Thursday, September 11, 2008

Cultural Relativism and the end of the world

Cultural relativism is defined by Wikipedia as the principle that an individual human's beliefs and activities should be understood in terms of his or her own culture. Unfortunately, in recent times and in popular thought and discussion, it has also meant that all views are equally valid (after all, each view is a function of the person's own cultural mileau). This point of view, which is the result of taking an idea to its extreme limit in this day of political correctness, was forcibly brought home to me on the issue of the doomsday scenario being predicted as a result of the LHC startup. Television and newspaper reports have been full of predictions of black hole formation, that will eat up the earth. (In India, the two channels particularly guilty of this hype have been Aaj Tak and India TV two sensation mongering channels). Unfortunately the net result has been that scientists have been scrambling to give well reasoned arguments why this is all hogwash, taking precious time away from doing more useful work. While it is true that scientists have occasionally been guilty of arrogantly dismissing the public's right to know what kind of research they are doing with public money, it is also important to dismiss crackpots as crackpots. After all, we don't engage 'flat-earth' proponents in any serious debate. Both sides of an issue do not carry equal weight in such arguments. To take a example more relevant to the US, creationism and evolution are not two equally valid theories of evolution of mankind. The same applies to the doomsday scenario. Of course it's another matter that the theories themselves that predict black hole formation are pretty far-fetched in my opinion, that make many assumptions of the nature of space-time and the kind of particles that live in some extra dimensions. However, these are still scientific theories, published in peer-reviewed respected scientific journals, and hopefully subject to being falsified. They cannot, on any account, be compared to theories propounded by crackpots and eccentrics with only a nodding acquaintance with the structure and methodologies of science, and in this particular case, high energy physics. Therefore, after having taken sufficient trouble to quantitatively demonstrate why these fanciful ideas have no basis in fact, scientists should just ignore this phenomena and get back to their work. Otherwise, by engaging these people in prolonged debate, one is conferring ill-deserved respectability on them. What is most amusing is that most newspapers and TV channels have now gone off the doomsday scenario, believing that yesterday's beam test by CERN was proof that no black holes that eat up the earth were produced. Ironic when you think that no collisions took place! It just shows that the airheads are ignorant of the very scenario they are purveying. (The Times of India even had an editorial claiming that if you are reading this paper the next day, it means it's all safe and nothing has happened). Tailpiece: If anyone is interested in a lay-man level article on this issue, please read this description by Michael Peskin.

1 comment:

AMOK said...

Thanks Rahul, an excellent view. I do have a question though. How did the "black-hole non-event" transmogrify into a "black-hole doomsday scare" since only scientists can reason all the way from a zero-momentum case to the precise munch-rate of the black hole? Are there some irresponsible scientists out there?

As for the media -- they will do anything for an eyeball and usually asteroid collisions, nuclear explosions, global warming -- threats to our "way of life" are going to get hyped. Best way to manage the media is to switch it off.