The Large Hadron Collider is spooling back up to science-speeds, circulating particle beams last week and looking at ramping up the power to productive levels even now, and you know what that means? No, not particle physics, or an increases in human knowledge, or even pieces of a new understanding of how the universe operates - it's time for the more vapid scaremongering. Which is why we're lucky we've got Gizmodo to give such a perfect example.
Their November 20 post couldn't be a better example of everything wrong with modern reporting if it was actually going "duh" and slapping itself on the forehead. It's a manual of merit-free mockery, following all the steps of:
a) Single quote deliberately taken out of context
b) Overlong "amusing" title for someone so much smarter than they writer they'd probably need an interpreter should the two ever meet
c) Series of sarcastic questions without any analysis or actual content
d) Starting a paragraph with "Wait wait wait. WAIT", which isn't actually unscientific, but could barely be worse writing without failing to use English characters.
The target of the text-editing is CERN's Director of Accelerators, Dr Steve Myers, who said "The LHC is a far better understood machine than it was a year ago. We've learned from our experience, and engineered the technology that allows us to move on. That's how progress is made."
You'll realise that's an entirely coherent announcement, especially from the director of an extremely expensive installation that's had some embarrassing hardware failures prevent it from operating for over a year. BONUS POINTS: You can tell a lot by whether an article says 'failure' or 'smalfunction'. DOUBLE BONUS: Guess which Gizmodo uses.
Gizmodo took "The LHC is a far better understood machine than it was a year ago" so out of context it might as well have been an unicorn at the Last Supper. They literally painted it on a giant danger sign, photoshopping it into giant stencil-danger text on a red panel surrounded by a yellow-black DANGER frame, thereby creating a great big scary image out of nothing at all. Thereby usefully parodying themselves, and joining the ranks of those who deliberately misunderstand "theory" so they don't have to deal with proof and those who interpret science's extremely positive habit of admitting mistakes (which is sort of responsible for most of the good things in modern society) as a sign of weakness.
Of course the LHC is a better understood machine after scientists worked on it for a year. The only people who don't understand things better after twelve months are, apparently, headline-generating bloggers - especially when you're dealing with a multi-billion-part megamachine pushing the very limits of current technology. When engineers first bolted together the Model T, they 'understood' it far better after driving - that doesn't mean the engine suddenly had a risk of boosting them to the moon or ripping a hole in spacetime.
We'll never be free of doomsayers, but headlines like this don't help. The LHC might act unexpectedly, but it won't destroy the universe with a black hole in the same way a surprise dessert won't turn out to be an alligator - dessert bowls simply can't contain live alligators. It's physically impossible in several different ways.
Here's your simple guide for surviving LHC-restart season:
1) If someone's entire argument is based on a single sentence fragment, ignore them.
2) Anyone starting "it's a tiny chance but if it did happen..." doesn't understand either the chance or the science.
3) If they so much as begin to say 2012 just punch them in the face.
Yes, the LHC might do something we don't expect. That's the point! If we knew exactly what was going to come out we'd have skipped ahead to the next experiment! Planet-eating black holes simply can't happen, the math doesn't work. The universe has been bombarding us with far more energetic collisions for all of time, the only reason we need the LHC is so we can put detectors where it happens for once. And one day, on some utopian future-date we can only dream of, people will understand both the nature of the universe and - maybe - the words coming out of their own mouths before they say them.