Scene from CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider. CERN is a frequent target of Doomsday theories [Image Credit: Ryan F. Mandelbaum]
The world was supposed to end in September 2015.
While some people thought NASA forgot to tell them about an asteroid collision, others thought the Large Hadron Collider, the seven-mile-wide atom smasher, would open a portal to hell.
NASA dismissed the asteroid theory with a statement widely publicized in the news and on social media. But press officers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, in Geneva, Switzerland, which runs the Large Hadron Collider, took a different approach. They quietly buried a fact sheet titled “CERN answers queries from social media,” containing no mention of the supposed Sept. 23 apocalypse, on their own press website.
Doomsday theorists frequently blame international labs like CERN for putting the world in danger. But while you may think of these theorists as crackpots, their doomsday ideas have a lot in common with government conspiracy theories that often appear on social media today. And there’s a science to handling government conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories flourish when a government organization is involved in an event that the general public can’t quite comprehend, like the 1969 lunar landing, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or scientific discoveries at places like CERN.
“Any time there is a situation where there is a lack of information,” said Dr. Viren Swami, psychologist at Anglia Ruskin University in the United Kingdom, “people are much more likely to explain that with a conspiracy theory.”
Presenting curious minds with a list of facts without trying to proselytize and allowing people to analyze facts on their own may be the best way to dispel conspiracy theories, he said.
The most recent apocalyptic scare demonstrated Swami’s theory in action.
CERN needed to target the places where the theory was most popular while constructing their response. The September theory “was huge on social media but it was only on social media,” said Arnaud Marsollier, CERN’s press chief. “If we had published something it would have been buzz for sure.”
The particle physics community has needed to respond to more publicized doomsday theories in the past.
In a 2005 paper, a physicist theorized that the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), a device similar to the LHC on Long Island in New York, could create black holes. A New York Times article scared laypeople, who think that black holes eat planets. But RHIC’s black holes were “theoretical, imaginary black holes,” that could never cause any harm to Earth, according to the RHIC website. The New York Times coverage forced RHIC press officers to address the conspiracy theories directly and publicly, but the CERN release shows that conspiracy theorists still believe that particle colliders create black holes today.
Swami thought that CERN’s quiet approach to the September social media rumors was the more effective.
Although CERN did not promote its news releases on social media, a quick Google search of “Sept. 23 CERN” puts the press release the top of the results. Would-be theorists can analyze the science and purpose of CERN on their own with an easily digestible list of facts, without feeling forced to take a side on whether or not the world will end.
That method had worked for Irving Baxter, a longtime doomsday theorist and head minister at the Endtime Ministries in Texas, in the past.
“There’s this problem because like charges repel and they can’t tell what keeps the protons at the center of the atom, why atoms don’t blow apart,” said Baxter, explaining CERN’s work. He hadn’t read the Sept. 23 release, but he had previously found online information about the experiment on his own. Baxter praised the work at CERN and did not feel it nor any other particle accelerator had anything to do with his Armageddon theory.
Ultimately, Sept. 23 came and went, the world did not end, and scientists continued their work at CERN.
But CERN will probably always have to deal with conspiracy theories, Marsollier said. “The end of the world is announced every year.”