14th July 2012
Link with 2 notes
This BBC article by Quentin Cooper is a good sketch of the hoopla surrounding the “discovery” of the Higgs Boson — big science meets mass media.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion not that the Higgs boson exists, but that researchers in pursuit of funding for more big science projects rushed out some data that might or might not demonstrate the existence of the Higgs boson… but sooner rather than later lest they be scooped by some other team, especially those employing higher powered instrumentation soon to come online.
Along with the rest of the media hoopla, Cooper identified the use of theological language by the popular press in reporting the “discovery”:
“…partly it’s a matter of divine intervention — the random rebranding of the Higgs as the ‘God particle’ by some sections of the media may have irritated Peter Higgs and many other scientists, but it has only further fuelled the coverage.”
The theological re-framing of scientific discoveries is not limited to the mass media or to particle physics — though in particle physics it perhaps makes a disproportionate impact because particle physics is the contemporary paradigm of “hard” science.
We all know that Einstein said that God doesn’t play dice with the universe, and several generations of cosmologists have played on the same theme, Hawking chief among them. I believe it was Hawking who said that God not only plays dice with the universe, He sometimes throws them where they cannot be seen.
Hawking consistently uses religious imagery of this sort, as in this often quoted passage:
“If we do discover a theory of everything…it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we would truly know the mind of God.”
Sometimes the use of theological language in the reportage of scientific discoveries leads to serious confusion, as with the consistent use of the term “Mitochondrial Eve,” since this has given many people the impression that there was a single “Mitochondrial Eve” rather than understanding that “Mitochondrial Eve” was a population that may have consisted of perhaps 500-1,000 individuals. Even when the media reaches back in time for its stories, it still seems to require the essential element of human interest — i.e., it must attach itself to an individual.
Here it is not only the mass media that is to blame, but the scientists themselves, also, since many scientists have used this image of human unity in a Mitochondrial Eve in order to introduce moralizing arguments about the ultimate unity of human beings — thus wrongly calling their very real contributions to science into question when others rightly reject their moralizing.
But I will allow that the use of theological language to describe scientific discoveries does point to something of great importance in contemporary industrial-technological civilization, and what it points to is this: science is more and more coming to play the role that theology played in earlier civilizations, and for the average person to understand this, science is framed in theological terms.
I plan to return to this theme soon in order to further elaborate on it.