Meteor detection advocates now somewhat less likely to be mocked

Guys, scientists who have "been on the lookout for killer objects from outer space that could devastate the planet" were once mocked by skeptics "as Chicken Littles," but less so after that scary Russian meteor disaster, and the New York Times is on it.


  1. This is a gambler’s fallacy. Just because you won the lottery today doesn’t mean that the probability of winning the lottery has changed.

    I understand why so many astronomers are excited. When I studied physics (and took several astronomy courses short of a major), it was pointed out how incredibly difficult it was to land an actual astronomy job. I was warned that only about 1 in 4 people who study astronomy can actually get a job in it. So it is not surprising to me that astronomers will use any excuse to try to fund more research and expand the field.

    I don’t oppose spending more money to find and catalog smaller asteroids and comets. I love astronomy and think more detailed asteroid surveys are a good idea for research. But at the same time, we need to understand that meteors are not a realistic threat. They are like terrorism–completely overrated but scary enough that people make decisions on fear rather than the actual risk.

    1. Given that the article is about public perception of risk, the fact that the reasoning is fallacious counts as supporting evidence…

      Sure, a dramatic close encounter with a space object has no effect on the probability of a future encounter; but it sure does have an effect on people’s perceptions of that probability, and their response to people who like to talk about it.

    2. Risk is probability times cost. Is the cost of a civilization ending event times its probability less than the expense of detecting and averting it?

      It’s not the gambler’s fallacy, there is nothing in the article that resembles the gambler’s fallacy, but you are invoking a fallacy with the “astronomers want your moneys!” shtick.

      1. Is the cost of a civilization ending event times its probability less than the expense of detecting and averting it?

        Yes, absolutely. The chance of being killed from a meteor strike in your lifetime per year is 1 in 700,000 (this includes big civilization ending events to small ones that hit you in the head). This is not a significant risk.

        Edit: The risk is actually a lifetime risk, not a yearly risk.

        1. You know, it wouldn’t kill you to read the article you cite, which comes to the opposite conclusion you do.

          Namely by postulating that a relatively small amount of investment dramatically reduces the odds of everyone dying by meteor strike.

          The key phrase is “Cost vs benefit.” A benefit discussion is worthless without the corresponding cost discussion.

          1. I disagree with the conclusion in that article. I cited it for the calculation. While we can reduce the risk of everyone dieing by a meteor strike, that doesn’t mean we should. Statistically, ~430 people that are alive right now in the US will die from meteors. That doesn’t mean that exactly 430 people will die since it is the average of a distribution from zero to everyone. The question is, how much money should we spend to keep 430 random people alive (in the US) and how should we spend it. If I wanted to save the most people with the least amount of money, I would put my money on smoking cessation, preventable healthcare, and public safety measures. I would attempt to reduce the highest infant mortality rate in the developed world. I wouldn’t place the risk of falling rocks over actual high risk items that public spending could help with.

          2. You’re using the wrong units as this is a question of existential risk.
            What counts is the risk to the species, so while smoking may claim lots of lives there is no chance it will wipe out humanity.

          3. @boingboing-8b886a5c6d6c17b40bcf17f556616561:disqus Are you saying that the value of our species is more than the value of its combined members? If so, by what factor? I’ll use that to adjust my calculations. If the factor is high enough, I’ll recommend shutting down hospitals so that we can have enough money to build asteroid defenses. I just need the factor, thanks.

          4. Individuals of the species die all the time.  You can’t prevent that.  Stopping smoking only postpones deaths, it doesn’t prevent them.  So I’d have to say that yes, the species as a whole is more valuable, since the death of the species would mean the death of all individuals of that species that would have ever existed from that point onward.

          5. @boingboing-b135d6e52a9b91b6feda8d2693a15ad4:disqus Okay, fine. Then what is the difference if we build asteroid defenses in 100 or 200 years instead of 10? Since the overall risk of a species annihilating asteroid is very small over that time period, the probability of our species surviving is almost identical. Thus, there is no need for urgent asteroid defenses. We can solve other more critical problems now and the technology will be cheaper in the future.

          6. @boingboing-7eb3c8be3d411e8ebfab08eba5f49632:disqus  By your reasoning, since the risk is really low, there would be no reason to *ever* build defenses against the event.  And that’s great, up until we hit the “jackpot”. If that jackpot is ever hit, not having done anything means the maximum damage.

            That’s great, as long as you completely ignore the potential cost of the event happening, and only look at the short-term probability of the event happening.

            If you’re playing russian roulette, one pull of the trigger per minute, the odds don’t look as bad for each minute as they do if you look at that over the space of a few years.

          7. @boingboing-b135d6e52a9b91b6feda8d2693a15ad4:disqus

            By your reasoning, since the risk is really low, there would be no reason to *ever* build defenses against the event.

            Based on the risk as we know it now, there is no reason to build defenses.

            And that’s great, up until we hit the “jackpot”.

            Indeed. That is how probability works. There is a probability that a civilization-ending meteor could enter the atmosphere directly above the Statue of Liberty on Independence Day. The point isn’t that a probability exists. That is talking in absolutes. What matters is the magnitude of the probability.

            That’s great, as long as you completely ignore the potential cost of the event happening, and only look at the short-term probability of the event happening.

            No. The risk has been evaluated for all time scales. Over a 100 year time scale the probability is extremely low. Over a several hundred million year time scale the probability is high. If we plan to occupy this planet for several hundred million years, we should build asteroid defenses.

          8. Except we are *already* spending billions, if not trillions of dollars a year on all of those things. You can’t expect an extra dollar there to count the same as a dollar in another area.

            Again, the key term is “cost vs benefit.” Or if you prefer, “diminishing marginal returns.” 

            The main with focusing on smoking cessation, preventable healthcare, and public safety measures is not only that it is expensive, but it involves the messy issues of “free will.” Education (PSAs) and legal wrangling (outlawing super-size sodas, for example) can only get you so far before people start pushing back and things get even more expensive than “naive” calculations.

            Asteroids have no free will, so as long as you can avoid miscalculations and resistance that come with any public spending project, the benefits will at least be predictable.

          9.  @boingboing-7eb3c8be3d411e8ebfab08eba5f49632:disqus  “Based on the risk as we know it now, there is no reason to build defenses.”

            “Over a several hundred million year time scale the probability is high.”

            It’s a fool’s game to evaluate the probability over only short timeframes when making the decision about whether to put funding into detection and defense.  Yes, on short timescales, the risk is low.  But we’re talking about a risk that will last as long as the species does, not a short-term risk.

            Given the potential costs, it’s not as useless an investment as you’re trying to say it is.

          10. @boingboing-b135d6e52a9b91b6feda8d2693a15ad4:disqus There is nothing more I can say. I’ve tried to steer this conversation to discuss potential impacts quantitatively. Everybody else wants to discuss it as if a risk is an absolute “yes/no” question. There is always a probability for a risk. Always (by definition). And that isn’t a problem.

            I feel like I’ve been running a psychological experiment on how people misunderstand and overrate certain low risk events. I’d recommend anyone that doesn’t understand what I’m saying to reference this essay.

          11. I feel like I’ve been running a psychological experiment on how people misunderstand and overrate certain low risk events.

            People are trying to explain to you that existential threats don’t yield to the same risk calculus as more conventional threats and you seem to be doing everything in your power not to understand this relatively simple point.  You’re not the smartest person in the world.  Try to keep an open mind, you may learn something.

            You could also try reading The Black Swan. Does the frequency of impact events obey the Poisson distribution? If not your confidence in your probability calculations might not be justified.

          12. The problem with all those calculations for end-of-the-world scenarios is that the cost of the catastrophe is infinite (ie. everybody dies and the human world ends). Because the cost is infinite, if you multiply it with any probability other than zero, you obtain an infinite risk as a result. Even if there were 1/100 Billion chance of destroying the earth within the next century, the risk calculation would still return an infinite risk. That doesn’t mean we should spend all of our money on preventing asteroids/mega volcanoes/super virus/giant space goats/insert-threat-of-the-day-here, it means that the risk calculation is flawed.

        2. Given that there are no documented cases of anyone, ever, being killed in a meteor strike, I imagine that the 1 in 700,000 figure must have some pretty huge error bars.

    3. Why does this remind me of a certain argument dismissing another [more likely] civilization-ending event on the grounds that climatologists, geophysicists, etc. just want more money?

      1. My apologies for trying to discuss the actual risk and not the risk people feel “in their gut”. You would think that after the War on Terror that people might be more open to logically thinking about risk before panicking.

        I’m actually pretty disappointing that you brought up climate change. This is a real risk and the difficulty in communicating it has been to get people to acknowledge that even though it is not immediately terrifying and scary like terrorism and meteors, it needs to be dealt with because the risk has been calculated to overwhelmingly support taking action. It is incredibly frustrating to me that people think we should take immediate action against things like meteors and terrorism, but are fine to ignore extremely high risk items like climate change.

        1. I know climate change is a real and urgent risk. I just get frustrated encountering wave after wave of trolls using the ‘greedy scientist’ non/argument to dismiss that [certain, unless we change society] risk, and I’m surprised to see the same argument used with this [much less likely] risk.

        2. people think we should take immediate action against things like meteors and terrorism, but are fine to ignore extremely high risk items like climate change.

          Because with meteors and terrorism the enemy is them, whereas with climate change the enemy is us.

        3. You are broadly making sense in your attempt to be rational about the cost/benefit calculation of extremely expensive measures against extremely unlikely but super-dangerous threats.

          One thing you left out is that there are additional scientific benefits from developing the technology to safely divert incoming asteroids and comets, and additional societal and civilizational benefits to diverting people’s ready supply of paranoia and fear of the unknown to real existential threats, and away from gay marriage, immigrants and those lame Al-Qaeda guys.

          ‘Cause those things hardly kill anybody, and overreacting to them doesn’t get us any moon-based laser cannons or asteroid mining equipment :)

          Politically speaking, you can only even talk about a shift of priorities like that when the general public are thinking about it (or at least, when the news media are talking about it.)

    4. But the response to terrorism is invasive searches and surveillance. The response to meteors is underground lairs.

  2. To effectively defend against objects like these we need to build a base on the moon to scan for all objects heading towards Earth and station a fleet of giant transformable robots there to deal with any detected threats. It’s the only way to ensure Earth’s safety.

    1. Good point, although I think we need a proper equitorial ring of plasma turrets, a la Stormship (Errr Starship) Troopers

    1. That seems reasonable since many Americans will look at this event and Tunguska and reason that this shit only happens in Russia, and that’s on account of them being Communists.

      1. But this didn’t happen during the Soviet era. And if Soviet Socialism was able to protect them from asteroid impacts, just think what actual sovyets and actual socialism could do for the whole world! *eyes light up*

  3.  I think it’s high time we commit as a planet to anti-asteroid defense. We need to pursue projects that show the world that we are all in this together. We need to fear asteroids more than we fear each other. A robust asteroid defense project would show that we all depend on the Earth and that we are all in this together, which is the truth.

    Maybe perceptions could change. Maybe we could fight global warming, maybe people would start caring more about people dying of AIDS or malaria in other countries.

    Sure, climate change is a  more pressing problem. I live in a subtropical area that is showing plenty of signs of climate change. All the birds are different now, bananas fruit inland, loquats are ripening right now instead of in April. Galveston is about to build a new system of dikes, but they are just delaying the inevitable if we can’t slow down sea level rise.

    I really think committing to asteroid defense would change the way people think and would help us face other global-scale problems. I am totally ready for the war on terror to become a war on asteroids.

    1. Why don’t we just tackle climate change first, all hold hands and sing kumbaya, and then tackle robust asteroid defence in a new, currently highly unlikely future where we don’t have hundreds of millions displaced and massive human suffering?

      1.  Sea level rise just isn’t sexy enough. Sure, all of Southern Florida will get wiped out. New Orleans is doomed, Galveston’s proposed new dikes will be washed over. But no one seems to be ready to fight that fight. Clear Lake will become a brackish mega-swamp and all the gators will have to swim north.

        An asteroid defense program will put more people into space. There will be more images of the Earth as a on the internet. Astronauts building the interceptors will be advocates for seeing the Earth as a whole system worthy of preservation.

  4. Personally, I’m all for building at the very least a discrete and unknowable hurtling space object tracking system.  After Skynet goes live, and it will, there will be a point in time known only to a few human scientists when a big rock is gonna strike Home Earth in location X.  We just need to recruit a bunch of martyrs to goad the all robots into a firefight then and there, and WHAMMO!  Problem solved, humans win, take that, silicon.

  5. Forget asteroid defence; we should be investing in off world colonies; preferably in the asteroid belt. Until we have a self sustaining population off world, anything else is pointless. Of course, that won’t save us from a gamma ray burst, so we should then concentrate on getting a population in to intragalactic space.

    1. I’ve got a great name for a venture that does just that!

      WayLenYaTony … wait no … doesn’t … mmm … Weyland … something *tsk* … Yukon?  Weyland Yukon?  Nah … c’mon, throw me a bone!

  6. Asteroid defense detractors keep ignoring some very important facts – there are much more humans around nowadays and our current global economy is extremely fragile as a consequence of capitalist/profit-oriented development model. To put it simply, there is not much leeway in our resource production – cost/benefit analysis and pursuit of maximum profit has shorn away a lot of “extras” which come very handy in times of crisis.

    Tunguska explosion happened just 100 years ago and had negligible global consequences. If something comparable occurred today above wheatfields of american midwest we’d have mass global starvation and total disruption of the world economy, followed by resource wars, maybe even nuclear ones. And that is not counting the global climate disruption which would again have much bigger impact on food production since today’s varieties are extremely specialized and much less sturdy than those just a century ago.

    And please do consider this report from tunguska event:
    “On the other side of the planet a sea going freighter equipped with the new amplified radio from Marconi is transmitting position information. The radio operator suffers minor burns as the antenna wires nearly explode in flames. The radio indicator lights go dim, and then out. The expensive triode tube looks as if the glass has melted around the insides.”
    (I believe this is the first historical description of EMP burst’s effect on electronic equipment)

    So, we don’t need a once-a-100-million-year dinosaur-killer to make a real stink in our global village. A once-a-century firecracker would be quite sufficient.

  7. Don’t forget we already have the NASA guys and other astronomers looking with billion dollar toys at nova’s and super-nova’s from past solar systems. These are smart guys who will never solve AIDS or malaria, we could give them a lot more meaning in life by putting them at work on our astroid problem.

Comments are closed.