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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Ingrate of the day: Stephen Hawking

I do not belittle or ridicule Stephen Hawking's suffering for the past five decades that he has struggled with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. This takes courage and inner strength.

But his success in surviving to age 74 despite ALS has another component: Science.

Science allows him communicate and move. He has fathered three children and has had two wives (not simultaneously). He has championed the construction of ramps to allow those who live in wheelchairs to have a better life. He pioneered using a computer to speak.

Therefore , this account in the New York Post saddened me:
 Scientific progress is almost certain to bring disaster to planet Earth within the next few thousand years, according to top cosmologist Professor Stephen Hawking.
He predicts that as new technologies are developed, the number of threats to the human race will increase until some kind of global cataclysm is virtually inevitable.
In the time period before humans manage to escape to the stars, they will have to be “very careful”, he says.
Hawking’s warning came during a question-and-answer session at the BBC Reith Lectures at London’s Royal Institution on Jan. 7.
His prophesy of doom came when a member of the audience asked him: “Do you think the world will end naturally or will man destroy it first?”
“We face a number of threats to our survival from nuclear war, catastrophic global warming, and genetically engineered viruses,” the research director at Cambridge University’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics replied.
“The number is likely to increase in the future, with the development of new technologies, and new ways things can go wrong. Although the chance of a disaster to planet Earth in a given year may be quite low, it adds up over time, and becomes a near certainty in the next thousand or 10,000 years.
I have heard this gloom-and-doom nonsense all my life.

Nuclear arms didn't kill us; they helped prevent World War III.

The world didn't collapse when its population reached 3 billion. We now have 8 billion people who are healthier and enjoying material wealth better than ever before. Not all, of course, but the percentage of people in poverty is at an all-time low, nearly zero in the United States (food stamp programs and the like give those in "poverty" what is a middle class life elsewhere).

Global cooling? Ha!

Global warming? Ha ha ha.

Science -- real science, not this politicized climate change bunk -- saves lives. In fact, what is pushing the population rise is not the birth rate -- it has been dropping as the middle class expands -- but the drop in the death rate. We keep living.

For example, men who contract ALS in their 20s are living another 50 years or more.

Just as Stephen Hawking.


  1. We didn't prevent WWII but we did prevent WWIII (I think).

    1. At least the one with the Soviet Union.

  2. I believe Hawking's view is more nuanced than yours (or Nate Silver's, for that matter): when it comes to humans, the past is not always prologue. I acknowledge that people do repeat the past, but they also have a way of doing the unexpected regardless of history or statistics. As a former Secretary of Defense once said, we cannot take the unknown unknowns into account. For many decades, the concept of MAD may have (temporarily at least) forestalled a nuclear WW III, but that was before the mad mullahs came onto the scene. Rationality is in short supply at home and around the globe these days. For many decades, the world benefited from Pax Americana, but Obama has undone that and now there is far less stability in human affairs. The chances are increasing that someone at some point will use the mighty power of science for evil with global consequences.

    1. My beef with Silver is that he was right two days before the election but wildly off nearly a year before in 2008 and 2012. That's all.

    2. Actually it's not science that could devastate all humanity, but the technology derived from it. Anyway, neither Mr. Silver nor Mr. Hawking can foretell using statistics or cosmology if or when there might be a modern-day equivalent of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. But then, things aren't so hunky-dory on the Korean peninsula these days, are they?

  3. Excellent piece, Don. As a scientist myself, I support your view here. Hawking has been fear-mongering for some time about the dangers of artificial intelligence and nano-technology, and he's convinced a lot of other visionaries, like Elon Musk. But I see this fear as a natural result of Hawking's irrational faith in the possibilities of random, materialistic evolutionary processes. Whether he believes in anything supernatural or not (SH does not), a real scientist will admit that natural processes, even chaotic ones, have always behaved within certain limits in the real world. To believe that "anything's possible" in the realm of the "unknown unknowns" that Iapetus mentions, takes a great deal of faith, indeed. Besides, any debate on intelligence - natural or artificial - is a philosophical debate that must consider the possibility of the supernatural in addition to the mechanistic. Hawking refuses to do that. So, let him be afraid. Those are the wages of blindness.

  4. Don't look now but WWIII is brewing in the Middle East, and it will explode into a Nuke War, with all its consequences.

  5. He's projecting thousands of years into the future. That's a long time for something bad to happen. He's not the first to say we (humans) need to leave the cradle.

  6. The world--as we know it now--certainly isn't going last thousands of years. Its time is short. But that's not due to science, it's due to evil. Hawking is highly intelligent but not wise.

  7. Don: A minor quibble, agree with your Hawking comments but we already fought WW 3, it was called the cold war which we learned how to fight and won. We are now involved in WW 4, and at the moment it appears we are not doing so well. And I do not think we show any great propensity to even know how to fight it. Some do, see 13 hours!

  8. "...within the next few thousand years..."

    Which is sometime between the Trojan War and now - if you want to do comparisons.

    I accept those odds.

    - Mikey NTH