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By Walter J. Karplus

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Extra info for The Heavens Are Falling: The Scientific Prediction of Catastrophes in Our Time

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The first reason is historical. From the beginning, people have asked searching questions: How can we deal with the forces of 27 28 Two nature? How can we treat illnesses? How can we organize our governments and societies? How should we lead our lives? They usually turned to respected and gifted individuals for answers. Modem science is essentially a product of the period of enlightenment that followed the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages, before science, alchemy, magic, and pseudoscience prevailed.

Suppose that the prediction of a catastrophe is off base, and the heroic efforts made to prevent or to mitigate the catastrophe are not necessary. Is it not also true that these efforts are nonetheless exerted in the right direction and achieve worthwhile results? We all know, for example, that smoking-is unhealthy. Is it such a bad idea then to publish antismoking ads that graphically show the dangers of smoking and scare people? This can only save lives and it hurts no one, except those in the tobacco industry.

By observing the world around us and by using our intellect we can explain why things happen the way they do. We view events, including catastrophes, as the direct result of a chain of circumstances or causes. And we can hope to understand that chain and perhaps to modify it by timely intervention. This is not an obvious concept. There are no stone tablets from Mount Sinai to assure us that we can get anywhere by 45 46 Three starting from observations and using logical inferences. That is an assumption that cannot be proved, one that must be accepted on faith; the entire edifice that is modem science is based on that premise.

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