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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Further news from The End of All Things department

I was writing about this earlier. Michael Moyer at Scientific American notes,
Once again, the world is about to end. The latest source of doomsday dread comes courtesy of the ancient Mayans, whose calendar runs out in 2012, as interpreted by a cadre of opportunistic authors and blockbuster movie directors. Not long before, three separate lawsuits charged that the Large Hadron Collider would seed a metastasizing black hole under Lake Geneva. Before that, captains of industry shelled out billions preparing for the appearance of two zeros in the date field of computer programs too numerous to count; left alone, this tick of the clock would surely have shaken modern civilization to its foundations.
And more. Well, there is always a catastrophe somewhere; right now, the floods in Pakistan.

It looks like an interesting SciAm issue, though I don't think that fear of catastrophe is - as claimed - the outcome of "pattern-seeking brains." That's just another neuro Darwinism crock. For one thing, for most catastrophes, there is no pattern. That's the problem.

If there are 18 houses down the street from you, and 14 of the owners have been murdered in the last three weeks, I would be surprised if you were still living in #19 tonight. I wouldn't advise it. A decision to move in with your sister for a while would be an instance of pattern-seeking.

Pattern-seeking causes us to buy home insurance and auto insurance. Provided we have enough common sense to realize that bad things happen to heedless people. If we don't realize it, our mortgage bankers and motor vehicle departments usually realize it for us, via their lending rules or regulations.

No, I think the situation is more like this: We know we will die; we just don't want it to happen any time soon. So we seek to rid our lives of risk, sometimes going overboard in risk assessment and reaction, or leaning too hard in one direction vs others. Anyway, many of us do feel better going overboard than under water.

Such people can indeed be a pain in the neck. The guy who smokes two packs a day, but is worried about a supposed "metastasizing black hole under Lake Geneva" is a case in point. The two packs a day are a pattern; the supposed hole would be unique. The pattern is precisely what he avoids thinking about.

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