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Research discussed at Brock

Metta Spencer — June 1984

ST CATHARINES – The second annual Inter-university Workshop in Peace Education met at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, on the weekend of May 12. A variety of possibilities for curriculum development were presented and in addition several speakers discussed ongoing research.

An especially significant contribution was made by Professor Michael Wallace, a University of British Columbia political scientist who has been attempting to estimate the probability of accidental nuclear war. Wallace does not think there is much chance of a war starting from a single, unexpected fluke in, say, a computer’s program. But in a crisis situation, the probabilities increase greatly, since the whole war machine is put on alert.

Two crucial factors determine the probability of catastrophic errors in such crises: the rate at which false alarms occur and the speed with which they can be resolved. If many alarms have resolution times that approach the flight times of the enemy’s missiles, the danger becomes very great that a retaliatory strike will be undertaken in response to false alarm.

Wallace has calculated the probability that a retaliatory strike will be launched in response to a false alarm, assuming varying frequencies of false alarms of varying duration. His most optimistic estimate is that there is a 95 percent probability that such a nuclear attack would be launched on the basis of error within eight days during a crisis.

Wallace seems to pin all his hopes for the future on an unexpected rationale for optimism: the possibility of annihilating all life through a “nuclear winter.” He reasons that it will soon be well established that any nuclear war will destroy everyone, including those who start it. When it becomes obvious that there can be no payoff for anyone, both sides will, if they are rational, relinquish their nuclear capability.

During another panel discussion, Professor Theodore Olson, of the York University Strategic Studies Program, stimulated a lively debate by arguing that strategic analysts and peace researchers have a good deal in common. His audience (comprising mainly peace researchers) resisted this conclusion, insisting that, on the contrary, they study ways of preventing wars, while strategic analysts study ways of winning them.

On the final evening of the conference, Geoffrey Pearson spoke about the bill that is to create a government-funded peace research institute. Mr. Pearson, who served recently as Canadian Ambassador to the Soviet Union, has been largely responsible for planning the new institute. The bill has just received its second reading in the House of Commons and has been sent, with the blessings of all three parties, to the committee that would administer its final touches. Consequently, Mr. Pearson expressed some optimism that it would be enacted before the summer recess.

According to Mr. Pearson, the peace research institute may begin to function this fall with a budget of $1.5 million, to be supplied equally by grants from the Ministries of External Affairs and National Defense. Its budget is expected to increase to $5 million within 5 years. For the present it will have a staff of six or seven full-time research scholars.

Various suggestions offered by Rt. Hon. Joe Clark to make the institute more independent were accepted as amendments to the bill. What remained contentious at the time of Mr. Pearson’s speech was whether the organization would be expected to reply to questions from the government or to offer advice. (There is some objection that a requirement that the institute respond to questions from the government would result in the tailoring of its research programs to fit the anticipated questions.)

The bill in its present form includes a compromise on this issue by stipulating that Parliament may request advice and that the institute may give it.

The conference ended by discussing plans for at least three similar workshops to be held in British Columbia and elsewhere next summer