Friday, July 13, 2012

Tinkerbell Science and the Higgs boson.

Sometimes an argument is so bad that it can be difficult to identify a specific fallacy. One reads the argument and knows it is nonsense, but it can be difficult to articulate exactly why. This is where the Non Sequitur and Missing the Point Fallacy come in handy. These are both essentially catch-all labels for fallacies in which the conclusion clearly doesn't follow from the premises, but where one can't be more specific (in some sense all fallacies are non sequiturs, but specificity is always to be preferred to vagueness whenever possible). As a case in point, see this article, again from Mike Adams on the Higgs boson.

To summarize, Adams essentially suggest that the Higgs boson was discovered because a bunch of scientists wished hard enough. That is, because they concentrated so hard on wanting the Higgs boson to be discovered, those conscious intentions brought it into being. Lest one think I am straw manning Adams, read the article for yourself, but here is one particularly representative quote:
CERN may not have discovered a new particle, it turns out, but may have inadvertently proven the power of mind-matter interaction.
Adams uses a great deal of weasel words like "may" but the general point should be pretty clear, the Higgs boson exists because scientists wished hard enough (Why I am calling this Tinkerbell science should be clear, if not this should explain it).

So, this is the claim, what is the argument? Adam's writes:
In other words, was the Higgs discovery actually the greatest intention experiment ever conducted? This is not a casual question. It reaches into the very nature of science itself and begs the question: Can human-run science ever truly be conducted independent from an observer? The answer, of course, is no. The subsequent question then becomes critical: Do observers alter the outcomes of scientific experiments even without any intention of doing so?
There are a great number of fallacies packed into this passage. First, the final sentence and the other rhetorical questions are clearly examples of Loaded Questions since they all assume the conclusion Adams is trying to make.  In addition, this is a good example of a Non Sequitur because the conclusion doesn't follow from the premises, and in effect reflects a significant misunderstanding of the scientific process (Missing the Point of science). The argument seems to be:
  1. Science is done by human beings. 
  2. Human beings are incapable of being completely objective. 
  3. Therefore everything they do is radically subjective. 
  4. Therefore there is no objective reality.
Now there is a kernel of truth in what Adams writes. Science is conducted by scientists, scientists are human, and thus subject to all the errors and biases normal human beings commit. However, to then go on and argue that there is no objective reality and because of this wishing really hard brings something into existence simply goes too far. There just isn't enough evidence to draw such a radical conclusion from what we are presented. In addition, things like the scientific method and peer review exist exactly to avoid the subjectivity of scientific conclusions. We certainly can't trust what CERN says just because they say it, and this is why all their research is made publicly available so that other scientists (many of whom do not care whether or not CERN is correct and who may in fact strongly wish that it is incorrect) can evaluate the evidence and conclusions. It is not a perfect method, but it is really the best method we have, and is far preferable to the Tinkerbell science Adams seems to be supporting.

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