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September 26, 2007


Is it your actual opinion that nuclear war between the US and USSR would have destroyed the world (or human civilization), or was that just a figure of speech? The distinction seems worth upholding.

Another really great post. Although I agree with Steven's comment. The impact of a Soviet response nuclear strike would be disastrous enough that we don't have to claim that it would "destroy the world". Particularly since we may soon be weighing existential risk against stuff that could actually do just that.

Yes, fair enough.

Can anyone arrange to get money to this man or his family? I'm tempted to donate, to honor his deed.

Robin: You might want to try contacting the Association of World's Citizens. They know how to contact him, obviously, because they gave him an award. They'd be easier to contact than the folks making the movie as well, I imagine.

Eliezer: Great post. I hadn't known of Petrov before.

Oh, I should clarify that. By easier to contact, I mean "easier to find contact information for," not the probability that someone will write you back.

"I'm tempted to donate, to honor his deed."
Presumably he has received some cash from the documentary, but the incentives created by his later life (and its publication) are horribly perverse.

It seems that this is right up the alley of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which is supported by Warren Buffett and other donors.
You could write a letter to them discussing the incentives and suggesting a prize for averting mega-disasters or existential risk, nominating Petrov for the first award.

"He sent messages declaring the launch detection a false alarm, based solely on his personal belief that the US did not seem likely to start an attack using only five missiles."

According to the Wikipedia article, Petrov claimed that he had other reasons for believing it was false alarm: lack of corroborating evidence from ground satellites and the fact that the detection technology was new and immature.

It warms my heart to finally hear people question the literal "destroy the world" concept of thermonuclear weapon trade-offs. Even Carl Sagan seemed to fall victim to that sort of rhetoric. On the other hand, perhaps the evidence suggests they really would have destroyed the world.

Oops, as a correction to my previous comment, that should be "ground radars." "Ground satellites" is just an oxymoron.

"Can anyone arrange to get money to this man or his family? I'm tempted to donate, to honor his deed."


"It warms my heart to finally hear people question the literal "destroy the world" concept of thermonuclear weapon trade-offs."

Okay, take a moment not to seriously and dramatically damage the world and kill millions of people. Still, worth a day named in your honour, $1 000 and a trophy at least.

"Destroying the world" describes things fairly accurately. Who believes a nuclear strike on the major Soviet Union and American cities wouldn't have destroyed the world? Life, I'm sure wouldn't have ended (even human), but the fall out and human loss would have been catastrophic. It's easy to question this 20-30 years after the fact, but I remember the fear the world festered in in the 70's and 80's. If a nuclear missile had been launched, dozens if not hundreds would have been launched.

The change in world view and behavior would have been larger than any event in human history. Millions, possibly over a billion, lives would have been lost, and the prosperity of the world that started in the 70's, which has lifted over a billion out of abject poverty, would have come to screeching halt.

I think the "would the world have been destroyed" comments are addressed pretty well by this bit from :

"Given the likely scale and effects of a nuclear attack, it's most unlikely that the everybody will be killed. There will be survivors and they will rebuild a society but it will have nothing in common with what was there before. So, to all intents and purposes, once a society initiates a nuclear exchange it's gone forever."

Gah. Messed up my previous comment (next time, I'll use preview). It should have read "this bit from Nuclear Warfare 101".

Nuclear war would have been unimaginably awful, and Petrov deserves all the positive attention he's getting and more. But there's a distinction between destroying the world and destroying much of the world, and our descendants a millions years from now, if any, will find this distinction very significant.

I don't believe that a post-nuclear society would "have nothing in common with what was there before", but I wouldn't object to calling it "destroying the world as we know it".

"destroying the world as we know it" as a phrase seems to me to be both empty and endlessly contestible. I don't see harm in stating things a bit more precisely, and there are plenty of such descriptions available for the effects of nuclear strikes and nuclear war. Also, the internet and generally wide distribution of technological knowledge has done its job. It seems likely to me that almost all useful human knowledge would survive a nuclear war.

That seems likely to me too. There wasn't much of an internet in 1983, though.

It seems likely to me that almost all useful human knowledge would survive a nuclear war.

Except the day to day expertise in running and functioning in the current complex society, and the well-known and well-accepted boundaries between different power groups. I think we tend to underestimate the importance of that knowledge.

Plus knowledge is useless without an ideology that can sift the good from the bad with accepatable accuracy. And such ideologies may be in short suply after a nuclear war.

Eliezer: Great post. I hadn't known of Petrov before.

Like some brain-dead AOLer, all I can say is: me too.

In my opinion a full scale thermonuclear war would likely neither have wiped out humanity (I'm reading the original nuclear winter papers as well as their criticisms right now) nor wiped out civilization. It would have been terribly bad for both though. I did a small fictional writeup of such a scenario for a roleplaying game,
based in turn on the information in "The Effects of Nuclear War" (OTA 1979). That scenario may have been too optimistic, but it is hard to tell. It seems that much would depend on exact timing and level of forewarning. But even in the most optimistic scenario the repercussions on human progress would have been severe since human capital is disproportionally concentrated in cities that are likely to be devastated. This can in turn make other threats to human flourishing more serious. For example, in my scenario AIDS is likely to become a far more devastating epidemic than in our world since the rate of research into it has been much reduced and the seriousness of the epidemic is overshadowed by war-related conditions.

A full-scale thermonuclear war would have had lots of unintended consequences. We are not in a good position to decide whether everybody would be killed. To help us decide that we have a sample of size zero.

Predicting complex systems, very often we are wrong. In as simple a question as whether an airliner accident would cause WTC to collapse, everybody who tried to predict it got it wrong.

I would guess that a sheepherder in paraguay who has never seen many effects from the industrial revolution ought to be minimally affected. He shouldn't get much radiation unless somebody intentionally uses cobalt bombs or such. He should be able to live just fine without new steel knives and such. I guess there would be no subtle interactions that would kill him, and I have no basis for that guess except my lack of imagination.

We could certainly design a nuclear war to kill everybody. It's called a doomsday device, and it would be possible to make one that was fairly certain to be effective. The question of just how small a full-scale thermonuclear war would have to be to not kill everybody, is not something we can estimate with any degree of certainty without repeating the experiment enough times to get a decent sample size.

Why would we think we know the answer to this question? If we could reasonably predict whether a full-scale nuclear war would kill everybody, why can't we design a warplane from scratch and build it from untested plans and have it fly correctly the first time?

Yikes! Never heard of this guy (not that I recall). Glad he didn't push the button - I was XO of an Atomic Demolition Munitions Combat Engineer company at Fort Hood that was part of the Rapid Deployment Force. I think that many such decisions have been made by men throughout history, avoiding much mayhem and destruction. For such, we should thank God and endeavor to think before we act.

Carl, I like your suggestion to establish a prize for avoing mega-disasters and existential risks. (Meanwhile, I'm going to send Petrov a small donation.)

One of the bias issues this raises is the possibility of bias in how we allocate our attention. One could think of an attention allocation as if it involved an implicit belief that "this is worth attending to". Then we can think of how this kind of implicit belief might be biased. For example, in the ancestral environment nobody was worth attending to because they had prevented millions of deaths by refraining from pressing a button; so maybe we are biased in the direction of allocating too little attention to such acts... Some future post might explore this in more detail.

Eliezer, thanks for your post.

Hat-tip too to Vasili Arkhipov.

The most troubling thing is how often this happens. Where were you on January 25, 1995?

God bless the bureaucrats. They can be much better decision makers than elected officials at times.

Nick, sure, heroically not doing something will never grab the attention in the way that doing something does. Today, approximately 1,000,000 cars in Paris were not burned. So what makes the headlines ?

It is interesting to mention that Petrov was not simple and ordinary officier in the bunker.

He was an author of instructions for red button. He took this duty that day occasionaly, just 'for rest'. And his own instruction prescribed him to start the war. But being an author of the instruction, he understood that it is wrong. If any other were on his place his instruction will kill all of us.

"Maybe someday, the names of people who decide not to start nuclear wars will be as well known as the name of Britney Spears." should read:

"Maybe someday, the names of people who prevent wars from occurring will be as well known as the names of people who win wars."

Given that full-scale nuclear war would either destroy the world or vastly reduce the number of living people, Petrov, Arkhipov, and all the other "heroic officer makes unlikely decision to avert nuclear war" stories Recovering Irrationalist describes above make a more convincing test case for the anthropic principle than an LHC breakdown or two.

This business with nuclear retaliation reminds me of a game we played in microeconomics class. The game goes something like this: Person 1 starts with $10 and offers another Person 2 $A of that amount. Person 2 can choose to accept or reject. If the deal is accepted, Person 2 receives $A and Person 1 receives $10 - A. If the deal is rejected, neither party receives anything.

As far as I can tell, it's never rational to release a nuclear bomb. And it's never rational to reject money in aforementioned game. But in both situations, it is advantageous to trick the other person into thinking there are circumstances where you would do the irrational.

On a related note, perhaps some Overcoming Bias readers who can't think of anything interesting to do with their lives could infiltrate the military and try to get their finger on the proverbial nuclear button, just to make sure it never gets pushed.

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