Big thinkers on what the ash cloud means

[ Mon. Apr. 26. 2010 ]

Big thinkers on what the ash cloud means

Caught up in Moscow because of the volcanic ash cloud last week, my biggest regret was missing the annual Edge dinner in London on 19 April. Well, just look at the sort of people that Edge Foundation president, literary agent and superconnector John Brockman manages to bring together.

Guests at last year's London dinner ranged from Alfonso Cuarón and Terry Gilliam to Brian Eno and Richard Dawkins. So you can see why it was painful for me to be 3,000km away while all the big ideas were being nurtured over the entrees at Zilli Fish.

But Brockman -- whose latest book This Will Change Everything (Harper Perennial) lies well thumbed on my desk -- is not a man to waste an intellectual opportunity. In town from New York for the "eerily deserted" London International Book Fair, Brockman became caught up in talk of stranded travelers and 20-hour road trips. "Something is going on here that requires serious thinking," he reflected. "We've had earthquakes before, and we've had plane stoppages, but nothing like the continuing effects of the ash cloud. Why?"

So he invited the Edge community of smart and original thinkers -- from behavioural economists to psychologists, physicists to software engineers -- to think about the ash cloud and the reaction to it, and tell him (in 250 words) something "that I don't already know and that I'm not going to read in the newspapers".

The thinkers came through. Edge received contributions from the likes of Haim Harari, Roger Schank, Charles Simonyi, Peter Schwartz, Stephen Schneider, Karl Sabbagh, Emanuel Derman, Mark Pagel, Joel Gold, George Dyson, Matthew Ritchie, Paul Romer, Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán, Greg Paul, Lawrence Krauss and Alexandra Zukerman. You can now read their conclusions -- an exercise that's worth your while.

A handful of examples:

First, from Haim Harari, a physicist and former president of the Weizmann Institute of Science (and author of A View from the Eye of the Storm):

The ash crisis and the financial crisis have much in common. Both result from the fact that almost all decision makers do not understand mathematics and science, even in a rudimentary level, while most mathematicians and scientists have no feel for the real life implications of their calculations.

Both camps refuse to admit their failings.

"Financial engineers" created complex mathematical instruments, neglecting to emphasize unavoidable assumptions they had to make. At the same time, senior bankers and regulators did not admit that they had no idea what these papers really meant, and never asked whether there were undisclosed hidden assumptions, lurking behind new quick ways of profiteering.

Theoretical scientific model builders convinced authorities that the ash cloud is here or there, without bothering to measure anything, while no one asked whether the computer model was based on realistic assumptions.

In both cases, decision makers, with good training in standard scientific thinking, could smell trouble immediately, even if they knew nothing about derivatives or volcanoes. The fingerprints of a sophisticated pyramid scheme should be obvious whenever one claims he can always win, and a "killer cloud" that no one can see, affecting an entire continent, based on no actual measurements, should have raised any intelligent pair of eye brows.

The world is discovering that an important profession is missing: Scientifically trained political decision makers. Neither a good scientist lacking management experience, nor a smart politician with no scientific training, could spot the trouble. We need people who have both qualities.

There was a shorter contribution from Emanuel Derman, professor of financial engineering at Columbia University, and author of My Life as a Quant:

Old technology -- propellor-driven planes -- would not have been grounded by ash. More efficient, more vulnerable.

And Mark Pagel, professor of evolutionary biology at Reading University and The Santa Fe Institute:

I may be proven wrong by the reactions from the atmospheric scientists, physicists and aeronautical engineers but this debacle seems to have had far less to do with science than to a far more pernicious and growing risk aversion in British society and perhaps the world. The science is almost without a doubt far far better than it has ever been, and there was data collection. The shutdown of our airspace was driven by people worried they would be hounded out of their jobs (politicians, airline bosses, etc.) and shamed. It is far easier to hide behind the shield of "I was only trying to save lives" than to get it wrong and kill someone.

I have been puzzled for some years now by what is one of the most unstoppable and yet not always obviously good ideas to be surging through our minds for the last century: that of democracy with a small d and all it implies for self-interest, so-called "rights", protection, etc. That is another topic, but the current hysteria appears to be part of its wider manifestations.

Quite a few British newspaper editorials would seem to agree.

David Rowan is the editor of Wired magazine.

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