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Catastrophe: Risk and Response [Hardcover]

Richard A. Posner


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Book Description

Nov. 26 2004
Catastrophes, whether natural or man-made, that could destroy the human race are often dismissed as alarmist or fanciful, the stuff of science fiction. In fact the risk of such disasters is real, and growing. A collision with an asteroid that might kill a quarter of humanity in 24 hours and the rest soon after; irreversible global warming that might flip, precipitating "snowball earth;" voraciously replicating nanomachines; a catastrophic accident in a particle accelerator that might reduce the earth to a hyperdense sphere 100 meters across; a pandemic of gene-spliced smallpox launched by bioterrorists; even conquest by superintelligent robots-all these potential extinction events, and others, are within the realm of the possible and warrant serious thought about assessment and prevention. They are attracting the concern of reputable scientists--but not of the general public or the nation's policymakers. How should the nation and the world respond to disaster possibilities that, for a variety of psychological and cultural reasons, people find it hard to wrap their minds around? Richard Posner shows that what is needed is a fresh, thoroughly interdisciplinary perspective that will meld the insights of lawyers, economists, psychologists, and other social scientists with those of the physical sciences. Responsibility for averting catastrophe cannot be left either to scientists or to politicians and other policymakers ignorant of science. As in many of his previous books, Posner brings law and the social sciences to bear on a contemporary problem-in this case one of particular urgency. Weighing the risk and the possible responses in each case, Posner shows us what to worry about and what to dismiss, and discusses concrete ways of minimizing the most dangerous risks. Must we yield a degree of national sovereignty in order to deal effectively with global warming? Are limitations on our civil liberties a necessary and proper response to the danger of bioterror attacks? Would investing more heavily in detection and interception systems for menacing asteroids be money well-spent? How far can we press cost-benefit analysis in the design of responses to world-threatening events? Should the institutional framework of science policy be altered? we need educational reform? Is the interface of law and science awry? These are but a few of the issues canvassed in this fascinating, disturbing, and necessary book.

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From Publishers Weekly

During his career as a federal appeals court judge, Posner has become a prominently outspoken commentator on a variety of legal and cultural issues. Reading Margaret Atwood's Oryx & Crake, for example, was the springboard for this reflection on the current lack of plans for dealing with large-scale disasters, like environmental upheavals, after which law and public policy would be open to blame for failing to keep pace with rapid scientific advancement. Those familiar with Posner's extensive writings will not be surprised when he advocates applying cost-benefit analysis to determine which catastrophic threats are worth tackling first, though other suggestions will likely spark controversy. Criticizing the "blinkered perspective" of civil libertarians hung up on constitutional law, he finds certain curtailments of freedom an acceptable trade-off for preventing terrorist attacks and offers a lengthy justification of torture as one such option. Posner also offers subtle insights into the psychology of disaster preparedness, noting, for example, that science fiction movies in which the world is routinely saved inure us to the possibility of facing such threats in real life, as well as create undue faith in the saving grace of scientists. And his call for increased scientific literacy among public policy leaders may be too pragmatic to fault. Though clearly not for general readers, this thoughtful analysis may trickle down from the wonkocracy.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Review

"We would be well advised to... take the message of this book seriously. We ignore it at (a small risk of) our (very great) peril."--The New York Times Book Review

"Catastrophe is worth the price of the book simply for Posner's lively and readable summary of the apocalyptic dystopias that serious scientists judge to be possible."-- Graham Allison, The Washington Post Book World

"A fine lawyerly analysis.... Posner's perspective, very different from those held by most scientists, is a welcome addition to considerations of catastrophic risks."--Science

"Will likely spark controversy.... subtle insights...[and] thoughtful analysis."--Publishers Weekly

"Once again, Judge Posner has added to our cultural dialogue in a useful and interesting way."--Law and Politics Book Review

"With a broad vision and powerful intellectual tools, Posner addresses issues vital to our 21st Century technological civilization. Catastrophe will make our world a safer place."--K. Eric Drexler, Founder and Chairman Emeritus of Foresight Institute, author of Nanosystems

"The scientific community should pay attention to Judge Richard Posner's Catastrophe. Posner reminds us that we continue to deny or avoid dealing with low probability, high consequence natural and man made risks to society such as asteroid collisions, biodiversity, and terrorism. One of America's preeminent scholars of social issues presents a compelling analysis of the problem of catastrophic risks and needed public policy response."--John M. Deutch, Institute Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

"This book provides a balanced and immensely informative discussion of catastrophic risks to the planet, and makes a logical first stab at policy responses. It should stimulate far more attention to the growing threat of such catastrophes as bioterrorism, strangelet disasters from particle accelerators, and non-linear climate change, among the academic and policy community."--Ian W. H. Parry, Resources for the Future

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
The 1918-1919 flu pandemic is a reminder that nature may yet do us in. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Amazon.com: 3.7 out of 5 stars  10 reviews
17 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Measured Approach to the Apocalypse Nov. 13 2004
By John Thorne - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I'm a big fan of the judge's books, but this one differs from the prior books in the breadth and gravity of its topic: avoiding extinction.

The book has a gripping description of several such threats -- asteroids, bioterrorists, nuclear meltdown ("strangelets"), sudden global warming, loss of biodiversity. The book is worth buying for the description alone.

The core problem in dealing with these extinction threats is the need to incur large present costs for only speculative future benefits, where the beneficiaries of today's investments will be unknown to anyone living today. Democracies, run by politicians who get voted into office promising benefits to the current voters, can't make such farsighted investments for the benefit of people not yet living (or more precisely, not yet voting).

The best line in the book (near the beginning, so I don't think I'm spoiling it) is that there are probably many billions of stars with planets around them capable of supporting life. Life therefore probably originated independently on many millions of those planets, many of them probably much earlier than here on Earth. So why haven't we been contacted by any of the earlier, presumably more advanced other civilizations?
16 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Asks Important Questions, Needs Better Answers Jan. 19 2005
By Peter McCluskey - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book does a very good job of arguing that humans are doing an inadequate job of minimizing the expected harm associated with improbable but major disasters such as asteroid strikes and sudden climate changes. He provides a rather thorough and unbiased summary of civilization-threatening risks, and a good set of references to the relevant literature.

I am disappointed that he gave little attention to the risks of AI. Probably his reason is that his expertise in law and economics will do little to address what is more of an engineering problem that is unlikely to be solved by better laws.

I suspect he's overly concerned about biodiversity loss. He tries to justify his concern by noting risks to our food chain that seem to depend on our food supply being less diverse than it is.

His solutions do little to fix the bad incentives which have prevented adequate preparations. The closest he comes to fixing them is his proposal for a center for catastrophic-risk assessment and response, which would presumably have some incentive to convince people of risks in order to justify its existence.

His criticisms of information markets (aka idea futures) ignore the best arguments on this subject. He attacks the straw man of using them to predict particular terrorist attacks, and ignores possibilities such as using them to predict whether invading Iraq would reduce or increase deaths due to terrorism over many years. And his claim that scientists need no monetary incentives naively ignores their bias to dismiss concerns about harm resulting from their research (bias which he notes elsewhere as a cause of recklessness).

His ambivalent comments about a science court convinced me that his version (and most others) would be too biased toward policies which serve the interests of scientific researchers. He claims that the most similar existing court has "not yielded convincing evidence that it is doing a better job with patent cases than the generalist federal appeals courts did", but Jaffe and Lerner's book Innovation and Its Discontents provides strong evidence that replacing generalist courts with a court devoted to patent appeals has caused disastrous special interest group domination of the U.S. patent system.

I doubt new courts are needed. Instead, existing courts should adopt rules that measure reputations of peer-reviewed papers to resolve scientific disputes (e.g. how often they're cited, and the reputation of the journal in which they're published). Also, expanding use of idea futures markets should prod whatever institutions that judge those contracts to address an increasing number of disputes that courts or court-like institutions deal with.

I have a number a smaller complaints:

He doesn't prove his claim that if the uncertainty about global warming is greater than Kyoto-supporters admit then their case is stronger. That would be true it were just a disagreement over the standard deviation of a temperature forecast, but an uncertainty over which model to use might say something else if Kyoto-supporters are biased to ignore models which predict stable temperatures.

He claims on page 22 "No one knows why the 1918-1919 [flu] pandemic was so lethal", but then indicates some awareness of Ewald's fairly compelling argument that the causes are understood, and avoiding a repetition of this disaster is simply a matter of spreading the right knowledge.

He claims on page 117 that "primitive nanotech assemblers have been built, as we saw in chapter 1", yet I can't find anything in chapter 1 that indicates what this apparently false claim refers to.

He does a poor job of dealing with arguments against giving international agencies more power. He seems to think concern over sovereignty is based primarily on issues of relative power of nations. One effect that he ignores is that having many small governments allows people to choose between competing ones, but a single central government has the problems associated with monopoly power.

He underestimates the value of absolutist strategies for preserving civil rights (he prefers a case-by-case analysis) because he reasons as if people could be perfectly rational. If instead he realized that people have at best bounded rationality, he would realize that slippery slope arguments provide some support for an absolutist strategy. Also, he seems to underestimate the extent to which governments restrict liberty to enhance their own power rather than to fight evil.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Greatest Problems of the 21st Century...Solved! March 4 2007
By JBS - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
With the emerging trends in healthcare, many of today's young children will be alive in 2100. This would be a remarkable achievement.

Then again, sometime in the next 100 years perhaps the entire human race including all today's children will die violent deaths.

In Catastrophe, US Appeals Court Judge Richard Posner shows that humanity enters the 21st century with a greater chance of annihilation than at any time in human history. Mankind faces new perils that our institutions are not addressing.

Posner does not just warn of dangers. He proposes solutions we can enact today that would reduce risk and improve world security for the next 100 years.

His facts are well researched; his analysis is well thought out. Unfortunately, his writing is heavy. He uses large amounts of hard science, legal theory, and economic analysis.

His major theme is that rapid scientific progress has created perils that our leaders are not addressing.

In a short book, he addresses a large number of doomsday scenarios that would otherwise require years of study.

None of the risks he discusses are likely to happen this year or in any particular year. However, as a group they pose a disturbing risk when looked at over a hundred years.

He collects these horrific events into four groups

1) Natural disasters - This includes asteroids striking the earth, pandemic disease, and huge volcanoes and earthquakes. These have always been around and have caused mass destruction in the past.

The other risks are new to the 21st century.

2) Perils caused by Economic Growth - This includes global warming, resource depletion, loss of biodiversity, and population growth. Posner looks critically at each.

3) Scientific Accidents - These include accidents with robots, artificial intelligence, robotic war machines, genetically modified crops, nanotechnology, and particle accelerators, These all sound like science fiction but Posner uses credible evidence to paint scenarios on how each could destroy the entire human race.

4) Intentional catastrophes - These include nuclear war, biological terror, cyber terror, surveillance, concealment, and encryption. His discussion of biological terror is especially disturbing. He cites evidence that nations, terrorist groups, or even crazed Unabomber type individuals may soon be able to create life forms that can kill billions of people.

This is frightening but Posner does not stop here. He proposes solutions we can work on today to reduce the risk of each catastrophe.

His solutions attempt to reduce each hazard while impairing our current standard of living as little as possible. Each proposal is painful and will disturb many people.

1) Fiscal solutions - He proposes increasing taxes and spending on science to address natural disasters and global warming. He uses economic tools to show that our current policies are inadequate to address these risks. His solutions will lead to a reduced standard of living for all of us.

2) Regulatory solutions -These include an international EPA, specialized science courts, a center for catastrophic risk assessment and response, an international bio-weaponry agency, and catastrophic risk review of new projects. They require international cooperation to work. These proposals will be controversial because they would require national governments like the US, Russia, and China to obey international agencies like the UN. How likely is this?

3) Reduction of civil liberties - As a judge, Posner is careful to defend the US tradition of human rights. However he questions whether the civil liberties of Western societies can continue.

With nuclear or bio-terror, we cannot afford to allow a single mistake. One crazed person can kill millions or perhaps all of us. Given this threat, should we restrict the right of unstable persons to learn dangerous technologies? Can we extend a right to privacy to people with the know how to develop viruses that can kill the entire human race? Should we profile people from certain areas of the world? Does free speech allow us to publish how to make nuclear weapons? Is there a role for torture and threats to families? Being a judge, he explains these ideas clearly and soberly.

4) Education - Posner's solutions are weakest in this areas. He does not trust generalist judges to adjudicate any case involving scientific matters but proposes a special court with judges trained in science.

In an early chapter he shows how the scientific ignorance of some people and the obsession with scientific progress of others work together to make these risks worse. However, he does not recommend improved science education for Presidents, legislators, journalists, or the general public--only judges.

Most important he does not recommend changing science education to emphasize the dangers and ethical responsibilities of scientists. Is it not important for everyone trained in science to understand the danger of what they could achieve and the responsibility to abide by ethical standards? Posner does not mention this.

In a short book, Judge Posner has done an outstanding service in explaining the most important issues confronting us in the 21st century and how they can be solved. However, his ideas should be viewed as intial ideas to stir a public debate not as final solutions. For our children's sake, I encourage everyone to do the heavy research needed to read the book and become active in working toward the best solutions.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars OK Survey, but focused for attorneys & politicos Dec 23 2006
By Jasper Walker - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I purchased the book looking for interesting insights on catastrophes. I have to say I did not expand my knowledge of catastrophes much by reading the book. I did expand my knowledge of the relation between our legal/political systems and catastrophic defense/scientific research.

I thought Posner did a good job surveying different catastrophes and assigning rough estimations to them. However, I felt the key point of his book was promoting more attorneys learning about science so an intelligent discusssion could be made. I agree with the point...but it was such a recurring theme, it became dull for me, since I am not an attorney.

I had not read a book by Posner before. He is a judge, and I felt it read like a judge wrote it. I.e. in most areas he was very careful to be impartial. But then occasionally he would make a blanket opinion without any substantiation and move on as if he had proved some point. You can see examples of this in the other reviews below. I'll only point out I had different examples.

If you are soft skinned, conservative and liberal alike will probably find points of offense in the book. And I guess that is what surprised me the most, that this is a political book, not a scientific one.
3.0 out of 5 stars Proliferation of hazardous new technology threatens humankind May 2 2013
By Willard Wells - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Wow, what a polymath! Posner is judge of the US Court of Appeals, 7th circuit. But on top of all that law he has learned science fairly well including probability theory and evolutionary biology. He explains some human behavior in terms of instincts we evolved by the Darwinian process, an argument you rarely see. But this doesn't make a great book. Posner sees no need to write his judicial opinions in an entertaining style because interested parties will read them anyhow. He seems not to realize that writing popular books is a different game; people are far less motivated to read them. Oxford press did its part to discourage sales: the font is small and somewhat faint; words are divided at the ends of lines between the second and third letters; there are no pictures even though the topic cries out for them.

Posner chose four hazards to track throughout the book, and two of those choices are unfortunate. The first is an asteroid strike. The risk of that is miniscule simply because we have such a long history of surviving it. Humanity has not been seriously at risk for 70,000 years. (Genetics tells us that humanity was reduced to a small population about that time thus reducing genetic diversity.) So if the next natural catastrophe occurs in the next 100 years, that means that we are now living in the last 1/700 of the interval between them, and the probability of that is only about 1/700. By contrast, we are living with man-made hazards after only a decade or so of adaptation.

Posner makes a plea for various reforms to prevent catastrophe: international agencies, safety reviews of proposed science projects, new police powers, and so on. Posner never mentions that a major collapse of civilization would take out all the major threats to our species' survival. The aftermath would be a long period of safety for people who are wiser for the experience. So there's a paradox: measures that prevent catastrophe also jeopardize our species. I prefer to look outside the box and save Homo sapiens an entirely different way. Form survival colonies with about a 100 people (a viable breeding stock) and build redoubts in remote places to ride out as many different threats as you can. Wealthy people are already buying luxury apartments in abandoned missile silos and similar places. You can sign up as a candidate for a survival colony at the website of the Lifeboat Foundation.

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