Armageddon out of here

29 September 2004

The MP for Outer Space South, Lembit Öpik, has a slightly scaremongering article about the possibility of an asteroid strike, even though one that would wreak global devastation happens only once every 100,000 years (Öpik makes no such indication, but does cite the much vaster Jupiter as an erroneous parallel). While, in terms of scientific curiosity, the study of our skies for Near Earth Objects is probably quite a valid one, trying to promote it through fear of an exceedingly unlikely event (while ironically dismissing Hollywood’s treatment of the subject) without all the information to hand, is, er, bad science.


5 Responses

When assesing risks like this, you need to take into account not just the likelyhood of the event, but its potential severity. It’s true that a large asteroid strike is very unlikely, but it’s also potentially species threatening. Our species, that is. ;-) So I must say that I think that Near Earth Object surveying is not *just* a matter of pure science.

Though I agree that the £80m bet on odds of 100,000-1 is (probably) more profitable than risking the whole planet, because it’s so unlikely it’s harder to judge (would the same decision be right if the odds were a million, or a billion to one?). As it’s so hard to grasp it lets the scaremongers in, which is why I think the decision is easier to make if it is not framed in terms of risk & outcome.

Well, look at it this way. You are more likely to be killed by an extinction-event asteroid that you are to die in a plane crash. The odds of both can be gauged pretty well.

Well, while we can get an accurate figure regarding the odds of such horrible things happening through scientific method, it is hard for us human beings to fully understand their significance, especially when they have extreme consequences. Hence why many people are disproportionately afraid of dying in plane crashes, or why people think they have a reasonable chance of winning the lottery jackpot. It is very hard to make accurate decisions on very low risks with such massive effects, and it is why fanciful stories of airline disasters or idle fantasies about becoming millionaires are more persuasive than they should be. Lembit Öpik’s article is in a similar vein and should be treated with the same caution.

The trouble is that it’s only fanciful stories that grab our attention. If it was el-stereotype-geek-scientist saying “well, we may or we will have an asteroid collision in 100,000 years”, people aren’t going to take much notice. You have to raise media attention somehow.

Although media attention on global warming and that volcano in the Canary Islands causing a massive tidal wave don’t seem to have affected anything.

We’re just lying in the gutter with our heads up our arse. Or something.