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Need for "Adversary Science" -- the Cassini Example

by John W. Gofman, M.D., Ph.D. and Egan O'Connor.   Fall 1997.

What Is a Key Lesson from the Cassini Space-Probe?

        a   *   When members of the media asked my views (JWG) about the plutonium-laden Cassini mission to Saturn, they wanted (and I provided) my estimates of plutonium-238's toxicity. But I stressed that the Cassini-argument does not center on differences in estimated toxicity. Plutonium-238's great toxicity is irrelevant unless people on earth could be exposed to some of it, by an accident during launch or during a later "fly-by" of Earth. Some advocates of Cassini have come very close to claiming it would be impossible for any sort of accident to cause significant exposure.

        b   *   A key lesson about Cassini, in our opinion, is that society should finally stop the repeated lunacy of depending on risk-estimates provided by the enthusiasts of any enterprise --- in this case, NASA, the Jet Propulsion Lab, and others. Enthusiasts just cannot be trusted to be objective or thorough. It is all too easy for humans to "see" what they want to see.

        c   *   This premise is not a peculiar assessment of human nature. In biomedical research, the problem of wishful thinking is so well recognized that the efficacy, of a new treatment for a disease, is tested by randomized "double-blind" studies where neither the patients nor the researchers know which patients get the fake-treatment, until the results are in. Why was double-blinding found to be necessary? Because otherwise, enthusiasts (both researchers and patients) were often "seeing" the wished-for benefits where they did not really exist.

        d   *   In engineering, too, enthusiasts can "see" what they want to see --- and if they do see an unsolvable or expensive problem, they often stay silent, in order to secure their incomes.

        e   *   Safety assurances about the launch and later fly-by of Cassini, provided by its enthusiasts, have the same worth as safety assurances today from the nuclear power industry, and in the past from the tobacco industry. We have no reason at all to bet our lives on any such assurances. Yet, for Cassini, nuclear power, microwave communications, and some other technologies, citizens are being forced to make such bets, based on safety assurances from enthusiasts.


        f   *   A proper function of government is to help peaceable people defend themselves from getting killed by any other set of people ... to help them defend their most basic human right. Therefore, governments worldwide should routinely fund "Adversary Science" on projects which involve the potential killing of people by a group of enthusiasts. Look, Snavely, I'm getting fed up with your hair-brained suggestions

        g   *   What do we mean by Adversary Science? We mean financial support for competing teams of experts assigned to find out, and to tell the public, about any hazards which the enthusiasts of a project may have failed to report, or even to "see."

        h   *   This early-warning function would be a research and publicity effort, not a regulatory effort. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Federal Aviation Administration and many additional government regulatory agencies have been caught again and again not telling the public about hazards. And so have government-funded researchers. Adversary Science has to be special.

        i   *   Censorship power over Adversary Scientists would be forbidden, whether from inside or outside government. An integral, formal part of Adversary Science would be public dissemination of dissenting views, and stiff punishment for anyone at any level who tries to interfere with open dissent. As for potential self-censorship or corruption among Adversary Scientists, competition would provide an additional penalty. If one team of Adversary Scientists were hesitant to explore a potential hazard, its members would face embarrassment by competing teams which would not hesitate.


        j   *   The world automatically funds plenty of Promotion Science (by governments, some industries, some foundations). For a more balanced public debate, humanity needs a system also to fund automatically some Adversary Science. Certainly not to give Adversary Scientists a veto. Just to provide a more balanced debate.

        k   *   It is naive beyond description to rely for humanity's early-warning system on the hope that, somehow, unfunded citizen volunteers can match the research-power of a technology's well-funded enthusiasts. Is this assertion even arguable?

        L   *   The Cassini-related media had little interest in presenting the concept of Adversary Science to the public. But media "gatekeepers" are losing some power, thanks to the Internet --- where concepts can be presented and also improved by widespread interaction. CNR encourages readers to use their own websites to help introduce the concept.

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Committee for Nuclear Responsibility, Inc.
Post Office Box 421993, San Francisco, CA 94142, USA.
An educational group since 1971.

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