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Saturday, September 16, 2006


The calculus of Iran

posted by Razib Khan at Saturday, September 16, 2006 permalink View blog reactions
Charles Krauthammer says:

Then there is the larger danger of permitting nuclear weapons to be acquired by religious fanatics seized with an eschatological belief in the imminent apocalypse and in their own divine duty to hasten the End of Days. The mullahs are infinitely more likely to use these weapons than anyone in the history of the nuclear age. Every city in the civilized world will live under the specter of instant annihilation delivered either by missile or by terrorist. This from a country that has an official Death to America Day and has declared since Ayatollah Khomeini's ascension that Israel must be wiped off the map.

1) The irony. The bolded part could be transposed into screeds put out by Left-wing idelogues when it comes to the Bush administration.

2) The italicized part, here is the calculus compared to the Soviet Union:

Scary = (Soviets have thousands of nuclear weapons) X (Soviet probability of use)

Scarier = (Iranians have dozens of nuclear weapons in the near future) X (Soviet probability of use) X (Soviet probability of use)-1

Scarier >> Scary. So Iran is the worst thread of all time!

But how about this?

Scarier = (Iranians have dozens of nuclear weapons in the near future) X (Soviet probability of use) X (Soviet probability of use)-1

Scariest = (Aliens have weapons of infinite destructive capacity) X (Soviet probability of use) X (Soviet probability of use)-1

Scariest >> Scarier, ergo, we should focus on developing colonization schemes for other worlds to spread the seed and hide from the impending alien threat. Yes, Iran is scary, but it is only a threat to particular nations, the aliens could blow the whole earth up! Yes, the probability for aliens showing up at any given time and destroying the earth is low, but the existence of the species hangs in the balance!

Will the Iranians have ICBMs that can hit every city in the world? Will the mullahs of Iran pass out nuclear weapons to rogue terrorist like cookies at a bake sale? Do the mullahs of Iran drink deeply at the well of religious millenarianism? The likelihood of the interesection of independent probabilities is the simply the product of the individual probabilities. E.g., 10 probabilities which are indepdent and are 0.01 (1%) results a 1 out of 100 quintillion expectation.

My friends who tend to support aggression toward Iran generally use an either/or argument, e.g., that is, even if the likelihood is small, the outcome is so dire that we must act. The problem though is that they obviously don't live in fear of alien invasion, even though the outcome could be dire, because they do the mental calculus implicitly and rule it out as too small a probability. We all do these calculations. I tire of those who would dismiss those of us who are skeptics of Iran's existential threat to the world (and this seems to be the argument Krauthammer is making) because even the smallest chance is worth acting upon, because obviously those who want to act on the smallest chance do not use the same logic on the sample space of infinite possibilities.


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About Nation-Building

Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.