Friday, December 28, 2007


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Dear Friends:

We are all too familiar with the notion of the self-fulfilling prophesy -- a fascinating psychological phenomenon (used here in the negative context) whereby we are gripped by a fearful anticipation to such a great extent that we subconsciously help to make it come to fruition through our defensive responses and our instinctual, reflexive behavior.

Extrapolating and philosophizing just a bit (simultaneously!), it might be said that the future will be just as wonderful or just as horrific as we imagine that it will be.

In Bruce Klein's NOVAMENTE blog (there is a link to his blog in the Links section of this one), Bruce cites the top 10 Existential Risks, and asks, indirectly, that we prioritize which ones we would rate as the most important/ worrisome by how much money (based upon a theoretical total budget of $100 million) we would choose to allocate to researching each of them. Simply: the greater the perceived threat, the more money we would be willing to apportion to researching it. It is presented as a poll, and I look forward to seeing the results.

The risks, unranked, but ordered in the construction matrix of the poll, are listed below:

BIOLOGICAL (viruses, etc.)
SPACE THREATS (asteroids, etc.)
ENVIRONMENTAL (global warming, etc.)
EXTRATERRESTRIAL (invasion, etc.)
NANOTECHNOLOGY (gray goo, etc.)
NUCLEAR (holocaust, etc.)
GOVERNMENTS (abusive power, etc.)
SIMULATION SHUT DOWN (assumes we live in one, etc.)
SUPERINTELLIGENT AI (unfriendly, etc.)

There are several statistical biases inherent in this type of a poll that emerge from a confusing confluence of two effects -- the actual nature of how the question is framed (e.g., the manner in which you ask a question, or request an answer), and human nature, with its idiosycracies and encultured conformities.

A brief look at some of these interesting bias points:

1. The assumption that all of the risks presented are truly the "Top Ten", or at least the "Top Nine" and a write-in.

2. The inclination by many prospective respondents to inherently view the likelihood or severity of the risks in a declining order, with the most dangerous being first on the list. We all have a tendency to do this, by the way.

3. The implicit tendency to assume that the more money we allocate to studying a problem, the more likely it is to be solved. <"We need your donations to find a cure!">

4. The implicit understanding that any study, in fact, can or will yield a solution of some sort...or even have any effect on the possibility of preventing the occurrence of some disaster, or, at least, mitigating the damage that it wreaks.

5. The natural propensity to mitigate or "hedge" answers, by a kind of diversification. Simply put, if I truly believe (for the sake of illustration) that ENVIRONMENTAL risks (either Global Warming, or having to listen to Al Gore lecture about Global Warming) are the only ones which we can proactively short-circuit via research, I will still not put all of the $100 million into the ENVIRONMENTAL category; I will spread that money around a bit, because I have been indoctrinated with the cultural paradigm that diversification = safety.

I would suggest that you visit Bruce's blog, and participate in the poll. I think that simply designing a poll which yields metrics undistorted by "human nature error" is something worth studying, too.

One final observation about the poll, or about any poll, is that if the category OTHER is given as an alternative, many respondents will allocate some of the $100 million to that category automatically, because they are subconsciously trying to address an ingrained perception that we are always "leaving something out". OTHER becomes the "just in case..." hedge. Not unlike when you jiggle the mailbox chute, or check your doorknob, or look behind you to be certain that your car's lights are off.

I wonder if there is a way to segregate people's actual thoughts from the way in which they express them when confronted with a poll format.


Now, to the business of The Global Futurist. We are going to be seeing more of the following:

1. Decisions, both in business and in politics being made by the use of public polls.

2. Polls being used as a propagandist tool to incite concern, fear, or to simply divert attention away from other issues or actions.

3. Polls as the primary horsemen of the self-fulfilling prophesy.

4. Increased reliance on polling and a corresponding decreased reliance on expertise.

5. Published polling results supplanting creative thought and innovation.

Keep watching. On a serious note, it causes me a feeling of impending loss when I think of the possibility that people may ultimately wait for poll results before they formulate opinions of their own. Perhaps we might consider spending some of Bruce's hypothetical $100 million on ways to preserve spontaneity and originality.


Douglas Castle


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