The doomsday argument

This has recently been the source of much frustration for some of my friends, as I’ve attempted to casually plow through a probabilistic argument that most people would instinctively recoil at. So, I thought, it might work better when written down. Of course, plenty of others have also written it down, including Brandon Carter – its originator – and Stephen Baxter – a science fiction author (who referred to it as the “Carter Catastrophe” in his novel Time).

The main premise of the argument is the Copernican principle. Copernicus, of course, heretically suggested that the Earth was not the centre of the universe. Thus, the Copernican principle is the idea that the circumstances of our existence are not special in any way (except insofar as they need to be special for us to exist in the first place).

We are now quite comfortable with the Copernican principle applied to space, but the doomsday argument applies it to time. Just as we do not live in any particularly special location, so we do not live at any particularly special moment. This is distorted by the fact that the human population has exploded in the last century to the point where about 10% of all the humans to have ever lived (over the course of homo sapiens’ ~200,000 year history) are still alive today. We can deal with this distortion by (conceptually) assigning a number to each human, in chronological order of birth, from 1 to N (where N is the total number of humans that have lived, are currently alive, or will ever be born in the future). We can then say, instead, that we are equally likely to have been assigned any number in that range.

In probability theory, this is equivalent to saying that you have been randomly selected from a uniform distribution. Yes, it must be you (the observer) and not someone else, because from your point of view you’re the only person who has a number selected from the entire range – past, present and future. You could have been assigned a number at any point along the human timeline (by the Copernican principle), but you still cannot observe the future, and so by selecting any other specific individual you’d automatically be restricting the range to the past and present. The number you’ve actually been assigned is something on the order of 60 billion (if we estimate that to be the total number of humans to have ever lived so far).

So where does that leave us? Well, in a uniform distribution, any randomly selected value is 95% likely to be in the final 95% of the range. If your randomly selected number is 60 billion, then it’s 95% likely that the total number of humans to ever live will be less than 60 billion × 20 = 1.2 trillion. Similarly, it’s 80% likely that the total number will be 60 billion × 5 = 300 billion, and 50% likely that the total number will be 120 billion. Now, 50%, 20% and 5% probabilities do crop up, but we must draw the line at some point, because you cannot demand absolute certainty (or else science would be impossible.)

This should make us think. The doomsday argument doesn’t give an exact number, nor does it directly give us a time, but this can be estimated from trends in population growth. However, the prospect of a scenario in which humanity spreads out beyond the solar system and colonises the galaxy, to produce a population of countless trillions over tens of thousands or even millions of years, would seem vanishingly unlikely under this logic. Even the prospect that humanity will survive at roughly its current population on Earth for more than a few thousand years seems remote.

It’s also worth pointing out, as others have, that the doomsday argument is entirely independent of the mechanism by which humanity’s downfall might occur. That is, if you accept the argument, then there is nothing we can do to stop it.

Needless to say, the objections to this reasoning come thick and fast, especially if you bumble like I have through a hasty verbal explanation (hopefully I’ve been more accurate and articulate in this blog post). One should bear in mind that this isn’t simply some apocalyptic pronouncement from a random, unstable individual (it wasn’t my idea). This is work that has been published some time ago by three physicists independently (Brandon Carter, J. Richard Gott and Holger Bech Nielsen) in peer-reviewed journals. That’s not to say it’s without fault, but given the level of scrutiny already applied, one might at least pause before simply dismissing it out of hand.

The objections I’ve heard (so far) to the doomsday argument usually fall along the following lines:

  1. Often they discard the notion that the observer is randomly selected, thus reaching a different (and trivial) conclusion.  One can point out that there always has to be a human #1, and a human #2, and so on, and that this says nothing about the numbers that come after. However, in pointing this out, one is not randomly selecting those numbers, and random selection is the premise of the argument.
  2. They object that a sample size of one is useless. Indeed, in the normal course of scientific endeavour, a sample size of one is useless, but that’s just because in a practical setting we’re trying to achieve precision. If we’re just trying to make use of what we know, one sample is infinitely more useful than no samples at all. The doomsday argument does not at any point assume that its single randomly-selected number represents anything more than a single randomly-selected number. If we had more than one random sample, we’d be able to make a stronger case, but that does not imply there’s currently no case at all.
  3. Sometimes they object on the grounds of causality – that we simply can’t know the future. I think this is just a manifestation of personal incredulity. There is no physical law that says we cannot know the future, and here we’re not talking about some divine revelation or prophecy. We’re only talking about broad probabilistic statements about the future, and we make these all the time (meteorology, climatology, city planning, resource management, risk analysis, software development, etc. ad infinitum).

However, I’m sure that won’t be the end of it.

Blog politics

I used to think that left-vs-right was an ideological battle that consumed American thinking far more than Australian thinking. However, having indulged in glimpses of Andrew Bolt’s blog and his adversaries at Pure Poison, I’m not sure that we’re really any better. Theoretically, “left” and “right” define a spectrum of economic policy: left for socialism, right for capitalism. Somehow these have become nouns of the form “The Left” and “The Right”, which are about categorising people. If one is “from” The Left or The Right, one is expected to conform to particular stereotypes. Increasingly, these stereotypes have less to do with economic beliefs and more to do with dogmas that span the whole spectrum of political discourse, and even personality characteristics such as anger and dishonesty.

The terms are almost vacuous, and their use says more about the speaker than anything else. They’re born of the same mentality that produces xenophobia and racism. People are placed into groups so that the group can be criticised as one monolithic entity. In extreme cases, the group is made out to be a shadowy, hierarchical organisation, often an extension of a political party.

You are of course expected to take sides – to identify yourself as being a leftist/progressive or rightie/conservative. If you don’t want to label yourself, the choice will be made for you. If you’ve been called a “leftist” on occasion (as I have), you might tend to subconsciously include yourself in that group whenever someone else makes a nebulous stab at “The Left”. Thus, having taken such accusations personally, you recoil at them. You may never have deliberately chosen such a label for yourself, and the person making the criticism may not even know of your existence, and yet animosity arises. Such is the insidiousness of politics. Unlike race, there is at least the possibility of choice, but the choice between two simplistic labels brushes aside an enormous spectrum of complex issues.

Racism, however, gets us to the issue of the moment – Andrew Bolt’s apparent discovery that agents of the forces of darkness are seeking to discredit him, by attempting to post racist comments on his blog. The implicitly-accused suggest that Bolt is making the whole thing up. Bolt’s readership has almost unanimously condemned The Left for this apparent act of treachery, while over at Pure Poison the rebels were flinging it right back at The Right. Pure Poison accuses Bolt’s readership of a general tendancy towards racism, while Bolt cryptically refers to the “New Racism of the Left” (possibly trying to coin a new vacuous catchphrase).

It seems to be the height of wit and cunning to take a criticism directed at your group (e.g. racism) and send it back at the other group. There doesn’t need to be any supporting argument or evidence. It doesn’t even really matter what the criticism is. Your cohort will gleefully pat you on the back for having demonstrated the “hypocrisy” of your opponents. It’s all imaginary hypocrisy, but then truth is whatever is said by one of your own. Hypocrisy is the ultimate point-scoring system, which is why so much effort goes into inventing it. It’s really just a more sophisticated form of “I know you are, but what am I?”

I thought for a moment about making a tearful confession to Bolt, just to see what would happen, but I’d probably be drowned out in the torrent of pre-existing outrage. (Besides, Bolt seems to write a dozen or more blog entries every day, and probably doesn’t really care all that much.)

My approach to the whole thing is this: establish your own beliefs, ignore any attempts to label you, and let others express their beliefs freely without labelling them. It should be possible to debate issues related to economics, society, religion, environmentalism, etc. without resorting to vague and bizarre generalisations of The Left or The Right.