for the success of an experiment: a stop may mean sudden death of a 20-year program, with the waste of thousands of man-years of work, as the SSC decommissioning in 1993 has clearly shown. So they are very careful to continuously make a strong case for their projects. And here arises some confusion, in my opinion.

It is argued that experimenters need to limit the diffusion of information about their work in order to avoid damaging the image of the experiment, and protect the authoritativeness of their official scientific results. The funding agencies must not only be shown that the scientific case for the running of the experiment is compelling,
but also that serious science is being made, accurate and rigorous. The leaking of unofficial news from within an experiment, with popular science magazines or even newspapers picking up unconfirmed stories, is considered a tragedy: "Our reputation is being damaged! Our scientific integrity is being put to the stake! Our funding is threatened!"


I think this is just a cover-up. Physicists working in these large collaborations receive huge dividends for their scientific career: they are assured from the outset a continuous flow of scientific publications with their name printed on the front page (well, sometimes on the fifth if your last name starts with a Z); they get to talk on behalf of the collaboration at international scientific conferences every once in a while; they fill prestigious responsibility positions within the experiment -convenerships, committees, etcetera. All these things enrich their resume and building strong cases for tenure at distinguished universities. They earn, in some way, a sort of "tenureship in science" as soon as they belong to the collaboration: the dreaded "publish or perish" rule is circumvented, publications are granted, a respectable career becomes almost automatic.

Beware, I am not saying that this is wrong or despicable, nor that it should be changed! I myself have thrived in this system, and I am not ashamed of it. However, consider the jealousy with which the data produced by the experiments is kept, the complexity of the internal publication rules, the often misguided enforcement of confidentiality, the reaction to leaks of internal collaboration matters: all these things are meant to preserve the scientific integrity of the experiment and its scientific output, but their almost paranoid level betrays an additional hidden motive: the will to protect the personal interest of the collaboration members.

If I write here that I heard rumours that somebody somewhere is seeing a 3-sigma excess of a long-sought particle, and two dozen magazines and newspapers report the "news", who is damaged ? Let us try to analyze this from top to bottom.

Who Gets Damaged ?

A) The readers of those magazines ? Of course, in some way they are -they receive imprecise, misreported information. But their interest in science increases if they get exposed to a continuous flow of information from the media about what particle physics experiments do. General readers will never be reached by correct, precise information anyway -there simple is no way to do that since they do not want to spend the required time listening. The "cry-wolf" effect (also known as "media fatigue") according to which if you continue discussing about the discovery of something you get people bored is a undemonstrated claim. Who says that the continuous announcements of fake extraterrestrial sightings has decreased the interest of the public for extraterrestrial encounters? Who says that false sightings of the Loch-Ness monster decrease the revenue of hotels in Scotland ? Some people should understand that we live in the age of advertisement, and that advertisement works through its quantity, not its quality.

B) The magazines and newspapers themselves ? Maybe so, but this is entirely their own fault! They decide to pick up a rumour, and make a story out of it. They are responsible for their actions, so this needs not bother us. Whether they increase their revenue by publishing unconfirmed rumours is irrelevant here.

C) The experiments who allegedly saw the effect ? In what way ? Do they feel the flow of cash from funding agencies threatened because the latter dislike the diffusion of false claims ? Funding agencies are well-informed. They rely on referees who know the insides and outs of the game better than you and me. It is ridiculous to believe that referees are bothered or negatively influenced by the press echo of a leaked information. Besides, it is also illusory to think that the press can be steered to publish only what bears favourable fruits to the politics of science funding.

D) The collaborators of the experiment ? Why should they be damaged -the experiment receives hot press, the interest for their research activities increases. They do not need to worry about their reputation being squandered. On the contrary, when asked they can answer that they speak through their official scientific publications only, and that they are not responsible if some nuthead leaks incorrect claims.

D') However, there is the possibility that the spokespersons or the leaders of the relevant physics analysis group get phone calls from newspapers demanding to know what truth
lies behind the rumors, in which case they feel compelled by internal rules to not confirm
the existence of the phenomenon even if it really exists, with a consequent embarassment if they
later publish it as a true fact.  So they potentially get a dose of embarassment.
But consider: the job of a spokesperson is in part also that of handling these hot potatoes. I do not feel very compassionate if they have to do what they have to do -it is enough of a honor to be the spokesperson of an illustrious experiment, that such hassles are well paid back.

E) The authors of the analyses which have manifested the 3-sigma effect ? Well, they might feel deprived of the chance to make headlines when they finally make an approved announcement to the world of the effect. But is it really so ? Again, this looks like another claim of the "media fatigue", and again it looks quite suspicious. I hold that if twenty newspapers and magazines discuss in June a possible new scientific find about to be announced, and in August the scientists come out with that very result, this receives more attention that if it comes out of the blue.

Summing It Up

I find that although it is very easy to superficially assert that particle physics experiments need to be very careful about the diffusion of internal information, and that leaks and un-steered press can be damaging at several levels, it is quite hard to precisely pinpoint these alleged negative effects. Nevertheless, I am still worried.

I have written this blog for over five years, and several have been the cases when I received negative feedback on specific things I wrote, from my collaborators, from experiment heads, from colleagues. Such feedback is overwhelmed by the positive returns of writing this blog: the positive feedback from a much larger number of other colleagues and collaborators, the chance it gives me to contribute to the popularization of science, the joy of writing about science, and the offering of a few interesting opportunities (invitation to conferences and seminars, offers to write articles, some extra cash, etcetera). However, it still bothers me. I do have enemies in my workplaces, and what is worse, I do not know who they are!

So, to sum it up I guess my climb of the academic ladder will not be as quick and easy as it could be. But through the publication of over 2000 blogs here and in my previous blogs, I certainly cannot say it was a hasty decision if I chose to ride this wild horse. And the final evaluation is, I hope, still far in a distant future.