The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic. So if what I say now seems to you to be very reasonable, then I have failed completely. Only if what I tell you appears absolutely unbelievable, have we any chance of visualizing the future as it really will happen.

- Arthur C. Clarke (h/t Brin)

Monday, July 5, 2010

There Are Skeptics and Then There Are Skeptics

I ranted as follows at Kloor's, a keeper I think. This is in regard to the David Brin article at Skeptic which I mentioned here and Keith mentioned there and Brin himself mentioned in another place.

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I really don’t think Brin made his point well enough to sink in with most of us in these parts. The people who call themselves “skeptics” [in the climate debate world] and the people who actually behave according to the skeptical ethic propounded by Skeptic magazine are almost completely distinct populations.

As I’ve said many times, the more doubtful a person is of the science, the more vigorously they ought to support vigorous greenhouse policy. Uncertainty weights the high risk side of the risk analysis far more than it ameliorates the low-risk side. Wally Broecker is a doubter and a skeptic. Pat Michaels is a person with irrational, unexamined beliefs.

I’ve heard rumors some prominent naysayer scientists are young earth creationists. They are people with irrational, unexamined beliefs. They are not skeptics.

People who do not support vigorous policy can only be skeptics if they offer very high certainty that the science is biased to overstate the risks. Nobody does this very successfully. Some pretend to do this; at least their position is coherent, if not very well supported. Their arguments on the science are even more dissatisfying and vague than their arguments about a shocking scandal at CRU.

What is usually called the “skeptical” position simply makes no rational sense. If you could find someone making interesting and plausible skeptical arguments I for one would be genuinely happy to engage them, and I have no doubt other Ia folk would be happy to do so as well. It’s awfully tiring being presented so much half-bakery, especially when your day job oftentimes offers up the finest patisserie. I’d be thrilled to see an opponent arguing half as well as John McCarthy argued against us on sci.environment in the early 1990s. John made us think.

As for skeptics in the sense that Brin means, that is to say, outsiders willing to study the matter in depth using whatever types of scientific sophistication they can bring to bear in an intellectually honest way, you will find that again, I am delighted to talk to them, as are most Ia types. Indeed, this is the essence of the matter. It is exactly this group that the IIc group recruits from.

Since the half-baked so greatly outnumbered the baked, the fact that the science is basically sound is counterweighed by the opposition being of vastly greater number, and to all appearances, greater financial resources at least insofar as public outreach on matters of controversy is concerned.

And it is exactly to compete with the IIc group on this recruitment that we engage in these debates. Every new IIc is another person unjustifiedly angry at the messenger and unconcerned about the message. And many new IIc folk will engage in the blog wars themselves.

I think it’s not enough to compete with the IIc folk for the genuine skeptics who happen by. We also need to provide a way for genuine skeptics to enlist effectively in the battles against the false skeptics. This has been one of our great failures. Doing so is hard, because truth is harder than nonsense, and us genuine skeptics are loath to say things we aren’t pretty sure about.

(Providing an alternative stream with an uncertain amount of nonsense in it is easy enough; that’s the I-d group, which genuine skeptics find off-putting and detract from the credibility of the true story. I hope we can somehow do better.)

Of course, none of this crazy 1a business would be necessary if the press would do its job of competently evaluating the truth of competing claims.

7 comments:

Kooiti MASUDA said...

> As I’ve said many times, the more doubtful a person is of the science, the more vigorously they ought to support vigorous greenhouse policy.

They should naturally support vigorous policy in adaptation to climate change. It may be called mitigation of climate-related disasters, but it is not mitigation in IPCC's sense.

If we consider the future climate is uncertain whether or not we change our habit to burn fuel, ther will be no incentive to change the policy on fuel.

Michael Tobis said...

No, I respectfully disagree.

Consider two cases.

Case 1: Climate sensitivity is known to be 3 C/doubling with 100% certainty.

Case 2: Climate sensitivity is equally likely to be near 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 C.

Now consider that cost may go as the cube of sensitivity.

Case 1: expected cost is 27 units.

Case 2: expected cost is 45 units.

This is with a linear uncertainty. However, I expect uncertainty may be logarithmic. So consider a third case:

Case 3: Sensitivity is equally likely to be 0.75, 1.5, 3, 6, or 12.

Expected cost is 395 units.

Justification for picking the cube for cost function is arbitrary and only used as an example.

We know, however, that the cost is nonlinear and concave upward, because an increase of no more than 85 C (permanent destruction of life on earth) has infinite cost, while an increase of .5 C has modest cost, far less than 1/170 of the total value of the earth.

Kooiti MASUDA said...

Your logic is applicable to those persons who trust the basics of the climate science which experts present and are skeptic in quantitative matters.

When writing the previous comment, I supposed those persons who suspect large uncertainty in the basic premises.

Michael Tobis said...

Indeed, if nothing is known, knowledge offers no guidance for behavior. I am presuming that the respondent accepts, directly or via some authority that he or she accepts, that the greenhouse effect exists and that human activities are causing greenhouse gases to accumulate.

This is a fairly modest requirement.

If we know nothing at all, there is no basis for any decisions!

Steve Bloom said...

"If we know nothing at all, there is no basis for any decisions!"

Thus the attacks on what we know by those who dislike the implications of the needed decisions. But I suppose we knew that (too).

manuel "moe" g said...

The cognitive errors that lets some take demonstrations of uncertainty and confuse them for arguments for continuing the status quo:

(For the following, substitute for "plausible" the phrase "developed/confirmed to such a degree that it is perverse to withhold provisional assent")

1) To inform a rational choice of actions, plausible full narratives compete solely with other plausible full narratives. If I open a door, and in the bright light of the room see a breathing tiger across the room, it is rational to step back out of the room and close the door. Any demonstration of uncertainty of my ability to tell a living tiger from a amusement park animatronic tiger is not an argument to stand motionless at the open threshold. The demonstration of uncertainty can be used to choose between plausible full narratives by discounting some narratives, but it (the demonstration of uncertainty) doesn't have the power to construct a plausible full narrative in opposition to the one under consideration, much less make the opposite of the considered action rationally attractive.

2) Rational action and rational inaction are both born of rational choice. By changing the language, changing the viewpoint, changing the scope, we can phrase action in terms of inaction, and inaction in terms of action. So what is temporally/culturally/situationally described as an action/intervention is under no extra burden of rational justification than what is likewise described as inaction/absence-of-intervention, and inaction does not have a lesser burden of rational justification than action. (Imagine that the decision to burn fossil fuels is remade on the 1st of each year, for example, with a corresponding decision of how much. So burning fossil fuels in the new year is the intervention, and we wish study if that intervention is rational.)

3) Demonstratively persuading plausible full narratives are not in competition with a swarm of idiosyncratic narratives that are each in contradiction with all others of the swarm. The contradictions inside the swarm renders the whole swarm repellent to the rational. From the swarm should emerge a small number of demonstratively persuading plausible full narratives, first, to challenge the mainstream narrative, second. Or else it is more likely the idiosyncratic narratives are just a symptom of the opposition to the mainstream being handicapped by debilitatingly idiosyncratic minds, incapable of meaningful rational persuasion.

Consider the inability to construct a plausible full narrative for a wide conspiracy to assassinate JFK from those who find fault with details of the many investigators that agree that Oswald was the sole gunman. Consider the inability to construct a plausible full narrative for a wide conspiracy throughout the US government to bring down the Twin Towers by controlled demolition from those who find fault with the details of the many investigators. Consider their pathetic nature. Likewise, note that those who would dispose of the mainstream narrative about carbon emissions and climate disruption and ocean acidification shirk from the burden of supplying an persuading plausible full narrative in opposition. How quickly they rush to use the art of controversy! Is it because they have no alternative?

Steve Bloom said...

It's a little OT, Michael, but I just wanted to note that your assessment of Pat Michaels ("a person with irrational, unexamined beliefs") is off the mark in terms of explaining his role in the "debate." IMHO the better explanation is that he's simply in it for the gold.