Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Asteroid/Swine Flu Problem

I recently saw on TV that NASA says it doesn't have enough money to track all the large asteroids that might endanger Earth. I don't know whether they do or not, but it does raise the general problem of how we deal with unlikely but potentially catastrophic events, why we're so bad at it, and whether anything can be done about it.

In my Master's program we had a case class about the first swine flu scare, the one that happened under the Ford administration. The teacher wanted to look at why the Ford administration had overestimated the probability of an outbreak, and hence blundered by launching a huge vaccination program that turned into a fiasco. One student made what I thought (and we probably all thought) was a reasonable point: what if there were only a 10% chance of a Spanish-flu-type outbreak that would kill millions? Wouldn't it still be worthwhile to start vaccinating? The teacher, a very experienced public manager, was incredulous that anyone would think of doing anything in the public sector based on only a 10% probability.

OK, so what if there is a 10% chance of an asteroid strike that will wipe out civilization?

There are three nested problems here. On the individual level, humans are bad at dealing with probabilities. (I recently read that Paul Erdos, one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century, never understood the Let's Make a Deal problem made famous by Marilyn Vos Savant.) At times, in fact, it seems we don't really get the whole idea of probabilities. Witness the global warming debate, in which the argument often seems to be over whether it's certain or not, with the implicit assumption being that if it's not, we should do nothing. I have never heard an environmentalist try to make the argument that we should act even if we're not sure.

On the institutional level (say, Congress), politicians and bureaucrats understand one implication of our discomfort with probabilities other than zero and one: that no one will believe a decision was a good one if it doesn't turn out right. That is, they will be blamed for investing in averting a disaster that doesn't materialize (as Ford was, though Guillain-Barre syndrome also played a role). Imagine being a bureaucrat at a hearing, trying to explain to a committee of senators why the taxpayers' money wasn't wasted even though nothing happened. The senators, meanwhile, are imagining themselves trying to explain the same thing to their constituents.

At the collective level (say, international), there are the usual collective-action problems familiar to economists and political scientists. Even though everyone may be convinced that an asteroid threat is real and imminent, they will still all prefer that someone else bear the costs. This can become a game of Chicken, and of course games of Chicken often turn out badly (the classic popular-culture examples are Rebel Without a Cause and Dr. Strangelove). The problem is further complicated by asymmetries, as the smallest players have the greatest tendency to free-ride (see OPEC, for example).

I haven't got much to say about the collective action problems, as so much has been said on international negotiations by people who have thought about them a lot more than I have. The individual-level problem, the tendency of individuals to ignore small risks, may to some extent be offset by their tendency to overestimate them when spectacular and widely reported, as with airline crashes. (There is a psychological literature on this.) Still, one hesitates to recommend that policy analysts try to induce public panic.

Can anything be done about the institutional problems? One of my usual suggestions in such cases, to take them out of the regular political process, doesn't seem very practical here-- I can't imagine how one would go about setting up an independent Catastrophes Authority, given that the next threat could be astronomical or biological or meteorological or military or...

One interesting possibility would be to eliminate second-guessing of bureaucrats and politicians by forcing voters to make the decision themselves. Unfortunately, direct democracy has a pretty dismal record in the United States, with money ending up playing a dominant role. Why it seems to work fairly well in Switzerland is an important question that I don't know the answer to. I wish I had spent more time asking when I was there.


  1. Michael,
    I found this a bit cryptic. Can you expand on it?