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“Catastrophe: Risk and Response” By Richard A. Posner New York; Oxford University Press 352 pages; $28 In Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, the young Alvy Singer, a surrogate for the auteur, gets depressed and stops doing his homework. “The universe is expanding,” he tells a doctor. “Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that will be the end of everything.” He concludes, “What’s the point?” Alvy didn’t know the half of it, according to Richard A. Posner. In his new book, “Catastrophe: Risk and Response,” Posner posits far more immediate disasters to focus our angst on: asteroid collision! killer bio-tweaked viruses and loose nukes wielded by terrorists! nanobot gray goo! And even the “strangelet disaster,” in which high-energy physics experiments create a subatomic “string” chain reaction that causes the collapse of all earthly matter into a hyperdense sphere 100 meters across. Every child has a nightmare in his closet; Posner’s nightmare closet is a walk-in. Posner — a respected judge on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and a prolific author — says he is simply trying to be a Paul Revere for perilous times. “I am not a Green, an alarmist, an apocalyptic visionary, a catastrophist, a Chicken Little, a Luddite, an anticapitalist, or even a pessimist,” he writes. With that grand denial in place, he provides his bottom-line exhortation: Accept the challenges. Do the homework. “I have come to believe that what I shall be calling the ‘catastrophic risks’ are real and growing,” he writes, “and that the social sciences, in particular economics, statistics, cognitive psychology, and law, have an essential role to play in the design of policies and institutions for combating them.” So sign up now for Attorneys Against the Asteroids! May the torts be with you! Joking aside, this is a deeply serious book. The evidence is carefully collected from credible sources. Some of the asteroid impact projections come from sober NASA studies. The strangelet idea springs from the theories of respected physicists. Similar expertise is brought to bear on the catastrophic risks of global warming, bioterrorism, and the risk of tweaked superbugs, usurpation of humans by intelligent machines, or even self-replicating, ultratiny nanomachines that may someday cover the earth in a kind of “gray goo.” None of these events is likely in the near term, Judge Posner acknowledges. But each is possible. And we should be doing more to prepare for the likeliest disasters. After all, if one of the Really Bad Things is possible, “would one want to bet the planet” that it won’t happen? We do not pay sufficient attention to these possible disasters and how to prevent them, he writes, because of a number of factors, including scientific and statistical illiteracy, along with an irrational trust in the positive effects of science. We tend to focus only on the crisis before us: “Because the human mind is limited, people can’t think about every danger that might beset them.” Posner isn’t just out to scare, though he does an awfully good job of that. He wants us to take concrete action as well — for example, by having nations put more money into scanning the heavens for near-earth asteroids. That should be followed by cost-benefit analyses. But he wants much more. He would classify America’s sensitive research and restrict foreign students’ access to it. He wants better international cooperation to monitor potentially dangerous developments in science and technology. (See: bugs, killer; goo, gray; and spheres, hyperdense.) He calls this “catastrophic risk review,” and it will take the efforts of scientists, economists, politicians, and, yes, lawyers, to make it all happen. Oh, and plenty of new police powers. Do his proposals pose a threat to science, especially high-energy physics, for which he seems to have no use at all? No problem, he says. “If a risk to the safety of the nation and indeed of the entire world is great enough, some retardation in the rate of scientific progress may be a price worth paying for reducing the risk.” To reduce the potential for mad scientists and sleeper cells in the lab, he writes, “it might be prudent to treat thousands of American scientists and technicians as potential terrorists, in much the same way that all airline passengers are treated as potential terrorists.” This is the part of the book that is the most unsatisfying. Posner takes on straw-man civil libertarians, painting them as absolutists who brainlessly hinder the nation’s defenses. As he puts it, “The civil libertarian who treats the Bill of Rights as a suicide pact does less damage to national security than he does to the Bill of Rights.” Civil libertarians might cavil, of course, but the judge says their worries don’t count as much because they don’t understand science. And that ignorance, he claims, injects bias.” But how does he account for the many scientists who stand up for open research and civil liberties? There may be no atheists in foxholes, but there are plenty of civil libertarians at the lab bench. Of the USA Patriot Act, he says, “Taken together, the powers conferred by the act are somewhat ominous, but relatively few people are affected, and it would require a more freewheeling use of the conferred powers than yet attempted by the U.S. Department of Justice to return civil liberties to where they were in, say, the 1950s.” Even torture might be necessary in times of urgent need, he contends, and those who argue against it display “a reluctance to confront difficult choices.” But what is he doing, with his pseudoscientific reduction of risks to simple formulas, and his push for extreme measures to confront unpredictable risks? He is liberal on one score: He liberally exercises the author’s prerogative to try to have it both ways. “I fear that I will be misunderstood as advocating the use of torture to combat the threat posed by bioterrorism or other deliberate catastrophic acts. I do not advocate it,” he says. He is not certain that it really works, or what techniques work, or whether coercive techniques that are unpleasant but do not cross the fuzzy line into torture might be sufficient to get the job done. Oh, no -� he just wants to raise the issue to show that torturing prisoners “would not pose a catastrophic political risk,” such as a slide into military dictatorship or barbarism. “Ugly as the Abu Ghraib scandal is,” he argues, “no one supposes that it threatens to unravel our liberal democratic society.” So — he can see the rise of intelligent machines that will enslave us, but he can’t envision mission creep for police powers. Posner draws an oddly fuzzy line, however, around the sphere of privacy. He warns that “curtailing civil liberties in response to the threat of catastrophic risks created by terror groups or deranged scientists ought to depend on whether such a curtailment would itself create a catastrophic risk.” The coming together of databases of personal information that will allow pervasive surveillance, so that “personal privacy is completely extinguished as a result of the growth and linkage of electronic databases. That is a prospect well worth worrying about.” On that, at least, we agree. I am not some complacent skeptic or what Posner calls a “one-note Johnny” civil libertarian. In fact, I coauthored a book on biological terror with epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, entitled Living Terrors: What America Needs to Know to Survive the Coming Bioterrorist Catastrophe. I write extensively on the risks of cyberterrorism. I recognize the risks, and Posner cites my works in both fields. I agree that we could be doing more to avert some disasters. In our book, Osterholm and I propose a thorough upgrading of the nation’s health system to be able to quickly detect and respond to bioterror attack, and I see nothing loony about putting more money into near-earth asteroid detection. But I don’t see the need for the extreme measures with regard to civil liberties that he suggests. That scares me more than any asteroid. John Schwartz is a reporter for The New York Times.

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