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Mark Greenberg

Mark Greenberg is Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the US Department of Justice. In the academic year that has just ended he was a member of the philosophy and law faculties at Oxford

The doomsday argument

Mark Greenberg, 1 July 1999

John Leslie comes to tell us that the end of the world is closer than we think. His book is no ordinary millennial manifesto, however. Leslie is a sophisticated philosopher of science, and the source of his message is not divine revelation, apocalyptic fantasy or anxiety about the year-2000 computer problem, but ‘the Doomsday Argument’ – an a priori argument that seeks support in probability theory. In fact, the most interesting questions The End of the World raises are not, despite its subtitle, about our eventual demise. Rather, they concern our susceptibility, when thinking about risk, uncertainty and probability, to a kind of cognitive illusion. The Doomsday Argument is a case-study in ‘probabilistic illusion’, for it rests on a web of insidious intuitions, hidden assumptions and seductive but imprecise analogies.’‘

Letter
Macneil of Barra (Letters, 29 July) manifests the very misunderstanding about probability that my example was meant to illustrate. The example involves a disease that affects 1 in 10,000 people in the population being studied. The test for the disease is 99 per cent reliable in the sense that it gives correct (negative) results for 99 per cent of healthy people and false positive results for the other...

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