Rational and Irrational Fears

It's long been known that people aren't very good at aligning their fears and emotions, and resulting behavior, with statistics.

For example, the chance of dying in a car is much greater than in an airplane, but many more fear to fly than to ride. Even people who are numerate are prone to this quirk of human nature (e.g., the great science fiction author and chemistry PhD Isaac Asimov had a severe fear of flying, and always traveled by train). On the other hand, people vastly overestimate their chances of winning the lottery, at least from a rational expected-value perspective.

I've occasionally talked about the dangers of asteroids in my weblog, and in fact featured it in my Fox News column last week. I've seen quite a bit of skepticism on the issue, some of which may be justified, but it often appears to me to be driven as much by the non-rational parts of us as the rational, even when coming from scientists.

When coming from politicians, of course, it's even worse. A few days ago, an Australian cabinet minister ridiculed people who were concerned about asteroids, and refused to allot the paltry sum of a million dollars in order to look for them in the Southern Hemisphere, one of our current major blind spots. There are many sky surveys being done above the equator, but very few below.

It actually reminds me of the controversy of a couple of decades ago, when Luis Alvarez at Berkely first put forward his theory of dinosaur extinction being caused by an extraterrestrial impact. While it's become fairly well accepted today, many aren't aware, or have forgotten, that there was a tremendous amount of resistance to it when it was first propounded. And that resistance seemed to go beyond rational scientific argument — it seemed almost religious in its fervor.

Viewing this as a college student, who was interested in and familiar with space, I found nothing exceptional about the theory at all, but it was clear to me that much of the scientific community had a deep emotional investment in not believing that our planet could be so dramatically affected by an event beyond our atmosphere.

I'm not sure why exactly, but one might speculate that, to a planetary scientist used to thinking in terms of geological and biological processes forming and reforming the earth and its inhabitants, invoking forces extraterrestrial perhaps had the feel to it of the supernatural — a blow literally from the heavens, and one from a source with which they were (not being astronomers or extraplanetary scientists) unfamiliar and unknowledgable. It may have almost seemed like a creationist theory of evolution.

More practically, to accept such a concept might imply that their chosen field was much broader than their traditional education, and that much of what they had been taught was wrong. It was probably a natural resistance to a major scientific paradigm shift.

Fortunately, unlike actual creationist theories, it was testable, and evidence for it has been found, including the actual crater in Central America, and now, after a quarter of a century, it's taught as the prevailing theory.

Anyway, there's an interesting article on this subject in today, that has some interesting related statistics (though I can't vouch for them, and it's not clear what assumptions go into them). Anyone whose interest has been piqued by my previous comments on the subject will find this story at least as fascinating as my own.

Basically, the thesis is that we base our fears not on analysis, but on what's familiar. Prior to September 11, few took the terrorist threat seriously — now concern about it is very high and it can command huge numbers of societal resources. We should hope that it won't take an asteroid strike to get similar motivation to at least map and, if necessary, deter potential cosmic threats, but judging by human nature, it may.

Take That, Riyadh

Of all sources, the Guardian of the UK informs us that the US is moving its Gulf HQ from Saudi Arabia to Qatar.

My only question is, what took them so long?


Some people may be shocked to learn that Newt Gingrich is a fan of nanotechnology.

They shouldn't be. Though you'd never know it from the libelous screeds put out by the liberal press after the Republicans won the Congress, from which you'd assume that he lived in a cave, and had the nightly chore (like me) of clawing grit out of his knuckles, Newt is actually a futurist and an idealist.

In the early eighties, he was on the board of the L-5 Society, a non-profit organization that promoted the colonization of space. He is familiar with, and has promoted the concept of solar power satellites. But when he became speaker, he probably decided that it would be wise to avoid such issues, and stick to those that were more politically crucial and realistic.

Anyway, as I said, people who only think of him as an air-poisoning, old-folk-freezing, school-kid-starving neanderthal will be shocked to read this interview. He was one of the most technologically-savvy politicians to have ever held office.

'N Orbit

The Lance Bass visit to space is apparently back on, with sponsorship from Radio Shack. Both Lunacorp and Mircorp negotiated the deal (Lunacorp, a company that plans to place rovers on the Moon that can be teleoperated from earth, for a fee, had previously attained Radio Shack sponsorship for its concept).

Good Alibi

A Munich man was investigated for murder after his neighbors reported seeing him carrying a corpse into his apartment.

When the police entered the place, he showed them (not clear whether it was with any degree of pride) his collection of inflatable bedtime companions.


On the subject of asteroid mishaps, reader Scott McCandless adds the following thought:

One point I'd like to add your comment that a meteor or comet hit could be as bad as the Tonguska explosion in Siberia. An explosion of that magnitude could easily be mistaken for a nuclear weapon strike. Imagine the hysterical and perhaps untempered reactions such a rash initial conclusion could engender. All the more reason for the urgency of your point.

On my post about "Nothing could be further from making sense," Gary Parker offers:

Premise 1: God is love.

Premise 2: Love is blind.
Premise 3: Ray Charles is blind.

Ergo: Ray Charles is God.

Makes sense to me.

Me, too.

Finally, on the subject of the Red Cross, reader Stephen Anderson writes:

The American Red Cross should not only take American and Cross out of their name, but the word Red has negative connotations of communism and should not be used either. Maybe they should just disband, as their new name is ___________ _____.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Webblog, Transterrestrial Musings.

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