Thursday, December 11, 2008

Foreign Policy: Ten Worst Predictions of 2008

Here, via Metafilter.

Old friends Kristol, Krauthammer and Luskin make the list, but so does the Economist.


Blogger The Mystic said...

I gotta say, "prediction" number 7 shouldn't be up there.

First, it's not a prediction. He's not saying that the LHC WILL cause strangelets or miniature black holes, but that there's a significant chance that it could occur. You can debate whether or not he's right on that, but that's not a prediction. That alone means it shouldn't be on the list.

But then, to make matters worse, and continue the idea that it was a prediction, the article says that the LHC was "turned on" in September and that "we're still here", further appearing as though the authors believe the guy said we'd be gone as soon as the LHC was "turned on" and also betraying their ignorance of just what sorts of activity the LHC has been engaged in since its activation in September.


I don't think the LHC would create an anomaly serious enough to kill us. Most physicists seem to believe that any black holes created by the collider would evaporate due to Hawking Radiation too quickly to do any harm. I'm putting my money with most smart guys on this one, but that doesn't mean I don't think we should take concerns like Wagner's seriously. I often think that we move way, way too quickly with science, giving near-zero considerations to concerns that we truly ought to give at least SOME consideration. You don't have to be a loopy creationist or some sort of religious extremist to think that's the case.

The rest were funny, though.

4:58 PM  
Blogger Mystic Smith said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

2:44 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...


I...I have no response.

9:33 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

I'm just going to start deleting that moron until he can be civil. Too bad in this case, because I thought he raised a good point.

12:04 PM  
Blogger TonyCV said...

Mystic, I concur with your opinion that #7 should not be on the list, albeit my opinion is more emphatically negative.

My understanding is that if such a catastrophic black hole were produced in the LHC, it would, according to theoretical predictions, take on the order of a hundred years before it could accrete enough matter to actually annihilate the Earth. So the event conceivably could have occurred already, its just that it needs the fullness of time to manifest itself.

While the theoretical arguments are convincing (to me) that the probability of this happening is very small, it does not appear to be zero. therefore, it is my opinion that the experiments being done at LHC are not morally justified. It is justified to risk one's own life on a matter which is important to you, but not justified to risk the lives of others for whom this matter is irrelevant. Let alone the lives of everyone on Earth.

This is reminiscent of the behavior of nuclear scientists prior to the explosion of the first nuclear bomb. According to their theoretical calculations, there was a small but non-negligible chance that the explosion would ignite the nitrogen in our atmosphere in a nuclear reaction that would engulf the Earth. Yet they went ahead anyway. We were lucky, and their calculations turned out to be wrong. But I believe that it was, and is, morally wrong to proceed with such experiments if theoretical considerations indicate the possibility of globally catastrophic results.

12:06 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Yeah, you really have to wonder about the probabilities here. Seems to me like something we ought to figure out ahead of time in a cool moment. That is: what's the highest probability we should accept when the possible outcome in question is the destruction of the Earth?

12:50 PM  
Blogger Spencer said...

As cool as I think science is, I can think of no good reason why the answer shouldn't be that we should accept exactly zero probability of the Earth being destroyed.

Unless the action in question is the testing of a shield that will prevent the immanent destruction of the planet by an asteroid or something, I just don't see how a reasonable cost-benefit analysis could accept the possibility that we risk the Earth's obliteration.

I once heard about a modern art exhibit in which a loaded gun was pointed at a chair. The gun was controlled by a computer and had some small but nonzero probability of going off at any given moment. The installation was open for museum visitors to sit in.

The question you've posed, WS, seems analogous to the following: what's the probability threshold at which it would be okay for a babysitter to place the kids he's watching in that chair? Maybe we can imagine that the artist is willing (and capable) to give the babysitter anything imaginable. What would the artist have to give the babysitter to make the acceptable probability a nonzero one? Would breakthrough knowledge of subatomic particles be enough? I would say not.

Also, did you disable comments without a gmail account? I've been avoiding using my gmail account in order not to leave links to my rightfully aborted theology blog project from a while back.

4:23 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

I certainly feel the force of your zero probability point, but my guess is that (ignoring the difficulty of figuring out such probabilities) there's a non-zero probability of Earth destruction for all sorts of stuff. E.g. by not putting vast sums of money into preparing anti-asteroid measures, we're raising the probability of Earth-destruction. But it isn't clear to me that we should take money away from cancer research and give it to NASA.

Sounds like a job for Statisticasaurus Rex and his mighty powers of risk analysis...

2. I DID flip the switch to force folks to make it harder to leave comments, because I've found some of our recent Anonymi to be stupid and annoying Think I should go back to the old ways?

4:56 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Oh and:

As you seem to note, Spencer, the gun chair analogy seems faulty b/c in the case of the LHC we're seeking important knowledge. I'm not at all sure what's to be gained by sitting in the gun chair.

Unless its supposed to make a point sort of like this:

You wouldn't take the risk of sitting in the gun chair, but you do all sorts of way more dangerous stuff all the time for little or no gain.

4:59 PM  
Blogger TonyCV said...

Winston, in what sense is the knowledge being sought by operation of LHC important enough to risk the loss of our entire planet? It would be one thing if the results were expected to be potentially beneficial to a large fraction of the population, but there is no credible claim for this that I know of.

The real possibility of substantial beneficial results would seem to be a minimum requirement to place at risk the existence not only of the human race, but all life on the planet. Other motivations simply highlight our arrogance.

6:14 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Actually, WS, Spencer did imply that the point of sitting in the gun chair was to receive some sort of gift from the artist.

11:57 PM  

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