July 4, 2006

Sullivan's Travails and the "One Percent Solution"

Hatched by Dafydd

A wonderful Wall Street Journal opinion piece by Professor Richard S. Lindzen, Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Science at MIT, discusses the current state of knowledge about global warming -- whoops, global climate change.

Actually, I should write "the current state of ignorance and confusion," because Lindzen's conclusion is that we really know next to nothing about what really causes the observed global climate change over the last several hundred million years (hat tip to Ryan Sager at Real Clear Politics blog):

First, nonscientists generally do not want to bother with understanding the science. Claims of consensus relieve policy types, environmental advocates and politicians of any need to do so. Such claims also serve to intimidate the public and even scientists--especially those outside the area of climate dynamics. Secondly, given that the question of human attribution largely cannot be resolved, its use in promoting visions of disaster constitutes nothing so much as a bait-and-switch scam. That is an inauspicious beginning to what Mr. Gore claims is not a political issue but a "moral" crusade.

Lastly, there is a clear attempt to establish truth not by scientific methods but by perpetual repetition. An earlier attempt at this was accompanied by tragedy. Perhaps Marx was right. This time around we may have farce--if we're lucky.

Reading this op-ed, Andrew Sullivan finds himself in agreement... but rather than retracting his claws, Sullivan slashes out even more desperately in support of the "do something!" argument. He resurrects an argument used by the Jesuits in centuries past to extort belief by twisting logic:

Accrding to Ron Suskind, Dick Cheney's "one percent doctrine" means that if there's a one percent chance that a terrorist could have access to a WMD, we must act as if it were a certainty - because the outcome, however unlikely, would be too disastrous to risk. On global warming, Gore expresses a not-too-dissimilar equation: if there's a small chance that human behavior could lead to environmental catastrophe, we should act as if it were a certainty - because waiting too long is too big a risk to take....

A prudent attempt to rein in carbon dioxide emissions seems a no-brainer to me. A dollar rise in the gas tax would be the most effective way to achieve this.

Logicians of the Society of Jesus used to argue that, since perpetual damnation is an infinite catastrophe for a soul, then if there is even the slightest chance that Christianity is right -- even a 0.000000000000001% chance -- multiplying this miniscule chance by the infinity of damnation still means one had better believe... because "infinitely bad" times any finite percentage, no matter how small, is still "infinitely bad."

The response, of course, is that the same argument holds for Judaism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism: in each case, the consequence of non-belief, if one of them happens to be true, is infinitely bad; therefore, no matter how slight a possibility that each is true, one should believe it anyway. This sets up a bit of a quandry, since one must simultaneously believe both Judaism and also Philistine paganism, both Christianity and pre-Christian Roman Mithraism, as well as Shintoism, Tao, Hinduism, Anton Szandor LeVey's Church of Satan, and Scientology. (Well, maybe not Scientology.)

In Sullivan's case, however, the whole argument falls apart. This is because Sullivan -- who really ought to know his Jesuitical logic better, being a Roman Catholic -- does not claim that global warming leads to infinite bad. However, a moment's review makes clear that it's the very property that Sullivan's argument lacks -- the infinity of the bad result -- which makes the argument.

If the badness of global climate change is not literally infinite, then:

  1. Sullivan must actually calculate the probability that global climate change is primarily human driven (he can substitute his "1%" guesstimate here);
  2. Then multiply his 1% by the probability that a $1/gallon tax on gasoline will produce such a change in the amount of driving that it will actually significantly affect the amount of carbon entering our atmosphere;
  3. Times the probability that such a reduction in carbon dioxide will actually measurably reduce global temperature;
  4. Then calculate the probability of various negative effects from whatever measures we take to combat global warming;
  5. Finally, compare these two probabilities to see whether massive efforts to combat global warming (including another big tax on gasoline, which primarily hurts the working poor and citizens of western states) are more likely to do good or ill to America.

(Cheney's argument is more robust, because going after terrorists is sound policy, even if they turn out not to have WMD; while punishing those who live in the western United States or who must drive to work for a living is bad policy on its face... which means it must have a dramatically good counterbalance to make it worthwhile.)

I'm not sure where Sullivan thought he was going with this; but wherever it was, he didn't arrive.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, July 4, 2006, at the time of 1:41 PM

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The following hissed in response by: rich

The logical device is called Pascal's wager.


Pascal was a Jansenist and attacked the Jesuits in his books.


The above hissed in response by: rich [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 4, 2006 7:38 PM

The following hissed in response by: Texas Jack

Another idiot wanting to "just add another dollar tax on gasoline" to accomplish whatever pet project he (it?) has. IIRC the other most popular is reducing foreign oil usage. Said idiot, being wealthy enough to pay for gasoline at that price, has no fear of such an increase. Others do.
Consider those who make just enough to get along. They don't have anything much, but they have a job and they survive with a twelve year old car and a house (rented) that's old, and a bit small, and twenty-five miles from work. Now add another dollar a gallon on top of the recent price increases, and suddenly the ends don't meet any more. The kids go to school hungry, in clothes that should have been replaced. The wife looses weight (she's hungry too) but no new clothes for her either. And he just gets a little more desperate every day. He can't afford to quit, and he can't afford the gas to go to work.
Those of us on fixed incomes are subject to the same problems. Some (I'm one) have enough of an income that we can afford another dollar a gallon. Others are counting pennies at the end of the month as the bills mount, and you need more heart pills, and the wife needs more arthritis pills, and the fridge is empty, and there's less than a quarter tank of gas in the car, and, and, and ...
I agree we need to reduce dependence on foreign oil. I have no objection to reducing carbon emissions. (Global warming is a joke, but what the heck, why not?) But God D**n the idiotic "professors" who want to do it by taxing the poor. That "one percent solution" will see blood in the streets.

[Rule number 1 of the Reptillian Comment Policy. -- the Mgt.]

The above hissed in response by: Texas Jack [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 5, 2006 9:25 AM

The following hissed in response by: F. N. Owl

The logical consequence of Pascal's Wager is that whoever can make up the scariest scenario, sets policy. I believe that would be Stephen King. All hail King!

The above hissed in response by: F. N. Owl [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 5, 2006 12:45 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dan Kauffman

if there's a small chance that human behavior could lead to environmental catastrophe, we should act as if it were a certainty - because waiting too long is too big a risk to take....

and if the environemtal catastrophe is sparking a New Ice Age by reducing the heat trap effect?

With the present knowledge we are like an untrained person trying to defuse a bomb.

What is the most likely effect?

The above hissed in response by: Dan Kauffman [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 5, 2006 4:36 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dan Kauffman

During the Medieval Warm period the earth was greener, Crops could be grown in areas they cannot at this time.

Plants have evolved to utilise larger percentages of CO2 than now available, we should instead of reducing CO2 emisions increase them ;-)

The above hissed in response by: Dan Kauffman [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 5, 2006 4:38 PM

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