The Hagiographic Science Of NOVA’s The Big Bang Machine
At the beginning of The Big Bang Machine we are told bombastically that the program is about the discovery of a force, “that fills all of space, completely invisible, and yet without it life, earth, the universe we know could not exist”. However, on the website we are told this: “July 4, 2012, scientists at the giant atom smashing facility at CERN announced the discovery of a subatomic particle that seems like a tantalizingly close match to the elusive Higgs Boson, thought to be responsible for giving all the stuff in the universe its mass.” This last statement seems closer to the actual fact of the situation. That is the discovery may have been that of the famous Higgs Boson, but maybe not.
The Big Bang Machine is an episode in the PBS NOVA program science education series that focuses on the Large Hadron Collider and contemporary particle physics. It presents a hagiographic view of particle physics. A hagiographic science documentary is a documentary that presents a glorified uncritical view of science and scientists. The NOVA episode focuses on the claimed discovery of the Higgs Boson and the theory of supersymmetry, which purports to explain the creation and evolution of the universe following the BIG Bang. The Large Hadron Collider or LHC is presented as the most important intellectual and technical achievement in human history and asserts that this machine will prove that human science will soon be able to explain all the laws of physics and answer the most important question in science: Why do we exist?
The main theme of this review is to critically discuss the deceptive method of the modern science educational program in its use of hagiographic technique and uncritical acceptance of unproven science theories. In this case, much of what is presented in the NOVA program is scientific speculation. After watching a number of NOVA science programs, a viewer becomes familiar with the way that the program misrepresents science. The particularly deceptive technique is in the way they present the story backwards. That is the viewer is presented the conclusion as true fact at the beginning, in a way that makes it sound irrefutable, and then only later in the development of the program do we learn the facts that claim to support the conclusion. Science presented in this deceptive way seems to have a compelling aura of inevitable absolute truth. This technique, uses science history improperly, because it fails to document the controversy and struggles of competing viewpoints. It makes science look like a progressive evolution of human truth over time, without mistakes or errors. The method goes this way. We are told what the answer is, then we are told how the mystery was solved in a way that the absolute truth is and only can be the answer that scientists have given us, and so the answer scientists give us seems absolutely inevitable and correct.
Sanitized science presented in this way appears to be the creation of super smart humans using complex mathematical theories that possess such compelling beauty and deeply profound insight that they could not possibly be incorrect, and hence must be absolute truth. In reality however, science is full of errors, messy, confusing, ambiguous, controversial, political, divisive, arguable and certainly not capable of producing the absolute truth. It is a fallible human activity, involving, egotistical, self important, dishonest, self interested, competing personalities and anyone who thinks that it involves the actual creation of truth and certainty is deluded and confused. Unfortunately, NOVA presents science in hagiographic terms where scientists appear as being humble, self effacing, cooperative, unselfish, and brilliant. They all possess the human ideals that society values, in that they are all working cooperatively towards the common social goal of truth and understanding of the world that we live in thorough good science. Unfortunately the reality of real science is not like this. It is rough, competitive, nasty, brutal and mean spirited in almost all of its aspects. Most scientists really don’t care about the truth so much as they care about promotions, high salaries, groveling idolization, and winning the Nobel Prize.
The technique of telling the story backwards progressing from the results to the justification is used extensively in The Big Bang machine. At the beginning we are presented with the story of the discovery of the Higgs Boson. This particular part is a reasonably good presentation of the history of the Standard Model and the Higgs Boson theory. Following that we are presented the story of the discovery of the Higgs Boson by CERN. What we are not told is the most important thing that the critical viewer needs to understand. What the discovery statement by CERN said was that they found a new boson, and not that they had discovered the Higgs Boson. This however, is not pointed out by the NOVA documentary and the reason for this omission is important. The reason is that the discovery of the new boson did not fit into any of the theories of the Standard Model. In particular the measured mass of the new boson at 125 GeV was found to be inconsistent with all of the theories for the Higgs that had been proposed. The mass of the newly discovered particle ruled out the theory of supersymmetry if that particle is the long sought for Higgs Boson. Simply put if the discovered particle is the Higgs Boson as it is claimed, then the Standard Model and the theories that depend upon it are in deep trouble because the Higgs mass is incompatible with all the theories. Despite this glaring discrepancy, the NOVA program continues on to discuss the theory of supersymmetry as if this theory was still viable despite the fact that the experimental results from CERN ruled it out as a viable theory. This reviewer is particularly puzzled by this omission.
Despite the failure to tell us that the Higgs mass is inconsistent with the supersymmetry theories the NOVA program proceeds to present this theory as if this is indeed the correct theory of the big bang and that it is capable of explaining how we humans came into being. Here we see how the deceptive method of telling the story backwards has really fouled up the NOVA documentary. That is because they start by assuming that the Higgs Boson has actually been discovered at 125 GeV and then of course they will explain how that discovery proves that the supersymmetry theory based on the standard model is the true theory which explains the existence of dark matter and dark energy and the creation of the universe. This discrepancy seems to arise from the fact that they always present the story backwards. Hence, towards the end of the program they have Gates saying that if we discover the Higgs we will have verified the supersymmetry. So the interview was done before the Higgs was discovered. So why did they put it in the wrong place? At the end of the program, the otiose conclusion is put forward that in 2015 when the LHC becomes operation at double its previous power, that the machine will finally reveal the secrets of the universe through the verification of the idea of supersymmetry. Unfortunately, that is just a speculative dream of little substance. It is already clear from the discovery of the new boson at 125 GeV that something is not quite right, but the scientists do not want to admit that. So the drama of the LHC continues.
Before wrapping up this review, it is worth while to discuss some particular aspects that deserve critical examination. In particular the technique of the scientist interview. In these brief scenes we have a scientist making what appear to be profound and absolutely truthful statements about what scientists know is true. There are some particularly outstanding examples of this hagiographic technique. That is scientists make apparently truthful statements that have the appearance of being profoundly true, but are not. Michio Kaku is shown making a very grandiose statement that is so obviously false that one wonders how he has the nerve to be so shameless about it. He says that we understand electromagnetism so well that we can use GPS to locate a car within inches. This is ridiculous, since understanding the laws of electromagnetism is not relevant to GPS. All the laws of electromagnetism do in GPS is tell us the velocity of light. In fact we don’t actually understand the laws of electromagnetism very well at all.
This is where the hagiography trips up the truth in the program. Statements are found in many places where we are told that science has all of the answers and that the Standard Model explains all the experiments ever done by humans. That is obviously false and is a gross misrepresentation. One wonders why they can not tell us the true story rather than create a hagiographic mythology?