March 29, 2008

Trust me, I'm a physicist!

AtlasOn practical ethics I blog about Extinction Risks and Particle Physics: When Are They Worth it? due to the recent US lawsuit trying to stop the LHC.

If there is a tiny risk that turning on the LHC will destroy the world (due to black holes, black saturns, monopoles, strangelets, vacuum decay or divine intervention), isn't that a good argument for not turning it on? It turns out that if it makes our lives just a tiny bit better it may still be worth it. Just the side-effect of having led to the discovery of the WWW might have justified a lot of potential risk from CERN.

A less utilitarian and more precautionary approach would be to say we should not do any experiments until we have understood the risks better. This suffers from the problem that we likely cannot understand the risks better without making experiments, beyond occasional theoretical insights like the Bostrom and Tegmark paper. Even if we think we have better theoretical understanding after a while, a nervous sceptic would be able to point out that our updated probabilities are not necessarily more trustworthy than before since they have not been empirically tested. If we ought to wait at time A, then we ought to wait at time B too. In addition, we have opportunity costs of not doing the experiment (physicists leaving for finance, no spin-offs, particle physics pranks).

In the end, it is a gamble, but a gamble I think we can be fairly confident about. I'm much more worried about the totally unexpected risks. Nobody seems to have worried about creating Einstein-Bose condensates, despite them possibly only occurring due to human physicists in the entirety of the history of the universe!

Posted by Anders3 at March 29, 2008 07:09 PM