The Constraints of 'Evitability'

"Ignorance is bliss." "See no evil, hear no evil."

How often have we heard those old aphorisms? In many cases, they actually make sense.

There is a disease named Huntington's Chorea. As the link says, "Genetically, it is an autosomal dominant disorder with complete penetrance." In laymen's terms, that means it is a genetic defect.

If you have it, you will get the disease, and it will be a long and terrible road, including progressive loss of bodily control and increasing dementia, until death. The only uncertainty is when it will first appear. It can occur at any age, but mostly it strikes in the prime of life.

There is a test that can be performed to determine if one carries the ominous gene. Those with a family history who are at risk might choose to take it. Others do not.

There are some genetic diseases that must be diagnosed early, because genetics isn't always destiny — often a simple change in diet can result in a long and healthy life.

But for Huntington's, from a medical standpoint, there is no right choice as to whether or not to take the test. To have knowledge that you are so doomed can do nothing to stave off the inevitable, since there's currently no known prophylactic treatment (that is, there's nothing that can be done about it that can't be done after the syndrome itself becomes apparent). Some, however, want to know, so that they might incorporate the knowledge into planning their life.

On the other hand, many choose blissful ignorance. Since there's really nothing they can do about it, they prefer to live life in the uncertainty. Like the popular notion of the cat in Schroedinger's poison box, that is both dead and alive simultaneously, they live in a netherworld of neither sick nor ill until actually diagnosed, and in the optimistic hope that they won't come down with it.

Who is to say that their choice is wrong?

In most cases, of course, ignorance is not bliss at all. There's an accompanying saying about "living in a fool's paradise." It all depends on the degree to which the knowledge allows us to avoid bad outcomes.

Daniel Dennett recently wrote a book about (among other things) avoidance of bad outcomes. The ability to do so has evolved, and it's what sets the higher animals, particularly conscious ones, apart from simpler organisms.

There are many contrapositive words in English that don't have the positive versions. Have you ever heard someone praised as particularly "ane" or "ept" or working hard to keep their employees "gruntled"?

A similar one is "evitable." We're all familiar with the concept of something that is inevitable, or unavoidable. But man has clawed himself up to his present state by learning how to avoid bad outcomes — to make them, in a word, increasingly "evitable."

One of the reasons our space program is in such a box is that we haven't paid enough attention to evitability. It's starting to look more and more as though, once the Columbia launched in mid-January and suffered damage to the leading edge of its left wing, its destruction on entry was inevitable. Yesterday, yet another NASA memo came to light that some had recognized this, but not passed it up the line.

While this may seem like malfeasance if true, consider the mindset and assumptions that may have laid behind such a decision.

I've written before on the fact that low earth orbit remains a wilderness, into which the shuttle orbiter must be self sufficient in whatever state it departed the earth. There are no maintenance facilities, no motels for the crew to stay while vehicles are inspected and repaired.

Because we launched the orbiter into such a wilderness, given its design, its fate was sealed shortly after launch. Imagine yourself in the position of someone at NASA. You know that, if the thermal protection system is damaged, then the orbiter — a quarter of our Shuttle fleet, and seven gallant crew — is doomed. And there's no realistic backup plan.

Like a Huntington's Chorea candidate, do you want to run the test? What would you do with a positive result?

Early in the mission, the crew will have two weeks to do nothing except think about their impending fate, and it's unlikely any useful science will be performed. Late in the mission, they could do nothing except make peace with their God, and say goodbye to their loved ones.

While it's tragic in retrospect the crew didn't have the opportunity to do that, it's understandable, and human, that NASA officials wanted to avoid having to deal with the unavoidable, that is, the inevitable. In such a situation, groupthink could certainly set in that would make it difficult to break bad news to management, when all knew that it was hopeless if the fatal diagnosis was correct.

The fault lies not with 21st century engineers under the pressure of having to assess and diagnose a situation, that they were helpless to resolve as a result of decisions made decades earlier, but in the fundamental philosophy of our space program, that eventually consigned a crew and vehicle to fiery death and destruction.

Dennett points out that humanity's freedom of action is a result of an evolutionary process that has gradually opened up a virtual explosion of "evitability," a plethora of options for avoiding catastrophe.

Our limited vision of space activities, in which a few astronauts are launched on a fragile vehicle a few times a year, has dramatically constrained the evitability of the new frontier. Disaster has been inevitable. Its rarity is due not to any wisdom in planning or range of options on our part, but only because we do so little, and have so few opportunities.

Until, as we have on earth, we take an entirely new approach to space development, taming the orbital wilderness with a robust infrastructure that can provide safe havens for our people, and facilities for inspecting and repairing our vital transports, we will remain vulnerable to fatal diagnoses for which we have no cure.

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 Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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