[Paleopsych] Slate: Risky Business - A book tries, and fails, to quantify catastrophic risks

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Risky Business - A book tries, and fails, to quantify catastrophic risks. 
By Jeffrey Rosen

    Risky Business
    A book tries, and fails, to quantify catastrophic risks.
    By Jeffrey Rosen
    Posted Monday, Nov. 22, 2004, at 6:16 AM PT

    Book cover
    Richard Posner's Catastrophe: Risk and Response was inspired, he says,
    by Margaret Atwood's 2003 novel Oryx and Crake, set in the near
    future, which imagines the extinction of the human race in a world
    menaced by bioterrorism and uncontrolled technological advance." He
    hastens to assure his readers that he hasn't become "an apocalyptic
    visionary," but a peculiar unreality suffuses his book, which proves
    unexpectedly blind to the real threats we face.

    By "catastrophic risk," Posner means risks that have a low probability
    of materializing but are likely to create nearly unimaginable harms if
    they do. He believes they are real and growing. His examples include
    falling asteroids that could wipe out a quarter of the earth's
    population within 24 hours; global warming, which could cause floods
    ("Harvard gone the way of Atlantis") followed by "snowball earth";
    nanotechnology that could envelop the earth in "gray goo";
    bioterrorism; and "superintelligent robots" that "may kill us, put us
    in zoos, or enslave us, using mind-control technologies to extinguish
    any possibility of revolt, as in the movie The Matrix."

    Posner's thesis when discussing these emotionally laden subjects is as
    deadpan as his prose: "[T]he tools of economic analysis--in particular
    cost-benefit analysis--are indispensable to evaluating the possible
    responses to the catastrophic risks." Unfortunately, assigning precise
    numerical weights to the costs and benefits of preventing catastrophic
    risks is a daunting challenge, and Posner's attempts to do so are
    numbingly technical and ultimately unsatisfying. In the end, balancing
    liberty and security involves disputed questions of value rather than
    precisely quantifiable facts--questions that must be resolved not by
    experts but by politics.

    Consider the possibility that atomic particles, colliding in a
    powerful accelerator such as Brookhaven Lab's Relativistic Heavy Ion
    Collider, could reassemble themselves into a compressed object called
    a stranglet that would destroy the world. Posner sets out to
    "monetize" the costs and benefits of this "extremely unlikely"
    disaster. He estimates "the cost of extinction of the human race" at
    $600 trillion and the annual probability of such a disaster at 1 in 10
    million. These figures are "arbitrary," he acknowledges, because it is
    impossible to calculate the real probability of a stranglet disaster,
    and scientists who have attempted to do so have been attacked for
    politicizing the question. His attempts to calculate the benefits of
    developing the RHIC are also arbitrary because there's no impartial
    way to calculate the value the public assigns to research in particle
    physics. After elaborate calculations based on arbitrary figures, he
    suggests that perhaps the costs and benefits can't be precisely
    monetized: Congress, or the public, could be told instead that "there
    is one chance in 10 million of a world destroying accelerator accident
    that could be avoided by closing down RHIC at a cost in benefits
    forgone estimated at $2.1." What then, is the point of the elaborate

    Posner argues that even arbitrary figures could promote reasoned
    decision-making that might close down some of the most dangerous
    research in RHIC. But if the decision is made by democratic bodies
    accountable to the public, this may be too optimistic. Behavioral
    psychologists have found that the public tends to make judgments about
    risk based on emotional feelings about whether something is good or
    bad, safe or dangerous, rather than on a dispassionate calculation of
    costs and benefits. Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon, for
    example, has argued that risk is a subjective concept that has
    different meanings to different citizens--some focus more on the low
    probability of particular threats, others on the potential severity,
    still others on the possibility that children might be harmed.

    These differences in risk perception can only be resolved through
    political negotiation. But democratic politics is an enterprise for
    which Posner has contempt. He is addicted to the rule of experts, and
    he proposes a series of arid and (for a self-styled pragmatist)
    surprisingly impractical policy solutions for applying cost benefit
    analysis to risk calculation: a "science court" of experts that would
    review dangerous government research projects; the creation of an
    international environmental protection agency to enforce a modified
    Kyoto Protocol under the auspices of the United Nations; a federal
    review board that would forbid any scientific research that poses an
    "undue risk" to human survival. Few of these proposals have any
    realistic chance of being adopted in America. And even if they were
    adopted, public emotionalism would continue to demand irrational (or
    as the behavioral psychologists say, "quasi-rational") allocations of
    resources that would thwart the experts' recommendations. Although
    Posner promises to monetize the costs of these psychological and
    political impediments, he fails to do so.

    Even if Posner's proposals could be imposed by judicial fiat, which
    they can't and shouldn't, they seem underwhelming on their own terms.
    In a surprising hole at the end of the book, Posner declines to offer
    practical examples of how cost-benefit analysis could cast precise
    light on the very real terrorist threats that menace us. Consider the
    possibility of biological terrorism. Posner argues plausibly that the
    government should balance the costs of abridging civil liberties
    against the benefits of preventing terrorist catastrophies. He
    correctly criticizes some civil libertarians for failing to calculate
    these costs and benefits. But he then proves unable to calculate them
    himself--and dismisses those, including me, who have argued that the
    public tends to overestimate the likelihood that they will be
    personally harmed by especially frightening forms of terrorism that
    are easy to visualize.

    After 9/11, in fact, respondents in a poll perceived a 20 percent
    chance that they would be personally hurt in a terrorist attack within
    the next year. These predictions could have come true only if an
    attack of similar magnitude to 9/11 occurred nearly every day for the
    following year. Although the actual probability of terrorist attacks
    is impossible to measure, nothing in al-Qaida's history suggests
    anything like the capacity to produce 9/11-scale attacks on a daily

    Posner also insists that we should calculate the costs to liberty and
    privacy of extreme police and military measures, such as torture, and
    the likelihood that these extreme methods would, in fact, increase
    security. But he then proves unable to calculate these costs and
    benefits as well. "I have no idea whether [torture] is necessary," he
    says after a long digression on the hypothetical benefits of torture,
    and the effort to monetize the benefits of privacy similarly defeats

    It may be possible, in fact, to attempt to calculate the costs and
    benefits of some security technologies with more precision than Posner
    offers. Consider the government's original proposal, called Total
    Information Awareness, to use data-mining at airports to determine
    whether individual travelers had consumer and travel patterns that
    resembled the 19 hijackers of 9/11. After the system was proposed,
    libertarian critics, using cost-benefit analysis, pointed out the
    great danger of false positives: Even if the system were 99 percent
    accurate in identifying terrorists, a 1 percent error rate applied to
    300 million travelers would mean that 3,000,000 (that's .01 x 300
    million) of those identified as potential terrorists would be wrongly
    identified. But if we assume that the next attack will look nothing
    like the last one, a data-mining system that looked for passengers who
    took flying lessons in Florida, for example, is more likely to have
    something closer to a 1 percent accuracy rate. Such a system would
    falsely accuse nearly all innocent travelers of being terrorists and
    correctly identify only a fraction of terrorists while missing nearly
    all of the real terrorists. No rational evaluation of costs and
    benefits would support such a system, which is why the government
    correctly abandoned Total Information Awareness and replaced it with a
    system designed to verify a traveler's identity rather than model
    suspicious behavior.

    Posner does not describe the successful attempt by civil libertarians
    to lobby against badly conceived security technologies by applying the
    methods of cost-benefit analysis because actual political debates have
    no place in his elaborate models of catastrophic risks. He wants to
    reorient legal education to produce polymaths like himself, requiring
    law students to demonstrate "basic competence" in math, statistics,
    and science so that they could replicate his Herculean feats of
    interdisciplinary synthesis. Specialists in various disciplines may
    benefit from the collaborative research projects that Posner usefully
    outlines. But the greatest challenges that menace us cannot be
    precisely quantified by science; they are psychological and political.

    Jeffrey Rosen is a law professor at George Washington University and
    legal affairs editor of The New Republic. His new book is The Naked
    Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age.

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