The Carter Catastrophe

I’ve been readingĀ Manifold: TimeĀ by Stephen Baxter. The book is quite good so far, and it presents a fascinating probabilistic argument that humans will go extinct in the near future. It is sometimes called the Carter Catastrophe, because Brandon Carter first proposed it in 1983.

I’ll use Bayesian arguments, so you might want to review some of my previous posts on the topic if you’re feeling shaky. One thing we didn’t talk all that much about is the idea of model selection. This is the most common thing scientists have to do. If you run an experiment, you get a bunch of data. Then you have to figure out the most likely reason for what you see.

Let’s take a basic example. We have a giant tub of golf balls, and we can’t see inside the tub. There could be 1 ball or a million. We’re told the owner accidentally dropped a red ball in at some point. All the other balls are the standard white golf balls. We decide to run an experiment where we draw a ball out, one at a time, until we reach the red one.

First ball: white. Second ball: white. Third ball: red. We stop. We’ve now generated a data set from our experiment, and we want to use Bayesian methods to give the probability of there being three total balls or seven or a million. In probability terms, we need to calculate the probability that there are x balls in the tub given that we drew the red ball on the third draw. Any time we see this language, our first thought should be Bayes’ theorem.

Define A_i to be the model of there being exactly i balls in the tub. I’ll use “3” inside of P( ) to be the event of drawing the red ball on the third try. We have to make a finiteness assumption, and although this is one of the main critiques of the argument, we can examine what happens as we let the size of the bound grow. Suppose for now the tub can only hold 100 balls.

A priori, we have no idea how many balls are in there, so we’ll assume all “models” are equally likely. This means P(A_i)=1/100 for all i. By Bayes’ theorem we can calculate:

P(A_3|3) = \frac{P(3|A_3)P(A_3)}{(\sum_{i=1}^{100}P(3|A_i)P(A_i))}

\frac{(1/3)(1/100)}{(1/100)\sum_{i=3}^{100}1/i} \approx 0.09

So there’s around a 9% chance that there are only 3 balls in the tub. That bottom summation remains exactly the same when computing P(A_n | 3) for any n and equals about 3.69, and the (1/100) cancels out every time. So we can compute explicitly that for n > 3:

P(A_n|3)\approx \frac{1}{n}(0.27)

This is a decreasing function of n, and this shouldn’t be surprising at all. It says that as we guess there are more and more balls in the tub, the probability of that guess goes down. This makes sense, because it’s unreasonable to think we’d see the red one that early if there are actually 100 balls in the tub.

There’s lots of ways to play with this. What happens if our tub could hold millions but we still assume a uniform prior? It just takes all the probabilities down, but the general trend is the same: It becomes less and less reasonable to assume large amounts of total balls given that we found the red one so early.

You could also only care about this “earliness” idea and redo the computations where you ask how likely is A_n given that we found the red ball by the third try. This is actually the more typical way the problem is formulated in the Doomsday arguments. It’s more complicated, but the same idea pops out, and this should make intuitive sense.

Part of the reason these computations were somewhat involved is because we tried to get a distribution on the natural numbers. But we could have tried to compare heuristically to get a super clear answer (homework for you). What if we only had two choices “small number of total balls (say 10)” or “large number of total balls (say 10,000)”? You’d find there is around a 99% chance that the “small” hypothesis is correct.

Here’s the leap. Now assume the fact that you exist right now is random. In other words, you popped out at a random point in the existence of humans. So the totality of humans to ever exist are the white balls and you are the red ball. The same type of argument above applies, and it says that the most likely thing is that you aren’t born at some super early point in human history. In fact, it’s unreasonable from a probabilistic standpoint to think that humans will continue much longer at all given your existence.

The “small” total population of humans is far, far more likely than the “large” total population, and the interesting thing is that this remains true even if you mess with the uniform prior. You could assume it is much more likely a priori for humans to continue to make improvements and colonize space and develop vaccines giving a higher prior for the species existing far into the future. But unfortunately the Bayesian argument will still pull so strongly in favor of humans ceasing to exist in the near future that one must conclude it is inevitable and will happen soon!

Anyway. I’m travelling this week, so I’m sorry if there are errors in those calculations. I was in a hurry and never double checked them. The crux of the argument should still make sense even if you don’t get my exact numbers. There’s also a lot of interesting and convincing rebuttals, but I don’t have time to get into them now (including the fact that unlikely hypotheses turn out to be true all the time).