30 June 2008

The Media Sucks, part 97

A report on the startup of the large hadron collider at CERN (in France/Switzerland) provides a great example of how to spew nonsense with numbers. In response to critics who believe the supercollider may create a black hole that swallows the earth, one physicist puts the odds at 1 in 50 million. The reporter's analysis?
long odds, to be sure, but about the same as winning some lotteries.
Hey! We all know how those odds work out in lotteries--there's always a payout eventually! Shit, better start writing your will, except...there'll be nobody left to leave your money to.

Of course millions, sometimes tens of millions, of people play the lottery, so of course those long odds are still going to pay off eventually. But choose any one person who plays the lottery every week, and track them for the rest of their life, and I'd place a large wager that they will never win the big pot.

If we had a million supercolliders in the world, perhaps I'd be nervous. But with less than a handful in the world, the odds of them ever "winning" the blackhole lottery are, well, about 1 in 50 million. I think I'll sleep well tonight.

Journalism schools should have required classes in probability--it seems to be one of the most common logical errors made by journalists.


James K said...

Even 1 in 50 million is pretty conservative. Given that LHC-level collisions are a daily occurrence in the observable universe trillions to one would be more appropriate.

James Hanley said...

The critics claim those natural collisions are somehow different. The news article didn't say how, and the people involved with the collider scoff at the claim. I'm inclined to agree with you, but being a physics moron, I have no idea what a realistic calculation of the odds would be.

James K said...

From what I have read the biggest problem in the critic's claims is that they (correctly) assert the collisions could generate tiny black holes, citing quantum physics but reject quantum physics when it states that those black holes would evaporate before they could do any damage.