tisdag 18 augusti 2020

Writing about science, uncertainty, the atomic bomb and covid-19 for the International Statistical Institute

Some weeks ago, the International Statistical Institute launched their new blog Statisticians React to the News. I've agreed to serve as a regular contribution, and today my first blog post there, entitled On science, uncertainty, the atomic bomb, and covid-19, has been published. Here is how it begins:
    To be conservative in one's assumptions is a much-celebrated virtue in science, but the term carries an ambiguity that deserves highlighting. In 1939, at Columbia University in New York and just six years after he had come up with the crucial idea of a neutron-induced nuclear chain reaction, Hungarian-born phycisist Leo Szilard worked with his colleague Enrico Fermi on trying to make the chain reaction happen, to enable harvesting the energy contained in the nucleus, possibly leading to the creation of the atomic bomb. Szilard later reflected on his disagreement with Fermi over how to think about the possible outcomes of their work:
      Fermi thought that the conservative thing was to play down the possibility that this may happen, and I thought the conservative thing was to assume that it would happen and take all the necessary precautions.
    Their disagreement seems not to have been primarily one of substance - they both thought it wide open whether their experiments would succeed or not - but rather of how to think about this uncertainty. It seems they both took asymmetric views on this, but Szilard's one is easiest to understand: we are already used to living without man-made nuclear chain reactions since forever, so the outcome that is more liekly to have unforseen consequences and therefore more urgent to think thorugh is if we step into the brave new world where such chain reactions exist. As to Fermi, a succinct summary of his position is that he was acting Goofus, meaning that...
Read the rest of the blog post here!