PLEASE NOTE:


*

CCNet 17/2003 -  15 February 2003
---------------------------------


"Just when you thought we had learned our lessons from past communication
debacles and PR fiascos, bizarre statements at the Denver AAAS meeting
have plunged the NEO community into another crisis of credibility. "Don't
tell Public of Doomsday Asteroid", reads the headline in today's The
Times, while The Independent warns: "Armageddon Asteroids best kept
secret." The Internet (Drudge Report, etc.) and fringe websites are
already brimming with gloating links to this asteroid-cover-up story
while doomsday prophets and conspiracy-theorists can't believe their good
fortune: "We've told you so!"
--Benny Peiser


(1) COVER-UP PROPOSAL PLUNGES NEO COMMUNITY INTO CRISIS OF CREDIBILITY
    Benny Peiser <b.j.peiser@livjm.ac.uk>

(2) ARMAGEDDON ASTEROIDS 'BEST KEPT SCRET'
    The Independent, 15 February 2003

(3) "DON'T TELL PUBLIC OF DOOMSDAY ASTEROID"
    The Times, 15 February 2003

(4) ASTEROID WARNINGS DEBATED: BETTER NOT TO KNOW DOOSMDAY IS NEAR?
    Denver Post, 14 February 2003

(5) WHEN BAD THINGS MIGHT HAPPEN
    Alan Boyle's Cosmig Log, 14 February 2003

(6) ASTEROID IMPACT: WHEN, NOT IF
    Rocky Mountain News, 14 February 2003

(7) GEOFFREY SOMMER: A CLARIFICATION
    Geoffrey Sommer <sommer@rand.org>

(8) FACT OR FICTION: WHAT HAPPENS AFTER AN ASTEROID COOLIDES WITH EARTH?
    Eurekalert, 13 February 2003

(9) ASTEROIDS, PANIC AND PLANNING
    Eurekalert, 13 February 2003


===========
(1) COVER-UP PROPOSAL PLUNGES NEO COMMUNITY INTO CRISIS OF CREDIBILITY

>From Benny Peiser <b.j.peiser@livjm.ac.uk>

Just when you thought we had learned our lessons from past communication
debacles and PR fiascos, bizarre statements at the Denver AAAS meeting
have plunged the NEO community into another crisis of credibility. "Don't
tell Public of Doomsday Asteroid", reads the headline in today's The
Times, while The Independent warns: "Armageddon Asteroids best kept
secret." The Internet (Drudge Report, etc.) and fringe websites are
already brimming with gloating links to this asteroid-cover-up story
while doomsday prophets and conspiracy-theorists can't believe their good
fortune: "We've told you so!"

What happened? How could a harmless NEO panel generate conspiracy-
advocating headlines around the world that will seriously damage the
integrity of the NEO community?

Readers will quickly note that the media coverage is dominated by
statements by Geoffrey Sommer, a RAND researcher who has been studying
the social and economic implications of the impact hazard. At the root of
the problem seems to be an AAAS press release (see further below) that
triggered most of the international 'cover-up' reports. According to the
press release, Geoffrey "takes the controversial stance of advocating
silence and secrecy in the event that a warning would come too late and
not make a difference to the outcome."

This is, of course, a highly contentious proposal that has already
backfired (as the disapproving responses illustrate; see e-mails at the
end of Geoff's clarification). The harsh reaction is not surprising since
most interested observers are either dubious or even hostile to the whole
idea. After all, how would we assess and who would decide whether or not
an impact warning is "too late"? Too late for what? Geoffrey qualifies
his strategy with reference to a hypothetical 'extinction-type impact'
that cannot be averted: "If you can't do anything about a warning, then
there is no point in issuing a warning at all. If an extinction-type
impact is inevitable, then ignorance for the populous is bliss."

I find this hypothetical scenario totally absurd for a number of reasons.
First of all, the likelihood of being confronted with such an event in
the near future is as good as zero. But - for the sake of argument - let
us say such an object would have been discovered. In reality, we would be
confronted with a host of complex problems and dilemmas:

For a start, after discovery, we would not know for quite some time
(perhaps weeks, months or years) whether or not the object would actually
hit the Earth. In fact, the impact probability might go up to 50% before
plunging to 0%! I don't think Geoffrey would seriously argue that a 5-
10km asteroid may be spotted only weeks before impact.

But even in the unlikely event that time for any deflection attempt were
too short, how can we be certain that the impact would really cause mass-
extinction, including the extinction of the human species? After all, we
might not have sufficient information about the object's size and
composition. In short, even with little time left for mitigation, many
activities could be taken by the world community to attempt human
survival of such a global disaster. To tell the truth, the advocated
secrecy, far from being 'cost-effective' as Geoffrey oddly claims, would
most certainly preclude any such survival attempt.

Evidently, the 'extinction-type impact' scenario is a red herring. So
what really lies behind this thinking? It would appear that Geoff is not
so much concerned about the cost-effective handling of the apocalypse but
about the future management of notoriously tricky impact risk
uncertainties.

"When a problem arises with high uncertainty, there is an opportunity to
spin the problem to avoid global panic." That's what this whole business
is all about: Not the conjured certainty of Doomsday but the genuine
uncertainty of potentially problematic future impact risk assessments!

That Geoff is not bothered whether we will meet our demise in an orderly
or untidy fashion is palpable in other statements he gave to the press:
"If an asteroid or comet is found to be bearing down on Earth, what would
you tell the populace to avoid widespread panic? One panelist, Geoff
Sommer, wonders if authorities should say anything at all. Some elements
of society would thrive off such knowledge, he said, including British
tabloids, cultists long announcing the end of the world, and potential
survivors who might want to buy up land for a future tourist attraction.
But limiting panic and avoiding the premature financial collapse of the
stock markets would be additional benefits to secrecy."

Geoffrey seems earnestly concerned that British tabloids, the Southern
Baptists and future property developers might benefit from too much NEO
information! While this whole argumentation looks utterly ridiculous to
me, it does - unintentionally - raise one fundamental (while highly
unlikely) question: Since there may be impact survivors after all, isn't
it is our ethical obligation to do everything in our power to inform the
public as soon as necessary so to increase the chances of human survival?
I, for one, firmly believe it is!

Which brings me to my final point: Why bring up this conspiracy proposal
given that any secrecy strategy is totally futile in the first place?
Astronomers from around the world can easily access and confirm
observational data and calculations of any discovered NEO in any case.

Yet the damage of contemplating such cover-up stratagem will be immense:
it will strengthen the erroneous but widespread suspicion among some that
some members of the NEO community are more concerned about covering-up
or "spinning" than explaining the facts truthfully. The price we will pay
for the increased mistrust this episode has caused is very high. It is
much higher than any of the inadvertend asteroid scares of the last 4
years. It will also be difficult to repair the harm it has done to our
integrity.

Benny Peiser

P.S. Those subscribers interested in the real rather than imaginary
quandaries of dealing with future impact risk crises, can read a careful
analysis at: http://abob.libs.uga.edu/bobk/ccc/ce072802.html

===============
(2) ARMAGEDDON ASTEROIDS 'BEST KEPT SCRET'

>From The Independent, 15 February 2003
http://news.independent.co.uk/world/science_medical/story.jsp?story=378392

A scientific adviser to the United States government has suggested that
secrecy might be the best option if scientists were ever to discover
that a giant asteroid was on course to collide with Earth.

In certain circumstances, nothing could be done to avoid such a
collision and ensuing destruction, and it would be best not to tell the
public anything, said Geoffrey Sommer, of the Rand Corporation in Santa
Monica, California.

"When a problem arises with high uncertainty, there is an opportunity to
spin the problem to avoid global panic. If you can't do anything about a
warning, then there is no point in issuing a warning at all," Dr Sommer
told the association yesterday.

"If an extinction-type impact is inevitable, then ignorance for the
populace is bliss. As a matter of common sense, if you can't intercept
it and you can't move people out of the way in time, there's nothing you
can do in terms of reducing the costs of the potential impact," he said.

"Overreaction not just by the public but by policy-makers scurrying
around before the thing actually hits because we can't do anything about
it anyway ... to a large extent you are better off not adding to your
social costs," said Dr Sommer, who is also an adviser on terrorism.

The US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) is
conducting a 25-year survey of the sky to find asteroids wider than a
kilometre which could have a devastating impact if they collided with
Earth.

So far they have determined the orbits of about 60 per cent of these
objects and none so far have a trajectory that threatens the world
within the next couple of centuries, said David Morrison of Nasa's Ames
laboratory in Moffat Field, California.

"There are, however, many things out there that we know nothing about,"
he said.

2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

=============
(3) "DON'T TELL PUBLIC OF DOOMSDAY ASTEROID"

>From The Times, 15 February 2003
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,3-577872,00.html

By Mark Henderson in Denver
 
THE public should not be told if scientists detect a huge asteroid on a
collision course with Earth that cannot be deflected, a disaster expert
said.

Geoff Sommer, of the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, California, said
that governments would be wrong to warn of an impending impact that
could destroy all life if there was no realistic prospect of stopping
it. The panic, misery and disruption that such a warning would cause
would not be worthwhile, he told the association.

It would be better for the fewest people to know that mankind was about
to become extinct in a fashion similar to the dinosaurs. Mr Sommer said:
"It makes sense to warn if there's something you can do but if you can't
intercept it, if you can't move people out of its way, it makes sense
not to occasion further social costs."

His view was strongly disputed by Lee Clarke, Professor of Sociology at
Rutgers University, who said people had a right to be told about the
impending end of the world. "If we see a monster event coming, an
extinction event, common sense would tell me I want to know and that
it's not up to him, or up to some high-level bureaucracy, to decide
whether I know or not," he said.

"The reaction might not be what most people expect. Look at people on
death row, people in prison camps during the Holocaust, people with
terminal cancer," he said. "You might want to make peace with your God,
for example."

The world would have two main options if astronomers detected a large
asteroid or comet on a collision course, scientists said. If the object
were less than a kilometre in diameter, it should be possible to
calculate the precise spot it would hit and evacuate the area.

Impact by a body ten times larger, such as the asteroid generally
thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, would give
the human race little chance of surviving. Mankind would have to try to
deflect it or blow it up.
 
Copyright 2003, The Times
 
============
(4) ASTEROID WARNINGS DEBATED: BETTER NOT TO KNOW DOOSMDAY IS NEAR?

>From Denver Post, 14 February 2003
http://www.denverpost.com/framework/0,1413,36~53~1178848~,00.html

By Diedtra Henderson
Denver Post Science Writer
 
Friday, February 14, 2003 - The same type of monster asteroid that
struck Earth 65 million years ago, extinguishing the dinosaurs, lurks in
the dark recesses of space right now.

The good news is that researchers have a clear idea where most of those
disaster-makers orbit and none is poised to end life as we know it
anytime soon.

But not everyone's convinced that warnings of an extinction-level
asteroid strike should become common knowledge.

Take Geoffrey Sommer, a policy analyst at the Rand Corp. in Santa
Monica, Calif.

Sommer suggested to fellow American Association for the Advancement of
Science panelists that it might do more harm than good to warn the
public about a massive asteroid strike if there is so little warning
that the masses can't be evacuated.

Lee Clarke, a Rutgers University sociology professor who is an
internationally known expert in disasters, took the bait.

"Common sense tells me I want to know. And it's not up to him ... to
keep that from me. I just want to get my affairs in order," he said,
echoing the thoughts of death-row inmates, Jews imprisoned during the
Holocaust and terminal-cancer patients he's researched for a book in
progress. "You want to make peace with your God."

It's not just a matter of last- minute cleansing of the soul, added a
Harvard risk communications specialist. That level of deceit would
instantly evaporate the public's trust in government.

"If you hide something from people that is about whether they'll live or
die, they're not going to trust you. It would be a serious mistake,"
said David Ropeik of Harvard's Center for Risk Analysis.

Much has changed in the decade since a NASA scientist was among those to
highlight the danger of so-called Near Earth Objects, earning the
nickname "Dr. Doom." Then, fewer people worked on understanding the
hazard, said David Morrison, a scientist at NASA Ames Research Center.

Now, the Air Force and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration
have turned telescopes to the task, pulling about 60 percent of the
hazardous asteroids out of hiding through sky surveys shot every 20
minutes. The survey telescopes and powerful computers that analyze the
pictures find an asteroid a day that's about a mile wide, the most
worrisome size.

The other 40 percent of uncharted Near Earth Objects are also worrisome,
and comets bring their own level of panic, since they cluster on the
fringe of the solar system and wouldn't be spotted until one sped past
Jupiter, giving just a few months to a year of warning.

In addition, no civil-defense plans exist to handle an unexpected
impact. No international agreements are in place to decide how to
respond to the threat of an asteroid strike, and current talks exclude
developing nations.

While the disaster of an asteroid strike would eclipse the tragedy of
the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, scientists are clear they don't
want a warning system that follows the lead of homeland security.
Raising the potential of a terrorist attack this week sent Americans
scouring hardware-store shelves for plastic and duct tape.

"The lesson is this: Upping the warning level to orange and telling
people to go buy plastic is ill advised," Clarke said. "Real meaningful
warnings? Yeah, we ought to have that kind of thing."

The guys who came up with the Richter scale had it right, added a
Colorado researcher, since they debated their way to a simple and
elegant method of using magnitude numbers to translate the power
unleashed by an earthquake.

Creating a warning scale for a possible asteroid strike would be as
difficult and challenging, said Clark Chapman, a planetary scientist at
the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder. The seismologists made "a
very conscientious effort" to create a warning scale the public could
understand.

Nearly 2,000 of the near-Earth thugs orbit in space. As many as half
could strike Earth at some point.

Scientists issued a few asteroid- strike warnings in recent years that
the media leaped upon quickly, before the asteroids' true orbits were
confirmed. Those missteps shouldn't matter, they said.

"A little bit of trust has been lost," said Harvard's Ropeik. "There's
plenty of time to calm people down and explain how science figures this
out."

Copyright 2003, Denver Post

==============
(5) WHEN BAD THINGS MIGHT HAPPEN

>From Alan Boyle's Cosmig Log, 14 February 2003
http://www.msnbc.com/news/750150.asp

When bad things might happen: What's the best way to handle planning for
low-probability, high-impact events like an asteroid strike ... or a
terror attack?

At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of
Science, going on in Denver this week, experts on asteroids and risk
analysis are debating whether it's sometimes better not to tell
everything you know.

At least one policy analyst, Geoff Sommer of the Rand Corp., advocates
throwing out the whole "color alert" system and thinking about the
terror threat in the same way we think about hurricanes, earthquakes -
and yes, asteroids.

"Exploring the asteroid risk can help us make sense of how we should be
addressing this apparently dangerous world," Sommer said Thursday.

In the past couple of years, scientists have gotten a much better fix on
the risk posed by space rocks big enough to cause mass extinctions,
should they slam into the earth. So far, the NASA-led Spaceguard Survey
has cataloged about 650 potentially Earth-threatening asteroids larger
than 1 kilometer in diameter, and projections indicate that there may be
another 550 or so out there still to be identified.

Experts estimate that a catastrophic asteroid or comet collision occurs
every 500,000 years or so on average. There's even a color-coded scale
for rating asteroid threats, known as the Torino Scale. "You've seen
scales like that," astronomer Clark Chapman of the Southwest Research
Institute said slyly.

So far, except for brief asteroid scares that failed to pan out, the
Torino Scale has been stuck on zero, or Condition White. As far as
astronomers can tell, no asteroid or comet poses any catastrophic
threat, at least over the next century or two. But Rutgers sociologist
Lee Clarke points out that it's just a matter of time before another Big
One hits.

"Unless you think that we've somehow outgrown astronomical processes,
we're going to get hit," he said.

Like Sommer, Clarke studies the social implications of potentially
panic-inducing events. "If you go to Google and put in 'disaster' and
'panic,' my name comes up," he joked. But the two researchers have
different perspectives on what to do if disaster might strike.

Sommer has focused on the social cost of alerts for low-probability,
high-impact events. Every time you issue a warning - whether it's about
an asteroid strike, or a terror threat, or imminent war with Iraq, or an
end-time Apocalypse - there's a cost as well as a benefit, Sommer
pointed out. It may come in the form of a disincentive for investment,
or short-sighted public policy, or just plain panic.

"If you're my neighbor, I don't want you driving your truck over my lawn
because you're upset about the end times," Sommer explained.

He said government authorities, like Goldilocks, had to find the "just
right" level for communicating information about threats. If there is a
margin of uncertainty about how to respond to a problem - whether it's a
potential asteroid strike or a terrorist strike - it may be better to
"spin the problem" to minimize the possibility of panic.

So Sommer argues that there are occasions when it's better for
authorities not to tell everything they know, "if there's absolutely
nothing you can do in terms of reducing the cost of an impact."

Clarke disagreed: "Common sense tells me, I want to know."

His studies show that in the midst of perils like the terror attack on
the World Trade Center or the World War II blitz on London, people did
not tend to panic but rather pulled together to face the peril.
Stonewalling and secrecy would erode public confidence in authority,
thus taking a high social toll, he pointed out.

In the future, the Spaceguard Survey is likely to be expanded, to
catalog asteroids smaller than 1 kilometer. Researchers said that may
spark more blips to worry about - and the occasional asteroid alert,
justified or not, might become just one more thing we'll have to learn
to deal with.

At the same time, researchers are still trying to figure out what could
be done in case an asteroid or comet ever came our way.

"We really don't require a bomb or anything like that," said David
Morrison of NASA's Ames Research Center. A more likely scenario might
involve landing an armada of thruster-equipped spacecraft on a
threatening object to nudge it out of harm's way, he said.

The first task, however, is to learn more about the composition of
asteroids and comets through missions such as NEAR Shoemaker and Deep
Impact, Morrison said. Such efforts have a "dual-use" purpose, he said,
providing information about the solar system's beginnings as well as
potential strategies for heading off a doomsday event.

Looking beyond the threat from above, most of the researchers said they
weren't satisfied with the terror alert system drawn up by the Bush
administration, on the grounds that it doesn't adequately communicate
how the public should respond to heightened risk.

"It concerns me that the public understanding of the risk of terrorism
is really in a sense overblown," Chapman said.

"Just upping the warning level to orange and telling people to buy
plastic is ill-advised," Clarke said.

Sommer said the color-coded system should be ditched, and the government
should focus on educating the public about year-round preparedness. Just
as coastal residents know what to do in the event of an approaching
hurricane, Americans should be better prepared to cope with a potential
terror attack at any time, just as Israelis are.

"It would be an interesting thought experiment to try to see to what
extent we benefit society by treating the terrorist hazard as a natural
hazard," Sommer said.

After his talk, Sommer worried out loud that there may have been too
much emphasis placed on the idea of shrouding risk assessments in
secrecy if necessary. Indeed, the initial reports of Sommer's views
brought a sharp response from Benny Peiser of Liverpool John Moores
University, an anthropologist specializing in the social impacts of
cosmic threats.

On the CCNet discussion board, Peiser said it would be "nonsensical to
assume that there could ever be a cover-up of observational information
(and calculations) that is freely available to professional and amateur
astronomers around the world."

"Contemplating (or advocating) such a strategy is not only irrational
but risks to undermine the trustworthiness of the NEO [near-Earth
object] community. The negative social cost of such thinking is
incomparable to that of an accidental (and in some cases even
unavoidable) asteroid scare."

So what should be done to cope with the asteroid threat, the terror
threat and other low-probability, high-impact threats that could keep
you up at night? If doomsday were imminent, would you want to know? Let
me know what you think.
 
============
(6) ASTEROID IMPACT: WHEN, NOT IF

>From Rocky Mountain News, 14 February 2003
http://www.rockymountainnews.com/drmn/technology/article/0,1299,DRMN_49_1744423,00.html

But scanners say Earth likely won't be hit for centuries

By Todd Hartman, Rocky Mountain News

On your long list of Things To Fret About, bump "catastrophic impact
from asteroid" down a couple notches.

Don't scratch if off, though. The threat lives on. But in the past 10
years, the people scanning space for killer rocks have hunted down more
than half of the large objects hurtling through Earth's neighborhood and
haven't found any that threaten to finish us off.

Yet.

This was the uneasy message delivered by a panel of experts on the topic
of "Asteroids, Earth and Impact Hazards" at the American Association for
the Advancement of Science convention Thursday.

"This is not a low-probability, high-consequence event - it's a certain
event," said Lee Clarke, a Rutgers University sociologist and author of
the paper Responding to Panic in a Global Impact Catastrophe.

It's probably not an event we'll see tomorrow, however. And probably not
in the next few hundred years.

After all, asteroids and comets have been bombarding Earth since the
planet's formation more than 4 billion years ago. Many scientists
believe an impact event wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Astronomers started seriously raising the concern in the 1980s, and NASA
has since embarked on a 25-year project called the Spaceguard Survey to
track 90 percent of so-called Near Earth Objects (NEOs) larger than 1
kilometer by 2008. NEOs are defined as asteroids or comets capable of
ending life as we know it.

Today scientists believe there are about 1,100 NEOs within 200 million
kilometers of our home planet. Of those, they've identified some 650 and
plotted their orbits. The verdict: They're not on track for a collision
with Earth.

But what about those remaining 450? Scientists still are trying to nail
down the threat. Even then, the guarantee is only good for a few hundred
years.

"None of these orbits is predictable for more than a few centuries,"
said David Morrison, an asteroid hunter for NASA.

If an asteroid or comet is found to be bearing down on Earth, what would
you tell the populace to avoid widespread panic? Buy duct tape?

One panelist, Geoff Sommer, wonders if authorities should say anything
at all.

Some elements of society would thrive off such knowledge, he said,
including British tabloids, cultists long announcing the end of the
world, and potential survivors who might want to buy up land for a
future tourist attraction.

But limiting panic and avoiding the premature financial collapse of the
stock markets would be additional benefits to secrecy. "If you're my
neighbor, I really don't want you driving your pickup over my lawn
because you're upset the world is going to end," Sommer said.

Humans, said Clark Chapman of the Southwest Research Institute in
Boulder, react to low-probability events in different ways. Some who
laugh off the chances of a deadly asteroid also might play the lottery.

On the other hand, humans have a tendency to obsess over rare events.
The media, he pointed out, screamed headlines in 2001 over anthrax
attacks that killed two people. Meanwhile, stories about flu
vaccinations were buried, and the flu kills thousands of people in the
United States annually.

So Chapman, playing along, brought up the matter of deep-space comets.

While we're making progress tracking killer asteroids, and might even be
able to fashion rockets and bombs to blow them off-course, these comets
are another matter.

"They come in at a high rate of speed," Chapman said. "By the time we
see them, "there's not time to do anything - to mount a defense."

So take out your list of Things To Fret About and bump deep-space comets
up a few notches.

Copyright 2003, Rocky Mountain News

==========
(7) GEOFFREY SOMMER: A CLARIFICATION

>From Geoffrey Sommer <sommer@rand.org>

Hello, Benny!

I'm afraid that the AAAS press office quoted me rather severely out of
context.  Their press release (which I didn't get to see until two
minutes before the press conference) has me saying "if you can't do
anything about a warning, there is no point in issuing a warning at
all.  If an extinction-type impact is inevitable, then ignorance for the
populace is bliss".  It prefaces that by saying that I "take the
controversial stance of advocating silence and secrecy".  I most
certainly would not take such an absolute stand.  Perhaps you will let
me correct the record.

You may remember my presentation at the Western Psychological
Association conference last year. I wrote that "surveys confer social
benefits only to the extent that mitigation is possible" but qualified
certain exceptions in the disaggregate (not necessarily exhaustive):
fatalists, religionists, criminals and the "yellow press".
"Religionists" was meant to include the "make one's peace with one's
God" case.  By criminals I was thinking of looters and profiteers. My
point, then and now, was that the primary purpose of a survey is to
enable a response, and absent a mitigation capability that purpose is
vitiated.  The context of all this is an argument for mitigation.

The "ignorance may be bliss"  argument is not trivial, however.
Analytically, the question is whether the doom-warned population has a
negative discount rate - a "dread" factor. Does the population as a
whole have a "willingness to pay" to avoid bad news? It's hard to say.
Certainly, in the micro sense, the effect is real. Do we prefer a quick
(but ignorant) death for Columbia's crew, or do we wish for them more
time to "make peace with their God" before their inevitable end?  I
would guess the former.

In the context of astro-doomsaying, is there an absolute right to
information?  Many passionately believe so.  Yet, how many high-dread
people are outvoted by one "tell me the worst" person?  I don't know -
hence, I don't advocate "silence and secrecy" as absolutely as the AAAS
press release indicates.  It all depends, as I have said many times, on
valuations.  What gives the government the right to decide?  What gives
the government the right to decide on any issue of social welfare?

I was able to clarify most of this during my AAAS talk, but
unfortunately, the press release is now to the four winds!  I've
actually been getting hate mail from complete strangers.  I suppose that
means that I've made the big time!  Since even hate mail is part of the
"social response", in the interests of science, here are three
interesting ones (they're still coming):
------------------------------------------------------------------------

Apparently, you believe it would be better for us all to die happy. It's
rather arrogant of you to presume that not a single human would survive
after a large impact.  Perhaps no one would.  If people don't try, the
odds are certainly worse.  There are many intelligent people in
the world, and I suspect there are a few who are more intelligent than a
think-tank analyst.  There are also lucky people, luckier than someone
who works in Santa Monica, near the beach, in a greenish building.  With
the combination of intelligence and luck I wouldn't be so damned sure
zero humans would survive an 'extiction' event.  People should know what
the danger is.  We have a right to try to survive - that should be our
free choice.  If we are all going to die anyway, then no matter what the
potential social upheaval, no one will be left to write the history.

Knowing what is to come, you cannot predict what some people will do in
an effort to survive.  Some might pull it off.  How dare you deprive the
humans of the world that opportunity?  Are we merely herd animals, and
you are the keeper?  I neither need nor want your patronizing meddling.

Joseph Day
Sonora, CA
(lorelindorinan@netscape.net)
------------------------------------------------------------------------

If the above article is accurate, you should be fired immediately.  You
are not God, Mr. Sommer.  But you obviously are suffering from a God
complex.  Your arrogance is pathetic.  In the event of an imminent
collision of an asteroid with the Earth, neither you nor any of your
omniscient "buddies" have the right to withhold such information from
the public.  I suppose if you were diagnosed with a rapidly progressing
terminal illness, you would prefer to be told, "All your tests came
back OK, Mr. Sommer.  There's nothing wrong with you at all."

Good day sir,
James Cass
(cassj@earthlink.net)
------------------------------------------------------------------------

Dear Mr. Sommer,

I can't begin to express how much I disagree with your notion that the
public should not be told of an imminent asteroid threat.  Your
viewpoint that "extinction-type" events are "inevitable" give us a clue
as to your lack of optimistic thinking, your lack of engineering
knowledge, and maybe even your own self-worth.  The human will to
overcome would essentially be muted in your "ignorance is bliss"
scenario.  The general population, including the best minds on earth,
would have no chance to caucus in order to at least make an attempt at
coming up with a solution.  In fact, I feel compelled to ask the
rhetorical question, "how dare you" make the suggestion that you know
what's best for mankind?

One doesn't have to be a RAND "expert" to realize that the world would
rather go down fighting, than to be lulled into a false sense of
security.  Even in the event of immediate and irreversible doom,
foreknowledge would allow the souls of this planet to make peace with
their inner consciousness, their higher power.  I hope for the sake of
mankind itself that neither you, nor the minority of others who share
your misguided views, are ever empowered with making these types of
ultimate decisions.

Respectfully,
Eric Hermanson
MSE Nuclear Engineering, MIT
(eric@alum.mit.edu)
------------------------------------------------------------------------

On the bright side, no death threats, yet.  And I'm famous (or infamous)
for a day.

Best regards,
Geoff

********************
Geoffrey Sommer
RAND
Santa Monica, California

==============
(8) FACT OR FICTION: WHAT HAPPENS AFTER AN ASTEROID COOLIDES WITH EARTH?

>From Eurekalert, 13 February 2003
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2003-02/aaft-fof020503.php

Public release date: 13-Feb-2003

Contact: Monica Amarelo
mamarelo@aaas.org
Ginger Pinholster
gpinhols@aaas.org

Prior to 13 February, 202-326-6440
As of 13 February, 303-228-8301

American Association for the Advancement of Science

Fact or fiction: What happens after an asteroid collides with Earth?

DENVER, CO - While Hollywood's film industry has explored the
possibility of a catastrophic asteroid or comet colliding with the
Earth, off screen there are no plans in place for civil defense in case
an unexpected impact occurs, no international agreements on how to
respond if a threatening asteroid is found, and no current studies of
deflection technology. Although the annual probability of a large impact
is extremely small, the consequences would be so great that it is
necessary to understand and establish realistic societal goals,
scientists said today at the American Association for the Advancement of
Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting.

About 90 percent of the potential Earth-impacting projectiles are
near-Earth asteroids or short-period comets, called collectively Near
Earth Objects (NEOs). Responding to a request from Congress, National
Aeronautics and Space Administration started a 25-year Spaceguard Survey
to track 90 percent of the NEOs larger than 1 km in diameter, which
constitute the greatest hazard, by 2008. Monitoring a region of space
that extends outward from the Earth's orbit at a distance of 200 million
kilometers, the survey is now more than half way completed.

About two thousand such objects are believed to exist in near-Earth
space. Between a quarter and a half of them will eventually impact the
Earth. But the average interval between such impacts is long - more than
100,000 years. One of the more noted impacts occurred in 1908, when a
smaller asteroid struck Tunguska, Siberia, downing hundreds of
kilometers of forest.

The hazard posed by the solar system's population of asteroids and
comets, some which orbit the Earth and other planets, became more
apparent when a 1980 paper written by Luis Alvarez and others proposed
that a high impact asteroid and resulting global cloud of dust resulted
in the mass extinction of life forms on Earth and ended the dinosaur
age.

According to Geoffrey Sommer, Rand Corp., Santa Monica, Calif., while
the survey works towards a series of technical goals, social goals must
be considered and set simultaneously. How much time and money should be
invested in a low probability, but high impact problem like a NEO
collision should be placed into consideration. There is, however, no
general policy framework for assessing the social benefit of impact
hazard response programs.

Sommer has looked at establishing a system approach to the hazards posed
by NEOs, considering the interactions between a passive physical threat,
and a multitude of coupled social systems. His research identifies
policy makers and interested parties, their likely valuations and
sources of valuation, and operating constraints that will allow him to
set a social goal.

The Spaceguard Survey may eventually expand their tracking to include
smaller objects, increasing the warnings of a collision. Sommers said
that there's a strong likelihood that the costs of multiple false
warning will dilute the significance of a true warning in a real event.
He also takes the controversial stance of advocating silence and secrecy
in the event that a warning would come too late and not make a
difference to the outcome.

"When a problem arises with high uncertainty, there is an opportunity to
spin the problem to avoid global panic," Sommer said. "If you can't do
anything about a warning, then there is no point in issuing a warning at
all. If an extinction-type impact is inevitable, then ignorance for the
populous is bliss."

While there are sets of true hazards faced globally such as hurricanes,
terrorism, earthquakes, and erupting volcanoes, there is no global
answer to an extinction type of event. The social costs are difficult to
quantify because they aren't intangible, as our collective experiences
with post-Sept.11 terror warnings demonstrate.

There is a common fear among high-level authorities that people react
poorly to bad news and will panic in catastrophe, but public reactions
to disaster vary enormously, according to Lee Clarke, Rutgers
University. Clarke added that human nature shines in time of adversity.
Instead of flying into a panic and looking to satisfy their own
self-interest, human beings have proven to be most generous in times of
trouble.

================
(9) ASTEROIDS, PANIC AND PLANNING

>From Eurekalert, 13 February 2003
http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2003-02/rtsu-apa021003.php

Public release date: 13-Feb-2003

Contact: Miguel Tersey
mtersy@ur.rutgers.edu
732-932-7084 x616
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey

Asteroids, panic and planning
The human dimesions of a near-earth object impact

NEW BRUNSWICK/PISCATAWAY, N.J. - Lee Clarke, a sociology professor at
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, will discuss "Responding to
Panic in a Global Impact Catastrophe" during a symposium at the American
Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in
Denver. The session, "The Asteroid/Comet Impact Hazard: A Decade of
Growing Awareness," will take place Thursday (Feb. 14) at 8:30 a.m. in
Room A207 of the Colorado Convention Center.

Clarke is an internationally known expert in disasters and in
organizational and technological failures. He has written about panic,
civil defense, evacuation and community response to disaster, and is the
author of "Mission Improbable: Using Fantasy Documents to Tame
Disaster," a book about planning for very low probability-high
consequence events.

Despite the mass panic depicted in the movies and on television, Clarke
said this is not what happens in real disasters. "We have five decades
of research on all kinds of disasters-- earthquakes, tornadoes, airplane
crashes, etc.-- and people rarely lose control," he said. "Policy-makers
have yet to accept this. People are quite capable of following plans,
even in the face of extreme calamities, but such plans must be there."

For a disaster plan to be successful, Clarke said that communication
must play an integral role. He pointed out that officials may lose the
public's trust and doom the plan to failure if information is withheld
based on the false assumption that people will become hysterical.

Clarke issued the caveat that for plans to be effective, a nation must
have a sufficiently developed infrastructure for carrying out a civil
defense program during a major disaster. Clarke noted that no one has
actually planned for the massive disaster that could accompany collision
with a near-earth object (NEO) - a comet or an asteroid. "While the idea
of this happening is almost unthinkable, we must realize that no
countries have plans in place nor are there international agreements for
coordinated civil defense responses," he said.

"The United States is the world leader in most things, and we ought to
be out in front in talking about the danger and in expending resources
on deflection and mitigation," he continued. Though science policy
advisers from the 30 member nations of the Organisation for Economic
Cooperation and Development are considering NEO contingency proposals,
Third World countries are not represented. Clarke stressed that the
problem needs to be highlighted in the United Nations, where the voices
and interests of poorer countries can be heard.

Clarke posed the example of an NEO striking the ocean, a likely scenario
since 70 percent of the earth's surface is ocean. "An asteroid hitting
the water could create an immense wave hitting the coasts," Clarke said.
"An appropriate civil defense plan could focus on moving the population
inland prior to impact." He said that even now we should be talking
publicly about population relocation, potentially on a massive scale,
and developing incentives for geographical redevelopment to slow the
rate of people moving into vulnerable places.

"Earth's history is filled with unanticipated catastrophes and their
disastrous consequences. With appropriate planning, the human toll could
be lessened," said Clarke.

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