Oz early asteroid alert at risk of crashing

This article demonstrates an interesting intersection of science and politics which uses mathematics to raise alarm amongst the community. The topic could be legitimately discussed in a science class considering responsibility in science, a social science class studying lobby groups pressuring politicians, or a mathematics class making meaning of probability and risk. Certainly a high level of statistical literacy would be required to check/question the claims make in the article.

Here the experts claim that

Pr(Being killed by asteroid) = 4 x Pr(Being killed in plane crash).

There are many questions that informed students should wish to ask the experts. Just a few are:

This article is a good example of one of the two situations when risk becomes a contentious issue in the community. In one case the experts consider the hazard to the population low but the public outrage is high (eg, public concern over certain pollutants). In the other case (like this article), the experts consider there is a great hazard to the community but the public, and in particular the politicians, appear to be quite apathetic. In this situation the expert scientist are attempting to raise the level of outrage among the public and politicians to force some action which they feel will lessen the hazard.

As a social issue, students should discuss their degree of concern about the threat of an asteroid hitting the earth. If "the probability of an asteroid or comet impact is small, but the consequences are horrendous", what weight do they give to each. Perhaps they could suggest a probability and an "effect value", multiply these together and discuss their feelings. What part does mathematical understanding play in assessing risk? How much do we need to understand of the expert's calculations before we take the hazard seriously and become outraged enough to contact our politicians?

A final feature of the article is the quoting of a well-know distinguished scientist to support the cause. This is a common tactic in such cases. How do students feel about this? Does it influence their opinions more or less than the claim that they are four times more likely to die by asteroid than by plane crash.

Where to next?

Student Questions for this article
Newspaper article
Index - Related articles
Index - Chance and Basic Probability
Numeracy in the News - Main Index