Sunday, April 3, 2005


Posner, Richard, CATASTROPHE: The Dozen Most Significant Catastrophic Risks and What We Can Do About Them, SKEPTIC, 11:3, 2005, 42-63 (Excerpted from CATASTROPHE: RISK AND RESPONSE (Oxford UP) 2004.


I am reminded of the children's telephone game whereby a story becomes distorted as it is passed from one to another until the final version is nonsensical. When I decided who would win March's NANOHYPE AWARD, I needed to turn to a reprint of a book that in turn references an earlier book that in turn references an even earlier book. And I believe that this typifies how hyperbolic stories survive.

The winner is Richard A. Posner's CATASTROPHE: RISK AND RESPONSE (Oxford UP) 2004 as reprinted in part in the 11:3 2005 edition of SKEPTIC, pp. 42-63. On pp. 48-49, we have retold the story of "Omnivorous Nanomachines." Posner references Martin Rees' OUR FINAL HOUR (Basic Books) 2003. Rees' book heavily references Drexler while Posner's references Rees' but not Drexler (except in endnotes). Both the Posner and Rees books are interesting but forgettable contributions to the litany of disasters that we confront and may confront in the next few decades. If you are interested in catastrophes, be advised neither of these books can compare with Jared Diamond's COLLAPSE: HOW SOCIETIES CHOOSE TO FAIL OR SUCCEED (Viking) 2005 for the depth of research and theoretical architecture (I was pleased Neal Lane recommended this book at a recent talk he gave as part of our NanoSemester at the University of South Carolina).

Macroscopically, this article/excerpt represents a form of journalism which has become highly popular: disaster journalism. (There is an interesting article by Benjamin Radford, "Ringing False Alarms: Skepticism and Media Scares," in the March/April 2005 issue of SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, 34-39 and a wonderful book by Barry Glassner, THE CULTURE OF FEAR: WHY AMERICANS ARE AFRAID OF THE WRONG THINGS, (Basic Books), 2000 that tap into this issue). Furthermore, I anticipate more research on this by my group and myself at South Carolina in terms of nanotechnology and hyperbole.

While this is hardly the place to make a case on disaster journalism and the tabloidization of journalism in general, it is enough to say at this point that it is pervasive and it is ever-increasing. The losers are the foundations of the Fourth Estate and the public sphere both as active participants in the process of checks and balances.

What fascinates me is how this problem impacts upstream participation by the public in science and technology decision making. The information the public needs to participate can neither be secured entirely from educational preparation since there are simply too much demand on the institutions that educate nor from government sources since they often lack objectivity. This leaves us with the press (read media) and the press is becoming more and more dependent on its own sources, government and business/industry. The public is left with little guidance.

Why does the press exaggerate and use hyperbole? While there are many reasons, some of which will be addressed in my book and later postings, Davis Morrison from NASA Astrobiology Institute when addressing "Hyperbole in Media Report on Asteroids and Impacts" began his article (SKEPTICAL INQUIRER, March/April 2005) by highlighting the more obvious motivations.

"Many observers of the science press have noted an increasing tendency from both news releases and printed stories to exaggerate the uniqueness and significance of new research. The writer of a news release does this to increase the probability that the media will cover the story, and the media reporter will go along with this hyperbole or perhaps expand it further to get the story approved for publication by editors and other gatekeepers" (p. 29).

The impact of disaster reporting has found itself repeated in the books we read, which takes us to the Posner excerpt. I will refrain from reprinting the direct quotations out of Rees' book.

When discussing how nanomachines could proliferate until consuming all life, he includes the sentence: "With an unlimited power source enabling rapid replication and hence multiplication, the creatures could smother the earth." While this remark is hardly new to anyone who has followed the gray goo controversy, the next paragraph caught my attention.

"The danger is taken seriously enough by leading scientists working in molecular nanotechnology to have impelled them to issue guidelines limiting the power supply for nanomachines to power sources that, unlike sunlight and not found in the natural environment" (p. 48). Obviously, Posner is referring to the Foresight Guidelines and endnotes them. My criticism is his power tagging the authors of the Guidelines as leading scientists. While I have great admiration for many of the people involved in this process, I am not sure they are "leading scientists" in the field.

Posner continues. "The contention by the distinguished chemist Richard Smalley that self-replicating nanomachines will never be created is hardly reassuring, given the record of scientists' never predictions" (p. 48). There are so many incorrect assumptions in this sentence it is bristling. First, Smalley's remarks may be more than contentious. Second, Smalley's remarks have mostly been reassuring. When we tally the folks who side with Smalley, they tend to swamp the opposing side. Add to this observation the retreat by Drexler from the gray goo scenario as an accidental phenomenon and Posner's remarks are even more suspect. Third, if Posner wants to suggest scientific predictions of never-ness have been prolific, make the case rather than punctuate the sentence with this rhetorical flourish.

Next, he adds that "…autoproduced nanomachines have a weapon potential ominous enough to threaten catastrophe and imminent enough to warrant concern" (pp. 48-49). While this remark returns the reader to the topic of catastrophe, it is wholly dependent on the assumption of autoproduction, which I will dub self-replication, and as an intrinsic characteristic of applied nanoscience and nanotechnology, it has been debunked universally (one day soon I will post material defining the difference between self-assembly and self-replication). In addition, the imminent nature of nanoweaponry is simply glossed over. While there are some serious issues here, Posner does not examine them. Instead he reverts of storytelling in the Crichton style. In the book version the following is credited to a private communication with Drexler (Book, p. 37). In the article, the prose has changed a bit, but it is sufficiently similar to the book version.

"Imagine cruise missiles that after traveling thousands of miles (as the existing cruise missiles can do) release smaller missiles that travel tens of miles and release wasp-sized missiles that can fly for miles to targets and then explode or that land, observe communicate with each other or report back to a command center, hold tight for long periods, then resume their destructive course. Millions of tons of such nanomissiles could be a potent means of global conquest and control, and the required technology may soon be available" (pp. 48-49, parenthetical remark in original).

If Posner wants to address "smart dust" he should do so. If he wants to discuss drone weapon systems, he should do so as well. These are systems that are the product of microtechnologies. While they may be enhanced by nanoscience, they have not been instigated by applied nanoscience per se. More importantly, time frame, time frame, time frame…. Never trust anyone who doesn't cite their sources and be wary of anyone who tells you that the best they can do with a time frame is claim soon.

Posner has written some great books on the law. For example, LAW, PRAGMATISM, AND DEMOCRACY (Harvard UP, 2003) is a great read. However, CATASTROPHE adds nothing to the applied nanoscience and nanotechnology debate and little to true risk studies.


Lane said...

Now I'm glad that of these books, Collapse is the one I picked up at the bookstore the other day.

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