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Instant extinction lotto

What's reasonable when scientists start gambling with our very existence?

May 04, 2008|Mark Slouka | Mark Slouka is the author, most recently, of the novel "The Visible World" and a professor of English language and literature at the University of Chicago.

Asked to choose between scientific rationalism and some of the scarier manifestations of unreason, most of us would naturally opt for the former. And have. But what if the two were mislabeled, to some extent? What if their contents were less distinct than we'd been led to believe? I ask because lately the monsters of irrationality -- the wild-eyed jihadist, the domestic ideologue with a truck full of fertilizer -- are being given a run for their money by the nightmares of reason.

Looking to cheer myself up the other day, I opened the newspaper to learn that there exists the remote possibility that the Large Hadron Collider, a proton-smashing machine located at the European Organization for Nuclear Research outside Geneva and due to be fired up this summer, could conceivably produce particles that would instantly end all life on Earth: the jay on the house across the street, the cat on the bed, my daughter walking back from the school bus. Something to think about. All history, all we've been and all we could have been, gone in one unfathomable instant; the Earth collapsed, according to the experts, into a dead, dense lump.

I deferred the sports section and read on. As far as I could make out, there was some debate about the likelihood of annihilation. Two groups of physicists had crunched the numbers and found the chances negligible. A Cambridge University cosmologist, on the other hand, called such probability estimates no better than "informed betting odds." A co-Nobel Peace Prize winner and nuclear physicist had written a paper titled "Might a Laboratory Experiment Destroy Planet Earth?" His conclusion seemed to be that it was very unlikely, though not impossible. Another scientist had used the method employed by insurance companies to calculate the risk, multiplying the disaster probability and the cost -- that is, the loss of the global population; he did not find the results comforting. A report put the odds of disaster at less than 1 in 50 million, roughly the odds of winning some lottery jackpots. I gathered I was supposed to find this reassuring.

As a novelist, admittedly, the only dark matter I know anything at all about is the human heart. Then again, my inability to judge this threat -- a thing so overwhelming in its implications, so searing to the imagination that it cannot be apprehended except through the protective film of irony -- may be precisely the point. No one can. The high priests of theoretical physics argue among themselves; Cambridge scientists consult the actuarial tables; the rest of us proceed on faith. We have no choice. These things are beyond our ken, we are told; best to leave them to the experts who, after all, are men of reason.

Which would be a perfectly reasonable argument were it not for the fact that debating what might constitute acceptable odds on the risk of global extinction is a fundamentally unreasonable act, indicative of a failure of imagination and proportion more commonly found within the precincts of religious and political fanaticism. Were some demagogue to do something similar, we would rightly judge him insane.

What to do? Science, of course, has never been -- and cannot be -- a democracy, if only because opening up scientific policy to public debate would be a recipe for paralysis. That said, one can imagine a level of accountability that would avoid the Babel of a truly democratic process while tempering the arrogance of what is, in effect, a scientific oligarchy. Science itself may be forcing the change, triggering the policy equivalent of a natural law: Accountability must rise in proportion to risk. Simply put, if the price of a miscalculation -- the "oops factor," my wife calls it -- is reasonable, there's no reason to interfere. If, on the other hand, a miscalculation risks erasing every man, woman and child on the planet -- indeed, every life form there is -- it may be time to meddle.

To those who will argue, predictably, that any check on scientific policy is an assault on "progress," and that the pursuit of knowledge has its price, one might reasonably reply that progress is defined so variously as to be essentially meaningless, and that the debate about what constitutes a reasonable price should probably involve the people who will have to pay it. To those concerned that any level of oversight (by some governmental body consisting of, say, qualified humanists and ethicists as well as members of the scientific community) might exert a chilling effect on scientific inquiry -- an a priori good -- one might point out that the spirit of scientific inquiry is ethically neutral, no better or worse than its practitioner. Albert Schweitzer was a scientist; so was Josef Mengele.

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