The Art of Thinking Clearly, (not yet) Applied to Particle Physics


Rolf Dobelli’s collection of cognitive biases, fallacies and wrong decision strategies has become a bestseller because people are becoming more and more aware of the irrational elements of the human mind. The textbook example, of course, is economics, where nobody anticipated the 2008 crash. “Never has a group of experts failed so spectacularly,” Dobelli comments, but it is obvious that our deficiencies in rational decision making can produce bizarre situations elsewhere – particle physics is a field that comes to mind when reading Dobelli’s book.

An obvious concern is social proof or groupthink (Dobelli’s error No. 4). The particle physics community, consisting of more than 10,000 physicists, devotes its entire activity to a model of reality that may well be plain wrong (scientists prefer to call it “incomplete”) – but not a single individual dares to spell out the catastrophic consequences – that eight decades of research might be completely useless for a profound understanding of the laws of nature.

An important contributor at work here is the sunk cost fallacy (No. 5). The excessive funding for particle physics must continue – despite no visible advance either in fundamental questions or in technological applications. Questioning the need for a new particle accelerator would mean admitting that the investments of the past, tens of billions of dollars, would have been spent in vain. It is inconceivable not only for the experts working in the field, but also for those responsible for the funding (even if they happen to coincide frequently).

And when watching the CERN seminar in which the Higgs discovery was celebrated, the following description in the calamity of conformity (No. 25) fits perfectly: “Members of a close-knit group cultivate team spirit… if others are of the same opinion, any dissenting view must be wrong. Nobody wants to be the naysayer who destroys ream unity. Finally, each person is happy to be part of the group. Expressing reservations could mean exclusion from it.” Imagine a dissenting physicist in the seminar asking for more explanations of a certain data analysis… unthinkable.

But even when looking at more technical aspects, the experimenter’s ears should be burning when hearing about the rara sunt cara illusion (No. 27): the rarer the occurrence of today’s elementary particles, the more interesting they are considered – for no good methodological reason.

The deep reason why the standard model of particle physics has not been replaced yet is Dobelli’s illusion No. 11: “Why prefer a wrong map to no map at all. Well, we just have this standard model of particle physics”, which is what you hear everywhere. Many other fallacies could be mentioned:

- How bonuses destroy motivation (No. 56, the abundant funding…)

- Chauffeur knowledge (No. 16), which you hear from the dozens of science polularizers that allegedly `explain’ the Higgs boson…

- Make engineers stand underneath their constructions at their bridge opening ceremonies (No. 18, no way to implement such a policy in particle physics).

- Clear thoughts become clear statements, whereas ambiguous ideas transform into vacant ramblings… (No. 57 – think about it the next time somebody explains what the LHC might discover next).

- Effort justification (No. 60): Think about it when listening to particle physicists who tell you about their 20-year hunt for the Higgs boson.

Finally, there is one point where Dobelli explicitly mentions science, the feature-positive-effect (No. 95): “The falsification of a hypothesis is a lot harder to get published, and as far as I know, there has never been a Nobel Prize awarded for this.” Correct! That’s exactly what Gary Taubes noted in his book Nobel Dreams (about the W and Z boson search) … but this is another story!

In short, Dobelli’s book could well be useful for scientists, but alas, the last place its message is likely to sink in is a big science laboratory such as CERN.