Meet The Team Tuesdays: Arden Rowell

This post is part of a weekly series introducing GCRI’s members.

Arden and I met at the 2008 Society for Risk Analysis Annual Meeting. We were both at a presentation together, I think by Cass Sunstein, with whom Arden co-authored a paper on discounting while she was a law student at the University of Chicago. I had read the paper and recognized her name on her name tag after the presentation, so she and I got to talking. The conversation has continued ever since, and I am quite fortunate that it has. Richard Posner wrote in Catastrophe: Risk and Response that one reason we don’t see more laws on global catastrophes is because too few lawyers have the interest and ability to understand the science of global catastrophes. Arden, now on the faculty of the University of Illinois College of Law, is one of those few. To that I would add that too few of us GCR researchers understand law, which makes the collaboration that much more valuable. – Seth

Seth Baum: Arden, do you agree with Posner that most lawyers lack the interest and ability to understand GCR? Why do you think that is? And what lead you to become interested?

Arden Rowell: Thanks Seth. I see three reasons why we don’t see more lawyers working on GCR issues—one related to interest, one related to ability, and the third related to money.

The first point—about interest level—is that lawyers are members of the public. Many members of the public (attorneys included) are not aware of GCRs. And even when they become aware, they can’t always see what to do about them. So attorneys, like the rest of the public, end up moving on to other issues that seem more approachable. With luck this may change over the next few years, as GCRI and other organizations show how law (and other means) can matter to GCRs.

The second point is about lawyers’ abilities regarding GCR. Lawyers are often surprisingly modest about their own mental abilities when it comes to quantitative analyses, or really any analysis that involves numbers. I recently ran an empirical study on law students to get a feeling for whether attorneys really are as bad at math as they often claim to be. And it turns out that, even though their math confidence is low, they tend to be much better at math than most of the population (and that they hold their own even in comparison to people with graduate educations). That said, so long as attorneys think they aren’t good at math, it may end up turning them away from math-based arguments. Since a lot of the arguments for developing sound GCR policy depend on the magnitude of the potential harm—on grasping the scale of the impacts of a global catastrophic risk—I think this is likely to remain a challenge for recruiting attorneys to GCR analysis for some time. But I also think it’s a challenge to GCR scholars to make sure they’re reaching people who don’t always think of things in terms of numbers.

Finally, people often think of attorneys as wealthy, and of course there are many attorneys who have become wealthy. But there are many more attorneys—particularly attorneys in the early stages of their careers, who may be paying off as much as two hundred thousand dollars of student debt—who have to consider where their paycheck will be coming from. Right now it’s hard to get GCR legal work that pays reliably, since the people who benefit from GCR work are likely to be “the public” or “future generations.” And it’s hard to get them to pay your student loans. This may change as more public interest groups start to work on GCR issues, as Attorney Generals start to pay more attention, as legal academic work develops on GCRs, and/or as attorneys think of novel ways to bring legal actions based on GCRs. But for now I think it’s still an important barrier to entry.

As far as my personal interest goes, as a legal academic, I have the luxury of spending time on legal issues that (should) matter to the public without having to find individual clients to support the work.

Seth Baum: To me, one hallmark of our conversations about GCR (among other things) is that we often (usually?) disagree with each other. Indeed, I think of you as being the quintessential example of GCRI welcoming many different views on GCR. But after all these years I’m still not sure what your views on GCR are. Could you clarify this? To ask a specific question, how much of a priority do you think GCR reduction should be for society today?

Arden Rowell: I agree that we often disagree! And I think it’s important to seek out reasoned disagreement whenever possible—it’s much too easy for all of us to fall into the habit of only talking to people who have the same views we do. That leads to polarization really quickly, and can lead to thinking that’s self-congratulatory instead of analytical. So that’s why I really value our disagreements, and GCRI’s general emphasis on keeping conversations diverse.

How much of a priority do I think GCR reduction should be for society today? I honestly don’t know. I think there are good arguments for why we should care about GCRs, but there are a lot of other causes we should be devoting resources towards too. For example, is it better to allocate research funds to preventing pandemic, or is better to spend that money curing or preventing existing preventable diseases? Is it better to mitigate or prevent asteroid strike, or to improve basic science education in middle schools? [Editor’s note: If an asteroid strike or other global catastrophe occurs, there may not be any students left to educate! Sorry, I couldn’t resist the interjection. -Seth] Should we be trying to prevent or mitigate sea level rise, or should we leave that problem for the future while there are still billions of people who don’t have access to safe drinking water? And what should we do about activities like developing artificial intelligence, which creates potential GCRs even as it promotes other values, like pursuing knowledge, expressing creativity, providing employment?

I don’t have the answers to these questions—yet—but they are questions that we as a society have to answer. And I say we “have to answer” them because we are already answering them by default, because we are already spending resources in some places and not others. Right now those allocation decisions are being made blind to GCRs. It may be that that’s the right way to go about things: that we should all be focusing on fixing things up in the present, and that we should let the future take care of itself. But I don’t think that’s obviously right. So I think we need groups like GCRI that are trying to think these things through.

Seth Baum: GCR is not your exclusive research focus. Could you describe your overall areas of research?

Arden Rowell: Sure. My research focuses on regulation and decisionmaking, and how law affects present and future human behavior. Human behaviors that increase or decrease global catastrophic risks strike me as particularly fascinating, maybe in part because those behaviors have the potential to eliminate all future human behaviors.

Seth Baum: Legal scholarship as a unique corner of academia, both because its journals are run differently and because it interfaces with legal practice. What role do you see for legal scholarship within broader efforts to understand and address GCR?

Arden Rowell: Legal research is inherently interdisciplinary, so I think it’s a perfect fit for the interdisciplinary inquiries that GCR research requires. But the study of law is also inherently practical: it’s about the carrots, sticks, and levers that can actually be used to change the way people behave. I think this combination makes law a great home for exploring GCR questions and for (eventually) finding solutions.

Seth Baum: On a completely different topic, you received your B.A. degree at age 18. How did that happen? Would you recommend this for other students?

Arden Rowell: I went through an accelerated program at the University of Washington that takes a few students out of middle school each year, puts them through a year of intensive schooling, and then allows them to matriculate into college. So for example, I took my first college class when I was 13. Would I recommend the program? Hmm. I think people have an intuitive feeling about whether accelerating through high school appeals to them. It’s not a good idea to try it unless you’re seriously enthusiastic about it. Also, particularly for these more extreme acceleration programs, students need their parents to be supportive but not pushy. Students who started my program with pushy parents often didn’t finish, and some of them ended up damaged along the way.

Seth Baum: Finally, I’m interested in your advice for current and aspiring law students who are interested in GCR. What would you recommend they do to position themselves to make a difference?

Arden Rowell: Collect methodologies. Law schools are incredibly rich in interdisciplinary approaches: law and psychology, law and economics, law and philosophy, empirical legal studies, etc. That’s one of the discipline’s chief resources, so take full advantage. Take the questions and problems you’re most interested in with you into each of your courses, and take the opportunity to think through them from as many different perspectives as possible. And don’t forget to take the time to get to know your professors!

This post was written by
Seth Baum is Executive Director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute.

3 Comments on "Meet The Team Tuesdays: Arden Rowell"

  • Arden,

    Interesting points, including your ideas on why more people in policy circles (not just lawyers) may not seem super-involved in GCR issues. I have some similar thoughts (my own views, of course, not representing any organization’s views here). Many people know GCR topics are important at some level, but those are often complex, long term problems and are really hard to address. It’s hard to do anything even about more immediate policy issues, such as healthcare regulations or the federal budget, which also need to be addressed, but those immediate problems are perhaps more tractable than many GCRs and yield more immediate returns on the policy person’s time. Perhaps many people feel that by comparison, GCRs are either close to intractable (“we can’t uninvent nuclear weapons”) or at least somebody else’s job (“let NASA handle the asteroids”) so in thinking about GCRs, they simply use a heuristic of “that’s not important to me”. I’ve seen thinking like this in industrial risk assessments for some issues, where the person doing the thinking only focuses on scenarios that they think they have some hope of defending against, and they say “well those other scenarios are the government’s responsibility” and they don’t even assess those other risks.
    If this hypothesis is correct, then maybe conventional policy audiences would be more interested in GCRs where fairly simple, specific things have been identified for those people to do to affect the GCRs.

    My best,

  • Grant Wilson says

    Great interview. And very interesting points, Arden. A few comments–

    I think the lawyers are generally above average at math, although maybe closer to average if your pool only includes individuals in graduate programs. This makes some sense because a lot of lawyering involves mathematics — certainly tax law and patent law, and also tasks like calculating settlement offers and billing. I also saw a study showing that students who studied math and physics had the highest scores on the LSAT (the law school entrance exam), followed by economics, while students who studied prelaw and criminal justice had the lowest LSAT scores. However, the relevance of this statistic depends on your opinion of the LSAT as an accurate gauge of lawyering abilities.

    Still, I agree that many lawyers themselves do not believe that they are good at math. Perhaps one reason for this is that law schools courses do not develop students’ math skills, with exceptions for courses like tax law. If more law schools offered courses in areas like economic policy or how environmental science translates into environmental law, then this would build the math chops of law students and give them more confidence to pursue fields that use both law and mathematics.

    I think law students are also a bit drone-like when entering the professional world after law school in that they sort of float into traditional positions for lawyers. Law school graduates generally do not know they can work on GCR issues, and they especially do not know that GCR is its own discipline. This is mainly just a public awareness issue. To fix this, I would try to get more professors and students involved in GCR during law school, perhaps through internships or presentations.

    At the international level, I think a lot of lawyers/policy folks are very interested in GCR: climate change, biodiversity loss, sustainable development, nuclear proliferation, and so forth. This is inherent to the international field, where many global problems are tackled. However, I think there is a branding issue — a lot of people in areas that work on GCR may not be familiar with the term “global catastrophic risk,” which sounds somewhat technical.


  • Gerard says

    Fantastic interview. Here are some thoughts:

    First, public is scared of numbers. Of course, a sound academic paper on the topic has to incorporate the corresponding quantitative analysis or mathematical model, but it is hard to capture public’s attention with one of these intricate documents. However, as I mentioned to Seth, the goal should be achieve a mid-pont where we reconcile academic rigor and approachability. The best example is the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Papers published in the JEP are easy to read and they focus on applied scenarios rather than theoretical models filled with Lagrangians and Hamiltonians.

    Second, governments don’t focus their attention to prevent future risks or problems. Elected officials are reluctant to devote time and effort to address any problem that falls beyond their four-year tenure. And this not only applies to GCR, it also applies to all social policies that cannot yield quantifiable results in less than 4 years. In one of the courses I am taking, we are analyzing which polices or educational programs could be implemented to reduce recidivism. What we are fining is that governments do not spend time and/or money to address this issue because it is hard to quantify and results are uncertain and unobservable in the short-term.