Lifeboat Foundation

I’ve been invited to join this organization. But you can join too:

Lifeboat Foundation.

I hadn’t heard of it before. Do you know anything about it? Here’s their mission statement:

The Lifeboat Foundation is a nonprofit nongovernmental organization dedicated to encouraging scientific advancements while helping humanity survive existential risks and possible misuse of increasingly powerful technologies, including genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and robotics/AI, as we move towards the Singularity.

Lifeboat Foundation is pursuing a variety of options, including helping to accelerate the development of technologies to defend humanity, including new methods to combat viruses (such as RNA interference and new vaccine methods), effective nanotechnological defensive strategies, and even self-sustaining spacecolonies in case the other defensive strategies fail.

We believe that, in some situations, it might be feasible to relinquish technological capacity in the public interest (for example, we are against the U.S. government posting the recipe for the 1918 flu virus on the Internet).

We have some of the best minds on the planet working on programs to enable our survival. We invite you to join our cause!

It seems to have Nick Bostrom and Ray Kurzweil as two of its guiding figures: the overview features quotes from both.

Overview

An existential risk is a risk that is both global and terminal. Nick Bostrom defines it as a risk “where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential”. The term is frequently used to describe disaster and doomsday scenarios caused by non-friendly superintelligence, misuse of molecular nanotechnology, or other sources of danger.

The Lifeboat Foundation was formed to prevent existential events from happening, as once they occur, humanity may have no possibility to correct the error. Unfortunately governments, and humanity in general, always react AFTER a disaster has happened, and some disasters will leave no survivors so we must react BEFORE they occur. We must be proactive.

The Lifeboat Foundation is developing programs to prevent existential events (“shields”) as well as programs to preserve civilization (“preservers”) to survive such events.

Quotes

“Our approach to existential risks cannot be one of trial-and-error. There is no opportunity to learn from errors. The reactive approach — see what happens, limit damages, and learn from experience — is unworkable. Rather, we must take a proactive approach. This requires foresight to anticipate new types of threats and a willingness to take decisive preventive action and to bear the costs (moral and economic) of such actions.” — Nick Bostrom

“We cannot rely on trial-and-error approaches to deal with existential risks… We need to vastly increase our investment in developing specific defensive technologies… We are at the critical stage today for biotechnology, and we will reach the stage where we need to directly implement defensive technologies for nanotechnology during the late teen years of this century… A self-replicating pathogen, whether biological or nanotechnology based, could destroy our civilization in a matter of days or weeks.” — Ray Kurzweil

You’ll note there’s no mention here of global warming, mass extinction of species, oil depletion and other minor nuisances. Some people consider these problems insufficiently severe to count as “existential threats”… and thus, perhaps, best left to others. Some argue that there are already enough people worrying about these problem—while other threats need more attention than they’re getting.

That would be an interesting discussion to have. But I’m afraid there’s a cultural divide between the “green crowd” and the “tech crowd” that hinders such a discussion. The green crowd worries about things like global warming, the mass extinction that may currently be underway, and peak oil. The tech crowd worries about things like nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and asteroids hitting the Earth. Each crowd tends to think the other is a bit silly… and they don’t talk to each other enough. Am I just imagining this? I don’t think so.

Of course, any generalization this vast admits many exceptions. I like Gregory Benford because he confounds naive expectations: he thinks global warming is a desperately urgent problem that overshadows all others, but he’s willing to contemplate high-tech solutions. According to my theory, that should annoy both the green crowd and the tech crowd.

Personally I think all significant threats to civilization and biosphere should be evaluated and addressed in a unified way. Setting some aside because they’re “non-existential” or overly studied seems just as dangerous as setting others aside because they seem improbable or science-fiction-esque.

For one thing, I can imagine scenarios where medium-sized problems snowball into big “existential” ones. What’s the chance that in this century, global warming leads to droughts and famines which combined with oil shortages lead to political instability, the collapse of democratic governments, wars… and finally a world-wide nuclear or biological war? Maybe low… but I bet it’s higher than the chance of an asteroid hitting the Earth in this century.

I’m pleased to see that the Lifeboat Foundation plans “future programs” that will appeal to the green crowd:

ClimateShield
To protect against global warming and other unwanted climate changes.

BioPreserver
To preserve animal life and diversity on the planet.

EnergyPreserver
If our civilization ran out of energy, it would grind to a halt, so Lifeboat Foundation is looking for solutions.

However, their current programs are strongly focused on issues that appeal to the tech crowd. Maybe that’s okay, but maybe it’s a bit unbalanced:

AIShield
To protect against unfriendly AI (Artificial Intelligence).

AsteroidShield
To protect against devastating asteroid strikes.

BioShield
To protect against bioweapons and pandemics.

InternetShield
As the Internet grows in importance, an attack on it could cause physical as well as informational damage. An attack today on hospital systems or electric utilities could lead to deaths. In the future an attack could be used to alter the output that is produced by
nanofactories worldwide leading to massive deaths.

LifeShield Bunkers
Developing fallback positions on Earth in case programs such as our BioShield and NanoShield fail globally or locally.

NanoShield
To protect against ecophages and nonreplicating
nanoweapons.

ScientificFreedomShield
This shield strives to protect scientists from obstacles that would prevent latter day Max Plancks from completing their research.

SecurityPreserver
To prevent nuclear, biological, and nanotechnological attacks from occurring by using surveillance and
sousveillance
to identify terrorists before they are able to launch their attacks.

Space Habitats
To build fail-safes against global existential risks by encouraging the spread of sustainable human civilization beyond Earth.

29 Responses to Lifeboat Foundation

  1. Frederik De Roo says:

    Its quite remarkable (at least for me) what one can find on the internet, for example, googling turns up this:

    http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:http://atlasshrugs2000.typepad.com/atlas_shrugs/2007/08/atlas-exclusive.html

    Quoting:

    But believe it or not, there is a religion much more dangerous than the Religion of Peace. It is the Religion of Science.

    I have developed Lifeboat Foundation with a Trojan Horse meme that tries to wrap our goals in the Religion of Science memes. For example our mission statement begins with “The Lifeboat Foundation is a nonprofit nongovernmental organization dedicated to encouraging scientific advancements”.

    By wrapping our meme with a Religion of Science coating, I hope to develop enough resources that we can make sure that unlike every civilization so far, we can have at least SOME people survive this dangerous religion.

    I don’t know what to think about this, except that I have a very vague idea why green problems may not be on the list: they might not be considered as problems that are caused by science.

    • DavidTweed says:

      Assuming that essay is from the claimed source, that page makes me really worried about the Lifeboat Foundation. Not from the “Religion of Science” stuff per-se as much as the approach of “being bombastic without providing any evidential support and using Capitals that Magically Render Arguments Valid”. If this is the standard of analysis used by lifeboat board members then I doubt either lifeboat would benefit from Azimuth work or vice versa.

    • John Baez says:

      Thanks, Frederik, for discovering that old website! It’s very interesting, even shocking. I wonder what people will say now.

      I had been wondering why, among the list of programs to fight “existential threats”, there was a ScientificFreedomShield to “protect scientists from obstacles that would prevent latter day Max Plancks from completing their research.”

      Is this part of the “Trojan Horse” operation to “wrap” the Lifeboat Foundation’s goals in a “Religion of Science coating”?

      • John Baez says:

        I should add that what I find “shocking” is not someone complaining that science has become like a religion, with people feeling they must push forward any research they can (a perfectly normal thing to complain about), but rather that someone would set up a “Trojan Horse” operation to deal with this problem, and then publicly announce it, and then attempt to hide the fact that they did this, and then not succeed.

    • Vladimir Nesov says:

      For the reference: the link in the parent comment doesn’t work now, but this one does:
      http://web.archive.org/web/20080127202529/http://atlasshrugs2000.typepad.com/atlas_shrugs/2007/08/atlas-exclusive.html

  2. What’s the chance that in the next century, global warming leads to droughts and famines which combined with oil shortages lead to political instability, the collapse of democratic governments, wars…

    Next is possibly a typo?

    If such things happen (and it’s more likely than not…) they will happen in this century, an then most likely before 2050 due to 3 things converging: 1. Overpopulation, 2. peak oil (plus, peak phosphorus), 3. agricultural failures due to climate disruption.

    The paradigmatic example is Egypt 2011: 1. The world’s biggest importer of wheat, 2. ran out of oil export, 3. food prize index at record high after Russia stopped wheat exports (and other climatic mishaps all around).

    Next perhaps: Mexico. Let’s hope things will keep as peaceful as the Egypt revolution. But I doubt. They don’t yet starve.

    • John Baez says:

      “Next” is a tricky word in English—my German isn’t good enough to know if it works the same way in your language.

      Suppose you’re driving down the highway and someone tells you to take the next exit. Then you should take the very first exit you come to, not the one after that. Well… this is true unless you already see an exit when they’re saying their sentence! In that case you should not take the exit you see, but instead the one after that.

      So, my wife and I used to get confused when making our social plans. I’d ask “are we having dinner with Chad Hansen next weekend?” And she’d to misinterpret me. I think of this weekend as “already in view”, so that “next” weekend is the one after that. But she tends to think I mean “the first weekend we come to”.

      (We have a happy marriage: I have agreed never to say “next weekend”.)

      Next is possibly a typo?

      I was using “next century” to mean “the century from 2011 to 2111”. I’ll change my wording. Sorry.

      If such things happen (and it’s more likely than not…) they will happen in this century, an then most likely before 2050 due to 3 things converging: 1. overpopulation, 2. peak oil (plus, peak phosphorus), 3. agricultural failures due to climate disruption.

      I agree, but mainly because I have little sense of the future after around 2050.

  3. Apropos overpopulation…

    Stuff like this Lifeboat Foundation often provoke the Homo “Sapiens” cynic in me. Now I just can’t resist, since the English word “preserver” reminds me of German “Präservativ”, i.e. condom. Do these Lifeboat dreamers consider the necessity of erecting an OverpopulationShield? I guess instead they envision canning billions in orbital tin?


    On a more constructive tangent, I have since long this Plan C about a sort of LifeGarden foundation (cf. blog comment here). Carbon negative, tech independent – but requiring will for skill and some wisdom. Alas even the greenies don’t yet get it.

    • John Baez says:

      Florifulgurator wrote:

      Do these Lifeboat dreamers consider the necessity of erecting an OverpopulationShield? I guess instead they envision canning billions in orbital tin?

      I suspect they don’t consider the death of billions an “existential” threat, as long as some survive.

      Alas even the greenies don’t yet get it.

      Any plan that requires dramatic action before a dramatic crisis is already fully underway may be unrealistic, given human nature.

  4. John Baez says:

    Here’s some more on the “Trojan Horse” aspect of the Lifeboat Foundation:

    • Richard Loosemore, The Lifeboat Foundation: A stealth attack on scientists?, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, 8 March 2011.

    • Richard Loosemore, Eric Klein’s [sic] “Trojan Horse” essay.

    According to Loosemore, Klien deleted his essay on Pamela Geller’s Atlas Shrugs blog on 7 March 2011, after Loosemore began complaining about it.

    The details are nasty, complicated and morbidly fascinating—precisely the sort of thing I don’t really want to get into here on Azimuth!

    • WebHubTel says:

      I have seen a bunch of these stealth sites in the past, with names such as Foresight Institute, Discovery Institute, Tech Central Station, and Extropy Institute. My suggestion is to say something negative about them, or you may later find yourself quoted as a enthusiastic backer of their agenda.

      • John Baez says:

        The Foresight Institute is not a “stealth site”. It was founded by Eric Drexler in 1986, they have conferences, and a good friend of mine regularly attends them and finds them interesting.

        I am not familiar with the other organizations (or ‘stealth sites’) you mention.

        I can’t tell how much activity the Lifeboat Organization actually engages in. This is one thing I’d be interested in finding out.

        • WebHubTel says:

          Maybe they have changed their stripes but they used to be a libertarian outfit with people like the lawyer Glenn Reynolds as a director. No one else could gain access to their inner circle.

          The late physicist Richard Smalley crushed Drexler in a Foresight debate on molecular assembly possibilities.
          http://www.hyle.org/journal/issues/10-2/bueno.htm
          Smalley was a visionary in his concerns about our energy future and I deeply respected what he had to say. My PhD thesis was on crystal growth and so I could follow his arguments closely.

          The initial taint doesn’t rub off and I admit I haven’t followed them since about 6 years ago.

          Discovery Institute has a creationist agenda cloaked as Intelligent Design.
          Tech Central Station is Wall Street boosterism.

        • WebHubTel says:

          I erred on the safe side. I thought you wanted to keep politics out of this site and the best way is to avoid linking to other sites with a possible agenda. The first director of the Foresight Institute was Glenn Reynolds of the InstaPundit political blog. My rule is to always follow the money.

        • John Baez says:

          Sorry, Webhubtel—your 7:15 post was misclassified as spam, and I just rescued it now.

          Thanks for the information about the Foresight Institute. I’ll check it out if I ever need to make some decision involving them.

          I hope to interview Eric Drexler for This Week’s Finds someday. Then you can ask him if he was indeed “crushed”.

          I erred on the safe side. I thought you wanted to keep politics out of this site and the best way is to avoid linking to other sites with a possible agenda.

          Thanks. Of course what I want most of all is to avoid the aggressive tribalism that seems to emerge whenever people talk about politics: their IQ’s seem to drop as they line up for battle.

          I’m very interested in understanding the agenda of any person or organization I might deal with, but it’s hard to talk about the details without pissing people off, so I prefer in general to focus here on scientific questions. This post of mine was pushing the boundaries I’ve set for myself, but I think it was worthwhile, because (so far) we seem to have learned some interesting things without getting into a big fight.

        • streamfortyseven says:

          I’ve read the article by Otavio Bueno on the Drexler-Smalley debate, and there’s a footnote which gets to the point, sort of:

          “Of course, Drexler has actually not constructed a molecular assembler. The question of the possibility of constructing such a device would be irrelevant if the device had already been constructed. It is enough for Drexler’s purpose to establish the theoretical possibility of such a construction, sketching how it could be performed in principle. If no known physical and chemical laws are violated in the construction, the resulting process is, at least, theoretically possible – even though we may not have the slightest idea of how to implement the process and thus actually construct the assembler.”

          The calculations done by Drexler to construct his model were performed with a molecular modeling program, MM-2, which models molecules as if they were in absolute vacuum and at absolute zero temperature. At some point in the Bueno article, Drexler conceded that he would be using aqueous chemistry in producing nanomachines – and in such an environment, the highly-strained systems which he proposes would most probably react with solvent or solvated particles or gases (such as oxygen) in order to relieve the strain. Highly strained organic molecules are highly reactive organic molecules. Drexler’s ideas seem to me to be more likely to result in black tar rather than grey goo – all it takes is for a single bond in one of his nanomachines to react with solvent or dissolved gas, and then that nanomachine is permanently disabled – with no means for repair. Nanochemistry has been done, it’s just my opinion that Drexler’s version of it will prove to be impossible to achieve in real life.

        • Bruce Smith says:

          … Drexler conceded that he would be using aqueous chemistry in producing nanomachines – and in such an environment, the highly-strained systems which he proposes would most probably react with solvent ….

          Drexler is well aware that his diamondoid nanomachine proposals require vacuum (or possibly, inert noble gases), and possibly low temperatures, to operate and to be built, due to highly reactive structures (especially intermediate structures). His proposals for machines operating in water are not about the same machines — those would be built of biotechnology-derived components compatible with water (e.g. using DNA Origami). Those could be used to assemble tough polymeric structures in water which retain their structure out of water, as one of several stages of machinery building a different kind of machinery, before diamondoid machines could be built.

          Related topics are discussed extensively in his book Nanosystems and in various articles on his website and blog. I’m sure you can find there answers to the most common objections to his proposals. (Note that if you hear of his proposals second-hand, they might have been misquoted into a form which wouldn’t work.)

        • streamfortyseven says:

          I’ve actually had a look at his 1991 dissertation in which he goes into great detail on his ideas – and if he’s published anything which isn’t behind a paywall or which doesn’t require me to pay for another of his books – I’ve got “Engines of Creation” with its numerous examples of penta- and hexa-valent carbon sitting around here somewhere, which goes into greater detail than the tree paragraphs reviewing others’ work in molecular biology, I’d be glad to look at the references which you supply.

        • streamfortyseven says:

          I checked out the NRC’s report (at http://e-drexler.com/d/06/00/NRC_molecular_manufacturing_report.pdf) on Drexler’s “Productive Nanosystems” ideas, and found this conclusive paragraph:

          “The committee found the evaluation of the feasibility of these ideas to be difficult because of the lack of experimental demonstrations of many of the key underlying concepts. The technical arguments make use of accepted scientific knowledge but constitute a “theoretical analysis demonstrating the possibility of a class of as-yet unrealizable devices.”22 Thus, this work is currently outside the mainstream of both conventional science (designed to seek new knowledge) and conventional engineering (usually concerned with the design of things that can be built more or less immediately). Rather, it may be in the tradition of visionary engineering analysis exemplified by Konstantin Tsiolkovski’s 1903 publication, “The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reaction Devices,”23 and today’s studies of “space elevators” based on hypothetical carbon nanotube composite materials.24
          Construction of extended structures with three-dimensional covalent bonding may be easy to conceive and might be readily accomplished, but only by using tools that do not yet exist.25 In other words, the tool structures and other components cannot yet be built, but they can be computationally modeled. Modeling the thermodynamic stability of a structure (showing that it can, in principle, exist) does not tell one how to build it, and these arguments do not yet constitute a research strategy or a research plan.” NRC Report at p107.

          References cited:
          22. K.E. Drexler. 1992. Nanosystems, Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing and Computation.
          New York: Wiley & Sons.

          23. K.E. Tsiolkovski. 1903. The exploration of cosmic space by means of reaction devices.
          (Issledovanie mirovykh prostranstv reaktivuymi priboram.) Nauchnoe Obozrenie, No. 5.
          St. Petersburg, Russia.

          24. B.C. Edwards. 2005. A hoist to the heavens. IEEE Spectrum Online 36. Available at http://www.
          spectrum.ieee.org/aug05/1690, accessed March 2006.

          25. M. Rieth and W. Schommers, eds. 2005. Handbook of Computational and Theoretical Nano-
          technology. American Scientific Publishers.

          I had a look at the Youtube video presentation for “Productive Nanosystems”, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vEYN18d7gHg

          and it’s pretty obvious that it’s got to run at absolute zero and in a perfect vacuum in order to maintain the precise positional placement required for its functioning.

          Moreover, the video posits the use of acetylene as a starting material and going through a number of steps to the final product, which is apparently a laptop computer with 100 billion CPUs amongst other features, apparently built from acetylene only, with warm air and pure water as side products.

          The first step in the manufacturing process is to create a stream of 100% pure acetylene (H-C-C-H) molecules, which are linear, and roughly 3 Angstroms long. Somehow, the other components of air, such as hydrogen, H-H, oxygen, O=O, and nitrogen, N=N, both of the latter with lone pairs of electrons, carbon dioxide, O=C=O, with lone pairs on the oxygen atoms, and monatomic species such as argon, are filtered out by size, even though carbon dioxide is longer than acetylene and monatomic noble gases are much smaller (and quite unreactive). I could see how the carbon dioxide might be filtered out, but not the oxygen or nitrogen which are similar in size or the argon which is much smaller. I assume the stream of reactant is 100% dry so no water is present. After filtration, supposedly we have pure acetylene somehow, and the next step is to adsorb it, one molecule at a time, on a diamondoid “tip”, placed thereon by some kind of metallic structure which will adsorb acetylene when required and will de-adsorb acetylene when required for deposition on the tip, where it stays and does not fall off or move, without bonding to the diamondoid structure. One more requirement – there can’t be any mechanical vibration of the assembler device – temperature control has to be absolute, and there has to be absolute seismic damping.

          OK, so the acetylene molecule is parked on the tip, and then a arm comes down and plucks a “hydrogen atom” from either end of the acetylene molecule. Now there’s a choice – you’re breaking a covalent bond and taking the hydrogens off as radicals, leaving an acetylene biradical in place, or you’re pulling off two protons, and leaving an acetylene dianion, or perhaps a radical on one end and a proton on the other, making an acetylene radical anion.

          Now you’re in trouble, because you’ve just made an extremely reactive molecule. Acetylene biradicals combine with diamondoid structures to make more diamondoid structure (see “Insights into the Growth of (Ultra)nanocrystalline Diamond by Combined Molecular Dynamics and Monte Carlo Simulations”, Eckert et al., Cryst. Growth Des., 2010, 10 (7), pp 3005–3021.) or with each other to make polyethylene (“Chemisorption of C2 Biradical and Acetylene on Reconstructed Diamond(111)-(2 × 1)”, Yang et al., J. Phys. Chem. B, 2003, 107 (4), pp 985–993.)

          Conceivably, if N=N and O=O have passed through the filter, the biradical could form lots of interesting and useless side products with those molecules as well.

          Computer simulation is interesting and can produce tantalizing results, but you have to be aware of the limitations of the model, and the assumptions which simplify actual physical reality into something which can be computed within reasonable time. For molecular mechanics models such as Drexler uses, you have to know about their parameterization as well. If he’s using ab initio methods, you have to know the level of theory he’s using, and the assumptions therein. Calculations are not perfect, they can predict results which are not correct, or are not realizable in real physical systems.

      • mitchellporter says:

        “names such as Foresight Institute, Discovery Institute, Tech Central Station, and Extropy Institute”

        You’re mixing together some rather different entities. Discovery Institute are creationists. Extropy Institute are transhumanists. Tech Central Station was a corporate-friendly technology news-site. Drexler’s Foresight Institute has the same relationship to nanotechnology that Yudkowsky’s Singularity Institute has to artificial intelligence – founded on the expectation that its chief technology of concern is going to end the world as we know it, either in a good way or a bad way. Taken all together, they have about as much in common as the Council on Foreign Relations and the Black Panther Party.

    • Tim van Beek says:

      There is still the classic The Physicists by Friedrich Dürrenmatt: A contemplation of the dangers of science that is intelligent, sarcastic and big fun, despite being 50 years old.

      John said:

      I should add that what I find “shocking” is not someone complaining that science has become like a religion, with people feeling they must push forward any research they can (a perfectly normal thing to complain about)…

      Yes it is, and it should be, among scientists and non-scientists as well.

    • streamfortyseven says:

      Lifeboat seems to be really dodgy, and the fact that they use deliberate deception to rope high profile people into their organization is even worse. I think it would be a bad idea, a really bad idea, to make common cause with people like this.

      Pamela Geller has the following remarks on her weblog as of April 1, 2011 – She seems to be in deadly earnest even though it’s April Fools Day:

      [quote deleted by the moderator]

      Wacky stuff. Azimuth should steer clear of these people, they’re the 2011 version of [comparison deleted by moderator].

      • John Baez says:

        Hudson Luce, aka streamfortyseven:

        I deleted your quote of Pamela Geller and your characterization of ‘these people’ (whoever you mean), because my blog forbids discussions of partisan politics—and especially the practice of demonizing ones opponents, which pervades her comments but also, alas, your response to them.

        There are many places to argue about politics, but this is not one. Anyone who wants to read Pamela Geller’s blog can easily do so: I don’t want that junk here.

  5. John Baez says:

    I sent an email to Klien, saying I will not join the scientific advisory board of the Lifeboat Foundation, and explaining why. I tried to make it clear that his apparent belief that science has become a religion to some people is not disturbing to me, nor is his apparent belief that we should do something about that. Rather, what disturbs me is his stated plan to deal with this using a “Trojan Horse” maneuver rather than some more forthright approach. And what’s more disturbing still is that the passage on the Atlas Shrugs blog containing this plan was deleted after someone complained about it.

  6. funkalunatic says:

    My opinion: Judging from their blog, Lifeboat Foundation seems less like a serious endeavor and more like the pro-Singularity crowd paying lip-service to some of the problems that would be raised by the kind of rapid technological development they predict and support. That would explain: a) Why it’s main honchos are basically the Singularity crowd, b) why their solutions are mostly further technological implementations rather than technological suppression, and c) why there is little serious discussion of how social dynamics guide technological development, application, and access.

    • John Baez says:

      Interesting analysis. How would we square that with the “Trojan Horse” idea? Did the Trojan Horse get taken over by the Trojans? Or have the Trojans been successfully fooled?

      The social dynamics play a crucial role in determining both the risks of technologies and our responses to them. Anyone who ignores that stuff, does so at great peril.

      • streamfortyseven says:

        If “social dynamics” play a crucial role in determining risks and responses, then politics must eventually come into play.

        Unless there is a universally-held ethical standard which trumps all monetary or other power interests and which forecloses all choices other than the “right” choice, then competition between those with differing interests will happen, and the greater the amount of money or power involved, the greater the amount of controversy.

        It’s the difference between absolutist rule and either direct or republican democracy. Given this, it’s a good idea to debate such things, and even necessary, if ignorance comes with great peril. Where one would go to discuss and debate such things is unknown to me; I know of no neutral ground not sponsored by one stake-holder or another, which inherently if not explicitly biases debate in favor of the stake-holder.

        • John Baez says:

          streamfortyseven wrote:

          If “social dynamics” play a crucial role in determining risks and responses, then politics must eventually come into play.

          Right. My reason for avoiding politics on this blog is not that I think it’s unimportant. It’s very important, and unavoidably so. However, discussions of politics tend to stir up strong passions that would disrupt the friendly scientific conversations I’m trying to have here. I would have to work very hard to keep people from fighting each other, and I don’t have the energy.

          Where one would go to discuss and debate such things is unknown to me; I know of no neutral ground not sponsored by one stake-holder or another, which inherently if not explicitly biases debate in favor of the stake-holder.

          I haven’t spent a lot of time looking for well-run neutral forums to discuss politics, so they could exist without me knowing it.

          But clearly, running such a thing well would take a profound sense of fairness, a huge amount of energy, and constant self-discipline. One would need to set up intelligently chosen ground rules and enforce them consistently, without getting pulled into taking sides. Since politics inherently pushes people toward taking sides, this would be very hard—just as maintaining a well-run democracy is hard.

          I don’t have what it takes to run such a forum. So, I’ve opted to run a forum where politics is off limits and I regularly give everyone a shower of ice-cold mathematics to keep passions from heating up. This is in the tradition of earlier forums I helped start, sci.physics.research and the n-Category Café. I needed all the practice I got at those places to do what I’m doing now, because environmental issues make people angrier than mathematics or even physics (where people get a lot more worked up than you might guess).

          I don’t claim that what I’m doing now is the world needs most, but it’s something I can do.

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