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Our Tragic Flaw: Confronting Violence in Ourselves and the World (c) Parke Burgess, 2018



I make the claim that the probability of global social and ecological collapse not only becomes more likely over time, but at an accelerating rate—so long as the logic of violence predominates in the global culture. If you have read Steven Pinker (2011), you might be forgiven for thinking I have fallen into Pinker’s trap of statistical naivete. To clarify my claim, I offer the following reasoning, which is too technical to appear in the main body of this book.

Pinker points to a common error of statistical reasoning that appears to take the problem of increasing likelihood of catastrophe off the table,[1] but this is deceptive. To illustrate his point, Pinker asks us to consider a thought experiment. If you know that lightning is very likely to strike in a given area about once a month, and it struck there yesterday, when is it most likely to strike next? Most of us would venture that the chances of a lightning strike get greater as more time passes, approaching one month. Gotcha! Actually the chances go down, says Pinker. Let’s say there is a 3% chance lightning will strike on any given day of the month (a nearly 100% chance divided by 30 days). The chance lightning will strike today is, therefore, exactly 3%. But the chances that it will not strike until tomorrow means we are predicting two events—that it will not strike today (97% chance) and that it will strike tomorrow (3% chance). The probability that both of these events will occur as predicted is less (2.91%) than the probability that it will strike today, and only gets smaller for each day into the future we predict the next strike.

Having gleefully revealed his savvy math, Pinker expresses contempt for the innumeracy of the American public, suggesting that this accounts for our inability to grok his worldview, in which we live in the rosiest and safest of all times. Only ignorant and foolish people like me, he seems to say, believe that scary things can become more likely over time. To this, I have two objections. To begin with the lesser one, the charge of innumeracy is misplaced. When faced with his question about when lightning will likely strike next, I suspect most people are thinking about the probability of a lightning strike tomorrow and the following days assuming that lightning does not strike sooner. If it hasn’t struck by tomorrow, we imagine, it becomes more likely that lightning will strike the following day. And the longer we go without a strike, the more probable it becomes. “We’re due,” we say to ourselves as the 30th day of the month approaches.

This isn’t the case, as Pinker well knows, but our mistake is not mathematical. The reasoning is: If it’s nearly 100% likely that lightning will strike once in any given 30-day period, the probability that lightning will strike today is about 1/30, or around 3%, as Pinker allows. But assuming (not predicting) that lightning doesn’t strike today, then the chances it will strike tomorrow become 1/29 (3.4%)—because now there are only 29 days left before the month is out—and so on for each passing day without a strike. For an event that has a strong likelihood of occurring within a certain period of time, the longer that event does not occur, the more likely it becomes.

That kind of math can work, as we will see shortly, but not in this case. Pinker’s thought experiment involves a particular phenomenon known as a Poisson process, which applies specifically to “events that occur continuously, randomly, and independently of one another,”[2] like lightning strikes. There is no natural process that inexorably builds up over time until lightning strikes again, and so there is no logical reason it should become more likely as the time increases since the previous strike. So, Pinker is right about lightning. But his charge of innumeracy, that people don’t understand statistics, misses his own point. The real issue is that people don’t understand lightning—it’s not the sort of thing that builds up and discharges itself over 30-day intervals.

Pinker then applies his reasoning to the pattern of major wars, such as World War II. He argues that these wars represent another Poisson process, like lightning. They become statistically less likely the longer the interval between them. Maybe. But probably not. Here we find the second and more important problem in Pinker’s line of thinking. He has failed to account for the natural reasons that wars and other major catastrophes of violence become more likely over time. Violence, as I argue throughout this book, has a logic that is far from random or intermittent. It supplies a constant force that pushes toward conflict, and is bound to erupt into large-scale spasms of bloodshed from time to time, so long as that logic persists. If this is the case, then Pinker is using the wrong math.

To get oriented to a non-Poisson type of process, let’s imagine a very simple case—a lively game of Russian roulette. We place one bullet in the chamber of a six-shooter, spin the cylinder, put the gun to our own head, and pull the trigger. The odds our head will get blown off are exactly one in six, or 16.7%—an 83.3% chance of survival. Let’s say we get lucky the first time but have a hankering to continue to test our fortune. Now we have a choice. We can elect simply to pull the trigger again, or we can give that cylinder another spin before we do so. A savvy sportsman will take pause with this decision. At first blush, it seems that spinning the cylinder is his best option because he again has an 83.3% chance of survival—his best possible odds in this contest. If he fails to spin the cylinder a second time, on the other hand, his odds drop to 80%, because there is now a one in five chance that the bullet will be waiting for him in the second chamber. As long as his luck holds out, but assuming he continues to pull the trigger without spinning the cylinder, his chances of survival will drop precipitously to 75%, 66.7%, then 50%, until finally, as he pulls the trigger a sixth time, he can be certain of his doom.

But we have not yet considered the cumulative effects of making multiple attempts. In the case where we spin the cylinder between each pull of the trigger, the odds of survival each time are always exactly 83.3%. But if our intrepid gamesman does it twice, his cumulative odds of living to tell the tale drop to 69%. His chances of surviving three attempts are only 58%. Four attempts render him more likely to die than survive (48%). Five attempts yield a 40% survival rate; and there’s only a one in three chance (33%) of surviving six pulls of the trigger. See Figure 6 to see a side-by-side comparison of the cumulative effects over multiple attempts using the two strategies.



Figure 6: Chances of survival in Russian roulette. Comparative probabilities when not spinning the cylinder between pulls of the trigger (lower line) and spinning between every pull of the trigger (upper line).


Each of these scenarios has a different logic, and so, a different mathematics. When you don’t spin the cylinder, the fact that there are six chambers, that a bullet is in one of them, and that you are systematically testing each chamber in turn means that there is a 100% chance you will “find” the bullet within six tries. The conditions are such that over time, as long as these conditions persist, and until the gun fires, the dreaded report becomes increasingly likely. The condition of a bullet lying in wait persists over time, and as long as you keep pulling the trigger, it becomes inevitable that it will fire.

When you spin the cylinder, on the other hand, you are randomizing the process of queuing up the chamber, and this sets in motion a different mathematics. But, still, there is the condition of a bullet loaded somewhere inside the gun, and the condition that you persist in pulling the trigger. The longer this keeps up, the more likely bad things will happen. Your odds of survival never get all the way to zero, unlike the no-spin scenario, but they still get bad enough quickly enough to occasion pause.

Let us now move to a somewhat more nuanced non-Poisson process. Consider the likelihood of dying from smoking-related disease, such as lung cancer or emphysema. Evidence suggests that you are more likely to do so the longer you smoke.[3] This is not a Poisson process, because the conditions that would produce disease are both persisting and accumulating in your body as long as you continue to smoke, making it more and more likely over time. Even if you smoke like a chimney your entire life, you may never get such a disease, let alone die from it, so the risk is nowhere near 100%. But the risks are great. Smoking is expected to kill more than a billion people in this century alone.[4]

There are various ways to increase your odds for a smoking-related fatality. You can start smoking earlier in life, wait longer to quit, smoke more times per day, and smoke more toxic cigarettes. All of these factors heighten your risk. Then, the statistics are straightforward: with each passing year, and with each increase in any of these risky sub-factors, your chances of dying a smoking-related death go up. This is not a Poisson process, and Pinker’s mathematics do not apply. Over time, the probability of catastrophe gets greater—at least linearly, if not exponentially.

These are the mathematics of my analysis of threats to human survival, described in the Prologue. I refer to three compounding trends that each makes catastrophe more likely with each passing year, so long as those trends continue to operate. First, we already possess the means to cause ecological collapse (e.g., nuclear weapons or burning fossil fuels), so the longer these means persist the more likely it becomes that they will induce collapse, like bullets waiting in their chambers. Second, the flow of human ingenuity and the motivations of key actors conspire to increase the lethality and availability of the current means of self-destruction steadily over time. Third, more and more diverse pathways to ecological collapse are developed as we relentlessly pursue technological innovation in novel directions (e.g., climate change, biotechnology). The compounding of these trends could potentially produce exponentially increasing peril for humankind. Indeed, this is itself one of the risks that grows greater with each passing year, that we will hit a tipping point after which our risk goes exponential.

But these trends only operate as long as they are fueled by their root cause, the logic of violence (the equivalent of continuing to pull the trigger in our game of Russian roulette, or to smoke more cigarettes). We can do better than merely hope that our doom is some kind of Poisson process that gets less likely the longer it doesn’t happen, as Pinker would have us do. We can come to our senses, confront this underlying logic, and turn to one another in peace and compassion rather than fear and hate.




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[2] Pinker, 2011, p. 203

[3] Jha et al, 2013. p. 349

[4] Jha et al, 2013. p. 349