Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Manslaughter charges for the LHC doomsday plaintiffs and media

As some of you may have read, an Indian teenager committed suicide two weeks ago, due to fears propagated by the media in India that the LHC would cause the end of the world. This unfortunate loss of life was entirely preventable, and I suggest that the parties responsible for her death be brought to justice with manslaughter charges.

In most civilized societies there is a balance between free speech and endangerment. This balance is often known as the "shouting fire in a crowded theater" argument, due originally to US Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. The argument goes like this: one has a right to say just about anything, to the point that one endangers the lives of others. If one were to shout "fire!" in a crowded theater when there is no fire, the ensuing panic and stampede for the exits would endanger the lives of the theater occupants, and people may be harmed or killed by trampling. Of course if there is actually a fire then shouting "fire!" is of course justified. The creation of unjustified fear is an assault in itself, and causes harm.

The "LHC Doomsday" crowd have done the equivalent of shouting "fire!" with a slight twist. They have not directly claimed the world will end, but instead have demanded that the physics community prove that the world will not end. Of course proving a negative like this is much harder. Try proving that you will not be eaten by a dragon the next time you open your front door. They have demanded that the theater owner prove there is no fire (loudly so that everyone can hear it). This is equivalent to shouting "fire!" in its consequences and the harm created. They have absolutely no evidence that the LHC is dangerous in any way, and never have. They rely instead on unfounded speculations. To believe there is a danger is to misunderstand the difference between an unproven scientific model and a proven scientific theory. I can create models for anything, including spontaneous human combustion and that pink dragons will be created by the LHC and eat the Earth, but this does not mean I should be worried about them. There's a big difference between these models and reality. Not to mention that the "models" are not only erroneous, but violate physical laws as we know them (specifically, Quantum Mechanics, Time Reversal, and Thermodynamics).

Therefore, I suggest that the plaintiffs of the Hawaii court case, Luis Sancho and Walter L. Wagner, the plantiffs of the case in the European Court of Human Rights, represented by Markus Goritschnig and Adrian Hollaender, as well as the "scientists" Ranier Plaga and Otto Rössler be brought up on manslaughter charges. Furthermore, internet cranks such as Alan Gillis, and James Tankersley must be brought up on charges as well, for fanning the flames across the internet and promulgating the fear that led to the girl's death. All these people have endangered the lives of the citizens of Earth, to the extent that they have caused one death now. They must be stopped, and their unjustified claims dismissed before they cause more harm. They must prove that there is an actual danger, or they are shouting "fire!" in a crowded theater when there is none, and endangering all our lives. Unlike the entirely hypothetical unscientific "dangers" they are suing over, the danger they create is present, and has caused real harm.

The media shares a significant portion of the responsibility here as well. By not verifying facts, and not checking that this is an actual scientific issue by corresponding with multiple scientists, they have promulgated this false sense of fear to sell their newspapers and raise their ratings. They too are accessories to manslaughter. If you want to report on science, it is not sufficient to ask one scientist (or two, from opposite viewpoints). This misunderstands the concept of scientific consensus. When the media reports only one opinion, there is no way to tell they have not reported the opinion of a discredited scientist or crazy person, and the public generally does not have the knowledge or resources to discredit scientists. It is the media's responsibility to make this determination to the best of their ability, before they endanger us with their fear. Science is not individual opinions, it is consensus. They did not verify their facts, and are endangering us in their negligence.

If news agencies use fear to sell their product, then they must be held legally accountable for the fear they incite and the endangerment they create. This is tied up in the death of investigative reporting. News agencies have decided to just report "facts" and we're supposed to decide. This is exemplified directly by the FOX news mottos, "we report, you decide" and "fair and balanced". By reporting the fair and balanced story that there might be a fire in the theater, they endanger us, and must be held responsible.

Therefore I further suggest that every newspaper, TV network, and website which falsely claims there is some world-ending danger from the LHC be brought up on manslaughter charges. This information persists in internet archives and is not generally corrected. Therefore the continued existence of these unsubstantiated claims presents a continuing clear and present danger to Earth's citizens and must be corrected before more harm is done.

The LHC has been sadly delayed due to a Helium leak and will not start again until spring, 2009. By then I hope we can clean up this mess, bring the guilty to justice, and have no more deaths when the LHC does turn on next year. May the excitement of discovering what the world is made out of be in the news instead, without every single article mentioning these lawsuits and inciting fear.

I hope some enterprising lawyer in India and elsewhere will take up this cause legally, because the lives of the worlds citizens, and the accuracy of our media are of paramount importance, far beyond this particular issue with the LHC.

I can be contacted at This is a personal opinion and not an official CERN position.


Anonymous said...

Sorry, but you've gone overboard on this one. Somebody who reacts to a perceived risk of impending death by KILLING HERSELF is obviously not acting rationally. If the Indian media reports are true (big if) the only plausible conclusion is that the girl was mentally ill. If it hadn't been the LHC she would just have found some other bizarre reason to kill herself, like the risk of an asteroid impact (quick, sue YouTube, the Discovery Channel and of course NASA).

Let's discuss something more serious instead, like how to stop the crash in the SUSY market. Can somebody get on the phone to the SEC and ban SUSY short sellers? Or maybe get Hank Paulson to include it in his bailout plan? ;)

De Bunker said...

Anonymous, judging by the comments all over the internet, this girl was not the only one deathly afraid. Furthermore reacting to perceived risk of death by killing oneself may be not be rational, but few people are rational when facing death...recall all the people who jumped off the twin towers on 9/11 before they fell. Were they crazy?

Daniel Yokomizo said...

In no way the girl's suicide is a fault of the anti-LHC crackpots, her suicide has a deeper cause than the end of the world (actually why commit suicide if the world is going to end anyway?) and prosecuting these idiots is meaningless.

OTOH I'm tired of hearing these lies and people thinking that they can have any beliefs they want; if it isn't true you can't say it isn't fiction. But let's prosecute them for telling lies as facts instead of misusing the laws.

Anonymous said...

No, they were tragically rational. Remember, they climbed out of a building burning so hot that its steel reinforcements eventually gave way. Their choice was between the excruciating pain of getting slowly roasted to death and the quick and presumably painless jump.

De Bunker said...

Daniel, this is far from meaningless. First it flips the burden of proof from requiring scientists to prove that the world will not end (a very difficult proposition) to requiring the doomsday to prove there is a danger. Second, it implicates the media, and I would hope it might cause the media to be reluctant to report "fear" articles, rather than promulgating them as they do now. Third, it might improve the situation in science reporting, by making reporters realize that there are crackpots, and their current reporting treats them on equal footing with the rest of science.

tony said...

I agree with De Bunker.

The difference with the asteroid example is that no-one has ever come around and said that there will be an asteroid strike in the morning on the 10th september.

If they had there would be all kinds of looting, rape, pillage and suicide. If, after this, it emerged that they were not qualified to have made the claim in the first place and infact it was wrong, then they would be responsible for all the bad things which had happened due to people believing them.

One little girl did believe these people who keep claiming they are qualified to make these claims and now she is dead.

tony said...

oh and by the way, she could have been entirely rational. She might have just decided that she didn't want to live through whatever she imagined the end of the world was going to be like.

De Bunker said...

Indeed Tony, that's the way it was reported. From the BBC article linked above, "She said she could not bear to see the destruction of all that was dear to her and therefore thought it was better to end her life," Doesn't sound any less rational than people jumping off the twin towers to me.

Anonymous said...

I'd buy that analogy if, before killing herself, she had waited for news out of Geneva that yes, the LHC had indeed created a black hole (or whatever) which would destroy the world.

What she actually did was more like somebody looking out a window in the WTC in the year 2000, thinking "oh my God, imagine what it would be like if an airliner crashed into the building, I would burn alive!", and jumping out of the window, preferring certain death over the mere risk of the imagined calamity.


RobDegraves said...

I would be willing to join in that sort of effort. In fact I would be willing to help fund such an effort. Hell.. if you can show me how to do so.. I will lead such an effort if required.

Let me be clear... I do not hold people who have concerns responsible. I do not hold websites that hold debates on these concerns responsible.

I blame those who deliberately present only one side of the situation... the alarmist side... without allowing or presenting any other opinion.

Hank said...

I blame those who deliberately present only one side of the situation... the alarmist side... without allowing or presenting any other opinion.

That's just it. Any responsible science publication will report on the hysteria but not validate quackery. We carried an interview with Otto Rossler, for example, and he had his say, but that wasn't an endorsement.

As an open science community we obviously encourage people to dispel colloquial uses of the term 'theory' and stick to real science. That doesn't mean non-scientists who occasionally write articles will always get it right.

Anonymous said...

They shouldn't be prosecuted for manslaughter, thats overboard.

However they definitely should be charged with filing a trivial lawsuit and have to pay the lawyer fees for both sides.

Anonymous said...

Well, I think there has been a pretty big misunderstanding of what you need to actually prove manslaughter. Manslaughter isn't just accidently or inadvertently causing death, it is basically murder without intention.

First you need to show the following:

1. That death has occurred (likely, but not certain) and

2. That there is a causal link between the death and the action or inaction of the accused.

Proving causation may sound simple, but it is not. There are matters of foreseeability, reasonableness of the accused in acting or not acting as they did, reasonableness of the action of the victim etc. etc.

You would find it extremely difficult to connect these two events in a legal context.

De Bunker said...

Anonymous, there is no misunderstanding, I know exactly what manslaughter is. Your description is accurate, and it sounds exactly like the situations here. The girl told police before she died that she committed suicide because of the doomsday fears. I don't know who exactly a court would be most likely to find guilty here, but it's pretty trivial to figure out who created those fears.

onscrn said...

First about "Furthermore reacting to perceived risk of death by killing oneself may be not be rational, but few people are rational when facing death...recall all the people who jumped off the twin towers on 9/11 before they fell. Were they crazy?"

No they were choosing to die by falling from a great height rather than being burned alive.

About the criminal charge issue, what if someone shouts "Fire!" in a crowded theater erroneously, while believing there really was a fire. For all we know the end-of-the-worlders believe what they are saying. Definitely culpable, however, are the media that just pass on crackpot objections without examining the credentials of those making them.

For some background on the two (that's all!) scientists (neither with any expertise in a relevant field) predicting disaster see my blog post Large Hadron Collider: What's the Risk?