Happy Petrov Day! Celebrate by not annihilating everyone!

Happy Petrov Day! Celebrate by not annihilating everyone! September 26, 2012

Taken from the description of Petrov Day on LessWrong:

The story begins on September 1st, 1983, when Soviet jet interceptors shot down a Korean Air Lines civilian airliner after the aircraft crossed into Soviet airspace and then, for reasons still unknown, failed to respond to radio hails. 269 passengers and crew died, including US Congressman Lawrence McDonald. Ronald Reagan called it “barbarism”, “inhuman brutality”, “a crime against humanity that must never be forgotten”. Note that this was already a very, very poor time for US/USSR relations. Andropov, the ailing Soviet leader, was half-convinced the US was planning a first strike. The KGB sent a flash message to its operatives warning them to prepare for possible nuclear war.

On September 26th, 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov was the officer on duty when the warning system reported a US missile launch. Petrov kept calm, suspecting a computer error.

Then the system reported another US missile launch.

And another, and another, and another.

What had actually happened, investigators later determined, was sunlight on high-altitude clouds aligning with the satellite view on a US missile base.

In the command post there were beeping signals, flashing lights, and officers screaming at people to remain calm. According to several accounts I’ve read, there was a large flashing screen from the automated computer system saying simply “START” (presumably in Russian). Afterward, when investigators asked Petrov why he hadn’t written everything down in the logbook, Petrov replied,”Because I had a phone in one hand and the intercom in the other, and I don’t have a third hand.”

The policy of the Soviet Union called for launch on warning. The Soviet Union’s land radar could not detect missiles over the horizon, and waiting for positive identification would limit the response time to minutes. Petrov’s report would be relayed to his military superiors, who would decide whether to start a nuclear war.

Petrov decided that, all else being equal, he would prefer not to destroy the world. He sent messages declaring the launch detection a false alarm, based solely on his personal belief that the US did not seem likely to start an attack using only five missiles.

I find it interesting to think about Petrov day in the context of another Less Wrong post (“Ethical Injunctions” which I noodled over in “Not Even if it’s the Right Thing to Do“).  The deterrence system wasn’t built to have Petrov’s qualms as a failsafe, and if they had been known ahead of time, they might have destabilized mutually assured destruction.

So why are Petrov’s system-bucking actions admirable?  Is it just because he happened to be right?  That’s not a very trustworthy heuristic, as almost everyone who thinks they’re an exception to the rule thinks their judgement is accurate.

In Petrov’s case, the institution he was defying was about to be wiped out.  His move was analogous to the last round of a Prisoner’s Dilemma game, where his choice can’t inform the choices of others in the future.

Contrast this with the ethical injunction-defying behavior of the CIA, when they carried out sham vaccinations in order to get DNA samples and locate bin Laden’s family in Pakistan.  By exploiting the trust we have in doctors, even just this once, even intending not to get caught, the CIA broke the system, and now, 160,000 children are not being vaccinated for polio.

So, if you think you’re an exception to the rule that nearly everyone who thinks they’re an exception to the rule is wrong argument, you’re probably wrong.  And you might want to apply the back-up check that the CIA would have failed and Petrov passed: is your action going to collapse the institution or tradition that you’re sneaking around?  If so, don’t.  

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  • You wonder what he would have done if the computer had shown 500 warheads instead of 5. With 5 Petrov could know their ability to retaliate would not be wiped out. So it was a good choice knowing the reason for the protocol and knowing that reason didn’t apply in this particular case. But if their were 500. Would it still have been right for him to buy a few minutes? Nuclear war is the exception to many rules. During the Cuban missile crisis pilots said they were not fired on when they were. People are more educated about how wars start and they are more afraid of what a nuclear war might mean. Seems like a moral reaction to me. Maybe you face court martial and spend some years in prison. It can be the price you pay for following your conscience.

    • leahlibresco

      Personally, with 500 I’d be much more likely to not retaliate. I can’t do anything to save my countrymen at that point, so all I can do is try to preserve what human life I can.

      • Erick

        Here’s the thing. In a typical Prisoner’s Dilemma, both sides betraying is usually the second best option. In a nuclear war scenario, that is not the case. The second best scenario in a nuclear war is one side not retaliating. It doesn’t matter if it’s 5, 50 or 500.

        • leahlibresco

          Yup. You can make a case for retaliating to a small strike, if you think the devastation will keep people from ever trying again (i.e. if you’re in an iterated game), but if that case is dubious, the moral thing to do is to not strike back.

          • The thing about the small strike is you lose nothing by waiting a few hours. Your capability to strike back isn’t going to be lost. With a large strike it would likely be. The only real argument for retaliating is because it is required by regulations. Should you substitute your judgement for that of the larger organization? In general, armies cannot function when each member does that.

          • Doragoon

            “Your capability to strike back isn’t going to be lost.”
            Assuming that you’ve got an arsenal large enough that you can still completely destroy your opponents after that small strike has removed some percentage of your capability. Also assuming there aren’t more launches that you haven’t noticed, like maybe a wing of stealth bombers flying over the north pole.
            Or even better, what if even just one of those missiles was a “Flying Crowbar” (see Project Pluto). They fly below Russian radar, carry a dozen warheads, and can fly for weeks during which time they are burning a pound of plutonium a day over your countryside. Friends don’t let friends fly unshielded air-cooled nuclear reactors across their country. Or probably anywhere. Open core nuclear engines and atmospheres shouldn’t be mixed.

    • Ted Seeber

      This is what always bothered me about MAD. In the worst case scenario, I can’t understand why it matters who fired first- or even whether the other side retaliated or not. Somebody is sure to get off at least ONE missile, which makes the whole idea a bad idea.

      • wloch3

        Ted Seeber: MAD bothered/bothers me too, but isn’t your worst-case scenario the very ¡principle! behind Mutually Assured Destruction? It doesn’t matter which side fires first because at least one missile on EACH side is likely to get through. There is therefore NO advantage in a preemptive attack, as against a certain retaliation. Somehow deterrence worked for the first fifty years of the nuclear age. The Game Players who strategized MAD may at least claim that their doctrine was pivotal. (I don’t know what arguments are made for some more consequential factor in keeping the peace.) 

    • Goldstein Squad Member

      I think there is a huge Urban Legend developed around Petrov.

  • Martin T

    So don’t launch with 5 or 500. How about 50?

  • Or remote drones–that too is a morally trouling “exception”. I love how you relish in actually WANTING to find answers to tough moral questions. Ever hear that Petrov later said he wished he’d done it?

  • I know that this is technically beside the point, but my understanding has always been that Petrov had a good knowledge of the technology and he also knew that it was untested and had some reliability issues.

    It is not nearly so, “I am an exception” as much as it is, “these two evidences are inconsistent. I will trust my experience.”

  • Mark Shea

    One thing nobody is considering yet is the possibility that, even if there had been a US launch of 5, 50, 0r 500 missiles, Petrov would *still* have been wrong to retaliate since there is never a justification–ever–for deliberately destroying innocent human life.

    However, the main thing is that this man deserves to go down in history as a heroic savior of civilization as much as any great man who has ever lived. I wonder how many other unsung heros there are, known only to God and unthanked by man.

  • Iota

    An interesting link was buried in the relevant Less Wrong comment thread. Petrov’s was not the only case: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/military/nuclear-false-alarms.html

    Which is why I always shudder when I think of how many nuclear warheads exist in the world right now. We phase out mercury in light bulbs and thermometers but keep nuclear warheads.

    • Ted Seeber

      Actually, we are in the process of passing laws phasing IN the use of mercury and OUT the use of Tungsten in light bulbs. CFLs use mercury.

      • Iota

        Yes, correct, my mistake.

  • Yvain

    “In Petrov’s case, the institution he was defying was about to be wiped out. His move was analogous to the last round of a Prisoner’s Dilemma game, where his choice can’t inform the choices of others in the future.”

    Aaaaagh! If your ethical system allows defection on the last round of an iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma where your choice can’t inform the choices of others in the future, then both sides will do that, and both sides will defect on the second-to-last round since they know their choices can’t affect the last round where everyone auto-defects no matter what, and both sides will defect on the third-to-last round since they know their choices won’t affect the second-to-last or the last round, and so on to everyone defecting all the time.

    • keddaw

      Fortunately we have some irrational biases that allow us to not follow the less good, but completely logical, consequences of game theory.

  • Happy Petrov Day! Celebrate by not annihilating everyone!
    Well, I was going to release my doomsday device but since you asked…

    • Brandon B

      I’m glad that you’re a polite mad scientist.

  • jenesaispas

    Very interesting:)

    There’s a documentary premiering in NY in October-

  • Thomas Collins

    I’d say Petrov was correct not to launch no matter what.
    If an attack comes in deterrence has failed. Launching any retaliatory strike at all is immoral. Of course, this leaves us with a dilemma, the other side must believe you will retaliate.

    • Thomas, you could argue that the Petrov’s restraint was a Soviet demonstration to the US that they would not retaliate. Perhaps it was the periodic acts of restraint that popped up in surprising places that encouraged a mutual ease of tensions. Of course it does seem that there are just too many happy accidents like this for us to take all of the credit.

  • Why is it that people are reacting to the story that happened nearly thirty years ago, but not the one that is in some senses still ongoing? There are still lots of people in the US calling on Pakistan to release the doctor who helped us fake a vaccination program. Anyway, thanks Leah, for talking about that story.

  • I knew about the KAL shoot-down, of course, but I had no idea about the Petrov events. Utterly fascinating (and yes, terrifying). Mordecai Roshwald’s post-apocalypse novell Level 7 is a grim example of someone making a different choice. I wish there was a way to contribute to his pension fund and help him out; talk about cool under pressure!

    I also did not know about the CIA and their fake vaccine program. If true, this is appalling. Trust is so much harder to repair than to break…