Category Archives: Disaster

Should We Ban Physics?

Nobel laureate Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia, the victim of radiation from the many fascinating glowing substances she had learned to isolate.

How could she have known?  And the answer, as far as I can tell, is that she couldn’t.  The only way she could have avoided death was by being too scared of anything new to go near it.  Would banning physics experiments have saved Curie from herself?

But far more cancer patients than just one person have been saved by radiation therapy.  And the real cost of banning physics is not just losing that one experiment – it’s losing physics.  No more Industrial Revolution.

Some of us fall, and the human species carries on, and advances; our modern world is built on the backs, and sometimes the bodies, of people who took risks.  My father is fond of saying that if the automobile were invented nowadays, the saddle industry would arrange to have it outlawed.

But what if the laws of physics had been different from what they are?  What if Curie, by isolating and purifying the glowy stuff, had caused something akin to a fission chain reaction gone critical… which, the laws of physics being different, had ignited the atmosphere or produced a strangelet?

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Disaster Bias

Today begins a conference on Global Catastrophic Risk I’m attending.  Coincidentally, Bryan Caplan recently pointed us to a new paper by Andrew Healy:

Using comprehensive data on natural disasters, government spending, and election returns, I show that voters reward disaster relief spending but not disaster prevention spending. This aspect of voter behavior creates a large distortion in the incentives that governments face, since the data show that prevention spending substantially reduces future damage. … Given mean annual prevention spending of $195 million and mean disaster damage of $16.5 billion, the regression estimates that a $1 increase in prevention spending resulted in a $8.30 decrease in disaster damage, and this estimate captures only benefits that occur in the five years from 2000-2004.

My and other conference presentation describe other disaster biases, such as not paying due attention to the very largest possible disasters, and not make extra preparations against human extinction. 

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