A Review of Richard Posner's "Catastrophe

Catastrophic disasters tend to fascinate and horrify the human imagination, raising images of destruction and chaos that are often utilized in Hollywood productions. Nonetheless, catastrophes are altogether possible events in general, and in his opinionative book Catastrophe, Richard Posner seizes on remotely possible disasters ranging from robots conquering humanity to apocalyptic asteroid strikes obliterating all complex life forms and utilizes them to attempt to emphasize the need to proactively plan so that the likelihood of these calamites can be abated. Unfortunately, he does so using invented probabilities and very simple cost-benefit analyses which do little more than cause greater confusion in the reader’s mind, for while he claims to be legitimizing the risks inherent in such disasters, Posner’s invention of statistics detracts from this very purpose. Though the tale begins as a prophetic warning of all the potential disasters looming in the future for humankind, emphatically drawing readers in, the second half of the book degrades into a deluge of statistics which, though logical in and of themselves, are highly speculative and draw away from what had first made the study intriguing.

Opening Arguments

The first section of Catastrophe serves as an overview of virtually all the conceivable catastrophes which stem from both human and natural causes, suggesting a strange duality wherein technology must simultaneously be fostered and legislated to ensure human survival. Though he naturally engages natural threats such as pandemics and asteroid collisions, many of the events suggested by Posner hold humans at fault, whether by the dangerous advancement of technology, the mere side effects of increasing industrialization (ie. global warming), or the terroristic acts of a fanatical minority. Consequently, Posner calls for the preliminary taking of action to prevent such disasters, as he states “it has been the victim of the tendency of technological advance to outpace the social control of technology” (20). In essence, Posner believes not so much that technology is something to be feared or suppressed, so much as it is a utility that must be properly secured and monitored, as not doing so could lead to myriad forms of cyber and bioterrorism which Posner outlines. This appears to be Posner’s main point in this section, for aside from the skeleton of an outline of catastrophes and some simple economic analysis, this section primarily surveys the duality between the needs of technology to combat certain disasters and its inherent ability to cause others. Though the majority of this first portion of the book discusses legitimate threats to humans and their societal economies, some of the descriptions are a bit fantastical and excessive, no doubt causing any paranoid individual to become doubly so. Even for one who occasionally emphasizes that he is, in fact, not a scientist, Posner has an extremely flawed view of certain aspects of science, claiming that “with the aid of gene-splicing kits stolen from high school classrooms, religious terrorists… [can] create a strain of smallpox that is incurable…” (5). Certainly, high school classrooms have the necessary restriction enzymes to perform very simple transformations of bacteria such as E. Coli, but they lack the myriad of lab technology and genome analysis tools to create any such form of bacteria. Granted, this is not to say that bioterrorism is not a legitimate threat, as it very well may be, so much as this underscores Posner’s willingness to exaggerate the dangers inherent to technological advancement. Even more illustrative of this fact is Posner’s short look at what he posits to be a legitimate catastrophic threat: artificial intelligence coming to dominate human intelligence, a theme common to such popular films as The Matrix and Terminator.

True, he admits that there is no actual evidence that technology can ever produce something as complicated as a human brain, but he then leaps to a virtually groundless claim that “with superhuman intelligence may come self-consciousness…”(42) which, though potentially possible, is a complete speculation on Posner’s part – a speculation which once more appeals to the reader by drawing on the themes of popular culture for scientific information. Despite this section’s failings in the realm of extreme embellishment, it does contain a fairly legitimate analysis of global warming, integrating basic economic analysis into the description in a manner which one can only suspect was intended to be mirrored by other catastrophes. Clearly one of his favored catastrophes to discuss (along with the “strangelet disaster” which shall be discussed later), Posner this time responsibly uses hypothetical statements to emphasize that, should global warming be very slow there would be no direct need to impose sanctions immediately, but that this is not the case and that simple economic analysis suggests that all countries need to work to affect a change (52). This section, in summary, was clearly intended to draw the reader in with fantastical images more so than hard science, which, though understandable, is highly inconsistent with the remainder of the story, a fact almost as mystifying as the reason Posner felt the best counterargument to global warming skeptics was not the actual science so much as the fact that “the insurance industry, which is not a hotbed of leftist though… is taking global warming seriously” (54).

The second section of the book is the most interesting in terms of its simultaneous incorporation of both economic logic and disaster scenarios, providing both speculative and statistical factors that influence people’s willingness to pay to prevent disastrous consequences. This portion is meant to explain why so little is being done to combat the minute catastrophes which the last section detailed, and one of Posner’s more intriguing points is that “it is unclear what regard we should have for out remote descendants…”(118), that is to say, from an evolutionary point of view does it make sense that humans focus on building future defenses in order to insure the human gene pool. He also incorporates economic analysis which, even for those without a background in economics, is logically sound, taking in national concerns such as the fact that “no nations wants to get a reputation for being good for a free ride” (128) which generally discourages the kind of international research and development that would be necessary for such projects as asteroid defense plans. Thus, Posner herein effectively analyzes the reasoning behind the lack of such long term disaster planning, observing humankind’s selfishness both economically and politically, and how these selfish instincts overshadow the dangers inherent in the distant future if no preliminary actions are taken.

Individual Motivations

By far the most engaging and believable portion of this book, this part considers the psychological motivations of individuals with respect to the human species as a whole and the rationality behind such considerations. Indeed, as Posner suggests, it is difficult to say why we ought to have regard for our distant descendants, as they provide no benefit to us in any form, though from an evolutionary perspective our only purpose in life is to pass on our genes to the future generations, presenting an interesting dichotomy between species and individualistic concerns that is very difficult to resolve. Posner doesn’t devote overmuch time to this question, yet it is among a few intriguing concepts in this section, which also include the fact that excessive optimism is counterproductive and that people have been desensitized to so called “apocalyptic” events by the efforts of Hollywood and some prolific doomsayers whose predictions have all been for naught. In effect, this section addresses the basis behind human altruism and the lack thereof, and while failing to come to any form of hard conclusion, Posner effectively outlines the reasoning behind the lack of current action, which is used to illustrate the need to take further action.

In the section in which Posner proposes to evaluate the economic tolls of “catastrophic risks”, he incorporates statistical models to support his claims, which outwardly seems like a good idea. Sadly, in doing so, he loses all the momentum which he had built up in the first half of the book, deluging readers with a flood of data which are often even less applicable than they first appear. He makes use of a few interesting studies such as one of the relationship between the probability of a disaster occurring and the amount of money people are willing to pay to prevent such a disaster, finding an exponential function by which as the risk of a catastrophe approaches 1, the “value” of preventing such a catastrophe multiplies increasingly rapidly, explaining why people are so reluctant to act on the improbable calamities outlined throughout this book (167). Still, Posner cannot resist making ceaseless use of statistics and equations, illustrating is zeal for the economics of the situation, which, though not a bad thing by any measure, is presented in such a manner as to bore any reader without a minor in some form of economic science – to the average person there are few ways to make questions such as the “value of life” less interesting than to turn them into complex math problems with variables that cannot be pinned down, as legitimate a problem as this may be. Posner also falls into a trap which shall be further outlined later in this paper when he fabricates statistics to illustrate a point rather than relying on less interesting but more meaningful information that might has more truth to it. In few, Posner uses simple cost-benefit analyses which, though effective enough for their purposes, fail to interest the reader, and in the cases of fabricated statistics are utterly meaningless for anything but vaguely cautionary purposes.

Extreme Examples

By far the most counterproductive argument utilized by Posner is that of a so-called “strangelet disaster”, a theoretical quantum physics catastrophe which he succinctly summarizes as “collisions of atomic particle in very powerful particle accelerators… produce a shower of quarks that would reassemble themselves into a very compressed object called a strangelet… [that] could convert the Earth into an inert hyperdense sphere about one hundred meters across” (30). Though the nature of quantum physics is so faintly grasped at the current time that we cannot wholly discount this possibility (and indeed he readily admits that it is a highly improbable event), Posner’s main error is focusing the majority of his economic analysis on this event is that there are no data which might verify it, and no accurate manner to predict any relevant statistics at all, never mind a manner to legitimize the cost-benefit analyses performed in this book.

It is disconcerting that while pointing out that “the difficulty of monetizing the benefits of [the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider] underscores the larger problem… of estimating the social value of R&D in general” (143) Posner feels no qualms in attempting to monetize it with numbers which obviously lack basis in fact. He does so simply because the strangelet disaster is far more dramatic than global warming or the gradual loss of biodiversity – by its very nature it necessitates weighing the cost of the complete extinction of all life against the possible benefits of particle physics; a cost benefit-analysis that seems absurdly one-sided to those that lack literacy in the fields of quantum physics. As such, though his analyses may be logical and properly executed, they are meaningless other than to illustrate a point and to fascinate the mind, as there is indeed no proof that such strangelets can physically exist, nor is there a way to estimate the probability that they could, and even if they can any such analysis begs a question almost as philosophical as economic – it requires one to compute the value of all extant life to determine how much ought be spent to save it.

Closing Thoughts

Posner’s book closes with a few theoretical solutions to his aforementioned catastrophes, the primary focus of which is that there is a strong need for a scientifically literate populace to legislate major scientific questions. “The legal system cannot deal effectively with scientifically and technologically difficult questions unless lawyers and judges… are comfortable with such questions” (200). Such an argument is well within reason, as Posner earlier stated that a mere 5% of American’s are scientifically adept enough to understand the Tuesday “Science Times” section of the New York Times. Despite this sensible solution to the difficult questions which the book presented, he doesn’t stop here – he goes on to divine a number of increasingly restrictive which he himself proclaims “will therefore be even more resented by members of the scientific community and civil libertarians…” (224), allowing his personal background as a conservative appeals court judge to begin to manifest itself in the somewhat absurd measures which he outlines. For one, he suggests limiting the studies of foreigners in the United States so that they may not study dangerous technology, purporting that “citizens of countries (mainly Muslim) in which a significant fraction of the population is deeply hostile to the United States… should not be admitted to advanced study…”(222) which, though understandable, creates a dangerous legal precedent for discrimination. He then suggests that we ought to at least consider abandoning some of our liberty in favor of security: “to sacrifice some of our currently much enlarged liberty for greater security… is a trade that should not be rejected out of hand” (230).

He hypothesizes about the potential advantages of so called “extreme police measures” in keeping dangerous technology in check, and while he neither endorses torture tactics nor the formation of any sort of dystopian society, he nonetheless unnecessarily explores ideas which would no doubt fail to be embraced by many Americans and which are absurdly out of place in a book which is primarily meant to discuss catastrophes and the economic feasibility of addressing them. Thus, Posner’s book ends on an oddly sour note that makes one question what possessed him to push to such extremes other than to possibly intrigue or incite the readers to take action themselves.

Though not wholly useless in its nature, Posner’s book ought to be considered more a bare-bones outline of the potential action to take against future catastrophe than a definitively utile guidebook for defending against an apocalypse. Posner prefers to inject his own views into certain aspects of the work, and, while no doubt sound, his economic analyses aren’t particularly useful as the data they make use of are generally fabricated for the purpose of explanation rather than acting out of a basis in fact. He balances legitimate studies with embellished overviews of somewhat scientific concepts, crippling his own thesis by spending the most analysis on the most remote catastrophic potentials rather than focusing on the disasters that grow ever more present, such as global warming and the increasing loss of biodiversity that plagues the planet. One might allow this book to serve as an intriguing look at future possibilities, but it should only be taken at face value and should be balanced with more useable statistics than those provided by the book itself.

QR Code
QR Code review_of_posners_catastrophe (generated for current page)