Just another Reality-based bubble in the foam of the multiverse.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Probabilities and Likelihood of Exigent Circumstances

Given enough time, a monkey might type a line of Shakespeare, and even a neocon apologist like John Tierney sees a glint of reality, though he'll doubtless muddle it up if he thinks about it too much:

In 1993, J. Richard Gott III computed with scientific certainty that humanity would survive at least 5,100 more years. At the time, I took that as reason to relax, but Dr. Gott has now convinced me I was wrong. He has issued a wake-up call: To ensure our long-term survival, we need to get a colony up and running on Mars within 46 years.

If you’re not awakened yet, I understand. It’s only prudent to be skeptical of people who make scientific forecasts about the end of humanity. Dr. Gott, a professor of astrophysics at Princeton, got plenty of grief after he made his original prediction in 1993. But in the ensuing 14 years, his prophetic credentials have strengthened, and not merely because humanity is still around.

Dr. Gott has used his technique to successfully forecast the longevity of Broadway plays, newspapers, dogs and, most recently, the tenure in office of hundreds of political leaders around the world. He bases predictions on just one bit of data, how long something has lasted already; and on one assumption, that there is nothing special about the particular moment that you’re observing this phenomenon. This assumption is called the Copernican Principle, after the astronomer who assumed he wasn’t seeing the universe from a special spot in the center.

Suppose you want to forecast the political longevity of the leader of a foreign country, and you know nothing about her country except that she has just finished her 39th week in power. What are the odds that she’ll leave office in her 40th week? According to the Copernican Principle, there’s nothing special about this week, so there’s only a 1-in-40 chance, or 2.5 percent, that she’s now in the final week of her tenure.

It’s equally unlikely that she’s still at the very beginning of her tenure. If she were just completing the first 2.5 percent of her time in power, that would mean her remaining time would be 39 times as long as the period she’s already served — 1,521 more weeks (a little more than 29 years).

So you can now confidently forecast that she will stay in power at least one more week but not as long as 1,521 weeks. The odds of your being wrong are 2.5 percent on the short end and 2.5 percent on the long end — a total of just 5 percent, which means that your forecast has an expected accuracy of 95 percent, the scientific standard for statistical significance.

And you can apply this Copernican formula to lots of other phenomena by assuming they’re neither in the first 2.5 percent nor the final 2.5 percent of their life spans.

Now, that range is so broad it may not seem terribly useful to you, and Dr. Gott readily concedes that his Copernican formula often is not the ideal method. The best the formula could do regarding Bill Clinton, who had been president for 127 days when the 1993 paper in Nature was published, was predict he would serve at least three more days but not more than 13.6 more years. You could have gotten a narrower range by using other information, like actuarial data from previous presidencies, or factoring in the unlikelihood that the Constitution would be changed so he could serve more than two terms.

But the beauty of the Copernican formula is that it allows you to make predictions when you don’t have any other information, which is how Dr. Gott managed to predict the tenure of virtually every other nation’s leader that day in 1993 — a total of 313 leaders. If none of those still in power stays in office beyond age 100, Dr. Gott’s accuracy rate will turn out to be almost exactly 95 percent...

The Copernican formula predicts, based solely on our 200,000-year track record, that the human race is likely to survive at least 5,100 more years but not longer than 7.8 million — roughly the same prediction you’d make based on the longevity of past mammals on Earth, Dr. Gott says...

After all, if colonization is common and there’s nothing special about our civilization, why haven’t we already colonized other worlds? Why aren’t we colonists ourselves from a civilization somewhere else?

If you think of yourself as a randomly chosen individual among all the intelligent beings who ever lived in the universe, then the odds are you’re living in one of the larger and older civilizations — simply because a lot more people have lived in those than in small, short-lived civilizations.

“The sobering facts,” Dr. Gott says, “are that in a 13.7 billion-year-old universe, we’ve only been around 200,000 years, and we’re only on one tiny planet. The Copernican answer to Enrico Fermi’s famous question — Where are the extraterrestrials? — is that a significant fraction must be sitting on their home planets.”

It might seem hard to imagine that humans would invent rockets and then never use them to settle other worlds, but Dr. Gott notes that past civilizations, notably China, abandoned exploration. He also notes that humans have been going into space for only 46 years — a worrisomely low number when using Copernican logic to forecast the human spaceflight program’s longevity.

Since there’s a 50 percent chance that we’re already in the second half of the space program’s total lifespan, Dr. Gott figures there is a 50 percent chance it will not last more than another 46 years. Maybe the reason civilizations don’t get around to colonizing other planets is that there’s a narrow window when they have the tools, population and will to do so, and the window usually closes on them. “In 1970 everyone figured we’d have humans on Mars by now, but we haven’t taken the opportunity,” Dr. Gott says. “We should it do soon, because colonizing other worlds is our best chance to hedge our bets and improve the survival prospects of our species. Sooner or later something will get us if we stay on one planet. By the time we’re in trouble and wish we had that colony on Mars, it may be too late...”

...If it’s true that civilizations normally go extinct because they get stuck on their home planets, then the odds are against us, but there’s nothing inevitable about the Copernican Principle. Earthlings could make themselves the statistical anomaly. When extinction is the norm, you may as well try to be special.

There's actually something interesting when you look at that 46 year guesstimate.

Towards the end of it, relatively inexpensive fossil fuels will be gone.

Inexpensive energy for an industrial base for interplanetary exploration and travel needn't come from fossil fuels. It's just an awfully handy source. But they're other forces at work that keep the E.T.'s at home and may just keep us closer to the 5000 year range, too.

Jeff Wells has another post up at Rigorous Intuition that's worth reading, and quoting here:

Post-war covert history has largely been one of de-legitimizing and destroying leftist and even moderate governments and opposition groups. We've seen the assassinations, the coups and wars; the economic arm-twisting; the corruption and blackmail. Since the murder of Rabin, "Israeli society, despairing of peace, has undergone a rightward radicalization." In the Arab world the process has been compounded by the elimination of even secular options, creating conditions in which the only effective vehicle for change is aligned with individuals, ideologies and finances indebted to international fascism.

This shouldn't be news to anyone here. The Muslim Brotherhood, which has spawned most "Jihadist" groups, was founded by Hassan al-Banna, an admirer of Hitler, and became a wartime Nazi intelligence asset. Post-war, like many such assets, it was rolled into the Western intelligence matrix. Swiss Nazi Ahmed Huber established the Al Taqwa Bank, which dispersed to bin Laden and others CIA monies seeded in the financial proxy of international terror and intelligence, BCCI.

Now where does antisemitism, and legitimate critique of Israel, fit in this complex picture?

There are at least two levels at play here for us. First to consider is politics and activism. The second is conspiracy theory.

Unapologetically I'm on the left, and I expect, to some degree or another and regardless of whether you even acknowledge it, you are as well. Broadly, or perhaps rather, ideally, taking the left implies an identification with the oppressed, the poor and the workers against the concentration of power and capital in the hands of an exploiting few. Israeli politics have taken a sharp right turn in the past 40 years, and the policies and consequences of occupation have been tragic and criminal. Perversely, and I believe intentionally for the right, the perpetuation of misery and exacerbation of tension has driven large numbers of both Palestinians and Israelis to rightward extremes. And it has carried many in the left along with it, unconsciously and uncritically, because the progressive options have already been eliminated by the fascists who play both sides...

Then there's conspiracy theory. It was 9/11 that caused many on the left to immerse themselves in it for the first time. There we found a thriving subculture, welcoming us with literature and semi-familiar jargon, telling us that "left" and "right" were fictions that divided us from together fighting the "real enemy." They too believed 9/11 was an "inside job," so even though we didn't start out from the same place, we were now on the same side - weren't we? We could learn much from them, even from the "former insiders" and veterans of the CIA and MI6 who were happy to help us find our footing, even if we weren't always sure what they meant by "international bankers" and "New World Order" - right?

...There is a subtle campaign of co-option within the subculture of conspiracy to lead nearly every issue of suppressed history and high crime back to a Jewish root. This is why the operational Arab element of the international fascist Mafia has, for many, been totally eradicated from the equation of "9/11 Truth," and the "smoking gun" has become a case of "insurance fraud" for a grasping New York Jew. If it's successful, the left option will again have been eliminated, and the only effective opposition to fascist power will be a fascist populism.

Antisemitism is as objectionable as any hate directed towards any people for simply being. But antisemitism has a special pedigree, not because Jews are special, but because they are the historic and still-favoured scapegoats of fascists. (Some of whom, of course, are themselves Jewish, but whose allegiance is rather to criminal power.) And sometimes, when we don't reflect on the pedigree of our own influences, we're unconsciously doing their bidding. And I'd rather do nothing, and it would be better if I did, than do that.

That needed to be said in a really serious way.

As usual, there are some real pearls in Jeff's comment section. Caveat: there are also a lot of monkeys flinging their own feces around at each other. Jeff, after all, uses the conspiracy theory schtick to make a living. It can get really torrid.

But then there are gems like the iridescent cuttlefish:

...Now, I'm with Jeff and the Hemperor so far, 'cuz who wouldn't be? Who would sign up for "mean-spirited" and "fascist"? Well, okay; that was kind of Jeff's point here--the CT industry is yet another front in the War On Liberals. But then we have that notion I metioned at the top about life not being fair...why isn't it, exactly?

Because we don't have enough food to feed the poor? (Not true...)

Because there are limits to growth and if we share the resources equally Malthus's rat-humans will just exponentially multiply, eating us out of house & home? (No, Malthus never lived to see what happens when an impovershed country's standard of living is sufficiently raised--the birth rate falls, along with crime and violence of every sort. Except in America, of course, but that's another story altogether.)

No, none of these answers work (don't bother with Hobbes, either, since he was writing for the newly restored Crown and didn't know man's state of nature from a Dickensian textile mill.)

The answer is the other sort of conspiracy theory--the liberal version. Toss out the magic; forget the rituals and the bloodlines (just for conversation's sake). Concentrate instead on the very obvious.

When GM was on trial for conspiring to destroy public transportation and replace it with individually owned internal combustion cars, Charles E. Wilson, CEO of GM for eleven years (including WWII) was asked whether it ever occurred to him that destroying public transport would be against the interest of the citizenry. Wilson scratched his head and (famously) said:

"What is good for the country is good for General Motors, and what's good for General Motors is good for the country."

GM was found guilty in the end, given a $1000 fine and told to keep on protecting America's interests because Wilson's remark opened too wide a chasm for the good Americans to leap: that this was not indeed the case. That scarcity and conspiracy (another quick definition: "operations and decisions undertaken in secrecy") were not in anyone's interests except those who profit from them...

When our most basic assumptions are false, we are not motivated to change them, but instead to continue down the path we're on in order to justify having taken that path in the first place.

The real conspiracy is too vast & deep to even see anymore. It's in the belief that life isn't fair and we can't afford to help the poor. It's the belief that freedom means freedom from social responsibility, freedom to make a buck...

It's the freedom of the right sorts of people to get their dues, freedom of the entrepreneurial to try to shrink governmental oversight to the point it can be strangled in the bathtub, freedom to hear only the right things being said by the serious people on T.V., freedom to know who Paris Hilton's boffing this week, the freedom of the wealthy patron to have the Visigoth private contractors man the walls of Rome to keep the other barbarians in their place.

That's what keeps the E.T.'s at home, and likely us, too.

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