Don’t Look Up

No, I am not going to discuss the film, the merits of which you can decide for yourself. However, it might be worth considering some of the things it says about the way we consider and treat science. What the film is supposed to say is that those in society with the power to do something about a crisis wilfully avoid taking action. Consider the excuses for doing nothing.

The film presents a wipe-out event that we will be struck by a comet. The probability of this happening is assessed at 99.8%. So it is not 100%? What we have to recognize that scientific measurements have errors in them. Statistically we make lots of measurements and use a statistical analysis, and while someone in the movie says “Scientists never like to say 100%” that is wrong too. Scientists do not like or dislike; they report the mathematics, and a statistical spread cannot give a 100% because that denies the initial spread. Further, that 0.2% is not physically meaningful either because the errors due to instruments are not randomly probable, but nobody is going to waste time working out the error function for every piece of equipment. Statistical analysis takes care of that. To gain perspective, consider a bag of 1000 50 calibre bullets. You are assured two are blank. One is placed into a gun. What amount of money do you need, if you survive, to put your head in front of the barrel when it is fired?

A second problem for scientists is that long-term realities will be ignored by the public. This more relevant to something like climate change. What are you prepared to do to avoid a major problem fifty years down the track? For many, not a lot, so they ignore the problem on the grounds that it can be dealt with “later”. Related to this are the economic considerations. One response is we cannot afford to do something. When we hear that we seldom see what the costs are of not doing said something. Again, the response might be, but you do not absolutely know that will solve the problem. No, we do not, but that is because we do not think there will be one simple solution for a problem like climate change.

Another response is to rely on technological changes. For an approaching comet, there are probably no other choices. You either construct some space vehicle that will push the comet off course or it strikes you. To make that work, a major investment in development work would be required, since we do not have such a vehicle now. As it happens, for this scenario NASA is doing work, and around the end of September a space vehicle weighing 550 kg will slam into an asteroid called Dimorphos. This is part of a double asteroid system, and we will be able to follow the effect of the impact in fine detail because it will alter the orbital characteristics of Dimorphos as paired with Didymos, the larger companion. The problem with something like climate change is that while technology might fix it, we are not doing the research and development needed to make it work.

Society seems to work against science, simply because people do not trust it. Over 5 million have died with Covid 19, yet we have many very active antivaxxers trying to persuade others not to be vaccinated. The interesting question is why? It is one thing to refuse to be vaccinated yourself, but why impose these views on others?  In their effort το persuade others they spread completely stupid stories. Recall the story that Bill Gates was inserting nano-trackers into the vaccine so he could know what everyone was doing? There are also stories with an element of truth but with no comprehension of relevance. Like our 98.8% above, they focus on the 0.2%. There is a tiny segment of the populations that respond adversely to certain vaccines. The medical profession knows this, and can look out for them and treat them properly if such an event occurs. These stories totally ignore what would happen to these far more sensitive people if the virus struck them. Finally, there is a tendency for navel-gazing. Consider our experiment on Dimorphos. There is a view, “What right have we to change the solar system?” If we took this view to the limit, we would still be hunter-gatherers and our biggest problem would be that lion in the shrubbery planning on eating us. Dimorphos is a lump of rock. It does not have feelings. It is not planning its future. The allied question, do your sensitivities about the Universe and the pristine nature of rocks in it give you the right to prevent the killing of billions of innocent people who do not share your view?