It could come next year, or not for a million years, but some day an asteroid will be heading this way. If an impact couldn’t be avoided and the result would be devastating, would you want to know? Or would you want the government to keep silent, so you could enjoy your final days? As asteroid hunters become more efficient, this moral quandary could become a reality.
At a recent meeting, scientists debated this issue. Geoffrey Sommer says, “When a problem arises with high uncertainty, there is an opportunity to spin the problem to avoid global panic. If you can’t do anything about a warning, then there is no point in issuing a warning at all. If an extinction-type impact is inevitable, then ignorance for the populace is bliss.”
Not everyone agrees. “It is inconceivable to me that anyone involved in NEO surveys and orbital predictions would want to keep the results a secret,” says David Morrison. “It is also inconceivable that astronomers could keep such a secret even if they wanted to. A real impact prediction, even at low probability, would be known all over the world in a matter of hours.”
There are dozens of amateur astronomers all over the world who are not employed by any government agency, who work from data stored at two publicly available websites, one in the U.S. and one in Italy. It’s doubtful they would all keep the secret, so word would be sure to get out.
Social anthropologist Benny Peiser says, “Even with little time left for mitigation, many activities could be taken by the world community to attempt human survival of such a global disaster.”
Research Lee Clarke says, “We have five decades of research on all kinds of disasters?earthquakes, tornadoes, airplane crashes, etc.?and people rarely lose control. Policy-makers have yet to accept this. People are quite capable of following plans, even in the face of extreme calamities, but such plans must be there.”
He thinks the worst thing governments could do is lose public trust by withholding information. He says, “[But] Keeping secret something potentially very dangerous is an idea that would resonate very well with the current administration in Washington. It would probably resonate with most high-level decision makers.”
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