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Astronomical Odds: A Policy Framework for the Cosmic Impact Hazard

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Doctoral thesis

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The phrase astronomical odds expresses the rarest of lifes experiences in terms of the unfathomable vastness of outer space. Ironically, this work examines the astronomical odds of a particular astronomical event, and shows how social responses to the prospect of the event are shaped by the inconceivability of those odds. The event in question is a cosmic impact collision of either a comet or an asteroid with the Earth, potentially destroying a city, a region, or all human civilization. This impact hazard is treated from the perspective of a policy analyst interested in the general category of low-probability-but-high-consequence events. Such extreme events have proven problematic, in terms of both the formulation and execution of public policy. Why should this be so, and what measures can be taken to surmount the difficulties There are cognitive barriers to serious consideration of very remote hazards, and these are nicely captured by the colloquial term giggle factor. These barriers on the individual level may aggregate into barriers on the organizational level, and thus serve to constrain policymaker action. The end result may be a less than socially-optimal level of resource allocation in effect, the social system has a blind spot. On the other hand, heuristics may operate that unjustifiably magnify the attention given to such hazards, and these heuristics may be susceptible to manipulation by interested stakeholders. The consequence would then be a greater than socially-optimal level of resource allocation. The task is to first define how a socially-optimal level of resource allocation might be derived, and then to explore how such a level might be maintained in the face of policymaker aversion or rent-seeking behavior by stakeholders. If such a level cannot be maintained, then what is the constrained optimum

Subject Categories:

  • Government and Political Science
  • Operations Research
  • Astronomy
  • Statistics and Probability

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