Saturday, February 03, 2007

Episode 15 - Faith-Based Warming

Topics Covered:

Reach out and touch faith: Alex's demarcation of the science of global warming.

Relevant Links:

Wikipedia: Global Warming
CTV: Global Warming
Wikipedia: IPCC
Security Catalyst: In-Depth with Punchscan


At 5:30 PM, February 03, 2007, Blogger Daryl N Cognito said...

Like a breath of fresh air in a stale debate. I loved the "from science to dogma" and thought it summed up the real issue here. I am so tired of having to be on one side or the other. It seems like we have become a society of extremes with the middle being invisible. Thanx for a well done argument for reason.

BTW, I wouldn't mind if you guys put out shows a little more often. I'm just sayin.

At 1:56 PM, February 05, 2007, Blogger Russell McOrmond said...

I realize that the point of the podcast was to be provocative. I not only want to respond as someone provoked, but also someone who is worried that someone might take the type of analysis you gave too seriously without also reading a necessary critique.

Here is the core of the problem with your argument: While there is a "license to be wrong" when the outcome is non-rivalrous, I don't agree this is the case when the outcome is rivalrous. There is an age old saying that says that your right to swing your cane ends at my nose. We also saw this with the smoking issue: there are still people who deny the science behind the health risks to smoking, but your right to smoke is no longer allowed to infringe on my right for smoke-free air. Smoking isn't banned from private areas, but very appropriately was banned from public areas. There was a recognition that the smoking issue was rivalrous (second hand smoke), and not a non-rivalrous issue where we could each be free to believe whatever we wanted.

To bring it into this situation, your right to be sceptical in the science or economics of climate change ends at our collective right to live, and our right to work with others to save all of our lives.

We only have one planet, and we are working at a scale where the rivalry of the situation is absolute. When we had wars in the past these were largely non-rivarous in nature, even the so-called "world wars". Even in these tragic events there was a "license to be wrong" in that no matter how large these wars grew, it was unlikely to impact all life on the planet. With nuclear weapons the scale of the impact increased, and thus the "license to be wrong" decreased.

Lets take as a given that our understanding of science is never 100%. I don't mean by this the lack of understanding in the general public, but the uncertainty that exists with all science given we as a species are often just learning. Whenever I look at a political decision based on information that is not 100% known I look first at the impacts of the extremes.

Say the science is right and we don't act: worst case scenario is that major parts of our planet become uninhabitable, making the worst of our world wars look like a mosquito bite being compared to amputation.

Say the science is wrong and we acted anyway: after a minor bump from a transformative change our transportation systems, our industries, and other major parts of our economy become more efficient, we become more innovative, etc. The impact to the economy, which seems to be the only potential "negative" to acting, appears to be no different than any other transformative changes we have seen in the past from the invention of the electric lightbulb, the automobile, or the Internet. Some businesses might have been harmed in the short term, but overall the economy was better off for these transformative changes. Some of these changes are just stepping stones towards the future, such as the private automobile which I consider to be an inefficient technology (and more than just in terms of energy) that needs to be replaced by more modern and efficient transportation technologies.

I pride myself on being a skeptic about pretty much everything, and I always challenge my assumptions. I always presume that I can be wrong, so subject nearly all my decision making to the type of "what is the worst case" analysis.

When I look at the question of responding to climate change, analysing it as I did above, I simply don't see the point of spending too much time being sceptical about the science in a way that drives us away from action. Even if there was only a 10% chance that the current beliefs about the science of climate change were true, I still believe we should be acting. I happen to believe that there is more than a 90% chance it is true, but that is secondary to my "worst case comparison" analysis.

You should have contacted me to participate in this podcast. I think you have brought your scepticism of some of the science a little too far than what is appropriate given the differing costs of being wrong one way or the other. I too don't like some of the language, such as "average temperature", but don't see how any of this relates to the question of whether we should be acting on this issue.

By the way, I was on the radio this morning for the issues I more commonly discuss. You can download the archive via:

L'heure est au libre!: Vista, Network Neutrality, and Canadian Copyright revision...

At 12:36 AM, February 06, 2007, Blogger PulpSpy said...

Hi Russell,

Thanks for the comment. I suspect my views on global warming are closer to your own than to Alex's, however I must take issue with your "worst-case scenario" justification of your belief in global warming.

I don't know if you are aware of it, but your form of rational argument has a very long history, and perhaps its most famous use is in Pascal's wager. Pascal argues you should believe in God because if you don't and you are wrong, you face eternal damnation; whereas if you do and you are wrong, then you merely wasted some Sunday mornings in Church.

Now I don't personally know anyone who finds Pascal's wager compelling enough to influence their religious beliefs, and I'm surprised you seem to find it compelling enough in the context of global warming.

The logical problems with this form of epistemology are limitless, but I'll point out one of its most obvious short-comings--it leads to extremism. Global warming is not a binary choice between believing in it or not. There is a range of views (its not happening, its happening but its not bad, its happening and its bad but its not our fault, its happening and its bad and its our fault but it won't happen for a long time, et cetera...).

So let us take two possible views. The first says global warming will cause the severe ecological damage within five decades. The second is that global warming will cause severe ecological damage before the end of the year.

If you believe the former, and it turns out the latter is correct, it'll be too late. However if you believe the latter and the former is correct, then you'll have induced an economic recession but you'll still have a functional planet. So your payoff matrix will suggest you believe in the latter.

So a glaring problem with a "worst-case scenario" epistemology is that the scenario with the worst worst-case will always win. I could sit here all day constructing worst and worst scenarios, and your argument will always justify believing in the bleakest one. Its an epistemology that at the end of the day always gives the most utility to extremism.

(Similarly with Pascal's wager, its of course not a binary choice between God or not. Its a choice of which God, and if subscribe to the reasoning, then you should believe in the God that promises the best heaven and the worst hell).

At 1:59 PM, February 06, 2007, Blogger Russell McOrmond said...

It seems that my analysis of the extremes became the focus of what I said, rather than the analysis of rivalrous vs. non-rivalrous aspects. I believe this issues has a lot of parallels with the smoking issue, and the fact that the views of those that reject the message from the scientists can harm those who accept the overall message of the known science (even if we can debate about individual pieces of evidence).

My deciding to go to church or believe in some god(s) is non-rivalrous: me doing so doesn't harm other people. I can opt to waste my time (in someone's opinion) every Sunday (Or whatever the day or days are for the particular religion), and this doesn't impact anyone else.

When my choices impact other people, then the analysis I believe we need to carry out comes into effect.

The issues around global climate change are -- well -- global, and clearly rivalrous. It is more rivalrous than war (except nuclear war), more rivalrous than any circumvention of any individual human right.

I agree that there is a lot of grey between "something will happen tomorrow" and "something will happen in 50 years", but that part of the debate is not itself non-rivalrous unless the "in 50 years" is being used as an excuse to do nothing today.

I guess I don't see the credibility of denying the science at such a late stage of the analysis. I have never travelled into space personally and looked back at the earth with my own eyes, and yet I believe that the earth is round (ish). Is this science also up for debate? I guess that would be perfectly fine, given any beliefs about whether the earth is round or not is largely non-rivalrous (Unless you were allowed to plan air travel, in which case your views would impact others. Or maybe GHG's will just 'fall off the edge' of the earth, and thus can cause no harm? ;-)

I will treat people who discourage governments from working to solve the climate crisis with the same amount of "respect" I do people who blow cigarette smoke in my face. Your right to have your personal views on an issue ends when your public expression of them harms me. Some will consider this rude behaviour, but I hope that just as we advanced with the smoking debate that those who think this is rude rather than justified will be an extremely small minority.

Note to Alex.

The use of the term "denier" is being used in the same context as a holocaust denier. While there is some legitimate debate as to whether there has been more than one instance in our history, I believe it is not reasonable to debate about whether the mass murder of European Jews and others by the Nazis qualifies. People who deny that holocaust are looked upon very unfavourably by most people in society. The opposite of being a denier of that event doesn't make someone into a religious faith-based believer in something, just someone who accepts the historical evidence. I was not in Germany during WW2, and don't believe I need to be in order to accept the historical record. I don't have to trust every single individual piece of evidence offered to me from every source in order to believe in the overall message.

I agree with the change in language, and its obvious purpose: to put those who reject reacting to the science in a negative social light, and to diminish their ability to slow down progress.

At 8:18 PM, February 07, 2007, Blogger PulpSpy said...


Purposely or not, you are confusing the issue. So let me untangle it and then show why what you wrote is irrelevant to my criticism.

Your initial argument was based on two premises: (1) We should treat rivalrous and non-rivalrous scenarios differently and (2) we should base our beliefs on a worst-case scenario analysis.

These premises are independent. In other words, if premise (2) is wrong, its wrong regardless of whether premise (1) is right or wrong. And vice-versa.

The reason I'm focusing on premise (2) and not (1) is because I think premise (2) is wrong. Whether premise (1) is right or wrong is completely irrelevant (For what its worth, I happen to agree with you that it is right). You can construct an argument that gets 9 things right and 1 thing wrong--guess what, people are going to focus on that 1 thing that is wrong. And getting the other 9 things right isn't going to save your argument. And if instead of trying to fix the 1 wrong point, you just pontificate about how those other 9 points are so great, you are not compelling anyone to believe the argument.

Your worst-case epistemology is as fallacious in non-rivalrous situations (Pascal's wager) as it is in rivalrous (Global warming). The rivalrousness of the situation is irrelevant to whether its fallacious or valid. This justification systems still forces you to believe the possibility with the most extreme negative consequences. It doesn't converge on truth, it converges on extremism.

I perfectly understand your argument that you don't care if someone is wrong when that wrong is quarantined to them alone, and that when that wrong affects you (what we call externalities in economics), you have a right to care. You can argue that. But before you can argue that, you have to explain why its a "wrong" and not a right you are talking about--why its a negative externally and not a positive or neutral one. And you have not done that. You've just taken a fallicious argument that says, we'll let's err on the side of caution and assume all externalities are as negative as possible. And if I can propose a new way the externality could potentially be even more negative, well let's believe that.


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