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LIGO rumors reflect genuine, healthy excitement

Steven T. Corneliussen of Physics Today wrote a somewhat critical text about the wave of LIGO rumors that escalated one week ago:

Physics gossip vs. physics news
Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss is often cited as a source, mainly because his rumors are relatively quickly spread through a large number of his Twitter followers. Your humble correspondent is often quoted as the propagator of the most precise rumors. Wait for February 11th to hear the announcement. And you will learn about at least two events. And at least one of them will be the detection of a merger of two black holes each of which weighs at least 10 solar masses. ;-)

I've received the news by parts, from several sources that may be independent or reliable but I don't have any clear proof of that. I am not actually "certain" about any of the propositions myself. Everyone knows that it's a rumor. It may be wrong. Or some details may be wrong. The detection may be another drill even though we were told that it wasn't one this time. But many people are interested because the gravitational waves are cute, carry the Einsteinian flavor, and their direct detection would be new. My blog post last Monday got 7,000 readers which is substantially higher than than the average blog post.

As far as I can say, there are three basic reasons to be concerned when it comes to similar rumors:
  1. Accuracy and balance between hype and underlying evidence
  2. Fair distribution of fame and credit
  3. Discipline and secrecy for their own sake
Concerning the accuracy, well, people are told that it's "just rumors". But the track record of similar rumors has been extremely good in recent years. On Friday, March 14th, 2014, rumors spread that BICEP2 was going to claim the discovery of primordial gravitational waves on the following Monday. And it did.

BICEP2 no longer believes that their 2014 paper was quite good but because the rumor was about the announcement, not the perfection of their actual analysis, the controversy about the BICEP2 results doesn't imply that the rumors were inaccurate.

The LHC rumors have been equally accurate. In early December 2011, we would hear the rumors about the 3+ sigma evidence of a \(125\GeV\) Higgs boson seen in the diphoton channel. And days later, the LHC has indeed publicized these results – which would strengthen into the official discovery by July 2012. (Well, this case is a bit complicated because we also had a continuous inflow of official and unofficial data that were gradually strengthening the hypothesis for a \(125\GeV\) Higgs.) Similarly, last December, we heard about the rumors about the similar diphoton bump at \(750\GeV\) observed both by ATLAS and CMS. And yes, on December 15th, they announced something that agreed with those rumors. We don't know whether those bumps are real new physics or just flukes yet.

We call these things "rumors" but the experience suggests that the probability that such reports are true if not accurate is rather high. The word "rumor" may actually overstate the uncertainty and words such as "leaks" could be more appropriate. At any rate, I don't see anything misleading about the way how the information is being reported. They're rumors and they're described in this way. But they can't be viewed "just as noise" or some "libels that someone made up" because in the past, similar rumors have turned out to be accurate repeatedly. And many of these rumors are way more reliable and accurate than tons of other "would-be credible" things that science journalists often write about.

Credit and fame

Science's Adrian Cho has mentioned two anti-Krauss reactions on Twitter:
Krauss has taken some blowback for his rumor-mongering. “[I]f true, you are trying to steal their glory; if false, you are damaging scientific credibility,” tweeted Michael Merrifield, an astronomer at the University of Nottingham, in the United Kingdom. Erik Mamajek, an astronomer at the University of Rochester in New York tweeted, “Does [the LIGO] project sanction your rumor-mongering? ‘Confirmed’ followed by ‘may have been’ = BS. Hurts science.”
Now, is Krauss stealing some glory from LIGO? The main glory belongs to those who made the discovery, who predicted the effect, and who have masterminded the experiments. Well, I think that a reader or a Twitter follower would have to be a complete moron if he thought that Krauss' tweet indicates that Krauss has actually discovered the gravitational waves – that he has done the bulk of the work.

On the other hand, Krauss gets some glory for spreading the gospel that many people were waiting for. If the rumor turns out to be wrong, his credibility in similar situations will decrease - which is a price he pays. If the rumor turns out to be right, he was still the person who brought the news to many people (I had it well before Krauss' recent tweets, however).

You know, whether you like it or not, if the discovery is ready e.g. for February 11th, the discovery has actually been already made. The discovery isn't made at the moment when some official announcement is made or the paperwork is completed. The discovery is made after the scientists collect and analyze some data and convince themselves that the effect has been observed. If the discovery is going to be made, the hypothetical claim by a LIGO boss that "the discovery hasn't taken place yet" would really be a lie.

And by the way, Erik Mamajek's claim that there is a logical contradiction between Krauss' sentences "my earlier rumors have been confirmed" and "gravitational waves may have been discovered" is simply logically defective. The "confirmation" means that the same information has come from yet another, apparently independent, source. But this still doesn't eliminate all the doubts which is why "may have been" is right in the following sentence. There's no BS here and science wasn't hurt in any way.

Discipline and secrecy for their own sake

So what the LIGO bosses might have an interest at is to "concentrate the shock as much as possible" by keeping the news in secret and releasing them at one moment to the whole world, e.g. on February 11th. It's possible that this "lightning coming out of a blue sky" (do English speakers use this phrase for similarly surprising events?) would maximize the amount of "shock and awe" that the discovery could ignite. However,
  1. I am actually not sure that this preparation-free silence maximizes the number of listeners and their excitement at the moment of the announcement
  2. the "perfect silence" before the announcement is a form of a trick and LIGO bosses don't have any "holy right" to make such tricks
  3. even if they had the "holy right", this strategy would be unlikely to succeed because there are many members and people inside and outside the collaboration have their rights, too.
Concerning the first point: Because of the rumors, lots of people have been prepared for an announcement. They studied what the waves actually are and they have about one month to subconsciously think about the concept. The "shock and awe" was divided to two moments but the total amount of "shock and awe" in these moments is probably greater than the "shock and awe" that would explode if the announcement came as a lightning out of a blue sky.

The uncertainty is still high enough so that the people familiar with the rumor will still like to listen to the press conference, to see whether the rumors have been right or wrong, accurate or inaccurate. And the subject is complicated enough so that the preparations (i.e. rumors) may make the press conference more useful, and not less useful, for the average listener. The press conference will have many listeners who wouldn't listen to it if they were not prepared for the possible discovery, if they weren't explained the basics of gravitational waves in advance.

This is related to an issue that I consider the most important one in all these discussions – a point incorporated in the title of this blog post. The "demand" for these preliminary results shows that many people (although still a small minority of the mankind!) care about the scientific results and that's great. They really want to know whether the gravitational waves have been detected and what they have shown or looked like. Their desire to know it is as real as the desire of many ordinary women who want to know e.g. whether two celebrities have had a romantic relationship with one another.

The difference is that private stories of the celebrities should remain their private matter - they should enjoy at least some right for this privacy – while that the very point of scientific experiments such as LIGO is that the results won't remain classified. That's why the LIGO gossip is much more ethically clean than the celebrity gossip. But what drives both kinds of gossip is genuine interest and it's simply great that many people are genuinely interested in the detection of gravitational waves.

The plan for "silence" is unlikely to succeed

This brings me to the final point. Even if there were something great about the leak-free "lightning out of a blue sky" form of the announcement, and as I wrote above, I doubt it, it's important to acknowledge that in the real world composed of real humans with their real emotions, real interests, and real human rights, it's very unlikely that this "secretive plan" may succeed.

The Physics Today article says that the LIGO spokeswoman is "a little miffed" and we read the following:
LIGO leaders seem somewhat dismayed by whole affair. “I’ve seen Krauss’s new tweet,” wrote Gabriela Gonzalez, a physicist at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, and spokesperson for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration in an email. “I’m disappointed (again) that he didn’t ask me or anybody in LIGO leadership.”

Krauss says that he purposefully avoided trying to confirm the rumors because doing so would have been unethical. “If I contacted them, that would imply that I was trying to get information I shouldn’t have,” he says. “That would have been inappropriate.” Krauss adds that, had he been told something by LIGO researchers in confidence, he would have kept it to himself.
I totally agree with Krauss here. First of all, Krauss doesn't have any "duty" to ask LIGO bosses. He is a non-member of LIGO who has the right to speak about things (as well as evidence and emerging evidence) that he finds interesting. He doesn't need to be "sanctioned" by LIGO officials to do that. There are no laws that would "abolish" this freedom - and for a good reason. It would be silly to try to take this freedom of the people. Krauss isn't even paid by González and he hasn't signed any "commitment to be silent" or things like that so González simply shouldn't assume that he shall be silent.

Equally importantly, the purpose of LIGO is to find out whether the gravitational waves exist and to determine some details about them. The purpose of LIGO is not to maximally inflate the spokeswoman's ego by forcing everyone to obey her orders. If a plan by Ms González – one assuming that she is the dictator and others are flawless robots who always behave the way she wants – fails, it's mainly because these assumptions are silly.

I don't know anything about Krauss' sources but let me assume that we had analogous sources and neither of my sources was a member of LIGO. If I have heard the news from a LIGO member, it wouldn't be right to call it a rumor. It would be a leak. I suppose that I would only be told this information with the extra disclaimer that I wasn't allowed to speak about it. And in that case, I would have obviously remained silent. Krauss wrote the same thing.

But no such restrictions existed in the actual channels from which I have received the information. I haven't breached any "promise of silence". It's very likely that someone in between LIGO and myself has breached it but this kind of a hard-to-locate "violation of commitments" is what defines the concept of rumors, after all.

On the contrary, I think that Krauss is right that if he had tried to investigate at LIGO, it would be less ethical. Such questions would be a kind of a pressure exerted on LIGO members to obtain the de facto official information that he should naturally fail to have. Moreover, it's clear that the reply would be "we won't tell you anything except for some official fog, if you wish."

The LIGO Scientific Collaboration has almost 1,000 members. Some fraction of them knows lots of details about the looming announcement – assuming that it will take place. González may have asked everybody to be silent. But she's no dictator and she doesn't have the legal credentials to "impose" some brutal sanctions, like behead the LIGO members who leak any information like that. The punishments are limited and they could only be enforced if the members who leak the information are identified, anyway - which are good enough conditions for some of them to decide that a leak is a good idea, after all.

All of this simply means that it's very likely that someone leaks it. These people think that "sharing the interesting news about science" with their friends and colleagues is more important than Ms González's ambitions to be a dictator in charge of some disciplined armed forces whose orders are being fulfilled rigorously. There may be some members who think that "to make Krauss or another guy know about the important science news already done by my team" is more important than "Ms González's desire to keep all of us silent and disciplined".

Because I don't have much respect for this army-style silence and discipline as the "ultimate value" that needs no other justification, it's obvious that I have sympathy for the LIGO members who decided not to play Ms González's "game of silence", too. Quite generally, Ms González tries to paint her interests and desires as more important than they are.

The direct detection of the gravitational waves may be considered a Nobel-prize-magnitude discovery. Some people will have to decide who actually gets the Nobel prize. Ms González, the spokeswoman, may very well end up being a winner. Let me say in advance that I have always considered science prizes for people who are mainly de facto politically elected officials to be greatly disappointing.

But if the discovery is gonna be announced and survives some tests, she will have a substantial chance to join the list of Nobel prize winners. But it would be nice if she admitted that this would already be an "overstatement" and she shouldn't try to become the dictator of the whole astrophysical and cosmological community, one who believes to possess the right to prevent every researcher from speaking about some scientific issues.

She doesn't have this right and others don't have the duty to fulfill all of her desires.

At the end of the Physics Today article, Laura Cadonati and David Blair, two important enough people in the LIGO structures, are quoted as examples of researchers who understand the excitement about the rumors very well and who actually found it "energizing". And that's the right, common-sense attitude. For true science fans, the question whether the waves have actually been detected and what they look like is a much more important question than the date on which a spokeswoman decides to release the information! Ms González sounds as if she didn't appreciate the previous sentence and that would be too bad.

Unfortunately, some other people express this pernicious opinion even more explicitly than Ms González. They sometimes talk about the authority of science but what they actually mean is the power of some politicians or officials. They say "science" but what they actually mean is the "authoritative government". They're very, very different things. Whether some scientific evidence exists or not is a different question from the question whether an official decided to sanction an announcement. And the respect for science is a very different thing than the obedience to some officials or political authorities.

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