The Easterbrook Idiocy Supercollider

I generally like Gregg Easterbrook’s writing about football (though he’s kind of gone off the deep end regarding the Patriots this year), but everything else he turns his hand to is a disaster. In particular, he tends to pad his columns out with references to science and technology issues. I’m not quite sure what the point of these is supposed to be, other than to demonstrate that he, Gregg Easterbrook, is so much smarter than the average football fan that he knows, like, rocket science and stuff. The problem with that is that his knowledge of rocket science seems to owe more to Star Trek than any actual science education, because the science interludes in his ESPN columns range from the seriously mistaken to the jaw-droppingly stupid.

His most recent effort is just a masterpiece of dumb, though. This is a desperately stupid bit of work, even by the standards of desperately stupid science interludes in Gregg Easterbrook columns. He packs more dumb into these nine paragraphs than I would’ve thought possible in a major media outlet. This isn’t your ordinary, everyday stupid, it’s Discovery Institute stupid.

Let’s start at the beginning:

Scientists Discover That If You Slam Members of Congress Together Under Pressure, Money Is Released: High-energy particle accelerators cost taxpayers large sums but stand little chance of discovering anything of practical value. Promoted as quests for understanding of the universe, particle accelerators serve mostly as job programs for physicists, postdocs, and politically connected laboratories and contractors. Yes, abstract experiments of bygone days produced great discoveries, and yes, the quest for abstract knowledge is inherent to human nature. But most experiments from the bygone golden age of physics were done at private expense, not using tax subsidies. Albert Michelson and Edward Morley did not demand that Ohio taxpayers provide them with a decade of luxury while they refined their ideas.

I’ll pause here for a moment to let Gordon Watts recover from the suggestion that he’s living in luxury at taxpayer expense.

So, yeah, science used to be the province of independetly wealthy members of the aristocracy, who could fund their research out of their private fortunes. That was a huge boon to the tax-paying public, no doubt about it. I’m not sure how that Wikipedia link supports his idea, but let’s just pretend that it does.

But while we’re looking back to the low-tax golden age of yesteryear, why stop with gentleman scientists of the late 1800’s? If you go back a bit farther, you find a time when members of the military were expected to supply their own weapons and uniforms. I mean, just think of the tax savings if we switched over to privately funded jet fighters and battle tanks!

Look, I’m no huge fan of the expense of modern particle physics, but this is just idiotic. Modern science is expensive because the questions being asked and answered are more complicated than they were in the days of Michelson and Morley, and the apparatus is correspondingly more complicated. The business is much more technological than it used to be, just as warfare is more technological than it used to be, and it’s no longer reasonable to expect private individuals to be able to fund scientific research out of their own pockets.

And let’s look at that tax savings, shall we? He uses a bunch of different numbers to stand for the cost of particle physics, the largest of which is $30 billion, which I think is the full cost of the proposed ILC, including both American and European contributions. Let’s use that for an upper bound– if the full cost of the project came from US taxpayers in a single lump sum, that would work out to about $100 a head (divided over a population of about 300 million). That’s not a trivial sum of money for a lot of people, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the $1,500 per head price tag of the Iraq war to date. And building a particle accelerator doesn’t require waterboarding anybody.

(Well, strictly speaking, neither does the Iraq war, and I can’t say with certainty what might happen in Alberto Gonzales were put in charge of ILC construction…)

But his column isn’t restricted to idiotic griping about the cost of research (I’m particularly fond of the claim that the whole reason for particle physics funding is “to stop physicists from complaining about the level of tax subsidies they receive.” Yeah, because we have that kind of influence)– no, this kind of ultra-hot, ultra-dense stupidity can only be achieved by colliding at least two forms of idiocy at speeds approaching that of light, so we also get a hefty dose of exaggerated concerns about disastrous possible effects, starting with quoting Martin Rees as saying that an accelerator mishap could collapse the Earth into “an inert hyperdense sphere about 100 meters across,” and building up to what may be the best dumb argument against fundamental physics research ever:

Are we really sure it is history’s greatest idea to be re-creating the conditions that existed when the universe exploded?

Assume the Big Bang was how it all began. During this event, vast amounts of matter and radiation materialized from nowhere, the light-speed barrier was broken, space became curved, matter-antimatter annihilation destroyed millions of times the mass of the present universe, and other fairly wild stuff happened. A localized Big Bang Lite caused by a particle accelerator is unlikely, but why are we going out of our way to engage the risk?

Truly, the mind boggles at the number of misconceptions required to write these sentences.

But wait, there’s more! Lest you thought that all Easterbrook brought to the table was a bone-deep misunderstanding of complex technical issues, he also demonstrates a distressing inability to parse simple English sentences:

Physics featherbedding note: Normally clear-headed Science magazine, flagship of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, last winter ran an article on why physicists privately are hoping the new ultraexpensive atom smashers won’t find the ultimate elementary particle, the very thing they are designed to find. Wait — they are hoping the $30 billion worth of projects will fail? Here’s the reasoning: If the machines actually do discover what causes matter, how will science lobbyists justify billions more euros and dollars for additional atom-smasher subsidies in the future? Science wrote with a straight face, “Many particle physicists say their greatest fear is that this grand new machine, the Large Hadron Collider, will spot the Higgs boson and nothing else. If so, particle physics could grind to a halt.” If the mystery of matter is solved, how could taxpayers be compelled to continue paying the restaurant tabs of physicists!

OK, there’s a fundamental technical misunderstanding at the heart of it (namely, that the Higgs boson is the only thing that researchers at the LHC are looking for), but even with that, it takes some real contortions to get from that sentence– particularly the phrase “their greatest fear is”– to “physicists are rooting for the LHC to fail.” How has this man avoided landing a job in the media relations apparatus of the Bush White House?

Feh. Now I have stupid all over me. If you have the same problem, I recommend a cleansing visit to Dave’s ten-minute explanation of quantum theory. As for me, we’ve got a new refrigerator being delivered today, so I need to go clean a couple of years’ worth of crud off the floor beneath and behind the old one. Which promises to be more intellectually gratifying than reading Easterbrook writing about physics.