[Paleopsych] Reason: Ronald Bailey: What is Richard Posner So Afraid Of?

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Sun Apr 17 17:17:38 UTC 2005

Ronald Bailey: What is Richard Posner So Afraid Of?

The high cost of the falling sky

High-powered intellectual and federal judge Richard Posner spoke at the
Washington, D.C., think tank Resources for the Future (RFF) on Wednesday
about his new book, Catastrophe: Risk and Response. Posner aims to look
at how policymakers and the public should respond to very low
probability, very high cost events such as an asteroid hitting the
earth, abrupt global warming, or a bioterrorist attack. Such disasters
could just kill tens of millions or even wipe out the human race.

In his talk, Posner took a look at four different very low probability
catastrophes. The first was a bioterrorist attack on the United States
that unleashes a plague that kills 100 million Americans. He calculated
the cost of such an attack at $1 quadrillion (100 million lives x $7
million per life + a $300 trillion pain and suffering factor). Since the
Feds are spending $2 billion per year on research to avoid such an
attack, he calculated that the implied annual probability is .000002 or
1 in 500,000. Posner then asserted that the probability of such an
attack is much higher (how much higher he didn't say), therefore he
concludes that Americans are underspending on preventing such an attack.
But are we woefully underspending?

It's my intuition too that the probability of some bioterrorist attack
is much higher than 1 in 500,000 annually, but what is the probability
that I will be affected by such an attack? Remember that the anthrax
attack in 2001 killed just 5 people and made 22 others sick. In that
attack each of us faced about a 1 in a million chance of being exposed
to the anthrax spores. Of course, future bioterrorist attacks could well
involve infectious agents, which in a sense deliver themselves. Posner
correctly noted that some day in the not too distant future, keeping
smallpox securely locked up in two labs won't do much good because
biotechnologists will be able to construct smallpox viruses with
off-the-shelf biochemicals. Historically, smallpox has been 30 percent
lethal in unvaccinated populations. Posner suggested that bioterrorists
might be able to boost smallpox's or some other pathogen's lethality
from 30 percent to nearly 100 percent.

But why does Posner limit his analysis to the $2 billion being spent
directly on biodefense research and monitoring? Wouldn't a fair analysis
also include the not-inconsiderable expenditures for intelligence and
military activities that are currently disrupting terrorist
infrastructure and planning worldwide? More broadly, the billions being
spent on advances in biotechnology at universities and corporations
aimed at curing and preventing natural diseases also provide spillover
technologies that will enable us to counter bioterrorist pathogens. And
the vast improvements in our communications systems like the Internet
and broadcast facilities can alert people to an attack and provide them
with the information needed to protect themselves from it. In addition,
although it's possible that people will panic, I suspect that extensive
social learning about the importance of maintaining quarantines will
also aid us in preventing the spread of any supervirulent pathogens.
When you add it all up, I would guess that our total anti-bioterrorism
expenditures imply that we are protecting ourselves against the
probability of an attack that kills 100 million Americans at somewhere
between 1 in 1000 and 1 in 10,000. It's a lot harder to argue that that
is not enough, especially since Posner did not offer an estimate of how
probable such a bioterror plague really is.

Posner went through a similar analysis for asteroid strikes wiping out
1.5 billion people at an estimated loss of $3 quadrillion (foreign lives
are cheaper than $7 million American lives). He said that astronomers
estimate the annual probability of such a strike at 1 in 50 million to 1
in 100 million, whereas the implied probability of our current
expenditures is 1 in 769 million. Posner also mentioned that scientists
at Brookhaven National Laboratory who are running the relativistic heavy
ion collider (RHIC) had initially estimated that there was a 1 in
500,000 chance that the RHIC could create strangelets, which could
shrink the earth into a sphere 100 meters in diameter before causing it
to explode. Strangely, Posner did not mention that subsequent
calculations had shown that the probability of that mishap was far less
than that.

Posner's final disaster was "abrupt global warming" of 14 degrees
Fahrenheit. Posner reasonably noted that the scenarios for gradual
warming over the next century actually did not imply the need for
measures like the Kyoto Protocol, which would impose limits on the
emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Why? Because
considering the pace of technological progress, such long term problems
might well be handled more cheaply and expeditiously by improvements in
technology in 50 to 60 years. Nevertheless, Posner estimated the current
expenditures on climate change to be $1.7 billion annually and the
possible losses of "abrupt global warming" at $66.6 trillion yielding an
implied probability of 1 in 388,000. Again, he asserted that the annual
probability of abrupt global warming must be higher than that, and
therefore we were once again underspending to protect ourselves against
this threat.

Once more, Posner is looking solely at research expenditures aimed
directly at studying climatology. He is apparently ignoring the vast
sums spent on improving energy technologies and expenditures on basic
research in areas like nanotechnology which are likely to yield
solutions to energy production problems in the future.

In the final analysis, modern technological society is all about
reducing risks-that is why we're living longer and healthier lives.
Because of humanity's advancing technological, institutional prowess, we
are vastly better positioned to handle plagues, asteroids and climate
change than our ancestors even 50 years ago were. Given the trajectory
of human progress, it's very unlikely that a Posnerian catastrophe will
ever wipe out humanity.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent.

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