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Better Long

By Bob Ostertag
April 30th, 2020

Martin Rees is a top shelf astrophysicist. England’s Royal Astronomer, Cambridge Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics, Royal Society Research Professor, foreign associate of both the National Academy of Sciences and the Russian Academy of Sciences, long list of prizes, etc. 

In 2001, he published a book titled Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning: How Terror, Error, and Environmental Disaster Threaten Humankind’s Future in This Century – on Earth and Beyond.

In the book, he argued that the odds of civilization collapsing in the 21st century were at least 50-50. He highlighted four kinds of threats: nuclear war; terrorism; scientific error; and environmental catastrophe. In 2012 he co-founded the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) at the University of Cambridge, intended to study extinction level; threats posed by present or future technology.

In 2017, he went even further and placed a bet on The Long Now, a web site where scientists are invited to publicly put their reputations on the line with predictions about the future. For a bet to qualify, the predicted event must be at least two years into the future, and “the subject of the prediction or bet must be societally or scientifically important.”

Here is the bet he placed: 

A bioterror or bioerror will lead to one million casualties in a single event within a six month period starting no later than Dec 3, 2020.

He defined “bioerror” as follows”

By “bioerror”, I mean something which has the same effect as a terror attack, but rises from inadvertence rather than evil intent.

He included a precise measure: 

Casualties will be defined by WHO, CDC, or BPHS, whoever has the highest numbers. Casualties should ideally include “victims requiring hospitalization” and not include indirect deaths caused by the pathogen.

Steven Pinker took up the bet. Pinker is cognitive psychologist at Havard, and is known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind. He is the author of many widely read books, including The Blank Slate

The bet was for $400. 

There is currently an intense debate about the source of the coronavirus. At the present time, the idea that COVID-19 was the result of a deliberate effort to “weaponize” the virus can be discounted as conspiracy theory. But the possibility that the virus was inadvertently leaked from a lab in Wuhan is not far-fetched. Experts concur that in all likelihood the virus jumped from bats to humans. That could have happened at a wet market in Wuhan. Or it could have come from a maximum-security bio-lab in Wuhan, the first such maximum security lab in all of China, where a top official was researching coronaviruses in bats, and where there had been complaints about unsafe practices regarding the disposal of animal remains. Relevant samples have been destroyed, and scientific papers regarding the matter have been removed by Chinese censors. So it may well never be known if the virus came from the market or the lab. 

Perhaps this is a meaningless question. The virus is now global. The only meaningful question is how we deal with it. 

And yet the question of where it came from beckons. There has been a big increase in the number of high containment labs being built in the world, in part due to national competition for scientific edge.“While these are good for learning about viruses and bacteria and the etiology of diseases, they come with a trade-off for safety, security and responsible science,” said Filippa Lentzos, of the department of global health and social medicine at King’s College London.

This is precisely the danger Martin Rees focused on with the notion of “bio-error.” He believed that biology research was becoming so powerful and so widely practiced that catastrophe had become inevitable, whether resulting from error or terror.

As of now (April 27, 202, 6:16pm PST) there have been 211,533 deaths, so we are closing in on a quarter of a million. The bet was one million casualties in a single event within a six month period starting no later than Dec 3, 2020.

So, is the global pandemic a result of bioerror? Or the long predicted result of ever-increasing population growth, ever-diminishing habitat for other species, with the resulting increase in virus exchange between humans and other species?

The question is relevant to how we think about the role of human technology in the world. And to whether Pinker or Rees wins the $400.

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Robert Ostertag’s work cannot easily be summarized or pigeonholed. He has published more than twenty albums of music, five books, and a feature film. His writings on contemporary politics have been published on every continent and in many languages, beginning with his work as a journalist covering the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s. His books cover a wide range of topics, from labor unions to the history of journalism to estrogen and testosterone. He has performed at music, film, and multimedia festivals around the globe. His radically diverse musical collaborators include the Kronos Quartet, John Zorn, Mike Patton, transgender cabaret icon Justin Vivian Bond, British guitar innovator Fred Frith, EDM DJ Rrose, and many others.