Saturday, March 16, 2013

Heaven Can Wait, But We Shouldn't

By Joel Marks
Published in the Connecticut Post on March 16, 2013, page A8
Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. And as with meteorology, so with meteors. While folks in New England were digging out from under record falls of the white stuff, half a world away on February 15 a charcoal black chunk of asteroid was falling from the sky and came unprecedentedly close to obliterating a city of one million people with the force of thirty Hiroshima bombs.
            But cities are laid waste from time to time, indeed, even by the weather: consider New Orleans.  What the Chelyabinsk meteor portends is something even more devastating, namely, human extinction. Why aren’t we getting our act together to spare Homo sapiens from the fate of the dinosaurs? The answer, I submit from my perspective as philosopher, is that much of the public and experts alike have fallen prey to fallacious thinking. Our species is more at risk from speciousness than from a rock from outer space.
            Nobody denies that, someday, another asteroid or comet the size of the one that did in the dinosaurs – six miles wide – will be hurtling our way. However, no sense of urgency is being felt or promulgated by most of the policymakers and spokespersons who address this issue. Instead the fear has focused on smaller but still significant calamities like the one that almost befell Chelyabinsk, which could be brought about by a football-field-size object bursting in air or impacting the ground or plunging into the sea with tsunami-inducing force.
            The reasoning behind this shift of priority is simple: There are far more Rose-Bowl-size objects out there than Everest-size ones. (Usually the word “fortunately” is uttered just prior to stating that reason.) However, this is where the fallacious inferences begin to be drawn. What you hear most often is this: “Therefore the chance of our being struck by an extinction-size object is vanishingly small.”
            That sounds like a meaningful and consoling statement. In fact it only repeats the reason in misleading terms. What we know (to a fair degree of approximation) is the relative distribution of sizes of objects in the solar system. But that is all we know. We do not know “the chance” of a mountain dropping on us. Why not? Because there is no such thing as a “chance.” That is only a way of speaking. To use it as a literal guide to action, or in this case inaction, is potentially suicidal.
            We also hear that “An object of this size falls from the sky only once every n million years.” But here again, literal-mindedness about statistics has masked the reality, for this way of putting things makes it sound like clockwork, happening on some regular and hence predictable basis. In fact these events are random.
            The risk from this misconception could not be more patent, as witness this remark by Russian Emergency Minister Vladimir Puchkov regarding the lack of preparedness for what took place in Chelyabinsk: “We thought that humanity would not have to face such an attack for another couple of thousand years, but the opposite happened and Russia was hit with a large-scale natural emergency” (as told to Kommersant daily according to RT online).
            Yet another variation on downplaying risk goes like this: “Over a one-hundred-year period, a person has about a 1 percent chance of being killed in a car crash, but only a .01 percent chance of getting hit by a 1-kilometer or larger asteroid.” Here again this seems to be saying more than it actually does. One reason is that it sidesteps the full meaning of risk, which pertains not only to the chance of something’s occurring but also to the severity of the possible outcome.
            Thus, while dying is indeed a dire outcome, annihilation of the species is incalculably more significant. This is why an actuarial approach to collision with a giant comet or asteroid makes no sense. There would be nobody left to be compensated. The very concept is difficult to comprehend. Perhaps Jonathan Schell came closest with his characterization of the “Second Death” after a global nuclear war.
            Finally, the most egregious fallacy has been to assert, “We know there are no rocks that big headed our way anytime soon, at least not for centuries.” This is just false. It violates the well-known dictum that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. While the dictum is not universally true, it does apply here.
            February 15 was our astronomical September 11. But it was a kinder, gentler 9/11 in that, miraculously, no one was killed. For that reason will we tempt fate by continuing to assign vastly less funding to detecting and figuring out how to deflect giant asteroids and comets than to detecting and foiling terrorists, even though the former could cause incommensurably greater harm?