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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction



Richard A. Posner

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To purchase Catastrophe

Title: Catastrophe
Author: Richard Posner
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2004
Length: 265 pages
Availability: Catastrophe - US
Catastrophe - UK
Catastrophe - Canada
Catastrophe - India
  • Risk And Response

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Our Assessment:

B- : an interesting and useful but not entirely convincing exercise

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
New Scientist . 5/3/2005 Martin Ince
The NY Rev. of Books . 24/3/2005 Clifford Geertz
The NY Times Book Rev. . 2/2/2005 Peter Singer
The Washington Post . 9/1/2005 Graham Allison

  Review Consensus:

  All have some doubts about it

  From the Reviews:
  • "On this basis, page after page of statistical assumption (...) and speculative number crunching (...), Posner arrives at a series of sweeping conclusions, confident and emphatic, and not a little unnerving, concerning what it is that, "better safe than sorry," needs posthaste to be done." - Clifford Geertz, The New York Review of Books

  • "Posner's practical recommendations seem calculated to parcel out irritation to everyone. (...) As for ordinary readers, they will most likely be annoyed by the book's frequent repetitiveness, particularly in the concluding chapter, and may wonder what the two pages urging severe punishment for computer hackers are doing in a book about catastrophes. (Did Posner lose part of his manuscript to a computer virus?) Still, we would be well advised to set aside such minor discontents and take the message of this book seriously. We ignore it at (a small risk of) our (very great) peril." - Peter Singer, The New York Times Book Review

  • "While the first two chapters of Catastrophe present fascinating information for general readers, chapters three and four will likely leave statistic-phobes cold. Posner advocates using basic cost-benefit analysis -- a widely applied technique developed from economics for carefully weighing pros and cons -- not only to structure the questions, but also to derive some answers. (...) The cost-benefit framework Posner recommends is good as far as it goes. Unfortunately, it doesn't go very far in dealing with this class of problems. (...) Posner acknowledges these theoretical difficulties but attempts to finesse them. He does so by making heroic but arbitrary assumptions that leave his conclusions unpersuasive." - Graham Allison, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In Catastrophe Richard Posner certainly addresses a big and sensational topic -- catastrophes ! And he doesn't just mean those smaller everyday 'catastrophes', but rather the real deal, the life-changing (for billions of lives) and even the earth-annihilating ones. Posner argues that while the chances of many catastrophes occurring are incredibly small we should still be better prepared.
       Posner isn't predicting the end of the world (or civilization), but he acknowledges that the potential is there -- and that we're not doing all we could. We should be aware that:

     The number of extreme catastrophes that have a more than negligible probability of occurring in this century is alarmingly great, and their variety startling.
       He uses as his prime examples only a few, but they are sensational enough: an asteroid striking the earth, a particle accelerator setting off a "strangelet disaster" (which might "transform the entire plant Earth into an inert hyperdense sphere about one hundred meteres across"), bioterrorism, nanotechnology run amok, and more. He also includes examples where the consequences (and, to some extent, the causes) aren't clear (but expected to be, at the very least, unpleasant), such as global warming.
       To a varying degree, the probabilities of some of these events can be ascertained -- in the case of an asteroid strike, fairly specifically (the probability of a significant-sized asteroid hitting the earth is still ... astronomical, but the odds can be calculated), in the case of a strangelet, not so much. In the case of the human influence on climate change, opinions (and thus probabilities) range all over the place, but Posner argues that one can work with that as well. Armed with these probabilities, as well as an idea of the consequences (i.e. cost -- in human lives, damage, etc.), Posner argues we can figure out, more or less, how much energy (and cash) should be expended in trying to prevent these catastrophes (or limit the damage they might cause). So much of the book involves a cost-benefit analysis of what might (or can or should) be done now, versus the eventual price that might have to be paid. (This includes fun discussions of discount rates, since a penny spent now can be the equivalent of a dollar (or much more) in the future, which of course affects all calculations.) Unfortunately, all along the way there are more not-entirely-convincingly-based assumptions than one should be comfortable with in trying to quantify all this.
       Scientific progress, Posner notes, is moving along at an ever-faster clip, which both helps and harms catastrophe-prevention (the harm coming basically from the increased potential of science (particle accelerators ! etc.) and scientists to cause catastrophes). He also notes some of the problems we have in preparing for catastrophes, including widespread scientific illiteracy (coupled with a blind belief in science and scientists). Among his suggestions, not surprisingly, is that lawyers, especially, must become more scientifically literate (since they play such a significant role in all aspects of American policy-making).
       Catastrophe does usefully consider how ill-prepared we are for most catastrophes -- as well as how unaware we are of both the potential danger (in the sense of how likely some of these actually are, as well as what would happen if they come to pass) and of what might be done to better position ourselves to limit or avert these catastrophes. Posner also offers numerous suggestions, including the establishment of a "Center for Catastrophic-Risk Assessment and Response", and several of these seem entirely sensible and relatively easy to implement. Several are also more contentious -- such as his idea for a "restriction on advanced study of science by foreigners" (in the US).
       Catastrophe is most interesting as a study of -- as the subtitle has it -- risk and response, and how, for a variety of reasons, humans have considerable trouble getting either right. (Catastrophes are almost all extremely low-probability events (at least in the relevant short term -- in the long term it is, for example, entirely certain that the sun will flame out and that life as we know it will no longer be possible on the earth), and people have considerable difficulty in properly assessing and dealing with low-probability events.) It's all not quite as sensational as one might hope, and it doesn't offer a blueprint for exactly what to do -- but then that's part of the point: there is no certainty here. Posner presents the material well, and his discussion is fairly thorough, but it's a lot of work and pages (and footnotes -- 706, over only 265 pages of text) that doesn't really get us too much further. A journal-article would have sufficed

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Catastrophe: Reviews: Richard A. Posner: Other books by Richard A. Posner under review: Books about Richard Posner under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Books on Legal subjects at the complete review

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About the Authors:

       Richard A. Posner is Chief Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. He is also a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, and the author of many books.

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