TCS Daily

Ignorance or Bliss?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - February 19, 2003 12:00 AM

Geoffrey Sommer of the Rand Corporation thinks that ignorance might be bliss, at least in one narrow set of circumstances:

In certain circumstances, nothing could be done to avoid such a collision and ensuing destruction, and it would be best not to tell the public anything, said Geoffrey Sommer, of the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica, California.

"When a problem arises with high uncertainty, there is an opportunity to spin the problem to avoid global panic. If you can't do anything about a warning, then there is no point in issuing a warning at all," Dr Sommer told the association yesterday.

"If an extinction-type impact is inevitable, then ignorance for the populace is bliss. As a matter of common sense, if you can't intercept it and you can't move people out of the way in time, there's nothing you can do in terms of reducing the costs of the potential impact," he said.

Well, maybe. Certainly panicked reactions to such news are the staple of disaster stories, all the way back to Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer's classic When Worlds Collide. Whether people would really behave in such a fashion is less certain - during actual disasters they generally don't - and as blogger Bill Quick notes, many people might appreciate a bit of advance warning, either to make peace with their god or to say goodbye to their families.

On the other hand, you can see Sommer's point. If nothing can be done, why ruin people's last weeks or months by telling them they're doomed?

This is a dilemma that doctors used to face a lot, and still face sometimes. "Early diagnosis" is great when it means a better chance of treatment. But sometimes it just means getting the bad news sooner, with no greater hope for survival. Is it a favor to give patients that kind of news? Is it a favor even to order tests that will only yield that kind of news?

Even today, doctors in Japan often withhold a terminal diagnosis from a patient, with the idea of sparing him this sort of worry. And even in the United States, the practice has become less common mostly because more cancers are now sufficiently treatable that the number of truly terminal diagnoses has gone down.
I think there's a lesson in that. As I've written before, humanity's long-term survival (and by long-term, I mean something much less than a thousand years) probably depends on the development of a truly spacefaring civilization. That's in part to help protect against earthbound threats like nuclear and biological weapons, but obviously a vigorous spacegoing capability would help protect against killer asteroid strikes, too. Once we're out there and operating regularly, we'll be far more likely to notice such a threat while there's time to do something about it, and far more likely to be able to do something about it.

There was a time when the practice of medicine was as much about how to comfort the dying, and how (and whether) to deliver bad news, as it was about actually curing patients. That has changed over the past century. Scientific and technological progress has meant that doctors now spend more time making patients better, and less time easing their passage to death.

In the same way, the more we're able to do in space (and, for that matter, in general) the more problems we'll be able to solve, and the less we'll have to focus on questions of how to deliver bad news. Which seems like a pretty good thing to me.

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