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Seth Zenz | Imperial College London | UK

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What We Can Say, and (Rarely) What We Can’t

While having a snack before my early evening meeting a few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of the CERN Bulletin to read. One of the articles I read was a column by the CERN Director General called Living in the spotlight, in which he discusses the benefits, pitfalls, and responsibilities of communicating with the public and the media. It occurs to me that now, with the schedule confusions of last fall receding into the past and our new start date still months away, may be a great time to discuss some of these issues in principle, without the backdrop of current events. Director General Heuer writes:

Particle physics has always operated in a fully open and transparent way. It’s in our DNA to do so. Meetings are open to all comers, and it is important that we continue to foster such a culture of transparency. Nevertheless, we need to be aware that we are much more in the public spotlight than ever before.

We have to be aware that when we are speaking to colleagues in open meetings, giving stories to our home institutions’ internal publications, or writing messages to the CERN community in the Bulletin, the eyes of the world are on us. That doesn’t mean that we should be less candid than we’ve been in the past, but it does imply a greater degree of responsibility in the way we communicate. We must be sure that what we are saying avoids any kind of particle physics ‘shorthand’ that could be misinterpreted, and that results are not communicated until they have passed normal internal peer review procedures.

I agree completely with Dr. Heuer.  Our collective scientific effort benefits from communicating information openly, and particle physicists have long been pioneers in developing systems for quick global communication of our results.  But in a time of increased (and extremely welcome) public interest in our work, we should take some care in the way we express ourselves.  The question is not what we can talk about in public; we can talk about almost everything. Rather, the question is: what are the rare exceptions to that rule?

The policies of the ATLAS experiment, which I work on, specify two things that collaboration members can’t talk about in public fora.  First, we can’t reveal experimental results in progress.  The reason most often cited for this is that we want to be sure of our answers before we present them publicly, which is extremely important, but personally I think that there’s also an issue of giving credit where credit is due.  Internally, there are many people working on many things that will contribute to a final experimental measurement; there may be multiple parallel analyses that will later be merged, and there are many lower-level efforts that will contribute to any given analysis.  I think it’s important to acknowledge that no ATLAS result will ever be the work of a single person, and it’s important to present our collective discoveries in a way that’s acceptable to all the contributors.  In practice, this means a fairly long process for paper approval and an author list that runs to about ten pages, but that’s the best system we’ve got.

The other limitation in the ATLAS policy on public communication is that we can’t talk about other peoples’ private comments or remarks in internal meetings.  This is simply a matter of general courtesy; our work would be pretty unpleasant if anything we said or did might show up in a public forum.  So as great as it would be to make a blog entry out of an entertaining story about my advisor, I can’t.  In fact, I cannot publicly confirm or deny that there are any entertaining stories about my advisor at all.

Although I’m officially bound only by the rules of my experiment, I believe that there are broader reasons to be careful about public comments.  We want to give an accurate sense of what our work is like, and an accurate impression of our present understanding of how the universe works.  (For some audiences, that actually means emphasizing clarity over detailed accuracy, but that’s a question of tactics rather than strategy.)   We should also extend basic politeness to colleagues in a broader sense than simply our own experiments; people on other projects and at other labs deserve the same respect we give our coworkers.

I would even say it’s appropriate to take care to portray particle physics and its institutions in a positive light — but I need to be clear about the reasons for, and the limits of, that statement.  I try, in what I say publicly, to explain the importance that I see and the excitement that I feel about the work I’m a part of; in other words, I want to portray it in a positive light because I see it in a positive light.  But when mistakes are made or problems arise, the overriding public interest and the ultimate interest of the field is in an accurate portrayal of how things are going.  We should be willing to publicly discuss problems and give constructive criticism.  Such discussions help us improve, and only if we’re willing to have them do the ordinarily positive things we say become believable and useful to all of you out there.

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