Book Review: Catastrophe: Risk And Response by Richard A. Posner
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). See Robin Hanson’s Idea Futures web pages for arguments suggesting that this is a major mistake on Posner’s part.
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.