Astronomical Odds

A Policy Framework for the Cosmic Impact Hazard

by Geoffrey Sommer

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Addresses the cosmic impact hazard (the threat to the Earth posed by asteroids and comets) as an extreme example of a low-probability, high-consequence policy problem. This analysis presents a comprehensive framework for dealing with the technical and societal uncertainties surrounding the impact hazard. It reviews the physical nature of the threat and both the history and mechanisms of society’s response to the hazard, dwelling on the social costs of false positives. The author constructs an illustrative cost-benefit model on the foundations of prior work, with parameters of social response added and then varied to assess the robustness of a proposed policy intervention: social reassurance by means of a demonstrated mitigation capability. He concludes by noting that a common flaw of prior analysis is to give lip service to “low probability” and to focus instead on “high consequence”; that there is frequent confusion between ex ante and ex post perspectives; that uncertain costs are often treated as nonexistent costs; and that warning is a social function, not a technical function, and those who issue warnings of a given hazard should not stand to benefit from those warnings.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two


  • Chapter Three

    Literature Review

  • Chapter Four

    Organizations and Their Policies

  • Chapter Five

    Toward a Comprehensive Policy Approach

  • Chapter Six

    Modeling the Policy Framework

  • Chapter Seven


  • Appendix A

    Initial Impact Warning Rate Estimation

  • Appendix B

    Armageddon in a Teapot

  • Appendix C

    Project CARDINAL

  • Appendix D

    Nominal Model Output

Research conducted by

This document was submitted as a dissertation in June, 2004 in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the doctoral degree in public policy analysis at the Pardee RAND Graduate School. The faculty committee that supervised and approved the dissertation consisted of Steven Popper (Chair), Steven Bankes, and Calvin Shipbaugh.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation Dissertation series. Pardee RAND dissertations are produced by graduate fellows of the Pardee RAND Graduate School, the world's leading producer of Ph.D.'s in policy analysis. The dissertations are supervised, reviewed, and approved by a Pardee RAND faculty committee overseeing each dissertation.

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