Thursday, November 29, 2012

Apocalypse Now? No.

Maybe I wear rose-colored glasses, but there appears to be a lot of apocalyptic thinking these days.  On the heels of Martin Rees' new institute to study technological Black Swans that may threaten the existence of the human race, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists had published this piece regarding similar threats posed by emerging diseases (such as new strains of influenza), human-induced climate change and computer hackers.

Not to dismiss these concerns too lightly (flu pandemics have killed millions, and climate change is happening right before our eyes), but all this paranoia may strike you as a little odd -- unless you know something about the science of risk communication and risk perception.  We should study potential threats that may bring about an early end to humanity.  But let's also address the very real and very pressing problems that are actually facing society now (including climate change):  there's a lot we could be doing to reduce morbidity and mortality in America, for instance, by addressing the root causes of the health problems stemming from the current epidemic of obesity and poor diet.  That's human nature:  we tend to fear those things we think we can't control or that we think are being imposed on us by others (even if they are small risks) but are just fine with the much greater risks we impose on ourselves  (smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise, drinking too much, etc.).

Humans rarely make much sense when it comes to risk evaluation and analysis.  Want to make it a better world and improve your life?  Worry less.  Get more sleep.  Stop smoking.  Exercise.  Get all the vaccines your doctor recommends.  Walk more and drive less.  Lose weight just by cutting down on fast food, junk food and sugars and eating less meat.  Drink moderately, at most.  Reduce, conserve and recycle.  Hug your kids.  Work for peace.  Finish school.  Start a small business.

There are many things you can do, today.  Get started.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Where are we going?

Back to the moon, apparently.  According the the European Space Agency. it is building the service module for NASA's successor to the Space Shuttle, the Orion capsule.  The ESA says it is preparing for an unmanned flight of the capsule in 2017, including lunar orbit, and a manned mission to lunar orbit in 2019.  In addition, speculation is mounting that NASA's plans call for a manned mission to the L2 Lagrange point, located some 60,000 KM on the other side of the moon from Earth -- an ideal testing ground for robotic, and perhaps manned, landings on the moon and eventually Mars.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Black Swan Institute

An interesting piece via New Scientist about Martin Rees' new project at Cambridge focusing on so-called "existential" threats to humanity -- in particular ones caused by human technology:  think Terminator-style robots, nuclear war, man-made plagues and human-induced climate change.  I just hope they will be paying adequate attention to the human factor, informed by insights from the fields of risk communication and risk perception.  It is a well-documented human foible to focus on extremely rare but dramatic threats (plane crashes) and think little about far more mundane and common -- and statistically far more likely -- threats (car crashes).

What concerns me is Rees' citation of the financial crisis as a Black Swan that nobody predicted.  The problem is, the financial crisis was predicted (ever heard of Nouriel Roubini?), but policy makers and politicians ignored the warnings, just as they did with the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  ("Mr. President, would you like to read today's Presidential Daily Briefing?"  "No thanks, I'm going to my fake ranch  in Texas to clear some fake brush.")  I am also concerned by Rees' statement in the New Scientist piece that we focus too much on "tiny risks that are widespread."  Actually, the opposite is probably true.  Experts in risk communication will tell you that people tend to have far greater fear of exactly the kinds of risks Rees thinks are too easily dismissed right now:  man-made versus natural risks; existential (threatening large numbers at one time) versus risks spread out over time and geography (and therefore apparently small, though large in the aggregate).  This isn't to dismiss Rees' project as unnecessary, but it should have a clear focus on the realities of human risk perception.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids . . .

 . . . in fact it's cold as hell . . . Well, Rocket Man, tell that to Elon Musk.  He's talking, again (and seriously), about his plans for an 80,000 person colony on Mars -- within our lifetime.  (Maybe he should talk to Newt Gingrich.)  That's sure to result in more than a few kids being raised on Mars.  It will also result in lots of marriages, divorces, child support, etc . . . I hope Mr. Musk is planning sending more than a few lawyers on the trip.