2009/08/16

Do you feel lucky... punk?

Here are two reasons why humanity might soon go extinct, and why it wouldn't be such a big loss. As you can see, I am in a cheerful mood today.

Big rock from outer space

Last year, using the example of the asteroid Apophis that might destroy the world in 27 years, I made the point that human beings are sometimes astonishingly stupid when it comes to making decisions that involve low probability events.

If we were rational mathematical creatures, humanity as a whole should be willing to spend billions of dollars to insure against that 0.0023% chance that we will all be wiped out. If you don't like my argument based on the present value of future GDP, here's another way of arriving at the same point. If you are willing to spend a trillion dollars say on nuclear weapons to defend against other humans, and say there's a 1 in 50 chance that you actually need them, logically, you should be willing to spend a billion dollars on threats that have a 1/50,000 chance of happening. (I am using conservative orders of magnitude here, obviously a nuclear war has less than 1/50 chance of happening, so that makes my point even stronger).

Today, in this article from Ars Technica, I found out just how stupid we are.
Congress awarded NASA a $1.6 million grant in 1999 to put towards the NEO discovery program. Unfortunately, this was the only funding Congress gave to NASA to pursue this goal.

Yup, the US government allocated $1.6 million dollars to save all of human life from extinction... Total! And just in case you are inclined to blame "the Americans" for being so short sighted, consider that all the other countries in the world are allocating.. ZERO! (Ok maybe they have a couple of telescopes pointing at the sky but we need giant laser beams or something...)

At this point, I am almost rooting for the asteroid to kick human ass. We deserve it.

Small germs from inner space

And of course, a big stone falling from the sky is not the only threat we face. Tiny germs are threatening us too. Let's take the H1N1 virus -- the swine flu of recent fame. You'd think that at least when it comes to human health, humanity can be rational, right? Not so quick. Let's see how are favorite mammal is dealing with this problem. Consider the following article from the Guardian (great newspaper btw): "Experts warned dispersal of Tamiflu would do more harm than good" about the debate on anti-virus treatments for H1N1. Here's the scientific view, summarized by one expert quoted in the article:
"Some people wanted to take a long-term view of the risk of resistance developing and to seek to preserve the effectiveness of antivirals for the next pandemic, which may be more severe."
"If you get a resistant strain that becomes dominant in the autumn, Tamiflu will then be useless."
And here's another scientist:
"I am concerned about the vast amount of Tamiflu that is going out almost unregulated," he told the Guardian. "We are increasing the possibility that the flu will become resistant sooner or later. At the moment there is no desperate need for Tamiflu. We should be reconsidering its issue, rather than encouraging its use.

"I think we should stop the national pandemic flu service. It was put there for an outbreak of far higher mortality than we have. If you get a resistant strain that becomes dominant in the autumn, Tamiflu will then be useless."

Ok, thank God for all these smart scientists who have thought it through! The politicians should logically follow their advice right? Well actually
"It was felt ... it would simply be unacceptable to the UK population to tell them we had a huge stockpile of drugs but they were not going to be made available"
So they just decided to go ahead and do the wrong thing! It's like a parent saying: "If I told my 5 year old not to play with this loaded gun, he would have been upset, so I decided to let him play with it." Mind you we're not talking about some distant threat here. The next mutation of the virus could be this autumn. Granted there's a low probability that it will mutate into a real killer, but that's my whole point. It's a low probability but high impact threat. And faced with that, the British government is willingly increasing the probability of a pandemic that could kill hundreds of millions of people, because they are afraid of being unpopular for the next two months!

Seriously! If this was a movie, whose side would you be on? I would be like: Humans suck! Go H1, Go N1, it's your birthday!

No rare events in the savannah

None of this is original of course. Evolutionary biologists will say it's because our brain evolved in an environment where we just never had to consider small probabilities. We have no problem dealing with quantities like "if I go left, I get 1 potato, if I turn right I get 12 eggs"... Our brain can compute those things even as a toddler. But things like "1 in 50,000 chance" just don't compute in ye olde wetware. It's only after years of formal schooling, e.g. by the high-school level, that we start to get intuition on really small numbers. Because until the modern age, we didn't need to! Sure there were rare things like being hit by lightning, or having an earthquake, but since there wasn't anything we could do about them, there was no evolutionary advantage to actually being able to reason logically about really small probabilities. Good old superstition would work just as well. You could say "I got hit by lightning because Zeus is angry at me because I didn't offer animal sacrifice". If you are a hunter gatherer living in the bush, that explanation is practically speaking, just as good as the scientific one.

But now, by our own hands, we have a world where we do need to reason about small probabilities... Problem is, the brain hasn't caught up! Global warming is another example. Twenty years ago, it was a low probability but high impact threat, just like our two examples above. Scientists were running around screaming "There's a 1 in 100 chance that the polar ice caps will melt! That's huge!" But humanity just couldn't deal with it. People were like: "One in a hundred chance of extincttion? Pffft. I'm feeling lucky. Let me go buy a lottery ticket."



Well now global warming is in the same range of probability as 1 potato and 12 eggs, so people are dealing with it, but it may be too late.

Is this the end-game of evolution? Is this what the epitaph will say:
Here lies humanity.
They became really good at reproduction -- 6 billion individuals!
But not quite good enough at probability.
Maybe it's all part of a master plan. A conspiracy! Apophis contains some organic molecules which are distant relatives of the H1N1 virus. Together the asteroid and the swine flu are collaborating to take us out, and recolonize the planet with a new dominant species that they like better. After all, that could be how we got here too!