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March 30, 2008

More Doomsday Predictions

Rick Moran riffs off of this NY Times piece to speculate about the dangers of scientific progress. First, let's talk about the Times' article and then we'll get to Rick's comments.

It's really quite simple. A couple of guys think that CERN's nearly completed Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland might cause the destruction of the Earth when it is activated. They think our options are either being sucked into a black-hole or fused into one big lump of strange matter, Ice-nine style. Their solution is to sue the Department of Energy and Fermilab (both of which are alleged to contribute to the project) for failure to file an environmental impact statement. That should be enough, they think, to derail the collider. They included CERN as a defendant, but it's doubtful the federal courts have jurisdiction over a European physics lab.

Fear about supercolliders is nothing new. In fact, one of these guys tried this particular strategy before:

This is not the first time around for Mr. Wagner. He filed similar suits in 1999 and 2000 to prevent the Brookhaven National Laboratory from operating the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider. That suit was dismissed in 2001. The collider, which smashes together gold ions in the hopes of creating what is called a “quark-gluon plasma,” has been operating without incident since 2000.

Which is not to say that there won't be an incident. It's just that I'm much more likely to believe, y'know, actual scientists who tell me that the risk is low or nonexistent than I am a lawyer and a self-described "researcher on time theory" (the example of global warming "consensus" notwithstanding).

My own reading on the subject leads me to conclude that these fellows have some things in common with the folks who fear Gray Goo and genemod organisms and artificial intelligence. The complaint is always "We Just Don't KNOW!" They want us to bury our heads in the sand since the mere act of scientific inquiry may result in the destruction of humanity. The problem is that they always end up labeling as "propaganda" scientific evidence that so-called existential risks are small or nonexistent (as the plaintiff told the Times reporter in this case). That indicates to me that they aren't going to be satisfied regardless of what science uncovers which therefore makes them particularly unqualified to judge the risks involved.

That brings me to Rick's post, where he gives far too much leeway to crack-pot naysayers for my taste:

The fact that scientists are not laughing at the idea of destroying the earth as a result of an experiment shows the wisdom of taxpayers like Wagner questioning everything – even though his expertise and knowledge may fall short of those he is criticizing. I would hope the same holds true for some bio-medical research that has the potential to loose upon the planet something that could destroy life as well as those working in the artificial intelligence field who some have theorized could end up being quite unfriendly to their creators.

He's giving Wagner (the plaintiff in this case) too much credit. Wagner isn't "questioning everything." Even as a philosophical exercise, "questioning everything" hasn't been all that successful a strategy; contemporary philosophy has been stuck in a rut ever since Descartes, trust me. What we really need to be doing is seeking answers, something that Wagner is doggedly opposed to. He's already made up his mind.

We shouldn't be glorifying neo-luddism, Rick.

Bonus: For those who are interested in this kind of thing, the complaint in this case is here (PDF). If you guessed that this fellow was representing himself, you guessed right and you know what they say about lawyers who represent themselves. This is the type of stuff they hand out to 1L research and writing classes to spot the problems.

On the other hand, if this thing is going to destroy the world, do you think we could get that done before the last week in July? I'd just as soon not take the bar exam if I don't have to.


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posted by Gabriel Malor at 10:02 PM

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