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Scientific Integrity April 22, 2011

Posted by gordonwatts in physics, physics life, politics, press, science.

… means not telling only half the result

… means not mis-crediting a result

… means an obligation to society to not falsify results

… means not making false claims to gain exposure

… means respecting your fellow scientist and their results

means not talking about things that aren’t public (or, say, that haven’t undergone an internal review)

… means playing by the rules you agreed to when you enter into a collaboration

It means being a scientist!

Integrity is more important that ever given how much the public eye is focused on us in particle physics.

Update: I should mention that this post was authored with Alison Lister.



1. Brian Cole - April 22, 2011

@Gordon: amen to what you wrote. Of particular relevance today, unfortunately.

2. Seth Zenz - April 22, 2011

Do you think that it’s inappropriate for *anyone* to talk about things that aren’t public? My first inclination is that people with no privileged access to inappropriately-released material have no professional obligation to refrain from comments on that material.

3. gordonwatts - April 22, 2011

No. Or if it is, then I think you can cleraly divide things by degree if integrety. Someone who takes info they are privy to and leaks it – probably the worst on the scale. Someone who knows about the info, sees that it is public, and so forwards it on a bit less. If someone is uninvolved and they see it and start asking… well, I don’t think they have a moral obligation… except for how they use it. For example, if they take a leak and then say in some place where it matters “Experiment X said this…” – in short, giving a false impression of the information – then yes, they are at fault… Does that make sense?

Seth Zenz - April 22, 2011

Yes, that’s exactly how I see it also.

4. Haryo Sumowidagdo - April 22, 2011

Can’t agree more Gordon.

5. tommaso - April 23, 2011

Hi Gordon,

I probably am among the bad guys according to your classification. However, I feel that once a leak gets to major news broadcasters, it is stupid to believe one should ignore it.

I prefer to say what I think, to the people who follow me. I am not breaking rules, and I am not to be blamed since I speak my mind in earnest.

I know it feels bad to have this internal note broadcast, but I don’t think bloggers are to be blamed for it.


6. Peter Woit - April 23, 2011

I’m still struggling a bit to figure out exactly what I think about all this. At an abstract level, once I see what seems to be accurate information, I don’t think that I have any moral obligation to enforce ATLAS’s policy on keeping it private. My obligation is mainly to make sure that anything that I put on my blog is accurate, and not misleading to any one, journalists or others, who wants to use what they see there.

In this case, once the abstract was posted on my blog, it took me a while to understand exactly what it was, and by that time quite a few people had seen it and begun discussing it. I don’t think I had any obligation to suppress this discussion, arguably the opposite. By the way, I have absolutely no idea who posted the abstract, the only info I have about this is an IP address from a generic ISP, and it’s not even clear what continent the connection came from. It definitely was not from a lab or university.

The one thing I’m slightly uncomfortable with is my decision to leave the full abstract up, even giving it its own posting. I don’t want to be Julius Assange, look what happened to him… Even though I’m not the one making this private document public, I’m in some sense aiding and abetting. On the other hand, once the existence of this document is known and it is being discussed, having the thing itself available helps the cause of accuracy.

At this point though I guess I’m not uncomfortable with how things have turned out so far. If this abstract had not been made public, but 3000 people within ATLAS were reading and discussing a “4 sigma Higgs” signal, perhaps quite a few inaccurate rumors would be going around. Instead, informed discussion on the blogs made clear pretty quickly exactly what the story really is, that this is very far from an unambiguous 4 sigma Higgs, that most likely there’s nothing there. The press stories, informed by the blogs, are mostly relatively accurate, although sometimes with sensationalistic headlines. But what do you expect from Fox News….

Alison - April 25, 2011

Short comment Peter on only one thing (but I want to say much more, I won’t though as I think most is up to personal appreciation and personal beliefs):
Please don’t compare this ‘leak’ to Wikileaks mission.
For me there is a clear separation between the following:
1) Official secret documents containing valid / validated information that is deemed too sensitive for people to see
2) Non-official / preliminary / draft / whatever you want to call it documents
Examples (over-simplified):
1) ‘oups we were responsible for the massacre of 1000000 people, better not tell anyone’
2) a draft of an e-mail to send to someone when you are really angry with them and let them know, but you know better than to send it, so delete it

There are for me rather different moral and ethical implications of both of these things.

Corey - April 26, 2011

Not to totally derail the conversation here, but I honestly have a question about Wikileaks. Have they actually published anything along the lines of “don’t tell anyone we killed a million people”?

My impression is that their insistence on publishing benign documents that cause PR problems for governments is just going to lead to more sever restrictions against whistle-blowers in the future.

Basically, I’m just curious why people seem to revere the site. Have they earned it?

7. cormac - April 24, 2011

Science studies scholars point out that the rues do get broken – but I think they miss the point that these are the norms. Most scientists think carefully before breaking them..

8. Zach - April 25, 2011

I’m with Peter Woit, who I think has been doing an admirable job with the situation thus far. Scientific integrity also means understanding and respecting your position as stewards of publicly funded research and holders of data that literally belong to the entire scientific community. Secrecy has little role when it comes to the fruits of such resources. Rather, LHC belongs to all of us, and its operation should be as open and transparent as practical.

If journalists want to run with sensationalism over a rumor this vague, that’s simply not the problem of the researchers and bloggers behind this story, especially not when a number of such prominent bloggers have gone to great lengths to accurately describe this rumor in its appropriate context.

9. gordonwatts - April 25, 2011

Thanks for this batch of comments. Due to a problem with my email, I didn’t notice them until just now.

Tommasso! 🙂 Yes, you are right! 🙂 And I have to say the comments on your blog right now are rather discouraging.

Peter – (with out saying anything material about that abstract that was posted to your blog) that is my conclusion as well – I don’t think you are under any obligation to enforce ATLAS rules – you aren’t a member of the collaboration and didn’t agree to anything (I explored some of this in a later post on my own blog, probably not very well). I have no idea what would have happened if it had remained as a comment on your blog… The promotion you gave it certianly did kick-start the process. And as a member of ATLAS I find that… unfortunate. 🙂

I don’t totally buy your comment “If this abstract had not been made public, but 3000 people within ATLAS were reading and discussing a “4 sigma Higgs” signal, perhaps quite a few inaccurate rumors would be going around.” This is simply based on the way I’ve seen experiments behave previously when something like this happens – it is exciting, and everyone jumps on it. In a few days it either holds up or people walk away not really beleiving it. If the latter everyone in the experiment stops talking about it right away.

Finally, you use the word “informed” – but that really isn’t happening right now because the people with the actual data, who understand fake rates, trigger turn on curves, detector response, etc., haven’t even acknowledged if this note is real or not. 🙂

Yeah – the Fox news article was over the top, eh? 🙂 But once it has been leaked there isn’t much that an experiment can do about it to “get it back.” And I don’t think any experiment would want to impose a gag order on everyone – that smacks of… well, not of the way we would like to do science.

10. gordonwatts - April 25, 2011

Zach, thanks for your comment!

I agree totally with “Secrecy has little role when it comes to the fruits of such resources.” Where we differ, however, is the condition of that fruit. I’d like to share the ripe stuff with you… rumors tend to be either rotton or unrippened. 🙂

11. Peter Woit - April 25, 2011


The reference to Julius Assange was mainly intended as a joke. The only connection to Wikileaks is that I’ve been thinking about the issue of revealing an actual document vs. revealing in general terms the information contained in it. The significance of the document and the context of the story are of course completely different here and in the case of Wikileaks.

Alison - April 25, 2011

Thanks for the clarifications and sorry for not getting the joke and reacting so strongly.
The tensions are high and opinions diverse.

12. Anonymous - April 26, 2011

What I find rather amazing is that while leaking the note was wrong, some people are warmly accepting the publicity caused by it. I see “angry” people talking about the bad science that is is to leak such a document. OK. But they CANNOT at the same time accept to be the cover of a newspaper and talk about the excitement of the Higgs boson. That’s a huge hypocrisy. If people really believe it was that bad, they have to be consistent and follow their own spokesperson advice and not talk about it.

This subject is not black and white. Leaking the note was wrong as it was a clear violation of the collaboration policy but as pointed out by Tommaso it was not all negative. For people who think it was only bad and unscientific just shut up and it will naturally go away.

13. iphone 6 - May 27, 2011

@Allison. It’s ok, I didn’t get the joke at first either. Haha

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