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Physics Community Afire With Rumors of Higgs Boson Discovery

June 21, 2012

Check out this Wired article about the latest development of CERN’s LHC (The European Organization for Nuclear Research’s Large Hadron Collider). These are interesting advances. (Though, from the perspective of us who understand nothing about the matter [pun intended], it would perhaps be even more interesting if it was proven the Higgs boson actually doesn’t exist.) Two related aspects of this strike me as an economist. First, the “n-sigma” terminology is telling about the nature of experimental sciences. In Economics if you find something interesting enough and econometrically sound, you can aim for a Nobel Prize even if your significance levels are 2%. According to the article, the scientific community is not even remotely satisfied with a 3-sigma signal (which corresponds to showing a statistical correlation at a 0.13% significance level). In the rigorous world of high-energy physics, researchers wait to see a 5-sigma signal, which has only a 0.000028 percent probability of happening by chance, before claiming a ‘discovery’. Yes, that is: a 0.000028% significance level (about a 100,000:1 increase in “precision” from what the pickiest economists are used to). Wow.

It’s notable and understandable how differently the concept of “proving” is used in Physics and Economics. Physicists are spoiled. 🙂 As an economist, I can’t help but mentioning that the difficulties of accessing quality data are inherent to our science. We spend seemingly countless hours learning how to deal with “very finite” databases that are full of problems and in general cannot be extended or replicated in practice. That doesn’t mean our conclusions are meaningless or worthless; only that social sciences are different from natural sciences in more was that we sometimes admit. Economic interactions, realities and mysteries are out there which require intelligence to be done; modern Economics and Statistics include the best methods we’ve been able to devise about this. If anybody knows better methods to analyze individual’s and society’s relation to scarcity, please tell me ASAP. On the other hand, if anybody thinks the problems related to measuring the interactions of human beings make it worthless to study these relations, don’t bother to tell me. 🙂

About 68.27% of the values lie within 1 standard deviation of the mean. Similarly, about 95.45% of the values lie within 2 standard deviations of the mean. Nearly all (99.73%) of the values lie within 3 standard deviations of the mean.

Finally, it’s also interesting how scientific journalism seems to work. Again, I’m thinking as an econometrist but, for what I understand, the existence of the Higgs boson is already confirmed. For me, anything “proven” with a 0.13% significance level is proven. 🙂 I suppose journalists are just waiting until LHC tells them to start partying. By the way, for a nice introduction to the Physics involved, check out this rap.

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