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View Diary: Welfare for scientists: The killer asteroid is overhyped (75 comments)

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  •  The Buzzfeed article on rape accusations (1+ / 0-)
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    was, in fact, why I started looking at the numbers. After all, I didn't know or even ever heard about anyone who had died from an asteroid (which I learned is true perforce, as there haven't been any in recorded history), while I had certainly heard of a small number of demonstrably false rape accusations. Also, I had a Ph.D. near-classmate die in a commercial airline accident, which is an improbable event, and I once lived in a fairly small city where someone else had my same first and not-all-that-common last name.

    I think mixing up incidents-per-year from extremely-highly-improbable events (killer asteroid) with improbably events (false rape accusation, making it to the NFL, the other recurrent examples in that article) makes an already difficult task of understanding probability much harder. Indeed, I think that's a worse problem than wasting a few billion dollars on an untestable technology that won't be used, which, as other commenters point out, is hardly the most egregious waste in government hardware spending.

    •  Ah (1+ / 0-)
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      Andrew Lazarus

      I hadn't clicked through to that -- my interest as a reader was in the arguments about probability and how they were used,  and of course, spaceships(!). Based on your comment I did click through.  

      I think we live in a culture that does glorify violence against women and excuses all manner of brutal and nonconsensual behavior, and at the same time my gut feeling continues to be that because consent is complicated in our culture, and seldom explicit, what people bring to the discussion from their own sexual history is not anything like the terms we use to discuss the subject.  But that to me rests on an even deeper prudery and hypocrisy and the world quickly starts to seem tragic and horrible and full of not very good people, so I skipped it.

      Much less fraught to talk about getting hit by an asteroid and whether geographic distribution dilutes things to a point where chance of death is a poor indicator of planetary risk, given wide variation in asteroid size :}  That is, there's a lot of planet to land on, most uninhabited, and unless something is big enough to generate a planetary shockwave,  the chance of death in any one place is very small.  But some n increase in asteroid size, within natural variation, and suddenly everybody dies, or darn near.   In that sense the annual mortality argument is hard to apply, since the last big one predates our species.  But the much more likely to die of something else first argument carries for me.

      What I wonder about is -- orbital mechanics are very well understood, distribution of objects in the solar system pretty well understood, and we have an excellent historical record on neighboring planets (with an improving historical record on our own).  And with all that, every modeling system has a fly in it, or some sliver of imperfection.  I wonder where it is in asteroid prediction?

      ...j'ai découvert que tout le malheur des hommes vient d'une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre.

      by jessical on Fri Feb 14, 2014 at 04:18:37 PM PST

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      •  The NASA report takes a stab at it (1+ / 0-)
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        Meteors under about 1000m may cause significant loss of life, if they hit on a city, but they are too small to cause global catastrophe. Their estimate imputes 60 deaths/year (worldwide, so 3/year USA) to these, which would include the two last century in Russia. The figures in the thousands per year need the catastrophic asteroids.

        Although it isn't, perhaps, clear, my main problem with the Plait/Nye line of reasoning is that imputed deaths/year for very low probability events that we will 'never' experience or even hear of confuses our understanding of deaths/year of low probability events that are nevertheless frequent enough that we have personal or historical experience of them (airline fatalities, 1918 flu epidemic, Black Death, etc.).

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