The Onion meets Poe’s Law

by John Quiggin on February 18, 2011

A little while ago, my son pointed me to a news item in a periodical called The Onion, reporting Republican opposition to an Obama proposal to protect the earth against destruction by asteroid impact. The usual libertarian arguments were advanced, pointing out that everyone would be forced to pay for this protection, thereby undermining the incentive to act for themselves.

At the time, I was suspicious that this might be some sort of satirical gag[1]. But now I see the proposal being discussed, and rejected, at the very serious Volokh blog (H/T Paul Krugman and Matt Yglesias).

So, based on my extensive agnotological studies, let me make some predictions about some of the scientific claims we are likely to see advanced (by the same people, but at different times), once the debate over Obama’s socialist plan hots up.

  • Asteroids don’t exist
  • The law of gravity means that an impact between an asteroid and the earth is physically impossible
  • An asteroid would inevitably burn up in the atmosphere
  • In a quest for grant funding, NASA has fiddled the data on asteroid orbits to overstate the risk of a collision
  • Massive asteroids hit the earth all the time and nothing bad happens
  • Asteroid strikes are natural so environmentalists are hypocritical in opposing them
  • Al Gore is fat

The general point is that if some physical state of the world would require government action inconsistent with libertarian principles or conservative tribal taboos, then since libertarianism/conservatism is always right, logic dictates that the physical state in question must be impossible.

fn1. I’m susceptible enough that I believed DD when he said that Natalie Portman was starring in the movie version of Nassim Taleb’s book. I just went to see it, and, at the very least, the screenwriters took a lot of liberties with the text.

{ 39 comments }

1

Tom M 02.18.11 at 12:11 pm

Teach the Controversy!

(I think it’s spelled algore)

2

matthias 02.18.11 at 12:30 pm

What conservatives are doing, of course, is lying so as to make asteroid prevention a bad idea from the liberal, consequentialist point of view. Perhaps we could do the same thing? Volokh bases his opposition to asteroid prevention specifically on the idea that the government can only protect us against threats that are agentic. (A bit unusual from my perspective, sure, but reason alone won’t tell us how to choose our terminal values, so no reason to begrudge him for it.) I propose that we claim that asteroid kami hate freedom and our way of life generally, and that we accuse opponents of asteroid prevention of being in bed with America’s enemies.

Since we already hold academia in our terror grip, it should be easy enough to canonize the animism as the new scientific mainstream. The many salutory effects of this policy should be obvious. Those in support of lax food regulations have been bribed by our ancient enemy e. coli in its plan to consume us all. Cancerous cells are deviants who have broken the social contract and must be punished. Ignorance is caused by tiny gremlins who eat our brains, but to whom knowledge is poisonous. We don’t even have to sacrifice scientific understanding – just rechristen tendencies as motives and preventative measures as punishments or threats, make sure all the causal pathways are the same, and voila! This hostile new world may treat us well.

3

Mart 02.18.11 at 12:46 pm

Obama is actually in favour of the asteroid because, like him, it wasn’t born in America?

4

Henri Vieuxtemps 02.18.11 at 1:31 pm

When an asteroid hits, in many respects it’ll actually improve the environment.

5

Niall McAuley 02.18.11 at 1:52 pm

To expand Henri’s point, a big asteroid strike would throw enormous amounts of dust into the upper atmosphere, which liberals know will have a cooling effect (cf. Nuclear Winter).

Clearly this is God’s way of balancing out Global Warming, and who are we etc. etc.

6

chris 02.18.11 at 2:04 pm

It came up in comments at Volokh that there already *is* a massive global threat to life on Earth, and conservatives *already* want to not do anything about it. So the only hypothetical part is having it be a visible, tangible rock instead of changes in global atmospheric/ocean chemistry and climate.

Actually, the right would probably respond better to a rock; you can blow up a rock. Finally, a use for our nuclear arsenal! (Or at least part of it.)

7

OneEyedMan 02.18.11 at 2:10 pm

Isn’t it always possible to cook up a intuitively horrible thought experiment to any absolute moral system? Certainly any utilitarian and human-rights based morality is susceptible to this.

8

Stuart 02.18.11 at 2:16 pm

Isn’t the reason why this has to be the case in US Libertarianism due to things like the comment from PatHMV in the link thread – if you allow asteroid protection there are a whole host of similar problems that can lead to Liberalism by making the case that everyone is better off if they pay taxes to the government to protect them against (disease, food adulteration, environmental damage, poverty, etc.). In the particular case in question you could also suggest that a world government would make sense – why should only people in the US pay to track and deflect asteroids when everyone else in the world benefits from that?

9

Chris Bertram 02.18.11 at 2:30 pm

I particularly enjoyed the part in the linked thread where Sasha V explains that dying of starvation is a “natural cause” and not therefore an eligible ground for government action except for indirect reasons, such as cheapening the cost of law enforcement.

10

Henry 02.18.11 at 2:38 pm

bq. When an asteroid hits, in many respects it’ll actually improve the environment.

Already been done by Terry Pratchett, who notes somewhere or another that a direct meteorite strike on Ankh-Morpork would count as urban renewal.

11

Steve LaBonne 02.18.11 at 2:42 pm

Reminds me of one of the hoariest Cleveland jokes. Newspaper headline: Meteor Hits Cleveland; Inflicts $100 million In Improvements.

12

Michael Drake 02.18.11 at 3:32 pm

· The asteroid will be propelled away from the planet’s atmosphere due to the high concentration of CO2 emissions that naturally obtains when markets are free. (BTW, this inherent ability to forestall natural catastrophe is part of what Adam Smith meant when he spoke of the “Invisible Hand.”)

13

Ginger Yellow 02.18.11 at 3:53 pm

There is no asteroid, because if there were, some enterprising company would have strip-mined it already.

14

Glen Tomkins 02.18.11 at 4:55 pm

You left out the analogy to one of the currently more trendy global warming responses among these people:

— Okay, you’ve got us dead to rights. Asteroids do present a risk of catastrophe. But it would be too expensive, require the sacrifice of too many other important priorities, to justify doing anything about that threat.

You might have left it out because, unlike for global warming, that is probably the correct answer, at least until and unless we develope some more safe, effective and cheap means of destroying asteroids.

To respond effectively to AGW, in contrast, we need do nothing that we shouldn’t be doing anyway, and don’t have to incur costs that we would not have to pay soon anyway. We need to switch away from fossil fuels anyway because they are non-renewable. An AGW response just means going more quickly and more thoroughly in the direction the market is forcing us to anyway.

15

Area Man 02.18.11 at 6:18 pm

I really liked this comment by Sasha V:

“Bryan Caplan once suggested the asteroid hypo to me as a reductio ad absurdum against my view. But a reductio ad absurdum doesn’t work against someone who’s willing to be absurd…”

That’s the power of dogma for you.

16

Rich Puchalsky 02.18.11 at 6:26 pm

I especially admire the way that these libertarians would think that it’s perfectly justified, indeed required, for the government to send police to roust out homeless people who are trying to sleep under privately owned bridges, even as the asteroid looms. Private property rights are after all the source of all good etc etc.

Years ago I tried to go through which theories would be future sources of right-wing/libertarian denial, in addition to evolution and global warming. I think that cell theory is the next one. Has anyone ever seen these “cells”? How do people know that the human body is really composed of them?

17

Steve LaBonne 02.18.11 at 6:30 pm

Rich, I wish they would choose gravity, and then demonstrate their confidence in their ideology by jumping out of 12th-floor windows.

18

Bruce Baugh 02.18.11 at 6:51 pm

Rich, I’m just waiting for trephination to come into fashion for either conservative or libertarian reasons. I used to present this as absurd; now I figure it’s just a matter of time.

Back at the asteroid, another possibility is claiming that asteroids can only aggregate into dangerously large masses through state intervention.

19

Uncle Kvetch 02.18.11 at 6:55 pm

There should be a “follow the money” bullet in your list. You know, the way Al Gore stands to make billions — billions, I tell you! — off this whole global-warming hoax. Don’t be fooled, America, somebody’s making a mint off this whole asteroid hysteria (cue Glenn Beck mincing around his studio doing a “Chicken Little” dance)…

20

ben w 02.18.11 at 8:39 pm

I just went to see it, and, at the very least, the screenwriters took a lot of liberties with the text.

Dsquared noted that himself, on nearly every occasion he made the gag in question.

21

Michael Bérubé 02.18.11 at 8:39 pm

The Communist Soviet Union was brought down precisely by its aggressive anti-asteroid space policy and the runaway spending that created a massive debt all under the umbrella of job creation.

22

Keith 02.18.11 at 9:11 pm

Rich Puchalsky @16:
Years ago I tried to go through which theories would be future sources of right-wing/libertarian denial, in addition to evolution and global warming. I think that cell theory is the next one.

My money’s on gravity followed shortly thereafter by electromagnetism. Though cell theory and germ theory might fit neatly in between, as they scale down the denialism from macro to micro sources.

23

Keith 02.18.11 at 9:13 pm

Bruce Baugh@18
…another possibility is claiming that asteroids can only aggregate into dangerously large masses through state intervention.

Stellar collectivism!!!!

24

Substance McGravitas 02.18.11 at 9:37 pm

In any economy there is bust boom and crater.

25

Bloix 02.18.11 at 10:39 pm

#15 – who’s willing to be absurd…

Actually, if your argument doesn’t bring you to an absurd conclusion, that’s a sign that you might be wrong.

26

Jack Strocchi 02.18.11 at 10:49 pm

My favourite line from the VC blog:

Bryan Caplan once suggested the asteroid hypo to me as a reductio ad absurdum against my view. But a reductio ad absurdum doesn’t work against someone who’s willing to be absurd, and I may be willing to bite the bullet on this one.

Theres no arguing with that.

27

Jack Strocchi 02.18.11 at 11:28 pm

Incidentally the modern promulgators of Poe’s Law seem to have come down with the last shower, or should at least work on their fact-checking. Poe’s Law is actually a slight amendment to the much older and wiser Muggeridge’s Law which was discovered by he eponymous editor of Punch magazine, back in the late fifties.

MM arrived at the law when he published a spoof itinerary of Kruschev’s visit to London, only to find that the actual itinerary – which visited all the liberal stations of the cross – more or less over-lapped it. In its first formulation it ran as follows:

There is no way that a writer of fiction can compete with real life for its pure absurdity.

More generally, all libertarianism – but particularly the financial and cultural varieties – has a built-in tendency towards idiocy or solipsistic folly. So it will eventually self-destruct in much the same way as addicts over-dose (and for much the same reason).

But it can do a lot of “externalities” damage to the rest of us in the mean time.

28

Jack Strocchi 02.19.11 at 12:13 am

Pr Q said:

The general point is that if some physical state of the world would require government action inconsistent with libertarian principles or conservative tribal taboos, then since libertarianism/conservatism is always right, logic dictates that the physical state in question must be impossible.

This is a bit unfair to post-War American conservatives, going from Eisenhower to Reagan, who were at the fore-front of improving the US’s sci-tech capabilities. Von Neuman was Ike’s science advisor. But since that breed no longer runs the REPs I suppose the shot is above the belt.

Reagan’s SDI (“star wars”) was an arguable program for the latter stages of the Cold War, although a useful bargaining chip in arms negotiations. But it is undoubtedly the way to go to bolster our defence against hazardous Near-Earth Objects. His commission of the DoD’s research into missiles and lasers could well be the last best hope of Earth.

Its bizarre that post-modern libertarians and conservatives are so ignorant of Reagan’s sci-tech program legacy. Possibly the tribalists will come to their senses if Obama named the asteroid defence program in honor of Reagan.

The greatest puzzle of modern political science is what has happened to the minds of American “conservatives”* since the end of the Cold War. Like Dick Cheney they seem to be suffering from “pump head” syndrome, which has addled their thought processes. Did victory go to their heads?

* Excepting the worthy souls at the American Conservative and Taki Mag, who have split from the mainstream “conservative” movement.

29

Matt McIrvin 02.19.11 at 1:23 am

Reagan’s SDI (“star wars”) was an arguable program for the latter stages of the Cold War, although a useful bargaining chip in arms negotiations. But it is undoubtedly the way to go to bolster our defence against hazardous Near-Earth Objects. His commission of the DoD’s research into missiles and lasers could well be the last best hope of Earth.

The believable approaches I’ve seen to asteroid defense have little to do with SDI. There’s little you can do unless you have many years of advance warning; if you do, then you can send a rocket out there and subtly alter the asteroid’s trajectory, by any number of means, ranging from nuclear bombs to paint (to alter the asteroid’s thermal emissions). So the first problem is tracking all the potentially hazardous objects, which is astronomy.

SDI had to do with using X-ray lasers or kinetic energy weapons or something else to shoot down a vast barrage of relatively tiny nuclear warheads with minutes of advance notice. Aside from being in space, it’s a fairly different problem. Shooting an asteroid when it’s just about to hit us would accomplish little; at best it’d crack the thing into a bunch of pieces that would still be headed for us and would still have the same amount of kinetic energy.

30

Jack Strocchi 02.19.11 at 2:10 am

Pr Q said:

So, based on my extensive agnotological studies, let me make some predictions about some of the scientific claims we are likely to see advanced (by the same people, but at different times), once the debate over Obama’s socialist plan hots up.

These “agnotological predictions” suffer from “failure to launch”, being refuted before lift-off. The Bush administration authorised its agency investigate this threat early in the noughties. The last REP congress passed a bill, introduced by a REP and signed by Bush, to fund NASA’s program of asteroid detection and possible destruction.

This bill “to provide for a Near-Earth Object Survey program to detect, track, catalogue, and characterize certain near-earth asteroids and comets” was introduced in March 2005 by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA).[4] It was eventually rolled into S.1281, the NASA Authorization Act of 2005, passed by Congress on December 22, 2005, subsequently signed by the President,

Could it be that Pr Q suffers from the occasional bout of partisan agnotology?

31

Jack Strocchi 02.19.11 at 2:52 am

Matt McIrvine @ #29 said:

The believable approaches I’ve seen to asteroid defense have little to do with SDI.

The “believable approaches” all have something to do with SDI, which was about developing ballistic defence (detection, deflection or destruction) against threatening objects in space. Which is why I was careful to use the phrase “way to go”, rather than definitive solution, to characterise SDI research.

More generally, the Arms Race provided the indispensable ground research and basic tools for mounting a timely planetary defence against NEO’s. Not to mention other useful things like satellites and the internet.

You should not have to practice lawyerly caution with phrases on blogs. But even if you do it turns out that this precaution will not deter a mischievous misreading.

32

Rich Puchalsky 02.19.11 at 4:10 am

“The Bush administration authorised its agency investigate this threat early in the noughties. The last REP congress passed a bill, introduced by a REP and signed by Bush, to fund NASA’s program of asteroid detection and possible destruction.”

I remember this history somewhat differently, or at least with a different emphasis. The reason that this happened, starting as I recall in the late nineties, was as industrial support for the military-industrial complex. The people who made nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles needed something else to tide their companies over, so this was proposed. There was no more actual political concern over NEOs than there was, later, about Iraqi WMDs.

At the time, I proposed that there be a moratorium of a few decades on this kind of funding in order to let the various bad actors die off. Surely the world was in less danger from NEOs, over the short term, than it was from nuclear-armed ballistic missiles forever, which is what we got and are still getting from entrenched defense interests and the money stream devoted to them.

I await the libertarian version of this argument, which involves taking the nuclear weapons away from big bad government and privatizing them, preferably with operational control in the hands of individual businessmen (who will kindly let us all pay ONE MILLION DOLLARS for asteroid defense if an asteroid shows up).

33

Matt McIrvin 02.19.11 at 5:14 am

There’s also the Gregg Easterbrook version of reality, in which global warming fears are distracting us from the terrifying everpresent asteroid menace.

(When it comes to actual NEO protection measures, I’m generally in favor of doing a lot to track them; not so much in favor of committing heavily to mitigation schemes before we know we need them, for more or less the reason Rich gives above. The chances are pretty good that we’ll just discover we’re safe from planetary doom for a good long time. But we don’t know that yet, and looking is relatively cheap, and more than cheap if it saves us from actually having to build an asteroid deflector.)

(I still think the asteroid-impact story that needs to be written is a Glengarry Glenn Ross-like satire about what happens in the real estate market when a strike big enough to wipe out a major city gets predicted twenty years out. What’s the relevant discount rate affecting the current value of your doomed home? Maybe somebody starts buying up residential areas at fire-sale prices in hopes of lucrative redevelopment after the big bang. Plans to deflect the asteroid materialize, and threaten to derail the scheme. Shenanigans ensue. Maybe there’s a space-opera climax involving battling Realtors with railguns.)

34

Matt McIrvin 02.19.11 at 5:16 am

On second thought, that sounds a bit much like a Scooby-Doo plot.

35

mclaren 02.19.11 at 6:17 am

I think there’s a strong libertarian argument to be made that when life crawled out of the sea onto the land, it was a fundamentally bad move.

36

Jack Strocchi 02.19.11 at 8:46 pm

Rich Puchalsky @ #32 said:

I remember this history somewhat differently, or at least with a different emphasis. The reason that this happened, starting as I recall in the late nineties, was as industrial support for the military-industrial complex. The people who made nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles needed something else to tide their companies over, so this was proposed. There was no more actual political concern over NEOs than there was, later, about Iraqi WMDs.

Ahh yes, I remember the early nineties, I was working in the US at the time. Nirvana and “Falling Down”. (“whats wrong with this picture”?) After the end of the Cold War lots of tech staff were laid off from defence industries. Some of the tecchies moved into golf club design which is why my titanium driver can now reach the 250 metre mark.

The upper-ranks of the REPs are dominated by the parasitic class of lawyers, financiers and lobbyist types. They are most impressed by policies that result in their immediate lucrative remuneration.

But they will fund R&D so long as it promises to produce a thing that makes a loud satisfying explosion at the beginning or culmination of its mission, such as a missile or a bomb or a laser. Thus they cut public funding to particle accelerators but might consider some kind of ballistic defence against NEOs.

Slightly tangential to topic but the PRC seems to have a similar preference for investing in machines. They are streets ahead of the RoW in the renewable energy industry, without the benefit of carbon tax or price. Lots of nerdy tecchies in the CCP hierarchy.

37

Hermenauta 02.20.11 at 12:14 am

“More generally, the Arms Race provided the indispensable ground research and basic tools for mounting a timely planetary defence against NEO’s. Not to mention other useful things like satellites and the internet.”

That´s trivial. On this basis, the chinese king that made the first ballistic flight by attaching rockets to his throne (and died) was the very precursor of anti-NEO defences.

McIrvin is right, Strocchi is wrong.

38

Anarcho 02.21.11 at 10:02 am

These people are NOT libertarians, they are propertarians who stole the term “libertarian” from the left. To quote Murray Rothbard:

“One gratifying aspect of our rise to some prominence is that, for the first time in my memory, we, ‘our side,’ had captured a crucial word from the enemy . . . ‘Libertarians’ . . . had long been simply a polite word for left-wing [sic!] anarchists, that is for anti-private property anarchists, either of the communist or syndicalist variety. But now we had taken it over, and more properly from the view of etymology; since we were proponents of individual liberty and therefore of the individual’s right to his property.” [The Betrayal of the American Right, p. 83]

It is somewhat ironic that the propertarians, so keen to defend “absolute” rights to property, happily stole their name from others who had been using it since 1858:
150 years of libertarian.

What is even more annoying is how others on the left happily let the right change the definitions of words — please, do not let the right appropriate a word they have no right to use. They are concerned about property, not liberty, and if the two clash they will always side with property (as can be seen from their anti-union position, for example).

39

Mr Art 02.22.11 at 11:26 pm

Some of the more intelligent libertarians recognize asteroid defence as, of course, a public good.

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