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Archive for May 3rd, 2009

probability

Sunday, May 3rd, 2009 by Ari

There was a small piece on The Daily Show about the Large Hadron Collider. The interviewed some of the scientists working on the LHC, as well as one of the naysayers, Walter Wagner, who is convinced that the LHC could destroy the world. Wagner has made a name for himself in the media, and has even gone so far as to sue to try and stop the LHC from being used. When asked by the host what the odds of a black hole being formed were, Wagner replied that he put the odds at 1:2, or 50-50. When he elaborated later, he explained that there were two possibilities, one that it would destroy the world, and one that it wouldn’t. Therefore, the odds were 1:2, giving the event a 50% chance of occurring. (I’m going to pause right here to let you digest that sentence for a moment, because I can’t even believe I just typed that. On a related note, I’m going to buy a lottery ticket this afternoon, because I have a 50% chance of winning).

There are a lot of places I could take this post, including my surprise that this man managed to get a degree in Biology (with a minor in physics), and the fact that someone lets him teach science to high school children. (Rebecca commented that she now understands why Americans don’t know math or science). However what bothers me the most is the fact that he’s been getting media attention. The Daily show showed clips of him on MSNBC, BBC, CNN, Fox, etc. The media falls into the exact same misunderstanding of probability that Walter Wagner did when he said the odds were 50-50 since there were two options. The media is always careful to try and get “both sides” of any given story. This is fine when reporting on something like the presidential election, where there are sizable numbers of people on both sides of the issue, and sound arguments for both sides. However this reporting mechanism breaks down when you’re dealing with nutcases like Wagner (and this is clearly not the only time something like this has happened). When one side of an argument is a logic based and reasonable, and the other side is just a small fringe group of people, the media’s habit of giving equal time in order to cover “the whole story” just validates the fringe group and gives them credence in the public’s eyes. This is especially common when it comes to scientific issues which the public is not capable of judging for themselves, so they rely on the media’s portrayal. You then end up with people believing that vaccines might cause autism, or intelligent design might be a valid scientific theory, and smoking might not cause lung cancer, because the nightly news displayed one person who said yes, and one person who said no.

The Daily Show’s clip is pretty funny, and contains a wonderful (but very quick) Dr. Strangelove tribute at the end, so you should watch it for that if nothing else.