1-1: Understanding Potential Risks in the Innovation-to-Policy Transition

In the advertisement entitled “The Age of Surprises” we watched in class on Thursday, we (quickly) reviewed over a century of history reminding us that the more information and technology we amass, the more we can be affected by what we do not know. In the readings and videos this week, we are presented with some striking examples of this phenomenon as it relates to nuclear weapons.

In “1945-1998,” Hashimoto’s multimedia exploration of a half-century of nuclear tests, the artist presents a horrifying truth that few realize: since 1945, seven nations (excluding North Korea, whose tests were more recent) have detonated more than 2000 nuclear weapons on (and under) land and sea. We also learn something about the order of these nuclear detonations. During the cold war years, Russia’s and the United States’s bomb tests play out a sort of call and response. After Pakistan tested its first atomic bomb, India suddenly quintupled its nuclear tests. It seems, therefore, that not only were nuclear developments an extension of foreign policy, but that nuclear demonstrations were as well. Competing powers used them to show that they were developing and improving their technologies.

“The House in the Middle,” a thinly-veiled compulsion towards beautification and urban tidiness made “with the cooperation of” the Federal Civil Defense Administration, also uses the prospect of nuclear weapons use as a policy maneuver. This time, though, it is domestic rather than foreign policy, and a gentle nudge toward civil upkeep rather than military muscle-flexing. Notably, however, the commentator uses phrases like “even though [a nuclear attack] hasn’t happened yet.” The possibility of nuclear war was a serious consideration at the time, making it all the more intriguing that such a genuine risk could serve such a pedestrian purpose.

Here presented are two examples of the eventuality of nuclear war being used unblinkingly, and rather flippantly in my opinion, as a tool of policy. In one, literally thousands of probably redundant, certainly dangerous nuclear tests are carried out merely to communicate military preparedness to potentially hostile states. In the other, a nuclear explosion is used, more or less, to sell white paint.

But, of course, the more technologically advanced we become, the more dangerous are the holes in our knowledge. As we learn from Sartori’s article on the effects of nuclear weapons, and Hafemeister’s chapter on nuclear weapons, the aftermath of an atomic blast is a serious matter. In reality, hundreds if not thousands of nuclear tests were undertaken aboveground and in populated seas before scientists understood the full ramifications of global irradiation and dust effluence. Not to mention that if anyone’s houses were close enough to a nuclear blast to be set on fire, those who survived would have much greater problems (cancer, radiation poisoning, access to food, etc.) than having forgotten to repaint their houses last spring. An attack on Detroit, after all, could have fatal consequences as far away as Cleveland. What’s the use in warning someone a few miles form the blast to tidy his living room?

This begs several policy questions:

  • If we had known the risks of nuclear detonations when atomic and thermonuclear testing began, would so many nations still have run so many tests?
  • And could those tests have been beneficial, whether to science or world affairs, despite the unknowns and the dangers they presented?
  • Are there analogous technologies today that we undertake without regard to their potential ramifications (fossil fuels, perhaps?) whether for foreign/domestic policy purposes or for any other?
  • Can we learn any lessons that we can apply today about considering outcomes before undertaking policies rooted in new and untested (or overtested, as the case may be) technologies?
  • Why are new technologies such powerful policy tools even when we do not fully understand them?
  • Are they such powerful tools because we do not fully understand them?

Perhaps we are living in the age of surprises, but as science-savvy policymakers we should do our best to anticipate those surprises and mitigate their effects. Nuclear weapons constitute a good case study of a powerful technology that quickly left the control of its scientific creators to become an instrument of politics. It almost certainly will not be the last, so it is important to get an idea of how such situations may arise and develop in the future. — Joe

5 thoughts on “1-1: Understanding Potential Risks in the Innovation-to-Policy Transition

  1. The destructive power of nuclear weapons is
    immense and became evident during World War II. It is unfortunate that such
    weapons exist but given its existence, the costs of not having nuclear weapons
    while the United States did was too high. The leverage the U.S. could gain by
    threatening other nations with the usage of nuclear weapons is enormous. To
    even out the balance of power, it was therefore inevitable that other nations
    would also conduct atomic tests so they too could hold nuclear weapons. Consequently,
    I believe that even if we had known the risks of nuclear detonations, the
    atomic tests would still have been conducted.

    This is a common feature of new
    technologies. When a new technology is first developed, a limited group usually
    monopolizes the technology. Having new technology is a powerful policy tool not
    because we do not fully understand it, but because there is unequal access to
    that new technology. Countries and organizations will go to great lengths to
    gain/negate this powerful policy tool.

    Once enough people gain access to the new
    technology, we enter a new phase where the risks actually do matter. In terms
    of nuclear weapons, it is the difference between conducting nuclear tests and
    actually using the nuclear weapons in war. While Hashimoto’s video of the rates
    at which nuclear tests were conducted is alarming, it should also be noted that
    after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons have never been used in actual
    warfare. When both nations have nuclear weapons or are supported by countries that
    do, the risks of using nuclear weapons is too high that rational governments will
    not use them.

    I believe that nuclear warfare will never
    happen as long as existing nuclear weapons stay in the hands of governments,
    for governments have a vested interest in making sure their country survives
    and does not become a nuclear wasteland. The challenge as I see it is therefore
    to make sure that the weapons do not fall into the hands of individuals who do
    not care about what becomes of their country.

  2. In response to Joe’s question, I would argue that atomic and thermonuclear testing was inevitable, and would have occurred even if the risks had been known at the time. In a world of ever-increasing technology, it is important to appear ahead of the curve and one step step ahead of your opponents at all times. When a country is in a life-or-death war situation, it is important to appear to be more powerful, and in an age where nuclear weapons exist, any country that cares to maintain its power knows that it is a necessity. Until a better solution comes along, nuclear weapons testing will continue. Even though nuclear weapons have the capability of “mutual ensured destruction,” as described by Heifmeister, no country wants to be without the weapon, and therefore appear weak. The very fact that a technology is poorly understood is a large part of what makes it such an effective policy tool. No fear is greater than that of the unknown, so it is to a country’s advantage to create and demonstrate the newest technology.

    A similar, although less severe, example can be seen in the current use on unclean energy sources (i.e.: gasoline).

    Even though the risks are well known, every country needs a substantial amount of energy to meet its civilian and military needs, and will therefore continue to use these potentially-harmrful energy sources. The fact that there is risk of resource depletion and pollution that could lead to mutual destruction pales in comparison with the immediate need for energy, just as the need to end a war must have paled in comparison to the threat of long-term nuclear disasters. Until cleaner energy sources are widely available at an affordable price, the use of unclean energy will continue, just as the testing of nuclear weapons will continue until something else comes along.

  3. First, I must say that I was shocked to see that two thousand nuclear explosions were released up to 1998, and how the United States was responsible for about half of them. At this rate, the amount of irreversible environmental damage is jarring, and I was alarmed as to how this information is not more widespread.

    Second, I agree with Sam’s response. I must also add that all parties must understand that a so-called nuclear race is a direct application of game theory. As Joe mentioned for the Hashimoto video, whenever one country detonates a bomb, other countries react. This results in periods of time when there is all noise, and times of pure silence. This echoes the ‘tit-for-tat’ or equivalent retaliation strategy we learn in economics.

    And as in game theory, with this much at stake, every country has the temptation of (secretly) promoting its own development, even if the nations organize a treaty or world organization to prohibit, ban, or restrict testings. In addition, with the giant wealth and power gap across economies, disadvantaged countries have more incentive to turn to hostile measures as means to gain leverage.

    Now, I have to ask why we have not yet collaborated on a solution. One option, and the most highly advocated, is to beat the game (all countries lay down their arms). This would require high trust and transparency among nations, which I personally doubt we have. The alternative is to remove the game from the table in the form a third option, and I believe this is the one that both scientists and policy should be looking into. This can come in the form of protection and defense – (highly costly) technologies that can detect, interfere, and prevent the denotation of a bomb. But this is only bandaging an escalating problem, and I think we have to look at a long-term perspective and face the dissensions that would cause anyone to want to launch an attack in the first place.

  4. To begin answering Joe’s last two questions, I would suggest that certain new technologies, such as nuclear
    weapons, become such powerful tools even if we do not fully understand them because they are socially constructed and, additionally, relevant to the military and national security/defense. Paul DiMaggio notes that technologies provide affordances for humans rather than dictate their actual behavior. That is to say, technologies like nuclear weapons do not dictate policy in and of themselves. Instead, it is the new abilities made possible by a technology (e.g. a capability to devastate a military opponent to an extent much greater than ever before) that drive policy. Further, because new technologies relevant to the military and national security/defense provide affordances that affect humans’ very survival, it is not be surprising that they are especially powerful policy tools.

    And I also think that new technologies may be such powerful policy tools partly because we do not fully understand them. DiMaggio also writes that people’s ability to predict the future of a technology is limited due to factors such as undue optimism and insufficient vision. Indeed, the public’s lack of full and/or accurate information might make the technology a more significant source of policies than it would otherwise be.

  5. I would agree that countries would seek to catch up to a (possible) rival that has attained some clear technological advantage. The US develops a fission bomb (and later a thermonuclear bomb), and the USSR shortly thereafter made the same step; the Soviets launched Sputnik (which had possible military implications since the satellite’s rocket propulsion could also deliver warheads across continents), and the US dove into the Space Race. That being said, there is a slight difference between developing the weaponry and testing them. To use Joe’s example, India had tested an atomic weapon years before Pakistan did, yet it conducted additional tests soon after Pakistan’s first detonation. I do not know the history or extent of India’s nuclear arsenal, but the tests’ timing suggests they were not intended to try out a new model of nuclear weapon but rather to respond to the Pakistani test. Another point Joe alludes to from the Hashimoto video is the sheer number of US and Soviet tests. The US, for instance, certainly made huge technological strides over this period, but I doubt there were so many game-changing steps to justify the several hundred detonations that occurred in the US West. It could be argued that the number of tests was to gather data points and develop more nuanced understandings of the weapons’ effects, but the complexity and expense of nuclear weapons would suggest to me that a data-driven argument for additional testing indicates willfully inefficient data collection rather than the Pentagon’s scientific curiosity. Joe’s question is then more subtle than simply asking whether or not nations would go nuclear. One of our readings adds another complication to a “test = development” scenario: South Africa built nuclear weapons but dismantled them without ever testing them; the technology’s development does not strictly require tests occur.

    All that being said, my answer to Joe’s question would be that the number of tests would be fewer if the full extent of their implications were widely known, but the number of tests in the existence of full knowledge would still be far more than the bare minimum to develop the technology since (as Joe hypothesizes) atomic tests are foreign policy signals. The timing of North Korea’s nuclear tests reinforce this point all too clearly.

    To build upon Joe’s argument, the risk of nuclear war was not the only risk associated with nuclear weapons testing. There may very well have been a chance that a test gone awry would spark a nuclear war, but risks with higher probabilities exist. While certainly not the only such risk, the one that jumps to mind is the spread of radiation over a wide area. To quote from the CDC’s website concerning the fallout from atmospheric testing (source: http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/radiation/fallout/RF-GWT_home.htm#link3), “All people who were born since 1951 have received some exposure to radiation from weapons testing-related fallout.” As is apparent from the efforts to move testing underground (and thereby mitigate the spread of radiation), there was considerable concern for this risk. However, the Hashimoto video shows how hundreds of tests occur after they are moved underground. The risk of nuclear exposure may have been far smaller, but there still had to be a nonzero probability of exposing people to radiation poisoning. Again, the pattern of testing after the shift underground is consistent with my answer that knowledge may reduce the number of tests but would not drop their number to zero or eliminate their use as policy signals.

    Going along with the idea that the risks associated with nuclear testing/weapons extend beyond international warfare, there are also risks inherent to possessing a nuclear arsenal. For example, thirose touches upon the dangers of unsound individuals gaining access to nuclear weapons. That brings to mind how nonstate actors may wish to use nuclear weapons since a target cannot launch a retaliatory nuclear strike against a group without a clearly-defined territory. A nation that develops nuclear weapons must accept the risk of losing control of its weapons to such outside parties, but it is extremely unlikely this would deter a nation from pressing forward and proudly announcing that it has potent weapons. See the fall of the USSR for an example. Furthermore, having nuclear weapons raises the possibility of accidental or unintended use of the weapons. Such incidents are common in fictional stories set during the Cold War (like Dr. Strangelove), but there are several historical incidents when hot tempers or misunderstandings almost causes calamity. This doesn’t even include the cases where there were accidents or unexpected occurrences associated with possessing nuclear weapons; for instance, there was an incident in 1961 where a crashing US plane almost nuked North Carolina (non-academic source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1961_Goldsboro_B-52_crash). Cases like these exhibit how the risks associated with nuclear weapons goes beyond the risk of war on which Joe examines above. Even so, my interpretation stands: I would expect a full understanding of risks to reduce but by no means eliminate weapons testing, development, and storage.

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