Will we fund "Socio-political impacts of nuclear winter"?
resolved Oct 7

Will the project "Socio-political impacts of nuclear winter" receive receive any funding from the Clearer Thinking Regranting program run by ClearerThinking.org?

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Below, you can find some selected quotes from the public copy of the application. The text beneath each heading was written by the applicant. Alternatively, you can click here to see the entire public portion of their application.

Brief project description

A historical and sociological study of disasters affecting humanity, ranging from volcanic eruptions, war, and famine, to hypothesize the likely effects of nuclear winter and uncover best practices for maintaining social collaboration and reducing risk of civilizational collapse.

Why the applicant thinks we should fund this project

To be blunt, this project should be funded because I believe it’s the only one of its kind. I’ve never met anyone, or anyone who knows anyone, researching the impact of nuclear winter on society, yet this means we may confront this event completely blind. For decades, scientists have hypothesized about the likelihood of and the environmental impact of nuclear winter, but never expanded this into its social implications. We have an abundance of historical evidence that environmental catastrophe has direct implications for the trajectory of human civilization and human flourishing, but no well-reasoned estimations of what nuclear winter would mean for us beyond our climate.

How this compares against similar projects

ALLFED is engaged in very similar work in terms of operating at the level of tertiary prevention - minimizing damage after disaster has already occurred. While I believe their work is valuable, I think their projects are also dependent on questions they are not currently researching, which I would aim to address: what infrastructure is most likely to collapse, or be threatened, by nuclear winter? How many people will be too traumatized to maintain a semblance of normalcy? How will we ensure the maintenance of trust, and international contract enforcement, to keep overseas trade operating as much as possible and minimize food hoarding?

Here you can review the entire public portion of the application (which contains a lot more information about the applicant and their project):


Sep 20, 3:33pm:

Sep 20, 3:47pm:

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This isn't a serious project I'm afraid to say. "Doing research" with no real elaboration is a greatly underspecified proposal. I'm not an expert and the holes you can poke are still very clear. I'm dismayed at the overconfidence and don't think that's a great base for critical work.

To be blunt, this project should be funded because I believe it’s the only one of its kind. [...] scientists have hypothesized about the likelihood of and the environmental impact of nuclear winter, but never expanded this into its social implications.

Let's do some googling.

Social resilience to nuclear war, a 2021 paper carrying out a cross-cultural analysis of 20 societies that experienced the Little Age, suggesting that broad political participation, fostering community connections, agencies, organisation was a key element of social relesilience and can be critical today.

A (now probably dated) book on the medical implications of nuclear war seems to have tons of social focus, such as food, nutrition, psychological consequences, medical supply, impacts of stress on on decision making. Most relevant sounds the chapter providing an economic and social perspective, talks about social arrangements, life in cities, economic recovery, methodological issues with previous research (covering a body of work from the 60s to the mid 80s), social aspects of recovery (social order, glue, routine, etc.).

A 2020 PNAS paper focuses on global food secruty post nuclear conflicts and global trade repercussions. Another 2020 piece assessing lessons learned from Covid-19 for prevention, preparation, mitigation that talks about activism, education, social biases and perception risks.

It seems to be from less than five minutes of googling that work has been done here and work is still being carried out in the academic space.

I don't have the time to link or summarize to every paper found but I am particularly suprised this project states a focused interest on agricultural collapse where I see the most work carried out already.

Later in the application, there is a mention of a potential survey regarding "the psychology of individuals in disaster scenarios, specifically the will to live in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic nuclear exchange." From my brief skimming this seemed to be addressed in Part IV Psychological Perspectives from the abovementioned book. There is more work done in decision-making, motivation regarding climate change and crises more broadly and within the so called ecopsychology or 'planetary psychology' (Dunk, 2022). I'm sure more can be done still and improved but as a overall comment, I would expect more engagement with existing work.

This project involves research into the most likely social and political repercussions of nuclear winter

Broad. How? Methods? I can't buy into any of the outcomes as there is no foundation for obtaining them.

Please explain the mechanism by which you expect your project will achieve these positive outcomes.

Through working with other nuclear winter researchers, I could edit, focus, legitimize, and publish well-reasoned hypotheses about this scenario. ALLFED, to my knowledge the only organization working in the area of civilizational survival in the event of nuclear winter, is very interested in questions of social collaboration and the potential resilience of political processes and assigns them high weight, but to my understanding is funding-constrained. If my research can make their work into guaranteed food availability more effective, more infrastructure may be able to adapt and more people in the event of nuclear winter will be able to survive, decreasing the likelihood of civilizational collapse.

This is a non-answer, i.e. this isn't a description of a mechanism. Before talking about hypotheses, what are the research questions? What are the methods, so we can have confidence they can be appropriately addressed? I'm skeptical about how theoretically sound the hypotheses will be given the language the applicant uses about the field (this project being the only of its kind) and the access to experts he has (I comment more on this below re: likelihood estimates).

If this project gets funded by us but doesn’t achieve its desired outcomes, what would the most likely reason be?

I could imagine this project failing if, for one reason or another, someone proved to me that this research is more likely to harm the world than it is to help.

Maybe this is my extreme optimism at play but I would hope more people would consider how their work can harm, fail, underachieve on their own rather than putting the onus of that externally. I don't find this a persuasive answer.

More generally, I think each project involving research can have logistical constraints and each project led by a single person can have reasoning and decision making biases that can be 'underachievement' scenarios.

It's also hard to say anything specific here, I imagine, because there is no specific project. If it were concrete, there would be concrete things to consider and potentially mitigate.

Project specific-question 3: How confident are you that large-scale nuclear war (if it were to occur) would subsequently lead to nuclear winter?

Your answer to project-specific question 3:

Having interviewed experts from a variety of academic backgrounds (atmospheric science, economics and game theory, political science, physics) on this issue who have more decades of experience thinking this through than I do, none are very willing to offer estimations of likelihood.

This too leaves me with the assessment that there is insufficient and too narrow engagement with the field. As a layperson, I would first think about coarse estimates like the doomsday clock that has existed since the 70s. But it's not hard to find a range of estimates, here's one academic peer-reviewed paper, that reviews different estimates and methodologies (and provides direct criticism of some). In Table 1 they provide some estimates from political figures and experts alike, notable to me are the quantitative estimates for nuclear winter done by Hellman (2 in 1000 to 1 in 100 per year), Bunn (29% within the next decade), attempt) all done not too long ago 2007-2008. It took me a minute to find this paper and skim to the relevant section. Why should I have confidence in a project that offers not a single attempt at a number or doesn't engage with the literature?

The topic is important but there is no real project proposal here and there is a real risk of bias given the application.

No information anywhere on how much funding is being requested?

Intelligent. But this is basically a high-school paper.

Maybe a $50 tuition grant would be appropriate.

@Gigacasting Does this not make you wonder about the quality of proposals in the first round?

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