The end may be near

Eric J. Lerner

July 15, 1993|By Eric J. Lerner

THE future can be foretold! And not just tomorrow's events, but humanity's distant fate, according to a Princeton University cosmologist, J. Richard Gott 3rd.

He claims that within a few centuries, or at most several thousand years, there is a 95 percent chance that humans will become extinct.

In an article in the May 27 issue of Nature, perhaps the world's leading scientific journal, Dr. Gott wrote that this forecast can be made on the basis of pure mathematics alone.

But we need not abandon hope yet. Predictions of the future are notoriously unreliable.

Some ancient Greek scientists also thought they could use mathematics to foretell the future. By calculating the positions of the planets, they claimed to know if battles would be won or lost, if empires would rise or fall.

Similar beliefs still circulate in tabloids' horoscopes. Yet astrology's reputation among scientists is not good, so it's surprising to find Dr. Gott's horoscope for humanity in a respected journal and attracting interest in the media and the scientific community.

Dr. Gott arrived at his far-reaching forecast through what he calls the "Copernican Principle," named after the Polish astronomer, who concluded that the Earth was not at the center of the solar system and therefore did not occupy any "special" place in the cosmos.

The Copernican Principle, Dr. Gott writes, is the idea that we are not unusual in the universe, just typical in every way. Therefore, he says, humans alive today must be typical of all humans who have ever lived or will ever live: We are a random sample. Since we're typical, we can't be among the first humans; we must be roughly in the middle.

Since about 70 billion humans have lived since the species began, only another 70 billion or so will live until extinction. With our ever-increasing birth rates, it will only take a few hundred years until 70 billion more people are born (barring some catastrophe), so humanity only has a few hundred years left -- or maybe several thousand, to be on the generous side. The end is near!

Neo-Malthusian scenarios of starvation and population collapse are dictated by the laws of statistics, Dr. Gott has sternly written. Each person has an equal chance of being born at any time in our history.

So if you believe that mankind has a vast future, you must dTC foolishly believe that you are "very lucky to have been in the first tiny fraction of the members of our intelligent lineage."

But this, Dr. Gott says, is as foolish as believing you'll win the lottery tomorrow.

Fortunately, Dr. Gott's numerical horoscope is not science. His "Copernican Principle" has little to do with the real Copernicus or the real universe. Copernicus argued only that the Earth was not central to the universe; he never implied that it was typical of the universe.

On the contrary, the Earth is not typical at all: Most matter in the universe is in stars, not planets. Most space in the universe is nearly a perfect vacuum, very unlike our dense, warm globe. We are neither central in the universe nor representative of it.

Dr. Gott's pseudo-statistics would not pass muster in a freshman math class. Your chances of drawing a winning lottery ticket are small precisely because you are drawing truly random tickets -- a representative sample of all the millions of tickets issued.

But in what supernatural lottery can we draw a random, representative sample of all human beings who will ever live?

Dr. Gott uses only people alive today as his random sample of all humans past and future. But we certainly are not a representative sample -- mainly because we are all alive at the same time.

As common sense would indicate, and any statistician will affirm, if you draw a non-random sample, you can't conclude anything from it -- no more than you can conclude how far the average American lives from the sea by sampling only New Yorkers.

Far from being a scientific prediction, Dr. Gott's forecast is, like astrological forecasts, pseudo-science, a mere manipulation of numbers to disguise an implausible argument. Why would a prestigious journal like Nature publish such astrology and why would a prominent cosmologist, who presumably knows better, write it?

History shows that whenever a society stops advancing, when the standard of living falls, as is the case today, there are always so-called experts who rush forward to absolve the powers that be of any responsibility.

In the 18th century, Parson Malthus eagerly explained that the grinding poverty of most Englishmen was caused by inexorable laws of population, not the vicious and oppressive class system of the time.

So today, neo-Malthusians and astrologers attempt to explain how humanity is decaying through the inexorable laws of mathematics, not because of the greed and shortsightedness of those who rule.

The future of humanity will be determined, as it always has been, by how people respond to the crisis of society. If we lapse into a hopeless fatalism, our prospects indeed are grim.

But if humans attempt to solve the causes of social decay and the real threats to our existence, we can still preserve humanity's infinite future.

Eric J. Lerner, a physicist, is author of "The Big Bang Never Happened."

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