The last few posts have been about the application of the precautionary principle. In some green perspectives, precaution operates overtly, and arguments about risk are made explicitly. In other cases, the precautionary principle still operates, but is hidden from view, which is to say that the precautionary principle prefigures in the argument, but it is not until the argument is unpacked that its influence is revealed. In this respect, the anti-GM protesters of last week were more more honest, consistent and reflective about their own argument than their pro-GM critics in the green camp, even if their arguments are irrational. The pro-GM critics didn’t notice their own use of the precautionary principle; it is hidden by the sheer volume of literature, policies, and institutions that are involved in the debate. In other words, the fact of a scientific consensus obscures the content of that consensus and the way in which it was established.
Back in the climate debate, I think I may have stumbled across the most remarkable attempt to formulate — or reformulate — the precautionary principle I have ever seen:
It is very clear that uncertainty is no one’s friend. We have seen that greater uncertainty about the evolution of the climate should give us even greater cause for concern. We have seen that all other things being equal, greater uncertainty means that things could be worse than we thought. We have also seen that greater uncertainty means that the expected damages from climate change will necessarily be greater than anticipated, and that the allowance we must make for sea level rise will also be greater than anticipated. All of those results arise from simple mathematics, and we do not even have to resort to any economic modelling to understand how greater uncertainty translates into greater risk.
These words belong to Stephan Lewandowsky, who is Winthrop Professor and Australian Professorial Fellow at the School of Psychology, University of Western Australia. Lewandowsky has a series of posts up at the ‘Shaping Tomorrows World’ blog, which is funded by the University of Western Australia and the Institute of Sustainability and Technology Policy at Murdoch University. So, presumably, these words are no joke. But they are an incredibly tortured attempted to alternate between word play and maths abuse.
Lewandowsky, over the course of three posts – one, two, three — reinvents the precautionary principle without ever calling it the precautionary principle. This is interesting in itself… An academic in the field of climate policy has forgotten that the precautionary principle already exists, is already applied to the science, and is already manifested in policy.
Angry computer scientist, Steve Easterbrook, tweeted a link to the posts:
Steve Easterbrook @SMEasterbrook
Denialists often use uncertainty over future climate change to argue for inaction. But uncertainty is nobody’s friend
As previous posts have pointed out, the issue is not whose friend the precaution principle is — indeed, the point was made that the precautionary principle might apply to the precautionary principle. Thus, precaution may leave us in a dizzy spin of infinite regress. The issue for ‘denialists’ is instead that the application of the precautionary principle passes weak theoretical risk off as certainty; it turns possibility into story lines, about which ‘something must be done’.
This is the point I made to Keith Kloor — and I was perhaps a bit unfair to him, by lumping him in with the Easterbrooks of this world. After all, it was Kloor who pointed out that Easterbrook’s advocacy of climate science was out of kilter with his distrust of GM technology:
For the climate science community, climategate was a galvanizing event, in which many of them, such as Easterbrook, have risen to publicly defend their honor and profession. Thus, you might think that he (and other environmental scientists) would naturally come to the defense of plant scientists whose work and profession has also come under assault–by anti-GMO activists.
Not when it comes to genetic engineering.
It seems that many in the environmental community have a visceral dislike of biotechnology, especially GMO’s (genetically modified organisms.) It’s an interesting little quirk, which is worth exploring in more depth.
Meanwhile, Easterbrook has just offered up a long treatise that essentially lays out his misgivings about genetically engineered crops. […]
Easterbrook’s tweets about ‘denialists’, and his offering the link to Lewandowsky reformulation of the precautionary principle do much to make my point: that climate-preoccupied environmentalists really aren’t that interested in what ‘science says’; precaution is in fact the operating principle.
I won’t attempt to discuss Lewandowsky’s workings here, because his opening statement on the third of his posts — quoted above — is sufficiently… well, mad… to make my point. I hope that others may want to take a closer look, and I suspect that each of the paragraphs on each of the three posts could be the basis of an entire blog post, so stuffed full with presuppositions, special pleading and prejudice that they are… A case study in the mechanics of climate alarmism. So let’s visit the above quote, line-by-line…
It is very clear that uncertainty is no one’s friend.
This may be true. But then, some have more to gain by championing precaution than others. Those of a green persuasion are invariably inclined to emphasise catastrophe in their arguments for political action. The predominant mode of contemporary politics is, with or without environmental issues, a politics of fear. This was the point made four years ago on this blog, in reply to Naomi Oreskes’ ‘merchents of doubt’ thesis:
Doubt is the very essence of the precautionary principle. And the precautionary principle is at the heart of international agreements and domestic policies on the environment. It was not scientific certainty that drove efforts to mitigate climate change, but the same doubt that Oreskes claims is generated by the “tobacco strategy”. In claiming that denialists were generating doubt where there was certainty, Oreskes – a professor of the history of science – re-writes scientific history. More interesting still, Oreskes seems to agree with the “deniers” that scientific certainty – rather than doubt – should drive action.
The Environmentalist narrative of catastrophe, doom, and apocalypse, once given superficial scientific plausibility (in that science cannot exclude the possibility of such things happening – which it never could), provides doubt and uncertainty about the security of the future, which in turn provides political momentum and legitimacy for environmental policies.
Oreskes had written the precautionary principle out of the history of environmentalism’s development, and written it back in as the construction of climate sceptics in response to scientific certainty. Now Lewandowsky’s reformulation writes it back in to the unfolding story. ‘Uncertainty is nobody’s friend’, he says, but he makes a lot of capital out of it. Or tries to.
We have seen that greater uncertainty about the evolution of the climate should give us even greater cause for concern.
In other words, ‘the less we know, the more we should worry’. This has a curious implication. Whereas Oreskes had claimed that science had always been certain — that an unequivocal consensus had always existed — Lewandowsky must now claim that the consensus had not advanced its understanding of the climate: that we don’t know more than we did. And indeed, this reflects an ideological presupposition of environmentalism: that progress is itself a problem. For if certainty was actually achievable — if the parameters of climate change were actually understood — then ‘tackling climate change’ would become a straightforward technical problem. Instead, policies intended to tackle it are founded on the idea that the possible impacts of climate change are uncertain, precisely in order to head off any possibility of a solution that is not mitigation. In other words, if you know what kind of problem you are facing, then you deprive those who have made the <i>undefined</i> problem central to their perspective and their arguments about the urgency of their cause. The urgency of the problem is owed only to the fact that we don’t know what kind of problem it is.
We have seen that all other things being equal, greater uncertainty means that things could be worse than we thought.
This is a palpable nonsense. All other things being equal, things are the same, no matter no matter what we think about them, or how certain we are about what we think about them. Things in the world are not dependent on the degree of certainty we have about them. Leaving the distracting pseudo-jargon to one side, and taking the part of the sentence that could make sense reveals only at best a tautology: ‘greater uncertainty means that things could be worse than we thought’. Indeed, the condition of uncertainty means precisely that what you think about a thing could be mistaken. Moreover, even certainty is no guarantee of security; things could be ‘worse than we thought’, in spite of certainty. Certainty and actuality are not the same.
We have also seen that greater uncertainty means that the expected damages from climate change will necessarily be greater than anticipated…
This is an extraordinary claim indeed, which requires some unpacking. This part of the sentence puts the degree of uncertainty into a necessary (i.e. it cannot be otherwise) relationship with what we have anticipated, and the outcome of events. The condition of uncertainty itself multiplies the anticipated result, to yield an impact of greater magnitude. This is an absurd claim, because the condition of uncertainty has no bearing on things. If you’re unsure about what the result of a throw of a dice will be, but you anticipate that it will not be the number you want it to be (the odds are just 1 in 6 that it is, so it’s a good bet that it isn’t), your uncertainty does not reach out to the dice to prevent it turning the face with your number on it upwards.
But that is the implication of the term ‘necessarily’ in the sentence. So let’s mediate it, to see if it makes any more sense: ‘greater uncertainty means that the expected damages from climate change
will necessarily may possibly be greater than anticipated’. Again, this is at best a tautological truism, identical to the previous sentence’s meaning: ‘greater uncertainty means that things could be worse than we thought’. Notice, then, that the ‘will necessarily’ in this sentence contradicts the previous sentence’s ‘could be’.
… and that the allowance we must make for sea level rise will also be greater than anticipated.
Again, this language is tortured. The object of the sentence is ‘the allowance we much make for sea level rise’. The meaning of the sentence then, is that the ‘allowance will be greater than anticipated’. This cannot be true, because the ‘allowance we make for sea level rise’ will be at least equivalent to what we anticipate sea level to be. (I say ‘at least’, because the precautionary principle allows us to expand our estimation of what sea level rise may be.) Perhaps this academic struggles with the English language. Perhaps logic and proportion escape him. Or perhaps this is some kind of clumsy attempt at a sleight of hand. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. Let’s imagine that what he wants to say is that ‘sea level rise will be greater than anticipated’. But this still doesn’t work, because it is still an anticipation that is clouded by uncertainty… Uncertainty, then, necessarily implies under-estimation, on Lewandowsky’s view. He is wrong. My not knowing if I’ve got the winning lottery ticket does not make my winning the lottery any more or less likely.
All of those results arise from simple mathematics, and we do not even have to resort to any economic modelling to understand how greater uncertainty translates into greater risk.
Let’s be far too fair to Lewandowsky: he is nothing more than a bullshit artist. ‘Simple mathematics’ have nothing to do with his claim, and the mathematics he offers on his blog posts are as tortured as his language and logic. Uncertainty has no relation to actual risk. The degree of risk is the same, no matter what the degree of certainty is. To say otherwise, is to say that the world is moved by nothing other than the confidence we have in our thoughts, and that I could will a dice to produce a 6 on each throw, merely by being sufficiently confident in the outcome: a Disney version of reality. Even the best sense we can make of his claim — that uncertainty implies the underestimation of risks — is a nonsense, because we know that it is possible to over-estimate risk, even in the face of uncertainty. And we have precedents: the Y2K bug; BSE; flu pandemics of recent years; acid rain; ozone depletion; and the entire torrent of turgid crap produced by Malthusians such as Paul Ehrlich over the last half century. This is yet another of one of those Emperor’s New Clothes moments, in which an academic has attempted to identify with the environmental issue. Rather than advancing knowledge, he revealed not only his own inability to reason, but also his actual contempt for knowledge. Only sophistry underpins his conclusion.
Environmentalists have claimed to speak for science, but only have the monopoly on over-estimation of risk. Indeed, it is only by virtue of their over-estimations of risk that environmentalism has achieved any influence at all. And this is the reason why environmentalists cannot abandon the precautionary principle. To eschew this tendency to produce wild speculation, and the use of ‘science’ to construct superficially plausible story lines from that speculation, would mean to abandon the political capital and urgency that is generated by the mere possibility of risk. Take away the environmentalist’s licence to speculate, and the idea that the world needs special forms of politics and powerful political institutions to deal with the ‘climate crisis’ is suddenly redundant.
The precautionary principle — risk analysis without numbers, and without a sense of proportion — gives greater weight to speculation than to knowledge. That is the nature of the politics of fear: you can’t rule something out, so in order to survive, you have to assume that anything you can speculate about is actually the case, and act accordingly. In the wake of criticism of the precautionary principle, environmentalists and those invested in the environmental agenda attempted to distance themselves from it, to emphasise certainty instead: the unequivocal consensus that ‘climate change is happening’. But the precautionary principle did not go away. It took on a new form, and lurked in the background. Rather than saying that the risks of climate change were beyond estimation, environmentalists invented a horizon of uncertainty: the limit of 2 degrees, beyond which lay ‘dangerous climate change’. But this limit was intangible. It wasn’t detected by science; it was invented to meet the needs of policy-makers. It mediated some of the excesses of the precautionary principle by reasoning that we know more about what will happen before 2 degrees of warming than what will happen following it.
But hiding the precautionary principle from environmentalism’s critics concealed it also from the environmentalists. They too forgot the ground on which their perspectives were formed. And now we see in Lewandowsky’s silly posts that the ugly creature wants to crawl back out of the hole it has been buried in. Lewandowsky’s posts will, by themselves, likely achieve no great influence, but what this shows is the irrepressible, irrational and incoherent nature of environmentalism. Environmentalists will continue to be divided by the precautionary principle as it continues to embarrass them and their claim to be grounded in science and reason. The precautionary principle will be reformulated and hidden again, and then reinvented, ad nauseum, long after environmentalism’s demise.
UPDATE: Apologies for some typos in the above post, which must be annoying in a post about someone else’s language abuse. My only defence is that it is a long weekend here in the UK, with more parties than usual.
Brilliant. Demolishing academic bullshit artists one by one is possibly the best we can hope to do. This article should be in the Times Higher Education or London Review of Books (but it won’t be, as long as you call a bullshit artist a bullshit artist).
What kind of person could write three learned articles about the Precautionary Principle without ever mentioning it, obsessively skirting round the subject of risk like a puritan discussing sex? Short answer: someone with academic tenure.
Moving from a rural to an urban society and creating the welfare state are two of the obvious ways we’ve eliminated much risk from our lives. (Academic tenure and job security in general is a third). But we’re still mortal, and though we can beam pictures of the Jubilee round the world, we can’t stop it raining on the day.
The risky rural life is a historically recent memory to many, especially in a country like Australia. As it becomes rarer, it becomes both attractive (as a return to our roots) and is also felt to be dangerous. Some of us take up horseriding on our country estates in Chipping Norton; others discuss sustainability in Rio; others (especially academics) retreat into philosophical musings, nurtured by fantasies based on the primeval uncertainty of the weather.
Donna Laframboise recently dug up a bunch of environmentalist academics (including an IPCC Chapter Lead Author) who worship the Great God Pan. Sounds quite a healthy reaction to the terrifying unknowability of the world around us, especially as it involves reading some non-peer-reviewed literature which predates Lovelock and Ehrlich.
Nice work Ben. Lewandowsky is a very shallow thinker in my view. Good for you bothering to take him on at his nonsense words.
Its just endless applications of Pascal’s Wager. This one makes the truly crazed addition that the less we know, the more urgent action becomes.
If you want to see the logical error repeat the same argument but make it urge public health measures. You will see at once that it will justify doing the most idiotic and risky things, and also that it will justify with equal plausibility doing things which are mutually incompatible.
Should we, for instance, ban all except whole grain breads? The more uncertain we are about this, the less evidence we have. Therefore the more important it is to do it now. Do not think that uncertainty about the value of the whole grain loaf is your friend, you lovers of croissants. No, the less certain, the more important it is to ban croissants and everything made with white flour. By the way, the same argument will justify us in banning whole grain flour. The more uncertain we are that this will improve the nation’s health, the more important it is to do it now.
The way to think about this is, the nation’s bowels, bones and arteries are at stake. We must act without delay, and do something!
A good and very worthwhile piece of work to expose with lucidity a ‘piece of work’ who profits by obfuscation.
There is something about extremism that allows, or perhaps even encourages, decidedly unimpressive people to take to the stage, and seek to command our attention with gibberish.
Jo Nova has made several posts about Lewandowsky: http://joannenova.com.au/tag/lewandowsky-stephan/ . She describes him thus ‘Picasso-Brain-Strikes-the-Climate-Debate: Can’t think. Can’t reason.’. He cannot indeed do those things, but he has a cause, a platform, a vehicle that allows him to get carried away with his nonsense.
Wow – a psychology professor with eco-munchausen’s.
This is a gem from Jo Nova (h/t to John Shade)…
Well put, Ben. It’s hard to imagine that anyone takes such foolishness seriously. And perhaps they don’t: the lack of comments on his posts indicates little interest. But the point is that his absurd logic is not greeted with widespread derision. It seems the adoption of environmentalism brings with it the freedom to spout nonsense.
BTW you’re wrong to give Y2K as an example of risk being overestimated. The problem was well understood: the use of two digits for the year (“60” for 1960) that worked in the twentieth century was not going to work when twentieth century dates had to interact with twenty-first century dates: does “60” mean 1960 or 2060? The problem was widespread, for example, in international banking and there was little uncertainty about the financial chaos that would ensue were it not fixed. It was fixed (although not entirely) and there was no chaos. But that doesn’t mean the fears were overestimated. See http://qii2.info/y2k.pdf.
That has to be my nomination for quote of the week:
John Shade says
If the ‘precautionary principle’ were generally applied, liberty would be at risk. People are not jailed because of uncertainty as to whether they might commit a crime. Similarly, people’s liberty to burn fossil fuels should not be restricted on the basis that we’re not certain it won’t cause harm.
John – There is something about extremism that allows, or perhaps even encourages, decidedly unimpressive people to take to the stage, and seek to command our attention with gibberish.
That’s it. Mediocrity drives alarmism. Mediocre politicians, politics, journalists, scientists and academics… Shrill posturing gives more weight to their platform.
The epitome of this in journalism was the affair of Johann Hari’s plagiarism and making stuff up. In his own defence, he said he was protecting his fellow journalists like George Monbiot, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, Polly Toynbee, and Deborah Orr. None of these journalists are at all exceptional. They are billed as ‘social commentators’, but show no great understanding of the world they write about. High-pitched moralising takes the place of thought in their writing. In this respect, they are just like Hari. In defending them, he was defending his own histrionic style. This self-regard-by-proxy is the substance of a ‘hacksis of mediocrity’, as I like to call it, in which these vapid columnists present a picture of the world, but are really writing about themselves. At the core of their stories is the fact that their grasp on the world is slipping. Like the mediocre academic psychologist, they have to escalate the shrill to sustain their perspective. “IT IS WORSE THAN WE THOUGHT!” is the pretext for “I haven’t a clue what is going on, but I’m not prepared to admit it, or to reflect on it”.
David – ‘If the ‘precautionary principle’ were generally applied, liberty would be at risk. People are not jailed because of uncertainty as to whether they might commit a crime…
This was the case with much of the legislation that emerged in the wake of the War on Terror. And although we might think that it is wise to apply precaution in the case of people plotting to cause harm, there are countless examples of the Police using anti-terror legislation to stop lawful activity, and in some cases leaving innocent people in jail for months and even years, merely on suspicion, and on the basis of precaution.
Similarly, the Blair government sought to protect the public from ‘anti-social’ and criminal behaviour by identifying risk factors in criminality, even in infants. (See this, for an example.) The state thought it could develop the capacity for precognition, and thereby legitimise intervention.
And as Michel points out above, there are problems with governmental attempts to make decisions about our diets and lifestyles, which are prompted only by theories of weak theoretical risk factors.
This is a phenomenon that is much wider than the environmental or climate issue. Politics is increasingly organised around the concept of ‘risk’, principally because it allows the state to act, seemingly in the interests of the individual, but with or without his or her consent. The basis for this transformation in politics — the implication of the precautionary principle — is that the individual cannot understand the risks he is exposed to, and therefore has no real right to make choices, either about his own lifestyle, or about the government’s function. It is a transparently self-serving agenda, which the likes of Blair have justified only on the basis that he is convinced that he was doing the right thing by acting to be ‘safe rather than sorry’ for not anticipating terrorism, crime, antisocial behaviour, and poor health. The tragedy of course, is for the idea that freedom is far more conducive to positive changes in society than tyranny, even if it’s only ‘soft’ intervention.
Hengist, what have my ‘scientific qualifications’ — or lack of them — got to do with anything?
The precautionary principle is not a scientific concept. It’s application to ‘the science’ is a political phenomenon.
This man’s a typical band-wagon jumper. However, that wagon is about to end. The assault on the IPCC pseudo-science is coming from two directions. One is evaluation of the science, the other experimental.
1930’s Greenland land ice melt was greater than at present: http://tallbloke.wordpress.com/2012/05/30/greenland-glaciers-unprecedented-retreat-similar-to-1930s-warming/#more-6572
Arctic melting is a 70 year cycle and we are now getting the same cold winters and falling Ocean Heat as in the 1940s, e.g.: http://bobtisdale.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/figure-102.png
We are also entering a new Little Ice Age hence last weeks lowest Stockholm June day in 86 years and a 100 year record low in Perth WA. etc. etc. The world is cooling fast.
As for the science: every aspect of the heat transfer modelling is wrong. It’s because the two-stream approximation from Houghton breaks down at boundaries. At the top of atmosphere they assume as much IR comes down as goes into space because ‘it’s the text book answer’. Wrong; the text books have a caveat – ‘assuming Kirchhoff’s Law of Radiation applies’ – it doesn’t for this problem. Result an extra 240 W/m^2 DOWN. They compensate by assuming contrary to a century of experiment that the radiation part of coupled radiation, conduction and convection at the surface is bumped up to the black body level in a vacuum by something they call ‘Back Radiation’.
‘Back Radiation’ does not exist. It is an artefact of the instrument they use in 1000s around the World. It’s calibrated in power but is really an IR pyrometer. If you go to the manufacturer’s web site, they state firmly that to measure net energy transfer by radiation you need two, back to back.
To prove my point imagine such a pair in zero temperature gradient. Because each instrument ‘sees’ the same temperature, the signals are identical so net flux = zero. Take one away and you have the temperature signal [convolved with ’emissivity’]. Go to the 2009 IPCC Energy Budget and this imaginary energy is twice what the sun delivers to the surface. The net error is to exaggerate IR warming of the atmosphere by a factor of 5, and the total energy by a factor of 1.4. The model output is bunkum.
What we have had is an incompetent doing the heat transfer egged on by the incorrect radiation physics Houghton inherited plus a bad error where he asserts with no reference that in ‘Local thermodynamic Equilibrium’ black body radiation applies. I suspect he didn’t mean that literally but it’s been put in the models and it’s very wrong. These people are paid to be professional so the layabouts like this guy can’t latch on to fake physics.
Mydogsgotnonose, whether or not any of what you have said is true, it makes no difference. We can see that the precautionary principle and its revisions are redundant and irrational, whatever ‘the science’ says. ‘Fake physics’ isn’t the problem; the precautionary principle is what allows merely plausible scenarios to count as ‘science’ in the policy-making process, and the precautionary principle is predominant, within and without the climate issue.
I agree with you in that the precautionary principle can apply to any imaginary scenario. However, in this case the credibility of the PP is artificially amplified by the use of the IPCC climate models. As I show above, these are based on incorrect physics from IPCC co-founder Houghton.
He is arguably a religious fanatic of the same kind as Joseph Priestley who tried to foist Phlogiston on the World for his religious beliefs. Claes Johnson and I have identified these problems independently and are working at them from different directions.
The bottom line is that there is probably zero net CO2-AGW, the IPCC models are provably junk science originating from the Founders, Houghton [and Hansen nwho has exaggerated the calibration by 3.7] , and the peer review fortress has been used to claim this junk is settled. It is not and the case for the PP has been destroyed when there is no problem [of the warming kind although there could be others of a lesser nature].
PS take what I have written to a physicist or engineer and he/she will become VERY INTERESTED.
MDGNN: However, in this case the credibility of the PP is artificially amplified by the use of the IPCC climate models.
The PP is the amplifier in any case, necessarily. I don’t care to speculate about the science. My argument here — since 2007 — has been that the science can be right, but that the policy response and politics are wrong, whereas environmentalists claim that their politics emerges from ‘the science’. I argue that it precedes the science.
Moreover, expecting science to be instructive — either way — on the climate issue is a mistake made by environmentalists and sceptics. It is this expectation of science that is wrong, and this mistake is ubiquitous, being a broader phenomenon than the climate debate.
Don’t let me put you off doing your own research into the plausibility of mainstream climate science; but don’t expect me to be sympathetic to it, simply because it seemingly happens to resonate with criticism of environmentalism. I’m arguing something different here.
Here’s Willis Eschenbach on the Precautionary Principle:http://wattsupwiththat.com/2009/12/31/climate-caution-and-precaution/
“It is very clear that uncertainty is no one’s friend.”
It is very clear that certainty is every one’s friend – Well, it depends, does it not.
Sometimes ignorance is bliss, do you really want to know the hour and manner of your own
death? Or how your children will die?
The desire for certainty leads to desiring an unchangeable world, the eternal recurrence.
A certain world is the acme of boring. What would all the progressives do?
Risk is the acknowledgement that an outcome is not entirely predictable. Every living thing
is a risk calculator. To live is to take risks. Uncertainty, allows us to live, and shields us
from the burden of foreknowledge.
An interesting paper from Koutsoyiannis, where he argues for uncertainty as an intrinsic property of nature. And is not nature both our friend and enemy?
(the paper is here: http://itia.ntua.gr/en/docinfo/923/)
So we can both agree, Hulme admits he set up CRU on Marxist post-normal science principles, the end justifies the means. The precautionary principle preceding the science was ‘capitalism is destroying the planet and we’ll invent a plausible explanation to prove it even if the science has to be frigged’.
My role as an intellectual exercise has been to reverse engineer the science to show which bits are wrong. And amazingly, for this junk science to work, every bit has to be wrong! The Met Office [?] people really tried to stitch me up by using a trick ‘proving’ ‘back radiation’ comes out of the maths. But to get there you have to make another incorrect assumption, in turn meaning Houghton is wrong.
What a tangled web we weave……..
MDGNN – So we can both agree, Hulme admits he set up CRU on Marxist post-normal science principles…
No, we can’t and no he didn’t. And I would point out here how quickly you moved from a seemingly scientific premise to an explicitly political — and ridiculous — conclusion.
Sorry: for another view: http://motls.blogspot.dk/2007/03/mike-hulme-and-post-normal-science.html
MDGNN, Lubos points to this article by Hulme, in which Hulme explains his position:
It seems obvious to me that Lubos’s mock incredulity belies his failure to grasp Hulme’s point. Moreover, Lubos’s post does nothing to make your point that ‘Hulme admits he set up CRU on Marxist post-normal science principles’. In fact, Hulme’s discussion about PNS represents a departure from the mindset he now criticises, but which he shared at the beginning of the CRU’s project — this much is obvious if you read his book, ‘Why we disagree about climate change’.
Hulme now recognises that the climate debate is — or has become — a proxy battle for contested values. Thus, in order to understand what ‘science says’, and what to do about it, you have to understand what it has been asked — to understand those values. You certainly make your values clear when you make statements like ‘Hulme admits he set up CRU on Marxist post-normal science principles’, but you don’t create any confidence in your argument. Hulme is not offering a defence of the precautionary principle. On the contrary, he says it is vital to understand that the precautionary principle as a value, rather than as something produced by science. Says Hulme:
Hulme is not an ‘advocate’ of post-normal science — it’s not a cause or method which someone could ‘advocate’ as such. It is descriptive not prescriptive. That description shows that the science of climate change exists very differently to science with far fewer consequences outside of the laboratory — i.e. the difference between normal and post-normal science. As I put it: wanting science to be separate from politics is like wanting your boot not to be stuck in mud. To you, the mud and the boot are separate objects, but the universe has other ideas.
It’s easier to separate science and politics, when the politics in question has no investment in the science, and vice versa. The rest… i.e. your claim that PNS is a Marxist invention, owes much to an inability to reflect on the values brought to the debate — exactly what you accuse Hulme of. Hulme offers some of the clearest insight into the precautionary principle and its functioning in the climate debate, but you seem to want to write it off without even understanding it.
In his essay on “Pluralistic Ignorance”, Stephan Lewandowsky claims that “People who hold extremist minority opinions often vastly overestimate the support for their own opinions in the population at large”. With this in mind, it may be worth wondering how Lewandowsky’s own opinions come across if the plural ‘we’ he gives them is reined back so that they belong to just their singular author. A minor tweak and a suitable environment may help set the scene…
‘Ahh, hi Stephan – come on in and take a seat. So, how’s your week been?’
‘It is very clear to me that uncertainty is not my friend. I have seen that my greater uncertainty about the outside world should give me even greater cause for concern. I have seen that all other things being equal, my greater uncertainty means that things could be worse for me than I thought.’
‘I have also seen that my greater uncertainty means that the expected damages to me from the outside world will necessarily be greater than I anticipated, and that the allowance I must make for bad things happening outside will also be greater than I anticipated.’
‘Hmmmmm. Errr, anything else going on for you?’
All of those results arise from my simple mathematics, and I do not even have to resort to any economic modelling to understand how my greater uncertainty translates into greater risk to me.
Right, yes. Umm – how’s your calendar fixed for the next year?
Lewandowsky’s tactics — as Michel points out — have been used for centuries in defending religion. It’s to be expected that they should be dragged out to fight for the new religion of apocalyptic environmentalism. As it is my understanding of the principle goes something like this:
“It’s possible that a meteor might hit your house while you are in it. We have no reason to think that it will, but if it did it would be VERY BAD. So we advise you to stay out of your house.”
But my favourite formulation comes from E. Nesbit in The Wouldbegoods:
“When in danger or in doubt,
Run in circles, scream and shout.”
Excellent article, excellent comments.
“We have also seen that greater uncertainty means that the expected damages from climate change will necessarily be greater than anticipated.” Agreed, a very curious statement. And it’s not a fluke. Prof Lewandowsky has also stated (in his article “The Inescapable Implication of Uncertainty”): “I will show that it is a nearly inescapable mathematical constraint that greater uncertainty about the future evolution of the climate necessarily translates into greater expected damage cost”, and also: “Uncertainty in climate evolution means things are likely to be worse, rather than better, than anticipated.”
So he seems to be stating (correct me if I’ve got the wrong end of the stick, anyone) that the more uncertain we are about climate change at the moment, the more damage we can be certain that it will cause in the future. Which, to me, doesn’t make a lot of sense, in a universe full of lurking black swans, unexpected consequences and unknown unknowns.
The Jo Nova articles and links (h/t John Shade) make for some very interesting reading. In the following one, Lewandowsky compares people who don’t want to mitigate CO2 to children who cannot delay gratification, or car owners who put off paying for an oil change:
A child is offered a lolly now or a shiny toy later; being immature, the child will choose the lolly. A car owner has the choice of paying for an oil change now or a new engine later. And, Lewandowsky argues, the Australian people can cut back on fossil fuels now, or cause expensive and catastrophic damage to the climate later. What strikes me is that in each case, he is talking about certainties, not probabilities. It is certain that the child will get the shiny toy if he/she refuses the lolly. It is certain that the car owner will face an expensive repair bill later if he/she doesn’t have the oil change soon (the nature of car engines being a known.) And it is certain that if fossil fuel use isn’t curtailed, there will be dreadful consequences – first the Great Barrier Reef being devastated, then wetlands vanishing and then food prices rising after the northern boundary of Western Australia’s wheat belt has moved south. He is certain that the wheat belt will move south. He uses the word “inexorably”. He writes as though he knows it will move, and that it will cause food prices to rise.
There’s another article of his, again linked to by Jo Nova, which is even more interesting:
It’s called “A sceptic’s guide to politics” and it is about the Iraq War and the failure to find Saddam’s WMDs. Lewandowsky argues that opponents of the war were right to be sceptical about whether WMDs would be found. Not because Iraq War sceptics had expert knowledge or peer-reviewed science on their side, but because a) they were confident that they might know better, b) their memories of past events were more accurate, c) they were critical of the track record of official information sources and d) they focussed on the information, in this case what was said in TV news reports (!)
He states that “if there is anything positive to be rescued from the Iraq fiasco, it is the reaffirmation of the intelligence of common citizens who disbelieved their leaders’ statements and showed more common sense than their governments.”
I find it ironical that the sceptical stance he describes and approves of in “A sceptic’s guide to politics”, in connection with the Iraq War and WMDs, is a stance he would dismiss completely out of hand, in connection with climate change.
It’s almost as if he’s arguing from a position of assumed omniscience. It was right that “common citizens” (not experts in military intelligence) were sceptical about the WMDs, because we know there weren’t any. But on the other hand, it is not right that common citizens (not experts in climate science) are sceptical about future catastrophic climate change, because we know what is going to happen to the climate, down to details like the wheat belt moving and causing prices to rise. Why the glaring difference? I suspect it may have something to do with Prof. Lewandowsky’s own, unexamined (?) beliefs and assumptions. Ditto with the “more uncertainty means more certainty” thing – he just knows it’s going to be bad; all roads lead to Rome.
“A sceptic’s guide to politics” is well worth reading in its entirety, in my opinion.
Excellent article and comments.
Lewandowsky derives his “ideas” in global warming from Tim Flannery and James Hansen. That alone should give you some idea of his mental ability.
A psychiatrist I know did point out that “all psychologists are mad, and incurable”.
“It is very clear that uncertainty is no one’s friend.”
Not in the field of investment. Greater uncertainty over a term means a greater discount on an investment, this in turn means a higher return over the term. Without uncertainty, all returns would reflect the risk free rate (that of cash). A cash rate cannot not satisfy the needs of all in society.
What is certain is that the cost of taking action to deal with the uncertainty of global warming will lead to economic destruction.
Alex – So he seems to be stating (correct me if I’ve got the wrong end of the stick, anyone) that the more uncertain we are about climate change at the moment, the more damage we can be certain that it will cause in the future…
That seems to be his claim, but his language is bizarre. I considered also pointing out that it’s a circular argument, that would send the outcome of any risk to infinity, because any amount of uncertainty would increase the anticipated risk, which, yet unmediated by certainty, would increase the anticipated risk again, ad infinitum… Literally, a runaway climate change alarmism positive-feedback mechanism. But why try to make sense of nonsense?
The paragraph in which he reduces people to psychological mechanisms and expresses his own certainty about climate change made me wonder if perhaps the precautionary principle serves another function. Lewandowsky’s certainty about climate change outcomes suggests that he simply doesn’t think uncertainty can apply to climate change. In every instance of work by climate change psychologists that I have encountered, almost without fail, there is no reflectivity at all on the possibility of their own error. In each case, the object of their studies is other people’s wrongly-held beliefs. There is not even an attempt to compare the public’s beliefs with the ‘consensus’. As I pointed out in a post a long time ago, in fact, the public’s perception of climate change was far closer to the consensus views than was the view implied by the psychologists questioning.
Perhaps I have been mistaken in thinking that environmentalists actually held with the precautionary principle. But maybe this isn’t the case. The precautionary principle may be just a way of holding with a belief in lieu of evidence. Similarly, even those players who make instrumental use of climate change scenarios in politics don’t need to be convinced of the value of the precautionary principle, or the possible extent of climate change; the story already has political utility, capable of arming them with greater purpose.
It would be interesting to see when the precautionary principle really started to gain influence in the process of environmental institution-building. We know that it certainly figures in the construction of supranational agencies and treaties in the 1980s – the Montreal Protocol being the first proper attempt to apply it. The scares of the ’60s and 70s don’t seem to have been sufficient to drive the process, for which there seems to have been plenty of will. Maybe the Cold War overshadowed geopolitics. I wonder, however, if the PP was something stumbled on, and discovered to work where previous attempts had failed. It’s not enough to simply have a story; you need a way of handling people who don’t believe it.
Reading “A sceptic’s guide to politics”, it’s not clear that the precautionary principle features in Lewandowsky’s understanding of it. But two things strike me. First, WMD’s was just one of many confused arguments for the invasion. Amongst the others were humanitarian concerns, and the capture of those allegedly responsible for 9-11, and to cut off support for terrorists. (And these were just as bogus as the WMD claims). Rumsfeld and Blair both used the precautionary principle, as much as a post-hoc rationalisation for the war, in spite of the failure to find WMDs, and as a basis for the invasion. Secondly, some of the anti-war campaign was itself quite cynical. The ‘not in my name’ slogan, for instance, presents war an injustice to the people waving it, rather than to the people on the receiving end of it.
Lewandowsky ponders the virtues of public scepticism, but really, the anti-war movement wasn’t capable of sustaining itself, let alone asserting itself politically, much less holding politicians to account, in spite of phenomenal public support. An intransigent political class was indifferent to the concerns of an impotent movement of opinion. In psychologising about the war, as with climate change, Lewandowsky projects his preconceptions onto the world. But the war was not about public opinion. Public opinion was not about the war. And the same is true of climate change. The disconnect between the likes of Blair and the public — mutual cynicism — is the real basis for war, and the real basis for global environmental politics. A domestic crisis of legitimacy is averted by seeking legitimacy on the world stage; it is much easier to forge a domestic political consensus about the global situation than it is to find agreement about domestic issues.
The precautionary principle may be just a way of holding with a belief in lieu of evidence.
Not “holding with” but “arguing”.
Lewandowsky believes in AGW with a passion, but he can’t persuade enough others with rational evidence and argument. So he brings in fear as a motivator. Can’t prove AGW properly? No problem, we wave the flag of “precaution”.
But if a right wing politician effectively uses the precautionary principle as a basis to slow down immigration, they are given the raspberry by the likes of Lewandowsky. Yet we all know very well the long term outcome of multi-culturalism is very uncertain and possibly dangerous. Apparently it is wrong to wave the flag of “precaution” in this case.
(Note, for the record, I don’t really have personal issues with multi-culturalism – just the hypocrisy of those who try to excite fear about imaginary things while our world has real issues to be getting on with.)
Superb article. I particularly like your ‘gloves off’ put down of the subject. It’s about time articulate writers and thinkers like yourself called it as it is and called these vapid pseudo-intellectuals out for what they are. Great job.
Lewandowsky is simply replacing the uncertainty principle with Post Modern Science.
Think of a number, now double it, that’s how bad it will be.
Personnaly I think: Post Modern Science = Post Modren Politics = Dictate by Fear.
The precautionary principle may be just a way of holding with a belief in lieu of evidence.
I agree – but I think it is a particular type of belief… the precautionary principle is all about a false choice between ‘loss’. If to ‘believe’ is to act ‘as if’ an object or event is true, we do so with an absence of (or at a loss for) evidence that it is. The precautionary principle holds this absence up against another – the loss of a valued real object if we do not submit to the belief shaping our actions.
If “better being safe than sorry” is the closest aphorism we have for the precautionary principle, we can see the false choice it presents. The opposite of being safe, of course, is being unsafe, just as the opposite of feeling sorry is feeling glad. As regret (or sorrow) almost always follows from loss, the aphorism implies that being exposed to loss and being exposed to danger is the same thing.
The precautionary principle presupposes that humans cannot tolerate loss. Rather than seeing loss as a potentially positive force – and often a voluntary prerequisite to finding the space for the new, the precautionary principle determines that loss = void = terror. It may be no surprise to find that what the precautionary principle doesn’t account for (and substitutes with fear and loathing) is human appetite (or desire)… which relies on emptiness as the starting point for its creativity and inventiveness. The negating of loss becomes a precaution against finding the unacceptable knowledge of what arrives in the gap.
As for the lack of a sufficient drive for the process in the 60s and 70s – could this not be because society had experienced more than its share of both very real loss and very real danger within living memory (refusing a demand to act ‘as if’ an object called nazism was true)?.. if so, the precautionary principle would simply have been valueless nonsense at the time.
GM crops give him a bad taste in his mouth. AGW gets him wet. Same reason.
He hates people. Except himself. He loves himself.
My hat is off to anyone who can produce in the face of his ilk’s anti-everythingness.I used to have the energy, pre Climatgate, to write about this shiznitz. Not any more. They are all corrupt, lying, conniving scum who have worn me down to the level of sniper. I hate them for that as much as anything. They have everything, want more and desire “us” to just … go away, or something, so they can enjoy their all expenses paid holidays, their inflated egos/paychecks and the misplaced hero worship.
The precautionary principle is often used as a last resort by those who cannot rebut the sceptic’s arguments. It is an appeal to fear of the unknown It is interesting that those living in San Francisco and other places along that fault line do not move away, nor do the authorities close the city down, in spite of the fact that geologists claim that there is 100% certainty that there will be a major earthquake in the next century. They look at the risk and decide on balance that they will stay put. The same reasoning should be used for global warming based on the known facts. It is entirely proper to ask a range of scientific experts to give an opinion of the risk, and scientists should ensure that they do not exceed the limit of their understanding and stray into the realm of politics, which is what has happened with global warming.
Ben comment #29
This fact alone is reason enough to throw out their conclusions. In an interview with Hans von Storch at
Grundmann, a sociologist at Aston University who has written a paper on climategate and science policy, insists on:
BP : ‘Perhaps this academic struggles with the English language. Perhaps logic and proportion escape him.’
Indeed. I’ve just abandoned an attempt to summarize, sans snark, Lewandowsky’s three articles. Why waste time analyzing arguments that are made badly – or not at all – in bad English?
Lewandowsky’s most obvious linguistic flaw is his confusing use of the categories ‘best guess/estimate’ and ‘what is expected/anticipated’. When there’s a range of estimated results, do you expect the ‘best’ of those estimates to be right? I don’t. It’s the most likely estimate, that’s all. But Lewandowsky uses the categories interchangeably.
He also uses ‘expect/anticipate’ in a more colloquial manner – which is how he ends up with what he expected being worse than what he expected.
With a bit of effort, such apparent nonsense can be translated into English but you’re still left with his use of ‘best’. In a couple of places, he defines this as the mean but in at least one important section he uses it to mean the mode (if you see what I median).
He’s also very bad at joining the dots in his arguments. Lots of this, that, but no therefore – and, sometimes, a therefore but no this and that.
So here’s the short version of my abandoned summary:
Variance is variance, skewness is skewness, so destroy yourself, it’s later than you think.
As I commented, more or less, at Judith Curry, Lewandowsky’s conflating two kinds of uncertainty.
The more I think about it the more I think he’s playing a pretty subtle and clever game. We all know that greater uncertainty means that in some sense the “reasonable worst case scenario” is worse, the bell curve is wider, that sort of thing. We normally also think “yeah, but the reasonable best case is also better, and the average is the same!”
So, all he needs to do is move the statement a few degrees to the “worse” side, he needs only to show that the worst case WILL be worse, not that it MIGHT be worse. It’s a surprising step, but it is just a single step.
To do this he drags out some graphs about climate sensitivity, and points out that as the model they’re based on gets more “uncertain” the tail out to the right fattens up. If the model as more uncertainty in it, by golly, there’s your asymmetry. The expected case, the “mean” by god it moves off to the worse side of the equation. If the graphs are made shorter and fatter by something, call it X, then X most certainly means that the expected outcome is definitely worse.
Then this is where he gets subtle. He conflates high-level “uncertainty” about the model, about climate change as a thing, with the uncertainty inside the model. The real uncertainty is that we don’t know if the graphs are tall and skinny or short and fat, but he moves the uncertainty inside the model without telling us and says “more uncertainty means the graphs are shorter and fatter!” and HOLY SHIT he’s right.
Except he’s not right.
I’m increasingly sure that he knows what he’s doing, this is the sort of rhetorical error that is deeply obvious to the person making it, and substantially non-obvious to the reader.
Andrew thanks for the explanation. I was wondering about another claim that is implied by the graphs.
There is the distribution of estimates, which form a bell curve, spanning ‘uncertainty’, and there is the intersection of this curve by a limit, (5 degrees in the case of the synthetic distributions Lewandowsky offers). In those cases, there is increasing potential for things to be ‘worse than anticipated’ the more the distribution of estimates exists to the right of this limit. But this limit itself is an estimation, though treated in the analysis as fixed, presumably by the ‘all other things being equal’ caveat. But in fact, this limit is less safely assumed than the sensitivity of climate, because the impacts of climate change are socially contingent, rather than matters of (in theory) material science.
The limit of ‘dangerous climate change’ is imagined to be 2 degrees, but I believe this is another fudge — a variant of the precautionary principle — which arbitrarily divides the less certain from the more certain. I.e. defers the problem of uncertainty by saying that it is harder to rule out ‘dangerous climate change’ after 2 degrees than before it.
Lewandowsky wants to say that climate sensitivity is the fundamental, to say that the less we are certain of, the more we should anticipate catastrophe. This is the slight of hand, and it presupposes that sensitivity of climate is equivalent to impact.
As a scientist who has dealt widely in the field of the precautionary principle, it seems many who have written posts on the topic dealt with this blog or have proferred comments are not scientists themselves. If so, theirs responses would have been measured, supported by the literature, and not represent ad homenium attacks on others.
1, Science can never be sure on anything. Consequently, what risk is deemed appropriate for rejecting a null hypothesis (when is should be rejected) when making conlusions about natural phelonemna? I will give you a hint,, it is 0.05. But how was this number derived? If you have found the answer you know it is very value–laden.
2. Because of the social/ethical reasons for wanting to avoid making type II errors, i.e., concluding that under conditions of uncertainty it is better to decrease probabilities of making a type II err because it better protects the poor and recipients of burdens given conditions of uncertainty. Exactly what this error probably should be is somewhat arguable, but certainly more than the 0.05 where it is today. (Typically, adhering to a five percent err for rejecting the null hypothesis will yield a type II error of 20–80 percent, and the one cannot be balanced with the other.
3. The Precautionay Principle says nothing about speculative decision-making should be given more attention to alarmism, et., It simply says that under condition of uncertainty greater weight for policy makes should be proved by studies that report both type and type –ii errors. the pre precautionary principle does recommend that low risk him impact events be explicitly dealt with.
Without trying to be overly critical, most or all of the comments miss these tenets of the Precautionary Principle.
I would ask two things of reader and posters to this blog:
4.Can you explain how the scientific rules for governing rejection of the scientic null hypothesis came to codified into standard methodology? Can you explaim where these rules adequately protect populations who treated a member of Type II err, i.e., where the rejecting the null hypothesis might have been as high as 20–80 percent under conditions of uncertainty?
The 0.5 level of setting the rejection of the null hypothesis might have been find when most sciene was simply dealing the understanding of natural phenomena. But when science began heeding public policy and health issues the ethical issue arises as to where this level should be sent.
I would really like to see response, measured scientific responses, to what I have written here. He above rhetoric really seems not desirable for fostering intellectual debale–to much name calling.
And to go back, how many people know where the 0.05 confidence level came from and what are or were is scientific and social implications? Not fair cheating using outside sources!
Worrying about Type II errors is useless given that I believe a Type I error has been made by Lewandowsky! I believe that there is at least 95% probability that the change in temperature in that time will be less than half a degree, and that almost all that rise will be due to causes outside CO2. I believe all attempts to reduce CO2 significantly now will certain lead to errors — people will be forced to live less well than they could in pursuit of a chimera.
We have in fact no idea what the 95% confidence limits are for the change in temperature over the next 50 years. Some people think they do, but they disagree strongly with each other, and many of them have been caught in private expressing doubts about their public utterances.
Anyway, it’s not just about whether temperature will rise or not. They might rise dramatically, only for us to find that it turns out that there are almost as many benefits as downsides. We might be surprised to find that living in Florida is better than living in Nova Scotia. That the stupid countries that spent a fortune on carbon abatement were wasting every cent.
So you could win your dry argument about the 95% confidence limits only to find that it was meaningless, because it didn’t address the real issue.
Ben, thank you for a great article.
As for the missing WMD, I have a problem:
The incompetence with which Bush’s men conducted the early Iraqi occupation has allowed the assertion that there were never any WMDs in Iraq in the first place to pass into orthodoxy, but I’m not sure it stacks up. I read Richard Butler’s book about his ordeal as a UN weapons inspector. In it he describes in considerable detail being shown by the Iraqis disassembled and/or wrecked weapons, and lamenting, not their absence, but the fact that the Iraqis had so messed them up as to make COUNTING them impossible. His hosts weren’t trying to say they had no WMD material, they were trying to persuade him that he had seen ALL the material there was to see, and he was afraid he was only seeing PART of it. That he was indeed looking at the remains of a WMD development program he seemed in no doubt. A few months later, after the invasion, the WMDs had vanished, not only from Iraq, but from Richard Butler’s account of the matter. How do we reconcile these contradictions? Is it simply a question of a case of lecture-feeitis on Butler’s part? But if so, the fact remains – he found elements of WMDs. Can anyone shed any light?
In truth, the real problem with Saddam was that whether or not he really had WMD was really beside the point. In no small part through his tergiversations over weapons inspections, he had acquired the REPUTATION of a possessor/developer of WMD. In diplomatic terms, that’s really as good as having them in the flesh, so to speak (better, actually – you don’t have to go through the undignified and expensive process of importing a squad of Frenchmen to show you how to do it.) Churchill saw this essentially diplomatic character of nuclear weapons when he replied upon being asked if he thought Stalin wanted war (I think re Korea, but not sure) “I don’t believe he wants war, but I believe he wants the fruits of war”.
I doubt if even Saddam was silly enough to see a future in WMDs as battlefield weapons – the response would be catastrophic and would probably kill him – but the diplomatic fruits of being an unpredictable man with a history of unprovoked aggression, believed to have a WMD program at an uncertain stage of development (as he was no doubt learning from North Korea’s example) were immense, and in my view, worth depriving him of by force. Interestingly, Canon Andrew White, the “Vicar of Baghdad” seems to be of a similar view, and he knows a thing or two about Iraq, so I am in good, if admittedly very limited company!
But Bush and Blair, IMO, were too impatient, and too distrustful of their constituents’ intellects to risk running this slightly nuanced argument, and made themselves hostages to fortune with their absurd “45 minute” stories. Interestingly our own John Howard refrained, to his eternal credit, from this tactical blunder.
TomFP. To your first point, I don’t think there was ever any doubt that Iraq at one point had chemical weapons, and that they had been used. The issue in post-9/11 was, did Iraq still have anything resembling a WMD programme, and could their weapons be used by terrorists in the west.
The point of a politics of fear is that mobilises the emotions, rather than appeals to the facts. WMD’s are an exciting proposition to fear-mongers, because of a background level of chemophobia, radiophobia, etc. For some reason we think that the murder of thousands of people with chemical weapons is a greater crime than killing them with guns and bombs. Blair Said:
‘WMD’ was this category of device, which could on the one hand kill a million people in an instant, and on the other, an ineffective device which without substantial backup with personnel and equipment and use in the right circumstances, may not kill anyone at all. Yet it is worth pointing out that the act which began the war on terror barely required the use of any weapons at all, and killed thousands horribly. There was no special threat, even if Saddam had ‘WMDs’, and even if he had links with ‘terror’. We can be much more confident that terrorists had access to explosives, which are likely much more effective than ‘WMDs’.
And even if there were WMDs, and, as you say, Saddam’s possession of them represented a casus belli (which I would disagree with, but that’s a very different argument), the point I was making was that the interesting thing is the use of the precautionary principle, in lieu of evidence, at least in rhetoric, which contra John Lemons’ points above, is not subject to some kind of statistical test. E.g. Rumsfeld:
Rumsfeld makes the (correct) point that you can’t prove a negative — that there are no WMDs in Iraq and no connections between Iraq and terrorists that could be established — but then isn’t troubled that he makes the case for acting in lieu of evidence, on the basis of suspicion — speculation, ‘precaution’, with Blair’s blessing. Had Bush/Blair had the patience you say they ought to have had, things may well have been different. The fact is, however, that the preoccupation with urgency, precaution and security was (and probably still is) the predominant mode of politics and policy-making, whether it be about the execution of war, or about how many packets of crisps (‘chips’, in the USA) children eat a day.
John Lemons – As a scientist who has dealt widely in the field of the precautionary principle, it seems many who have written posts on the topic dealt with this blog or have proferred comments are not scientists themselves.
One doesn’t need to be intimately acquainted with any formulation of the precautionary principle to understand its inherent problems, or the problem of its application by policy-makers. As you point out yourself:
Moreover there is no single, definitive application of the precautionary principle, but many. You say that it subjects claims to test of significance, but there is no evidence of such an approach in many applications of the precautionary approach in public policy, or in international policies intended to mitigate climate change. Moreover, we can see wildly speculative claims having been made in the ’60s, through to the ’90s, and these claims forming the basis of policies, but failing to materialise, with no concomitant reflection on their failure, other than to defer the date of whichever catastrophe is held to be looming.
This emphasis on worst-case scenarios — which, as narratives, rather than empirical substance, achieve influence — is more than the construction of policies on the basis of ‘best available evidence’, and/or ‘evidence-based policy-making’, and have become a form of politics. A politics of fear. In such a form of politics, the relationship between individual and state has been transformed, as has the role of political institutions. Take, for instance, Smith & Stern’s view of politics:
Policy-making is only ‘usually about risk management’, in precarious circumstances, and where problems are interminable. If we were to imagine a better form of politics, it is one in which ‘policy-making is usually about making things possible’. Politics used to be ‘the art of the possible’. Contemporary politics isn’t. There are two characteristics of this form of politics. First, it does not credit the individual with sufficient capacities to make decisions about his own future, or to understand the risks he is exposed to. Second, it establishes the legitimacy of its institutions on the possibility of risk, and the incapacity of individuals. These are characteristics also of ‘post-democratic politics’, or ‘post-ideological politics’. It is not a form of politics in which ideas are contested, but the most efficient administration of public life is sought. The problem, you will I hope notice, is that in this configuration, in lieu of a democratic mandate, political institutions need to constantly identify constantly escalating risks. No matter how robust you believe your formulation of the precautionary principle is, this is the context in which it is applied. ‘Risk’ has political utility.
Here’s a good example:
And As you point out,
The condition of the poor was, in previous eras, not one which was understood through the prism of their exposure to ‘risk’. The fact that poor people are more exposed to risk was well understood, in the ‘no shit, Sherlock’ sense of ‘well understood’. The condition of the poor was understood (except, notice, in perspectives such as those offered by Malthusians and their successors) as one related to development, not to their degraded relationship to ‘nature’.
But increasingly, it is the naturalistic account of phenomena such as poverty which has come to dominate the agenda. For instance, the naturalistic perspective counts climate change as a risk factor for poor people, and this emphasis comes at the expense of understanding poverty as a social phenomenon. The epitome of this is the WHO’s (and more recently the now defunct GHF’s) attempt to calculate the number of deaths and years lost to illnesses caused by diseases that are estimated to be exacerbated by climate change. In fact, climate change was amongst the least significant risk factors for people living in ‘High Mortality Developing Countries’ (HMDCs), as I pointed out <a href="https://www.climate-resistance.org/2009/06/the-age-of-the-age-of-stupid.html"here. But because of the preoccupation with risk, the precautionary principle, and the emphasis on natural accounts of social phenomena, the risk from climate change was understood to be far greater — even as first-order effects of poverty — than the risk factor of poverty itself.
This is a problem with the precautionary principle. It is both sensitive to the assumptions that necessarily inform its application, and cannot isolate or exclude those assumptions, but encourages us to forget those — often very political or ‘ideological’ — assumptions. Poverty, on this view, is simply seens as ‘natural’. The WHO’s study may well have been perfectly robust empirical ‘science’, but the assumptions were forgotten when the report was turned into an argument for a particular intervention — the mitigation of climate change. As I explained at the time, you can do perfectly good science but with flawed assumptions. The problem comes when you forget the assumptions. The premises of the argument thus become its conclusion.
Interestingly, it turned out that the number of deaths from malaria (one of the diseases understood to be sensitive to climate change) has fallen by 20% over the decade since the WHO published its findings.
Where is the reflection on the cascade of assumptions which led to dire predictions? Where is the scrutiny of the ideas and methods which led to seemingly reliable international agencies to make them? Where is the criticism of this form of politics, and this methodology? Where is the UN’s statement that this, and the countless other examples of over-statement of risks and the plausibility of catastrophe will be reviewed?
If you want to make the case that there is any virtue in the precautionary principle, it is for you to explain what that is, not for us to demonstrate that we understand its precise formulation. We can see for ourselves that it is neither a statistical test, nor is it as rigorously applied as you claim. We can see that the precautionary principle is an ideological device, used to construct superficially plausible narratives to encourage particular forms of intervention in the world. And we can see for ourselves the dearth of attempts to establish a better means of forming a perspective on the risks faced by people in the world. Indeed, all we can see is complete refusal to acknowledge these mistakes, and the total intransigence of policy-makers and those who are charged with informing them. The response, as Lewandowsky shows, is intensify the argument for things like the precautionary principle: to reinvent them.
Ben, thank you for your response, and I am glad you seem not to be among those who scoff at the idea that Hussein had WMDs, and was bent on creating more.
Perhaps I should have made it clear that I regard the Saddam/Al Quaeda conflation in the same light as the “45 minute warning” stuff. The “clear and present threat” touted by Blair/Bush was not the one I saw, nor the one I think constituted a casus belli.
You write “The issue in post-9/11 was, did Iraq still have anything resembling a WMD programme, and could their weapons be used by terrorists in the west.” That may have been the issue for Blair/Bush, and it seems to be the issue for you, but it wasn’t, and isn’t, for me. I regarded his persistent interest in building WMDs as a given (not an ‘issue’), and I regarded, the question of the precise state of his nuclear arsenal at any given time as pure irrelevance. As to the suggestion of him finding common cause with Al Quaeda – all I knew about both parties told me this was a bizarre suggestion.
It may be true that Messrs Blair and Bush invoked the PP in making their case for war. My point is that they didn’t need to – zapping Saddam was demanded by ordinary prudence. My concern over Saddam was that he was working himself into a position where he could, indeed, dispense with the tiresome business of actually building WMDs (well, the tricky ones, at least) and rely on his carefully crafted reputation to secure him ‘diplomatic advantages’ which I think it was highly undesirable that he should have. Even if I saw convincing proof, after the invasion, that he had nothing to be scared of (and I haven’t), my concern would not be allayed – and I would swiftly point out that the only way I now knew of his impotence was because he had been invaded and deposed – which I would feel rather made my point.
Saddam would eventually have to be dealt with, in my view, and the longer we delayed doing so, the harder it would be – for all sorts of reasons, of which his developing and deploying a successful battlefield nuclear weapon was far from the top of the list. Since you disagree with this view, you would perhaps characterise it as arising from ‘the politics of fear’, but isn’t that just a fancy way of telling me I’m wrong? Put another way – are you afraid of nothing? Lucky you!
PS I might add that I believe the uncertainties surrounding Saddam Hussein’s regime were qualitatively different from those that apply – or ought to – to climate ‘science’, but it would take a better logician than me to say why.
TomFP — I am glad you seem not to be among those who scoff at the idea that Hussein had WMDs, and was bent on creating more.
Well I don’t believe either, whether or not I scoff at the suggestion that he had WMDs or a programme to build more post 9/11. My interest is not ‘oh, the factual basis for war was wrong’, my interest is in why the war was sought. I don’t think that there is much point looking for a post-facto justifcation for the war; the point is to understand why the war happened in the way it happened, and why it was justified in the way that it was. And my attitude is invariably a ‘no’ to intervention of any kind. The region was inflamed by a very long history of intervention.
you would perhaps characterise it as arising from ‘the politics of fear’, but isn’t that just a fancy way of telling me I’m wrong? Put another way – are you afraid of nothing? Lucky you!
Well, I certainly wasn’t afraid of Saddam. And neither were Western leaders who flirted with him before his invasion of Kuwait. I imagine things were different for Iraqi’s and Kurds. But I can’t presume to speak or act on their behalf. The politics of fear thesis is not one in which says ‘there are no risks’, it says there is a qualitative transformation of politics, from one in which interests are represented, to one in which they are assumed to be protected. Put in its most cynical form: ‘if Saddam Hussain and Ossama bin Laden didn’t exist, then Blair and Bush would have to invent him’. In other words, the organising principle of public life is not what you or I want it to be, but what the political establishment (say they) believe will protect us. And this principle runs right through politics; it’s not just terrorism, it’s ‘protecting’ us from people who smoke in public places, from people who drink too much, from people who are inclined to ‘antisocial behaviour’, from people ‘preach hatred’, and even from ourselves to the extent that we don’t know how to take responsibility for our own health, understand what words mean, or negotiate with people whose behaviour we find irritating. And of course, it extends into the climate issue. It infantilises the adult population, to serve its the interests of the political establishment, and justifies their function by amplifying theoretical risks. I’m much more afraid of that process than I am afraid of tinpot dictators. Indeed, it encourages and creates them, both here and elsewhere.
…the uncertainties surrounding Saddam Hussein’s regime were qualitatively different from those that apply – or ought to – to climate ‘science’…
Whatever form the logical arguments took, the politics and ‘ideology’ are very similar, though appeal to different people, or groups of people in different ways. But not so different. One of the favourite arguments of Green MP Caroline Lucas was, for a while, that ‘climate change is a bigger problem than global terrorism’. It’s all a game of ‘my fear is better than your fear’.
Don’t get distracted, Ben. I think, to put it another way, there have been many means via which the ‘establishment’ has persuaded us, or, after imposing on us, what is ‘right’, and, of course, all these ‘persuasions’ are about their power. I think it might be naive to think that showing the ‘establishment’ that it is ‘stupid’, a la Sex Pistols ‘God Save The Queen’, that reason triumphs, can make any change. I know you don’t think that but there are people who do.
However, not to say ‘reason’ doesn’t triumph, our minds being now dominated by a Plato/Socrates way of thinking, even if we don’t know it. Are the thoughts of philosophers that strong or just happenstance (as Marx might have it, crudely speaking)? And poets – Shelley, for instance – ‘ ‘the unacknowledged’ instructor of us all?
No, when Lewandowsky says uncertainty indubitably leads to greater uncertainty he is not suggesting that the roll of a die gives you less than the one in six chance of being right, he seems to be suggesting that, if you back 3, there’s a slight but horrible chance that you might roll a 9 or a 35.7 or a 1,167,533.
Excellent post. It is time that the logical underpinnings of the environmentalist arguments be examined. It is also time that environmentalists be held to the same standards as they impose upon others. According to thier ‘principle’ they bear the burden to prove that thier proposal will cause no harm. ‘Harm’ is what ever the individual judging the proof chooses it to be and, importantly, the judge can be any individual or group with an interest.
When cattle herds in the American West stampeded the cowboys would regain control of the herd by forcing the lead cows to circle in an ever tighter radius. By challanging the logic of the Precautionary Principle on one side while forcing the use of the principle on the environmentalists agenda on the other it is possible that this stampede may slow and stop.
What they say is worse, as always. To bring you down, they must begin by not knowing you. Because, of course, you are perfectly nice and ordinary fell low and do not care, are not able to have a rational discussion.
I am trying to get to grips with your “politics of fear”, because I wholeheartedly agree with you that fear is routinely misused in public life. But I question the idea that this is simply a matter of unprincipled ‘politicians’ using trumped-up catastrophes to gull their hapless constituents. I suspect that at its heart this perverse use of fear is anthropological, and that its political dimension derives its power from that anthropological foundation. What I don’t see in your “politics of fear’ is a way of distinguishing between justified and unjustified fear. “Even paranoiacs have enemies.”
For all but the last few generations, mankind had plenty of authentic risk to worry about. The level of threat might vary – one might, or one might not be living in the grip of the Bubonic Plague – but in any event there was a catalogue of diseases, wars, famine and so forth that could bring about one’s early death. The level of threat might temporarily diminish, but it would assuredly rise again within a generation. And it never diminished below a level we would today consider hideously precarious. It is not unreasonable to suppose that our species (which I take to be the only to be aware of its mortality) evolved psychologically to allow us to operate effectively, nor that one manifestation of that adaptation is the existence of propitiatory religion.
The industrial revolution brought with it a steady diminution in the level of authentic risk to which the human species was exposed. With it came the very idea of ‘improvement’ – the basis of progressive thought – and the decline of religious observance and faith. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries the pace at which life was becoming safer and less painful accelerated. While it might be assumed removing a threat to which humans were psychologically adapted ought itself to require no special adaptation, or that adaptation, in the form of a rise in ‘happiness’ would naturally take place, I don’t think that’s true.
The overwhelming impression I get from the series of environmental catastrophe narratives I have seen since Silent Spring is of a tribe of apes profoundly ill at ease with its good fortune, convinced that it doesn’t ‘deserve’ it, and engaged in a confused search for endless ways to restore the ‘threat deficit’, allowing customary propitiatory behaviour to continue and restoring the tribe’s sense of well-being. Since scientism has by now replaced theism in western, or westernised societies (the only ones genuinely worked up about the climate, or any of its predecessor fads), these contrived threats are invariably couched in scientistic terms. Their purpose, though, is to allow propitiation – to foster a traffic in indulgences. But this is surely an anthropology, not a politics, of fear. George Bernard Shaw was advocating euthanasia on eugenic grounds not as a politician, but as a top-shelf bien pensant-cum-smug git.
In the anthropology of fear, authentic risks are always preferred to inauthentic ones (so we see that during WW2 Britons enjoyed, inter alia, unusually high levels of mental health), but the risk level must be maintained, if necessary by ‘recruiting’ inauthentic risks (cf child-rearing, dietary hysteria, eugenics, and any number of fashionable preoccupations, none of which were cooked up by contemporary pollies). In this analysis, the politicians who contrive the bogus catastrophes that you and I deplore are not ‘inflicting’ them on their fellow citizens, any more than Alfred Hitchcock was ‘inflicting’ horror on his audiences. They are gratifying a need that their constituents perceive, albeit a perverse one. They are playing the game.
The first step in combatting the abuse of fear is to properly understand what, and who, inspires it. I’m not sure that lambasting Blair/Bush as cynical fearmongers advances that!
You’re probably familiar with Kesten Green’s work on unrealised catastrophes, but if not, it’s well worth a read.
Thanks for the link to Kesten Green. It was his coauthor Scott Armstrong’s paper which first alerted me to the weakness of the CAGW case.
I’m sure you’re right that there’s an anthropological dimension to warming fears that needs exploring. I argue here for a sociological approach; PeterS for a psychoanalytic one. Ben argues that the politics precedes the science, but he tolerates others exploring what precedes the politics.
Your observation that “George Bernard Shaw was advocating euthanasia on eugenic grounds not as a politician, but as a top-shelf bien pensant-cum-smug git” is the most succinct contribution to this effort I’ve seen for a long time. I wish I’d said that.
Your comment #44 is the best formulation yet, particularly the paragraph:
The quote “Policy-making is usually about risk management.” demonstrates in a nutshell the way politics is deformed in the absence of political theory. Risk-management may be part of the job description when you’re running an organisation whose purpose is clearly defined, like a manufacturing company or a bank. The job of a government is not clearly defined in this manner (still less the job of a party which hopes to form a government). Politics is largely about providing the definition.
In the absence of major threats, parties easily settle into a risk management role. For the past sixty five years, the worst thing that has happened in Britain has been a couple of years of economic stagnation; the worst thing that has happened to a government is getting voted out for having made a mess of things.
The political theory of the inevitable death of politics and its replacement by crisis management has been around at least since Daniel Bell’s “The End of Ideology” (1960). This is the context in which environmentalism arose as an idea, a new paradigm for intellectuals who like that kind of thing – who can’t function without that kind of thing, in fact. If they’re deprived of something big to worry about, like how to run society, they’ll inevitably look for something even bigger, like how to save the planet.
TomFP – ‘I am trying to get to grips with your “politics of fear”, because I wholeheartedly agree with you that fear is routinely misused in public life. But I question the idea that this is simply a matter of unprincipled ‘politicians’ using trumped-up catastrophes to gull their hapless constituents.
I’m definitely not claiming it’s as purposive, or conscious a process as that — though I am not ruling out that instances of extreme cynicism certainly contribute. Politicians are unprincipled because they far less represent positions of principle today than in the past. Parties no longer represent coherent political theories, or ambitions. Politics is therefore far less a contest of ideas, and much more merely a process of management. And democracy is reduced to a process of selecting a management style — the red ones, the yellow ones, or the blue ones. Their ‘politics’ are almost identical.
There are probably many reasons for this, anthropological, as you say, or perhaps more specifically, to do with the way Western culture has developed over the C20th.
“What I don’t see in your “politics of fear’ is a way of distinguishing between justified and unjustified fear.”
It’s not about making such a distinction. There were, self-evidentially, terrorists (unless you believe the ‘truthers’), but the War on Terror, and the reorganisation of politics and public life in the UK and USA around the issue of security is a particular form of response. Similarly, there is probably some degree of climate change. But does this fact (notwithstanding that it is a matter of degree, again) really legitimise the reorganisation of global politics, and the the creation of powerful supranational political institutions, just to tackle it? And smoking, drinking, and eating too much fast food are certainly bad for you, but does the fact really require the intervention of the state in your lifestyle choices?
During the Cold War, life was arguably far more precarious for everyone. And during most of the that time, Britain faced ongoing domestic terrorism. But did so without such a transformation of public institutions, without transforming the relationship between individual and the state in quite the same way (notwithstanding, it was over this era that substantial changes to political culture did take place.) The turning point really is in the late 80s, into the 90s, when the world was the safest it had ever been. How is it that, in this unprecedented era of wealth and of material abundance, the predominant mode of politics is one which emphasises that life is precarious, and full of hidden danger? It’s a paradox which needs explaining.
As political culture has changed, so has the way it has handled ‘risk’. Put crudely, when politics was more easily characterised as a contest of ideas, or parties representing particular interests, risks were handled much more on an ad hoc basis. But gradually, political institutions became increasingly organised around the issue of risk, as the quote from Stern demonstrates. Sure, there was always a Ministry of Defence, and so on. But the doctor, the teacher, and even religious leaders are now recruited into the process of managing risk.
Democracy wanes in this era, because the unstated premise of such an emphasis on risk and the reduction of politics to the mere management of public life is that the real problem is people themselves: their subjectivity. The individual simply becomes a risk factor, not a rational agent, capable of understanding his own risks, or of behaving appropriately. In fact, democracy itself becomes a risk factor, especially under the green view, which holds that individuals are too easily swayed by politician’s promises to increase their level of material comfort, and disinclined to support politicians who emphasise the need to protect the environment from consumers.
But this is surely an anthropology, not a politics, of fear.
I’m not sure I understand the difference. Or at least, I don’t think that ‘culture’ and ‘politics’ are easily distinguished. Political and social institutions have changed over the course of the last century. The ideas in currency within and without the political establishment have changed. Relationships have changed. Geopolitics has changed. And so on. Identifying one causal factor or the one fundamental sphere of change would seem to me to guarantee to fail to understand it. I emphasise the politics of environmentalism on this blog because I think it’s a more effective way of understanding the climate debate than emphasis on ‘the science’. And I think environmentalism gives us a perspective on the broader changes in society, as it epitomises so many problems.
I suspect that you don’t need to imagine the immediate ending of your life in order to feel fear.Tthere are people in many European countries that are anxious about the economic future for themselves and their countries right now. Those fears are no less real than knowing the plague is in your village or watching your crops die in a drought.
I also don’t think this is about unprincipled politicians. I’m sure they would all prefer to have messages of hope rather than fear. In fact the politician on the whole believe this message is the right path to follow in the circumstances.
I suspect that the ‘politics of fear’ are a symptom of the lack of economic dynamism in the western de-industrialising countries, especially when compared to the BRIC’s. I’m curious whether anybody thinks the ‘politics of fear’ narrative is playing out in India or China or the smaller developing nations? My own prejudice on this is it isn’t but I don’t have anything to back that up with. I like to think that the future is framed in opportunity rather than fear for these societies.
Thanks for the article. It’s very thought provoking . I especially enjoy the idea of environmentalism (and the climate debate) being built on a dynamic of certainty and uncertainty, both are necessary but at the same time seem to be mutually exclusive. It’s sort of devastating to think that with real certainty all this just evaporates into a purely technical problem. It leads me to think that what is really important is the process rather than the outcome. In the same way as the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement it’s the process that in helping to define a certain political outlook, and as such is an important tool for the establishment.
I spend all my time interested in the science of climate, it’s good to be occasionally reminded it’s all really about politics. Thanks!
“Let’s be far too fair to Lewandowsky: he is nothing more than a bullshit artist.”
Elsewhere, you called him “mad.” Far too fair indeed – why so polite? Both of those imply a certain intelligence, esp. the latter, and it is clear after reading several of Jo Nova’s posts, plus a few of his articles, that the more fitting description would be: Moron.
That he is a moron with advanced degrees (admittedly an oxymoron when combined with “psychology”) and a cushy, probably tenured position, is . . . just par for the course in these interesting times.
But I have to admit, his clumsy rhetorical ploy of invoking mathematics was entertaining, given that from the context in which he made it, even “simple math” is beyond him.
I’m sure you’re right that “the ‘politics of fear’ is a symptom of the lack of economic dynamism in the western de-industrialising countries”. Ben published a lovely Wiki bar chart once showing GDP growth for the past 10/20 years or so for a bunch of countries. The Euro Mediterranean countries were down at the bottom, together with Zimbabwe and Haiti. Communist China and capitalist Taiwan and Singapore were at the top, followed by most of the developing world, and the Anglo Saxon countries slightly ahead of the European tail.
I see the effect in the small French University where I teach, with motivation directly proportional to GDP. The Chinese and African students are the best, presumably because they aim to go home and do something with their lives and for their country – the two motivations being essentially identical when your country is on the move.
To see whether “the ‘politics of fear’ narrative is playing out in India or China or the smaller developing nations”, I had a look at the two Chinese groups which are members of the Guardian Environment Network.
At China Dialogue “where China and the world discuss the environment”, one of the 8 members of the executive board is Chinese, and she makes TV programmes for the BBC and writes for the Guardian. (Sir David King, Sir Crispin Tickell and Lord Patten are on the advisory board).
Green Earth Volunteers is financed by, among others, the Rockefeller Foundation and the French Embassy. Their mission is to “serve as a vehicle for grassroots public participation through encouraging volunteerism” and “support environmental journalism in China.”
Very worthy, and a step up from exporting opium, but it doesn’t sound very homegrown.
Geoff. The post with the link to the Wikipedia info is here https://www.climate-resistance.org/2011/10/the-poverty-of-opinion-polls.html – fourth paragraph.
The fundamental reason for the de-industrialization of the West is that Western currencies (all of them) are grossly overvalued relative to Asian currencies. The West needs to devalue (en bloc), but this cannot be done without causing massive hardship as long as it is dependent on imported fossil fuels. That’s one reason why I’m a pro-nuclear partisan…
Thanks for the link. I’ve added anti-Wikiism to my list of things to be sceptical about. The main opponents of Wikipaedia are teachers who are afraid that their students know more than they do.
There’s an article on the clash between science and politics, facts and values etc. reviewing the problem from Malthus to Schneider, at
What makes it interesting is that it dates from 1994, and if you go back to the original sources (a defunct magazine from New Hampshire Law School called “Risk” and The Science Court Symposia 1994) you see a lot of sceptical reaction from lawyers and social scientists to the first flowering of organised environmental catastrophism.
Geoff, I am usually cautious of Wikipedia. But in that case, the numbers seemed to be accurate, and properly sourced so I didn’t see any problem.
There is a particularly blunt and daft criticism of this post at James Annan’s blog. Annan says that I am a silly-billy social scientist who doesn’t get ‘science’. But not much else, for example, such as taking issue with anything I’ve actually said. Interestingly, I think, his claim is that the substance of Lewandowsky’s argument is orthodoxy in environmental economics, and not uncontroversial amongst scientists… Annan forgets Lewandowsky’s claim that his argument emerges from ‘simple maths’, without recourse to economics.
The fact that models model assumptions is perhaps lost on Annan. And Lewandowsky forgets his own assumptions when he attempts to conclude that a necessary relationship between uncertainty and cost exists. As Annan admits:
This is speculation, of course. And in spite of the models’s reputation in the scientific community, I don’t see any reason to believe it reflects reality. For example, there are a number of claims that a degree of warming may have a negative cost. But either way, actually detecting the ‘cost’ of a changing climate is fraught with difficulties, and all attempts to do so far seem riddled with prejudice — arguments which in fact presume their conclusion in their premises. As noted previously on this blog, estimates of large impacts from relatively small changes in climate, seem to presuppose the impossibility of development. On such an account of the world, the level of ‘poverty’ is misconceived as a ‘natural’ function of the environment. (In fact, in too many of these ‘natural’ perspectives, it is presupposed that the economy in general is a function of the environment). We know this is bogus, and so we can ask whether the ‘scientist’ is doing science at all. So the problem is much less one in which, as Annan claims…
… and much more one in which the climate scientist’s prejudices are passed off as science. As he blunders into the debate, he doesn’t simply make a fool of himself, he misconceives poverty at the cost of development, deepening the problem.
It is empiricism, almost certainly, but is it science? When one can model ones own prejudices so freely, and hide from criticism by claiming that it doesn’t exhibit ‘the requisite mathematical skills to understand the issues’, we can say ‘science, shmience’ – the issues are in the environmentalist’s head, not in the world. We can see for ourselves that the claim that ‘greater uncertainty means that the expected damages from climate change will necessarily be greater than anticipated’ is at best tortured prose. And even if we let it mean something, no amount of statistics abuse or modelling (of the precise same assumptions) hides the fact that it is still logically flawed, and that history shows us otherwise. I don’t need an advanced degree in statistics to show it.
Lewandowsky makes an argument for a certain course of action, on the basis of uncertainty. That is politics, James, not science.
Ben, geoff, HR,
Thanks for your remarks.
I quite agree that there is a politics of fear, and it’s possible that the attempt to assign priority to “anthropological”, “cultural” or “political” influences may turn out to be redundant. My concern about its applicability to climate alarmism arises, I suppose, because I first became alarmed about it precisely when it STOPPED being a PARTY political issue, and achieved bipartisan acceptance. Now I realise that ‘the politics’ of climate change has continued unabated, but in large measure the ‘Politics’ had, by 2009, all but ceased.
It seems to me, though, that the politics of fear has been practised throughout history in many forms, and that if the concept is to be useful some attempt must be made to distinguish between them. For instance in North Korea, indeed in almost any tyranny, an extreme form of PoF is played. I’m not talking about the simple terrorising of the population, but of the systematic invention of external threats, from which only the dear leader can save them.
Compare this with the politics of fear as it applies to climate. In North Korea, the regime goes to extraordinary lengths to control the information its population sees. In climate, although of course the ‘regime’ polices information with a zeal the North Koreans would admire, by it doesn’t have the force of law to silence dissent, as the North Koreans do. I don’t believe its deceit would have succeeded to the extent that, pre-2009, it did, without a far greater degree of consent on the part of the ‘deceived’ than exists, or is even possible, among the benighted North Koreans. Furthermore, throughout the trajectory of the CAGW myth, dissenting opinion was available to be heard and read. Dissenters might be ostracised and have their careers ruined, but these strictures hardly compare to fate their North Korean counterparts can expect. The unavoidable fact is that environmental catastrophism is the result of people CONSENTING to their own deception.
It is this willing, almost enthusiastic suspension of disbelief and critical faculties on the part of both the deceiving and the deceived which I think marks out environmental catastrophism in general, and climate alarmism in particular.
The North Koreans really do believe that wicked capitalists are out to eat their children. Those that don’t are too terrified to say so. The warmist ‘regime’ relates to its adherents rather more like the makers of a horror movie relate to their audience. I put it to you that very few ranking warmists exhibit genuine signs of fear of the catastrophe they foretell. I know the old saw about the air miles they cover going to their absurd conferences is, well, an old saw, but if they were really scared they’d do it all on Skype. Their demeanour is, I suggest, far more like someone seeing a good horror movie – just as a movie-goer suspends disbelief and pays to be frightened, adherents of the cult of the environment willingly suspend their critical faculties. So the question for me is, why has a large group of the least threatened population in the history AGREED to concoct a misanthropic narrative about its own kind? Environmental catastrophism seems to exhibit this mutuality of deceit to a far greater degree than other instances of PoF.
You write “During the Cold War, life was arguably far more precarious for everyone”
Arguably, yes, although the domestic terrorism you write of was largely in abeyance until 1969, and played no part in the inner life of Britain until the psychology of the Cold War was already quite mature.
I was born in 1951 in northern England. My recollection is that two irreconcilable themes simultaneously occupied our consciousness.
On the one hand individual life had never been less threatened. All the childhood killer diseases had been dealt with and Beveridge’s welfare system brought health care and education to all. Life was never more secure, and in those early, pre-Wilson days, it seemed like a sustainable miracle. Perhaps most dramatic was the availability to civilians of penicillin. And a wave of technology developed for military purposes had broken in 1945 and was washing over civilian life.
On the other hand, and simultaneously, we believed that the Cold War could turn hot at the drop of a hat, and that in that event we would receive a short warning before being burnt to a crisp in an instant. We would be dead, but, implicitly, we would not suffer in the process. This, I suggest, is an entirely novel form of demise from those which mankind is accustomed to confronting. It is also an experience of a threat whose existence was confirmed by available information, but, given its annihilatory character, impossible to experience authentically.
In any event, how does this inform my ‘anthropology’, or your ‘politics’ of fear?
You write: “ How is it that, in this unprecedented era of wealth and of material abundance, the predominant mode of politics is one which emphasises that life is precarious, and full of hidden danger? It’s a paradox which needs explaining.”
Let me take stab at it. Maintaining simultaneously these two apparently antagonistic states of mind (let’s call them ‘secure’ and ‘fearful’) would seem impossible, but we did it.
The first thing to note is that even the fearful state I describe above does not entail suffering – the peril was of instantaneous annihilation. (we were no doubt misguided – a real nuclear attack would probably have left a lot more suffering survivors than we envisaged – but that’s not the way I remember we saw it.)
If I am right, and we really do have a hardwired appetite for risk-abating behaviour, the fear we experienced in the Cold War failed miserably to deliver the goods. It was the ‘wrong’ sort of fear, in that it was of an event we would not experience (an almost insuperable barrier to authentic apprehension of risk) and which would cause us no suffering.
Secondly, we believed there was precious little we could do about it. Interestingly, I don’t remember any ‘Duck and Cover’ indoctrination such as happened in the USA. As far as I recall, we believed our survival rested entirely with the deterrent posed by our, and our allies’, own offensive capability.
My own belief is that this prolonged, unresolved and certainly unacknowledged inner conflict toppled my generation’s psychological ‘risk compass’, leaving it incapable of dealing rationally with hazard. We seem (to me) to have a perceived-risk deficit which gives us an appetite for catastrophe narratives, and to have had so little experience of actual adversity or pain that we no longer have a reliable means of characterising, or accurately ranking, the hazards we confront.
The third feature of the 50s and 60s was the unprecedented abandonment of organised religion. The remark, attributed to Chesterton, to the effect that people who lose their faith in God don’t believe in nothing, but rather ‘will believe in anything’ doesn’t just mean ‘Cor, people are gullible’. Rather it perceives in human nature a deep-seated attachment to propitiatory behaviour. For a while during the 20th C., various forms of political ideology were advanced as beguiling alternatives to religion, as the focus of propitiatory behaviour, but by the late 60s (and the return of the IRA campaign as a significant feature of public life) most of these had been discredited, and the post-Christian West was badly in need of a fix, and the one –ism left standing was scientism.
Science, as distinct from scientism, had every reason to be admired. It was responsible for everything that we felt made our lives better than those of our ancestors, and seemed set to continue producing ever cleverer stuff. Until the 70s, the scientific community remained relatively unaffected by the embrace of scientism as faith that was taking place in the wider population. It still took a long time, and a lot of boring, repetitive calculation, to produce the statistical analyses that are necessary to influence public policy, and certainly the hall-mark of any good environmental catastrophe narrative. And there was always the risk that, after all that work, you would find nothing alarming. The temptation to do something more interesting and useful – like challenging orthodoxy – was still too great to seduce many. The proliferation of computers changed that. It dawned on a whole generation of second-rate scientists that it was now possible to dream up all sorts of algorithms based on, ooh let’s say “simple radiative physics”, let a computer do the numerical drudgery, and amuse yourself twiddling variables until you have convinced yourself that you are in a position to convince others that you have perceived a threat to the human race, and should therefore be given more grant money. The null hypothesis could be made to disappear behind a wall of statistics without anyone complaining, and a cohort of intellectual also-rans thus suddenly had bright prospects. The plausible became the possible, and the possible becomes the certain – with error bars, if you really must.
This perfect storm of social and technological developments gave environmental catastrophism a critical fillip, and installed it as a bipartisan issue.
The politics of fear has surely been practised since politics began, and certainly far longer than anything we would call the ‘battle for ideas’ – really a 17th C phenomenon. But importantly, its currency is real, authentically experienced fear (even if it invoked by lies). Environmental catastrophism, by contrast, involves a group of scientist-activists pretending to frighten lay people, who in their turn, pretend to be frightened by what they are told. It is of purely social origins – an elaborate form of simian grooming – and its political dimension is, I think, quite subordinate to its anthropological and social dimension.
Sorry, in the post above, ” was still too great to seduce many. ” should read
was too great for many to resist.
The premise of this post, that Lewandowsky is implicitly invoking the PP, is wrong.
Consider a system
where D is “damage” in some sense relevant to people, X is some vector of state variables like temperature, and A is human activity.
The PP says that, given ignorance about f() and g(), you shouldn’t disturb X too much via A.
Lewandowsky’s point has nothing to do with that. Instead, he shows that the expectation of D increases with uncertainty as long as f(g(.)) is convex. I.e. E[D=f(X)] > D=f(E[X]). Contrary to your argument, this is not a claim that subjective uncertainty increases the true dispersion of the outcome, because Lewandowsky’s E[D] is subjective, necessarily so, since the true distribution of D is unknown.
Your only claim that really survives here is that environmentalists’ appraisals are systematically too high or too dispersed. Since you don’t specify your alternative f(g(.)), e.g, a subjective probability distribution for climate sensitivity and damages, there isn’t actually much left to talk about then.
Tom Fid – The premise of this post, that Lewandowsky is implicitly invoking the PP, is wrong.
I don’t say he is invoking it, I say he in reformulating it. The PP holds that that uncertainty should not prevent aggressive action to mitigate climate change. Hence the title of his post: “Climate Uncertainty and Emission Cuts”.
However, you claim that his ‘is not a claim that subjective uncertainty increases the true dispersion of the outcome’. But he also says,
Which is of course, nonsense, under any useful definition of ‘probability’, as my post above explains.
You should take the point up with Lewandowsky. He also says: ‘…greater uncertainty means that the expected damages from climate change will necessarily be greater than anticipated….
This is troubled by a redundant or superfluous ‘expected’. In fact, ‘the expected damages from climate change’ are necessarily the same as what is ‘anticipated’. Leaving out the superfluous ‘expected’ gives us: ‘…greater uncertainty means that the damages from climate change will necessarily be greater than anticipated…. And in fact, I point out that I don’t believe Lewandowsky can be saying that events in the world can be influenced merely by our mental state (uncertainty).
What I try to explain is that, by loading the calculation with ever more imagined, but only superficially plausible scenarios, Lewandowsky is allowed to increase uncertainty, thereby increasing the ‘probability’ that they will occur. So, finally, I try to show that we have seen many instances in which outcomes are predicted to be increasingly ‘worse than thought’, but turn out otherwise… The claim that there exists a ‘necessary’ relationship is therefore completely wrong.
If you want to defend Lewandowsky, you need to show that there is a necessary relationship between ‘uncertainty’ and ‘damages from climate change’.
An an aside, I point out to Annan above that this is an assumption, and is not safe. And I would suggest to you that this order of assumption is how environmental ideology is smuggled into seemingly (superficially) empirical attempts to understand the ‘cost’ of climate change, naturalising phenomena which are socially contingent factors, but which are given more weight in analysis by virtue of their seemingly empirical character. I.e., the presuppositions and prejudices of environmentalism are soon forgotten to have been part of the analysis. I’d point out, furthermore, that nobody has successfully attributed a single dollar of cost to climate change.
And yet Lewandowsky wants to say that things will be worse than we anticipate, necessarily and therefore:
The stuff with numbers is no more than flim-flam. It’s a slight of hand. The precautionary principle is a way of justifying an action merely on the basis that some superficially plausible outcome, or some theoretical risk cannot be ruled out. Lewandowsky demonstrates theoretical risk in an argument for a particular response. For your benefit, here is article 15 of the Rio Declaration:
“D increases with uncertainty as long as f(g(.)) is convex.” is only an “assumption” in that all mathematics is founded on some assumed axioms. If you mean it’s an assumption that f(g(.)) is convex, then there’s something to talk about, and I’d be interested to see your alternative specification.
Your “nobody has successfully attributed a single dollar of cost” argument is a red herring. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and in any case in a system with stock dynamics and poor signal/noise ratio, you wouldn’t expect much attribution initially.
When L. says that “the probabillity [of catastrophic scenarios] goes up as uncertainty increases” he’s not arguing that the true probability of rolling a 6 goes up with his subjective estimate of the probability of a 6 (if he were, you’d be right). You could fault him for ambiguity (failing to specify whether he means the true or subjective probability) but you shouldn’t put words in his mouth (specifying “true” when he surely means “subjective”). In fact, most people think of “true” climate sensitivity as deterministic. But the difference is immaterial for decision making, because the subjective probability is the only thing available.
“Expected” has a specific mathematical meaning, the expectation operator, that is distinct from “anticipated” in this case. You really ought to consult a text on decision making under uncertainty, like Granger Morgan & Henrion’s “Uncertainty” (1990).
It’s pretty clear that I’m talking about an assumption made about the world — by environmental economics — not in mathematics. And I’ve given you two fairly clear accounts of how I think this happens.
It’s not a red herring, given that it is the assumption made by Lewandowsky to make statements about the world — in particular about society’s sensitivity to climate, which on this model’s account, is equivalent to climate’s sensitivity to CO2. Moreover your ‘Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’ truism is in this case only helping my argument that Lewandowsky’s argument is a reformulation of the precautionary principle, driven by endless upward speculation.
I consider a number of possible meanings for the sentences he offers, which he offers as ‘simple mathematics’, you will notice. I don’t ‘put words in his mouth’, but attempt to understand what he could be trying to say. It turns out, it’s not based on simple mathematics at all, but as I suggest, speculation and the precautionary principle, concealed by statistical techniques.
I notice that you don’t attempt to explain what Lewandowsky means; only what he doesn’t mean.
The interesting thing is not that ‘climate sensitivity is deterministic’, but that it is held to be equivalent to society’s sensitivity to climate. And that is what decisions are based on. So what we imagine to be ‘cost’ varies greatly, depending on how vulnerable we assume we are to climate. On the WHO’s estimate of sensitivity, for example — as discussed above, I suggest you read it — 150,000 people die a year, because climate change increases the prevalence of certain diseases. But it turns out that you can’t just plug your global warming model into your malaria model without forgetting that a hugely contingent social sphere exists between them; we have to presuppose poverty to make the models work. Then our emphasis on mitigation comes at the expense of development, and in all likelihood, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Worse still, it turns out that deaths due to malaria fell by 10%.
Well, I took Lewandowsky’s word for it that his argument was based on ‘simple mathematics’, rather than advanced statistics. And reading his discussion about ‘expected cost’ at http://www.shapingtomorrowsworld.org/lewandowskyUncertainty.html, I don’t sense there is any use of the term ‘expected’ in the mathematical sense you say he is using:
But in any case, the second clause in the sentence (highlighted below) repeats the same error, without the ‘expected’ operator:
Here, too, ‘the allowance we […] make for SLR’ is the same (or more) as what we anticipate SLR to be.
I discuss this above. And the only sense I could make for it was the claim that ‘uncertainty […] necessarily implies under-estimation’. And as I point out, this means that all anyone has to do to push the decision-making in the direction they want is to supply the distribution of estimates with more merely superficially plausible scenarios.
I think you’re being far too generous to Lewandowsky :
If you want to try make sense out of his nonsense, be my guest, you are most welcome. But don’t pretend that it’s my shortcomings — rather than his attempt to pass his politics off as ‘simple mathematics — which have lead to a misreading.
Your “it’s pretty clear” isn’t clear at all, when I propose that “D increases with uncertainty as long as f(g(.)) is convex” and you disagree, without specifying whether you disagree with the mathematical part or the assumption of a convex damage function. It seems from your subsequent comments that you really disagree with his premises, rather than the formal conclusion that E(x^2)>=(E(x))^2.
To attempt a simplification of the debate, L. argues that uncertainty is not our friend, because the subjective expectation of damages, given convex damages as a function of temperature, given some mean expected temperature, increases as the variance of the subjective temperature estimate goes up, around some best guess.
There are only two ways out of this: (a) the damage function isn’t convex, which is a priori pretty unlikely for most things, or (b) uncertainty doesn’t mean that variance goes up around some best guess; it means that the mean goes down. It seems to me that you’re really arguing for (b) – that environmentalists have inflated the high side of the distribution and excluded the low side, like climate sensitivity = 0. In addition, you claim that (c) the problem is misspecified, because the opportunity cost of mitigation is not traded off against the damage.
In any case, L’s argument still isn’t the precautionary principle, because he’s talking about the implications of uncertainty with a reasonably well-defined distribution of damages, whereas the PP is about a situation with absence of evidence either way.
You can argue that L’s assessment of the damages is wrong, and that in fact we know nothing, but then the PP isn’t really very helpful for communicating about the problem. It would be much more useful if you specified what you think the damage function and distribution of climate sensitivity looks like. Then, at least in principle, we could plug your numbers into a simple model that includes opportunity costs of mitigation and compare the policy implications to L’s.
Tom – Your “it’s pretty clear” isn’t clear at all, when I propose that “D increases with uncertainty as long as f(g(.)) is convex” and you disagree, without specifying whether you disagree with the mathematical part or the assumption of a convex damage function.
Let’s start at the beginning. I said,
I’m not interested in Lewandowsky’s claims preceding the passage quoted in the post above. I don’t need to be interested in them to show that the passage is wrong, doubt about the term ‘expected’ notwithstanding. I’m not, contra your claim here, and others on Annan’s page, reducing Lewandowsky’s maths to verbiage, I’m starting from his own verbiage. Do you understand the difference?
Your claim — like Annan’s — is that I have misread Lewandowsky’s argument as a reformulation of the precautionary principle. Again, my claim is that Lewandowsky’s mathematical stunts are a sleight of hand. The interesting claims are in the passage quoted above. Even if you satisfy me that the passage is an accurate, perfect, unambiguous verbal interpretation of the maths he has offered, you will not make me any more confident that the maths he uses is useful to the political, decision-making process, or accurately reflects material reality.
But if you want to argue about it — and you do seem keen to go into the preceding claims, rather than the substance of the post above… I disagree with the ‘convex damage function’, because it presupposes that it makes sense to talk about damage in relation to decision making when we know that D is far more a socially contingent approximation of vulnerability. It presupposes the outcome of the decision. And I disagree with the mathematical part, because, as stated above, all that is needed to push the result of the decision in the desired direction is to increase uncertainty (the range of estimates), and voila! Hence we have an army of researchers, who over the last decades, have competed with each other to demonstrate that ‘it’s worse than we thought’. In spite of which, however, the human race still thrives.
On the question about the convex curve. Let us re-imagine it as a U, in which the sides of the U increase towards damage. Ie, the colder it gets (negative X) the more damage is done. And the warmer it gets, the more damage is done. But there is no reason to image that the U is symmetrical, and it can’t do infinite damage, so there are plateaus either side — presumably, when everyone is dead. And there is no reason to suppose that the optimal, point of inflection rests where T is now, or where it was in the pre-industrial era. Moreover, over the course of the industrial era, the slopes of the sides of the U have changed, and we can imagine them changing long into the future. There is no single U. So the caveat that the U needs is ‘…for any single, unchanging mode of existence…’. Now, remember that this mathematical identity has absolutely zero application outside the climate debate — it’s purpose is to inform decisions. What are the consequences of forgetting the caveat? I believe that emphasis of controlling T comes at the expense of changing the slopes on the U, because it presupposes only one possible U shape. I believe this is an ideological presupposition, reflecting environmentalism’s anti-humanism and its concomitant scepticism of development.
I’m not entirely sure what you mean by ‘subjective’. But, whatever, your reinvention seems to bear little relation to what L says: greater uncertainty means that the expected damages from climate change will necessarily be greater than anticipated,
L clearly means to say that greater uncertainty means, necessarily increased true probability of the worst case.
It seems obvious to me that this has happened, in virtually every estimated possible impact of increasing temperatures. And it seems obvious that this has happened to the extent that outliers on the greener side are celebrated, whereas putative climate ‘sceptics’ who are closer to the consensus are vilified for pointing out that these excesses are harmful to our attempt to formulate a proper response to climate change. L epitomises that situation, in encouraging emphasis on the extremes, and the view that the consensus is inherently conservative, and that only ‘mitigation, now’ will do. I can agree that climate change is most likely a problem, but that his urgency sheds no light on what kind of problem it is, and that, indeed, shedding light on the problem would defeat his argument — which is ultimately political.
I don’t think that you have correctly understood the PP. The Rio Declaration, again:
The PP, as conceived by Rio, doesn’t talk about ‘absence of evidence’, but ‘lack of full scientific certainty’. Obviously, it wouldn’t do to let just anyone turn up and posit that ‘you can’t rule out X, therefore…’. (Though that is how it works in some instances, especially in the GM debate, as discussed in previous posts). Clearly there is some kind of test of plausibility, though it seems no rigid test, and it seems that it is sensitive to who is doing the testing — a political phenomenon, of course, as I point out in previous posts. In general, the PP allows policymakers to amplify theoretical risk, which is why I refer to it above as ‘risk analysis without numbers’.
Over at Judith Curry’s blog, there are some more interesting observations that L’s definition of ‘uncertainty’ is specific, not the everyday kind. I.e, he presents a seemingly plausible range of outcomes, rather than lets his imagination run total riot (as even some respectable climate scientists have allowed themselves to). However, he doesn’t, as you suggest, talk ‘about the implications of uncertainty with a reasonably well-defined distribution of damages’, he uses synthetic distributions, to say that in general probability of bad outcome increases with uncertainty.
I say that the above passage is a reformulation of the precautionary principle, because he privileges uncertainty in the debate in the same way. And Annan, too, puts it in the context of a debate with ‘sceptics’, by saying, ‘those who argue that uncertainty is a justification for inaction are precisely backwards in their thinking’. ‘Forward’ thinking therefore, holds that ‘uncertainty [i.e. ‘lack of full scientific certainty’] is a justification for action’.
In any case, L’s argument still isn’t the precautionary principle, because he’s talking about the implications of uncertainty with a reasonably well-defined distribution of damages, whereas the PP is about a situation with absence of evidence either way.
We don’t know the true climate sensitivity to CO2 to within +/- 50%.
We don’t know the climate sensitivities to other factors to within +/- 50%. Each of many factors.
We can’t predict CO2 emissions for the next 50 years accurately.
We can’t predict volcanic eruptions at all, let alone to a degree of accuracy.
We can’t predict the costs of rising temperature accurately.
We can’t predict the benefits of rising temperature accurately.
We can’t predict what technological advances will do to affect the cost of adaption.
We can’t predict unfortunate side effects of mitigation.
Yet we have “a reasonably well defined distribution of damages” to climate? You have to be kidding. We most certainly have a situation with an absence of evidence.
We have a situation where we actually have very little idea what is going on.
Your post #64 is too good to get lost in the dispute engendered by Tom Fid and his inane use of algebra to impress the unwashed statistically challenged masses. Supporting the 20th century fantasy of catastrophic global warming by appeal to the Leibnizian fantasy of a universal calculus is a step backwards too far for me. Good luck to Ben in demolishing this theological gibberish.
I’m sure you’re right that the nuclear threat and the spread of atheism (being unique to the 20th century) are important determinants. Your point about the Chesterton quote is very important. Atheism as espoused by a minority of intellectual freethinkers in the 18th century is, sociologically speaking, an entirely different beast from atheism as the belief of a majority of the population.
Likewise, you point out how with the proliferation of computers, “It dawned on a whole generation of second-rate scientists that it was now possible to dream up all sorts of algorithms..” And, you might add, a whole generation of journalists and think-tank geniuses learned how to interpret complex graphs and opinion polls.
Orwell noted you had to be an intellectual to believe certain stupid things (he was talking about fascism) since only a relatively small number of people had the intellectual training to read complicated books and indulge in complex argument. Now, a far greater number of people can read a pie chart or follow a Powerpoint presentation.
Comparing environmentalism to simian grooming is an interesting new one on me. I’ve often thought of it as displacement activity, the kind of pointless scratching of their bottoms which rats indulge in when you give them conflicting signals. That’s no excuse though, since we’re not rats, and the fact that 3000 of the greatest minds on the planet, plus Sir Paul Nurse and Jarvis Cocker, have all decided to scratch their bottoms in unison is no reason why we should scratch ours – or theirs.
Don’t miss the James Annan critique of this article that Ben mentions at comment #63. It’s at
OK – I’ve tried discussing stuff with Ben before, but we usually seem to just talk past each other, but I’ll give it a try
The precautionary principle or precautionary approach states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action.
This seems a different concept to what Lewandowsky is saying.
In an over simplistic way consider 2 scenarios
1) A 3 deg C climate sensitivity for a doubling of CO2 plus or minus 1 deg C
2) A 3 deg C climate sensitivity for a doubling of CO2 plus or minus 2 deg C
If we do an economic analysis going forward, then scenario 1 will have a lot lower cost associated with it than scenario 2, because the estimate of the economic damage rises steeply with a higher climate sensitivity, so even the relatively small chance of a 5 Deg C climate sensitivity ends up having a disproportionately large effect.
This is why the work of, for example, Annan in narrowing estimates of climate sensitivities (and in particular ruling out very large climate sensitivities) is quite policy / economically valuable as this pushes the ‘optimal’ response to more adaptation and less mitigation.
His mathematical treatment of ‘risk’ notwithstanding, it is the same as the precautionary principle:
It makes no difference that Lewandowsky attempts to use mathematical models (though says he doesn’t) to demonstrate that the precautionary principle has weight, whereas the Rio Declaration doesn’t.
@geoffchambers – When you say “inane use of algebra,” you really mean, “I can’t be bothered to make or critique precise statements, so I’d prefer to argue about a quantitative topic verbally.”
This “numbers are flim flam” attitude has created a lot of confusion here. “Expectation,” “subjective probability,” and “uncertainty” all have precise meanings in risk analysis. (Not an environmental discipline by the way; the language comes mainly from finance which got it from stochastic optimal control in engineering.) When you make plain-English attributions about what these things mean that are at odds with the intended meaning, it’s no wonder that confusion follows.
You say, “I’m not, … reducing Lewandowsky’s maths to verbiage, I’m starting from his own verbiage,” you’re obviously right in one sense, but at the same time you’ve simply failed to pick up on the fact that Lewandowsky’s verbiage was mathematical to begin with.
But no matter, as now that you’ve specified an alternative damage function, there’s something to chew on.
I think we’re operating from different versions of the PP; I was thinking of the wiki version, “… if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action.”
Either way, I don’t see the utility of debating which principle applies, when it’s possible to test different formulations of the damage function & dynamics directly.
Lewandowsky has a well-defined damage function, in the sense that you can tell precisely what he means. So, from his perspective, he’s not applying PP.
There’s lots of uncertainty – I could add to your list – but at the end of the day, we still have to make decisions. The appropriate response to uncertainty is not to set all uncertain parameters (like climate sensitivity) to zero; it’s to throw all the uncertainties you can characterize into an analysis, and look for a strategy that controls robustly for a decent outcome. Businesses trade options and make risky capital investments that way all the time.
Actually, compared to most things I run into in consulting, knowing climate sensitivity within a factor of 2 is pretty good.
Tom Fidd – you’ve simply failed to pick up on the fact that Lewandowsky’s verbiage was mathematical to begin with.
So he claims. But I don’t believe him, and I don’t think we need to look at the maths, we can see that reality and history defeat his argument. I’ve asked you to show that what he has said is an uncorrupted verbal treatment of his mathematical argument. I think you’ve agreed that he is at least ambiguous, and loses the nuances of the mathematical argument. And you seem to forget that his conclusion is ‘mitigate, now!”, only on the basis of uncertainty.
Either way, I don’t see the utility of debating which principle applies, when it’s possible to test different formulations of the damage function & dynamics directly.
Unfortunately, though, you’re only testing your assumptions, in a mathematical model. If you smuggle your political prejudices into mathematical models, it’s no surprise that you get your desired conclusion out of them. I’ve explained this a number of times.
Surely all they are doing is balancing the expected cost of climate change (adaptation) with the cost of mitigation and working out the best balance between mitigation and adaptation. Because the expected cost of climate change rises steeply with higher climate sensitivities, more uncertainty will tend to lead to overall a higher cost so more mitigation and less adaptation. Seems a perfectly sensible way to proceed to me (and the precautionary principle doesn’t) !
If Lew. claims that his “expected” means “E[X]” I would think that’s a good reason to believe him. I thought you were asking for some clarification of the bit you cited (juxtaposition of expected and anticipated), not his entire text. In any case, L doesn’t conclude, “‘mitigate, now!”, only on the basis of uncertainty.” He says that increasing the variance of damages around some mean increases the expected cost, which follows directly from convexity. You’re arguing that (a) uncertainty should change the mean as well as the variance, in an offsetting way and (b) he hasn’t treated cost (though he promised to do so in a subsequent post). (a) is true, and we could argue productively about his damage function vs. yours, though I don’t have time at the moment. Considering costs, as in your proposed damage function, might result in a prescription for very little mitigation, but it would still be true that greater climate damages would favor a bit more.
Unfortunately, though, you’re only testing your assumptions, in a mathematical model. If you smuggle your political prejudices into mathematical models, it’s no surprise that you get your desired conclusion out of them. I’ve explained this a number of times.
In what sort of model are you not merely testing your assumptions? If you can smuggle a pocketful of political prejudices into mathematical models, you can smuggle a truckload of them through verbal models, because they are so underspecified and impractical to test against data.
Tom Fid: In what sort of model are you not merely testing your assumptions? If you can smuggle a pocketful of political prejudices into mathematical models, you can smuggle a truckload of them through verbal models, because they are so underspecified and impractical to test against data.
I think this my-numbers-are-better-than-your-words line is the point you’ve been trying to push, at the expense of understanding any of them. I’ve given you a number of illustrative examples to help explain why I think the models of risk, cost and their intersection are poorly-conceived, and don’t resemble real-word data. Not being able to move past your models, whether numerical or more conceptual, and only being able to reason from your assumptions was once called dogma. Perhaps now it is called ‘decision mathematics’ it is more respectable.
We might reasonably argue that the continued attempts to model the world, and to form testable predictions about how things will work out at a scale such that they could inform global policies (from the Club of Rome’s prognostications in the late ’60s, through to the Royal Soc’s latest attempts to make Ehrlich respectable again) have failed. And thus we account for the development of an exotic branch of maths, entirely divorced from reality, where we can pick the ‘shapes’ of ‘risk’ and ‘cost’ out of thin air — so futile were the attempts to model reality… It is the numerical equivalent of sticking your head up your arse.
Read a bit more of this and there were a couple of interesting points
There’s a lot of interesting stuff recently about the ‘fat tail’ of climate sensitivity, with (ironically) James Annan arguing that a lot of this is not defensible see:
“…a uniform prior for climate sensitivity certainly does not represent “ignorance” and moreover is a useless convention that has no place in research that aims to be policy-relevant. With a more sensible prior (even a rather pessimistic one) there seems to be no plausible way of creating the high tails that have been a feature of most published estimates…”
I think most people seem convinced by this argument and it has become the ‘consensus’ view
Risk analysis is hardly an exotic branch of mathematics. It’ll probably be used thousands of times in the next minute on stock exchanges. I don’t think all numerical arguments are intrinsically better than verbal ones, I just think it’s bizarre to prefer a tortured verbal critique of L’s argument over an interpretation based on the discipline from which it derives.
I’m no more in favor of deriving silly conclusions from arbitrary or convenient model assumptions than you are. My response to your critique of Lew. would be to develop a better model that accounts for your alternative specification of the damage function etc., and test both against data and a priori reality checks. You seem to favor a retreat to purely intuitive simulation of complex problems, which is doomed because people can’t reliably simulate even first order systems in their heads. Bad models exist in all disciplines; it’s a good idea to throw out those models, but counterproductive to reject modeling altogether.
Tom Fid – Risk analysis is hardly an exotic branch of mathematics.
But it’s not risk analysis — unless we believe that risk analysis is done with synthetic distributions of risks, and their intersection by a convex curve. He’s trying to prove a principle, in general, not analyse particular risks.
Bad models exist in all disciplines; it’s a good idea to throw out those models, but counterproductive to reject modeling altogether.
My point was in answer to your numbers-are-better-than-words comment. I pointed out that political environmentalism has a long, ugly history of putting its faith into numerical simulations. For a great discussion on what modelling has done to politics, see Adam Curtis’s The Trap: whatever happened to our dream of freedom and All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. Part two of the latter series is especially interesting.
Tom Fiddaman #78
I assume by “a factor of 2” you’re referring to the fact that 4°C is twice 2°C? But doesn’t the IPCC say that t=2°C means extra food and t=4°C means total collapse of civilisation?
The difference between a growth of GDP of 2% and a growth of 4% is certainly important, but hardly a matter of life and death.
On the other had, a life expectancy of 30 years (20th century Bangla Desh) differs from a life expectancy of 60 (21st century Bangla Desh) by a factor of 2. Now that is a matter of life and death.
What I’m trying to say, in my confused verbal non-mathematical way, is that I understand perfectly the meaning of “climate sensitivity” and “within a factor of 2”. The terms in your sentence which are difficult to interpret, and therefore interesting, are “knowing” and “pretty good”. Perhaps that’s why I am less than interested in your formulae. Perhaps that’s why you want to insist on the priority of the maths.
You tell me (#78) that when I say “inane use of algebra,” I really mean, “I can’t be bothered to make or critique precise statements, so I’d prefer to argue about a quantitative topic verbally.” Maybe there’s a branch of mathematics where putting words in other people’s mouths is validly expressed in equations, but we don’t do that over here in Wordland, where people live.
Spoken like a true empiricist, and a gentleman. “It doesn’t matter whether the plane is really going to crash, or I just think it is; because I’m going to be sick all over you anyway”.
And that’s where I don’t agree with you, fundamentally. It’s not your maths, or even your inner psychology, that I object to; it’s your puke.
The appropriate response to uncertainty is not to set all uncertain parameters (like climate sensitivity) to zero; it’s to throw all the uncertainties you can characterize into an analysis, and look for a strategy that controls robustly for a decent outcome. Businesses trade options and make risky capital investments that way all the time.
Countries cannot afford to make decisions in the way that corporations can. People die in large number when they get it badly wrong.
You seem to believe that there is a range of values for the key values like climate sensitivity, which are more or less normally spread and actually reflect reality. And that we have enough grip on them to model them with some meaning. I would argue that both those assumptions are wrong.
The chance the CO2 ultra-sceptics are right (that CO2 has very little effect) cannot be assumed from some sort of normal distribution of values of climate sensitivity to be very low, on the basis of its distance from the IPCC values. I would argue the chance CO2’s effect is trivial is, in fact, extremely high. In which case every dollar spent on mitigation is totally wasted. No amount of convex damage curves will help us if CO2 isn’t doing what it is purported to do. Lewandowsky believes in a properly defined probability function, but he is wrong.
In what sort of model are you not merely testing your assumptions? If you can smuggle a pocketful of political prejudices into mathematical models, you can smuggle a truckload of them through verbal models, because they are so underspecified and impractical to test against data.
Why use models at all? I manage to organise my life quite happily without ever plotting a model of my options and pay-offs.
I would argue that history would provide a better model for future events, properly calibrated for recent advances, than anything a modeller can provide. The extremely poor predictions of the Club of Rome and their ilk do more to make me wary than anything else. Why would we trust them this time? The recent spectacular failures of our major financial institutions does not inspire confidence in modelling either.
Well said, and so much more politely than I managed.
Landowsky, Annan and Fiddaman are trying to persuade us that our failure to use mathematical formulae dooms our reasoning to irrelevance. They obsess about convex curves, confident that y=x^2 is an abstraction beyond our comprehension, like catholic theologians confident that they can halt the protestant revolution by the simple expedient of discoursing in Latin.
At Annan’s blog, commenters openly opine that a preference for words over algebra is a sign of mental inferiority.
They live in a parallel universe, but one which hopes to invade and conquer ours.
A commenter at
called Carrick has just replied politely and thoughtfully to me. I’ll try to reply in the same fashion.
Geoff – A commenter at
called Carrick has just replied politely and thoughtfully to me. I’ll try to reply in the same fashion.
Polite, perhaps, but deeply patronising. The bogus climate scientist = doctor in an emergency analogy was debunked here, long ago. https://www.climate-resistance.org/2007/12/save-planet-or-puppy-gets-it.html
Little wonder they are so sceptical of ‘words’; they handle them so clumsily.
Ben, in parsing SL’s text, it may pay you to remember that most warmists are rubbish at English, innit. You devote space to his use of the word “expected”, as though he was fully in command of the language he was using when he wrote it. This may be a mistake.
One reason that so much controversy rages over the warmist texts, I have noticed, is their appalling illucidity. Half the time they don’t seem to know quite what they are saying, and when they do, they don’t seem to know how to say it in clear, simple English.
Geoff: “They live in a parallel universe, but one which hopes to invade and conquer ours.”
And I, for one, welcome our new digital overlords. How fortuitous that these formulae, along with their computer hosts, have evolved precisely in the nick of time to come to our aid with solutions to the very CAGW crisis that only they are able to properly simulate.
I was wrong about the parallel universe. In fact, they’re already here, indistinguishable from the rest of us – overeducated white English-speaking middle class semi-intellectuals, with a tendency to worry about things we only half understand.
Sixty years of relative peace and quiet has stunted all our imaginations, and some of us react in peculiar ways. There are pop stars with vague images of Mother Teresa gnawing at their consciences who think that being photographed holding an underfed baby in Africa is “doing something”. There are scientists with memories of that photo of Einstein who cultivate bushy hairstyles and think that if they write enough equations they can save the world, and maybe even invent a catastrophe to save the world from. Me, I sit in front of my Macbook in my silk dressing gown with a green carnation stuck behind my ear and wait for the men in white coats. It passes the time.
Being rubbish at English is pardonable in itself, but it’s practically always correlated with being rubbish at reasoning. Landowsky and Annan and their like really seem to believe that you can find out things about the world with numbers alone. Pythagoras and Newton and maybe Leibniz had the same idea, but it’s generally agreed to be a very odd idea indeed. I can understand someone believing in astrology or homeopathy. But if they didn’t understand that their ideas were considered eccentric in the wider world – that would be serious.
I thought the answer was 42.
geoff, I agree that poor language bespeaks poor reasoning, but I’m not sure I agree that SL et al think they can do without language in their explications. They give me rather the opposite impression, larding their texts with superfluities of every kind. They have, however, been educated in a system which deprecated the rigorous study of English, seeing it as merely a means of communicating with others, and not the indispensable means of the English user communicating with himself that you and I know it to be. As a result the risk of them talking past one another, always great in a controversial topic, is greatly increased.
They should all do a couple of years of Latin!
I’ve been arguing that Landowsky’s argument contains a logical error in the first step, and therefore all discussion of the effect of uncertainty on costs is a waste of time.
In his first article, he shows four graphs of estimates of climate sensitivity, and shows that if you hold the mean steady at the value of 3°C and flatten the curve, stretching it out to represent increasing uncertainty, you necessarily increase the “fat tail” of high estimates. He deduces from this that the greater the uncertainty, the higher the probability of an expectation of catastrophic temperature rise. In the course of his tortuous argument, this becomes “the higher the probability of catastrophic temperature rise”.
As Ben points out in the original article, there’s a clear implication here that thinking about the world can change it, that the less certain you are, the greater the risk, which is evident nonsense.
The error is in thinking that you can increase uncertainty about the distribution, while maintaining the mean of the distribution constant. Since the mean is derived from the distribution, uncertainty about the one necessarily implies uncertainty about the other. His thought experiment can have no application in the real world.
Vinny Burloo has joined in at the julesandjames.blogspot. It’s a disheartening experience. (I congratulated Annan for winning the Woody Guthrie award, and got called a “shit-flinging monkey”). The argument is at the limit of my statistical capabilities (Vinny says the same) so there’s always the fear that I’ve said something incredibly stupid. But so far it’s just straw men and a touch of contempt – no argument.
I feel this is the way to go though – engage the enemy on his own ground (I’m afraid the tired military metaphors are inevitable). For this reason, I’m trying to avoid the excesses of language I used to indulge in. Ben and I have exchanged positions here, I think. His describing Landowsky as a bullshit merchant means that anyone coming from CR can expect an uncomfortable welcome at Annan’s blog.
I used to favour the letting off of steam, up to and including talk of ecofascism. I’m trying to develop a spirit of Buddhist abnegation now, in order to promote dialogue, however unproductive. What does anyone else think?
@ Geoff, I think you, Ben and Vinny have done much better than I would have done, over there; I’ve very little grasp of such arcana. In the spirit of your military metaphor, my feeling is that such engagements get bogged down and tend to lead nowhere. Better perhaps to print out a thousand flyers explaining in straightforward language that statistically the world has not warmed for x years and that green taxes will be expensive, then slip each flyer between the pages of the Sun or Mirror in a thousand newsagents.
Geoff and co,
Be encouraged, you are doing very well. I must admit I feel out of my depth in this kind of rabid statistical fight, and I’d generally hope to see other people taking on such battles. The arguments seem to me more like a clever way of avoiding explanations than anything else. For example, the most convincing scientific arguments I’ve seen against the hockey stick don’t start by examining the statistical minutiae of tree-rings, but by presenting explanations and analysis of the climate’s scaling behaviour. Likewise, I think the political arguments found in this blog work because they explain things. Hence, some irony in the “physics trumps statistics” comment Geoff picked up on the other day. It’s a reasonable proposition I think, unless your physics is inappropriate.
It’s a cod statistical fight. It’s just enough numbers to impress the innumerate, and to make the really numerate despair.
Annan thinks it doesn’t matter whether the costs include a minimum at a point other than zero, which is plainly untrue.
They’d get eaten alive if they tried this sort of rot at Climate Audit, where real mathematicians hang out.
Alex Cull: “…such engagements get bogged down..” Agreed. But what else to do? An enlightened commander in 1914 could hardly say “No point in defending the nation’s borders. We’ll only get bogged down.”
Your “fliers in the Sun” policy is sensible and in a sense is already happening. The Rod Liddles and Jeremy Clarksons relay an approximate message to the masses that they get from Delingpole, who gets his information from a lively sceptical blogosphere, which is us. So I suppose we’re all doing our bit. Perhaps I’m just a footblogger in the trenches with fantasies of being parachuted behind enemy lines…
Phillip & Mooloo
“..a cod statistical fight”, “a clever way of avoiding explanations…” Yes. Shouldn’t scientists be able to see that their reasoning must necessarily be held to higher standards than that of the average journalist?
There are two sorts of profession, it seems to me. The “structural” ones, which are part of the framework of society, (law, medicine, the civil service..) where discipline is internal and self-criticism is limited; and the ones which are part of the private sphere, where competition and the need for free exchange of information imposes free market rules of openness and rivality. These scientists clearly see themselves as members of a closed élite. Statistics is their secret handshake.
Geoff – Ben and I have exchanged positions here, I think. His describing Landowsky as a bullshit merchant means that anyone coming from CR can expect an uncomfortable welcome at Annan’s blog.
It is interesting that nobody is really offering a defence of Landowsky at Annan’s blog, nor even a meaningful criticism of what’s written here. I’ve not noticed Annan taking any notice of what I’ve written before, so I suspect what’s p**sed him off is that Judith Curry suspected that Landowsky may have been taking a few too many liberties, and blogged about it.
I’m finding it quite affirming that the criticism there is so very hollow. The complaint seems to be that L’s workings don’t amount to the precautionary principle on the basis of their confidence in the method, regardless of the argument he has made in prose. Yet Annan himself argues that ‘those who argue that uncertainty is a justification for inaction are precisely backwards in their thinking’. As I say in the above post, ‘the application of the precautionary principle passes weak theoretical risk off as certainty; it turns possibility into story lines, about which ‘something must be done’.
I would be no more impressed by a statistical proof of the theoretical plausibility of a perpetual motion machine than I am by this attempt to turn uncertainty into a call for action. My fluency in statistical terms is immaterial.
@ Geoff, true – I was being a bit pessimistic (as usual)..
@ Ben: “the application of the precautionary principle passes weak theoretical risk off as certainty; it turns possibility into story lines, about which ‘something must be done’.” There’s a comparison to be made, surely, with the swine flu pandemic a few years ago. Here’s an article about it in Der Spiegel from 2010:
I seem to remember reading about computer models used to predict the course of the pandemic. It would be interesting to know whether anyone at the time was making arguments similar to that of Stephan Lewandowsky, i.e., something like “greater uncertainty means that the expected damages from H1N1 will necessarily be greater than anticipated”.
The real question for future historians and philosophers will be ‘how was it that environmentalism was ever taken seriously’.
Simply mediocrity. Maybe. (Not maybe. You’re dead right). But what kind of a debating strategy is that? We’re like Alice realising they’re just a pack of cards, and then she wakes up. But we’re not going to wake up. We’re in this together (to coin a tweet).
Tony Newbery at Harmless Sky has long proposed a judicial review as the only way to get an honest assessment of the global warming saga, and at his instigation I read Judge Burton’s review of Dimmock v the Crown over the showing of the Gore film in schools. I was really impressed by the tenor of the thing, the whole judicial mindset which seemed to speak from centuries of listening to bickering plaintiffs. It’s probably just me, but behind the dry legal analysis there seemed to be a message: “Nobody’s at fault, nobody’s going to win or lose anything worth worrying about. We’re not put on earth for these brief years in order to waste our time squabbling. Let’s pick the truth out of this mess and forget the rest”.
it’s a very humanist message. (Unfortunately it’ll set you back £50,000 minimum to hear it). You get a similar feeling from parliamentary committee or congressional hearings. There are some timewasters there, but the overall intention is to sort things out.
On the other hand, idiots need naming and blaming, and once you set out on that route, why stop short of the truth? Shub says it well in a comment on the Worstall thread: it’s a choice. A choice to be made on strategic grounds?
Following the military analogy, in the army they resolve it by division of labour. The officers plan and negotiate like gentlemen, while the NCOs rouse the troops with insults and foul language.
I may be wrong, but I don’t see you as the Sergeant Major type, somehow.
Hope to hear more about Cheltenham.
It’s a difficult choice.
On the one hand, it would seem to be preferable to debate with the likes of L, to say, ‘look, you’ve made these assumptions, and carried them forward and presented them as having emerged from “simple maths”‘. But the result quite often is a blank stare… ‘But it’s simple maths’. And in the same way it’s ‘simple predicate logic, how can it be wrong?!!!!11111111111…..’. It’s the response you get from religious zealots: ‘I’m doing God’s work here on Earth, how can I be doing wrong’. Or Corner today, who tweeted to me today, ‘how can my reasoning influence outcome of studies of other people’s opinions? would only apply if I was ignoring other data’. The message is always the same: how can I be wrong, when I’m right? The wife of a prominent Malthusian and anti population campaigner shouted at me after a debate, ‘how can you say we hate babies; we love our grandchildren’. What she forgot is how much she hated everybody else’s. The arguments aren’t really arguments at all but are mere expressions of feelings… angry barks at other people’s arguments… for daring to have a differing opinion.
So on the other hand, maybe it’s best to work out which are the truly barking mad, and to call them out on it, but recognise there are more productive debates to be had. L is a bullshit artist. And anyone who can’t work out why L might at least seem to some to be a bullshit artist is probably not worth bothering with. Two attempts were made here. One was half-hearted, and conceded that L may have not been coherent. The author of the other had an opinion of himself that was not justified by the insight he wittingly brought to the discussion, but dragged his conceit across a number of other blogs. In the six years this blog has been up, just four trolls have behaved in precisely this way and have been deleted. And half of them have been in this thread. Of the remaining two, one had an ongoing vendetta and conspiracy theory about Spiked-Online. The remainder is a Canadian, like the anonymous pseudo-philosopher.
This is too few individuals — half of them Canadian, all of them men, none of them very bright, all of them extremely prolific, each of them clearly narcissistic, and each of them evidentially angry, alienated and isolated — to say anything about environmentalism, of course. But they do seem to epitomise it. Environmentalism is not negotiable. It’s not capable of reason. It’s already right. It’s not just that it’s convinced it is right, it’s completely convinced that nobody has any legitimate right to challenge it. Between flame wars in the blogosphere and supranational institution-building, there has been no real debate — the ideas don’t get challenged, and the process continues. Even if I deleted a troll a minute from my blog, it makes no difference to my point that environmentalism is fundamentally hostile to democracy, and that global environmental institutions and policies are illegitimate. And even if every other word of Worstall’s was blue, it would make no difference to the predominance of environmental thinking, since it doesn’t respond to debate of any kind. I find Worstall’s rudeness refreshing, and his insight illuminating. Some might ask, ‘well, what is the difference between Worstall’s rudeness, and the troll’s invective?’ The answer is that Worstall isn’t telling… forcing… people to live their lives in certain ways… A tendency to which the appropriate responses are ‘who the fuck do you think you are’, and ‘fuck you’.
Ben, you are substantively correct. I didn’t pay much attention to this in June– but I’m looking at the Lewandowsky stuff now. It is a mash of confused thinking masked by loose language.
If you think Lewandowsky is bad, have a look at the incredibilism article linked in the comment just above yours, and the article it links to at James Annan’s blog.
Lewandowsky is small fry in this world – a psychologist with just enough basic maths to twist insignificant correlations between opinions into a causal chain proving whatever he wants to prove, and then hide the data under barrage of correlations between latent variables. Not a single raw figure sullies his paper. It was only when the raw data became available that manicbeancounter showed how two rogue outliers, which look for all the world like respondents gaming the survey by giving the maximum number of extreme answers, provided him with the correlations he needed to prove that disbelief in moon landings leads to climate scepticism. It’s the same game that Briffa used with his famous horizontal growing Siberian larch, and rather more sophisticated than the efforts of Dorlan and Zimmermann and Oreskes, who just totted stuff up into a big percentage. The difference is that Lewandowsky is talking about people – us – and how we form our opinions and what they mean. You can lie about the ring widths of a Siberian larch without affecting its fundamental rights (though there are those in the Green movement who would argue with that). Lewandowsky’s logic leads to the kind of dismissal of sceptics we saw in the Jones report on impartiality at the BBC and eventually to censorship and worse.
Beyond Lewandowsky, on the threads I mentioned, are scientific minds who think that Bayesian statistics and mathematical logic can be used to say things about the real world, things that politicians and journalists have to listen to because they’re beyond the understanding of common mortals. I made a bit of a fool of myself trying to argue with these people. I think it’s vital that people with more mathematical knowledge than I have take them on and face them down.
I read the incredibilism article. Very “willard”.
But I can tell you this: You are mistaken about bra cup sizes. The smallest size is not A. It is AA. AA is actually right above “training bra”.
One problem with the articles Ben criticizes is that it mixes some things that are not wrong with other things that are wrong and with language that is horribly ambiguous.
I wasn’t really interested in bra sizes as such. I wanted an example of something measured on an arbitrary scale with a zero cut off point, no theoretical maximum, and a skewed distribution. Possibly the shape of Lewandowsky’s graphs inspired my choice of that particular example.
What made the example particularly apt, I thought , was that, as with climate sensitivity, speculation about values is often considered as important as actual measurement, which is often impossible for practical reasons. It seems an excellent example for illustrating the properties of Bayesian statistics, and it is surprising that the reverend Bayes didn’t refer to it.
When I discussed it at James Annan’s blog, I hadn’t noticed that James shares his blog with his friend Jacques, who is into flower arranging. Possibly some of the opposition I encountered on the thread was not linked to my views on climate science.
I really hope someone with a better knowledge of statistics than I could have a look at Lewandowsky’s musings, which strike me as being dangerously mad. Am I right in thinking that he is implying that the way you think about the world can change the way things are?
Lewandowsky: “Uncertainty is nobody’s friend.”
Bookie: “Wanna bet?”
speculation about values is often considered as important as actual measurement, which is often impossible for practical reasons.
Being a woman, I don’t value speculation about the value more important that actual measurements. Moreover, I can have myself measured quite easily. Admittedly, lore has it that most women don’t get measured and end up wearing the wrong size. In particular, they supposedly wear a band size that is too large and a cup size that is too small. (I theorize the reason for this is the appropriate band size is a bit like wearing a tie that you have tightened to look tidy rather than for optimum comfort. So– larger band size is tempting in the store. That said, more generously endowed women often regret this, but full comfort can favor picking a bra style that is less “sexy”.)
I generally avoid that difficulty by not wearing one unless for some reason, I think not wearing one would be immodest. I hate the damn things!
You really didn’t have to tell us all that, but thanks anyway. What I’m interested in (no, really) is your opinion about Lewandowsky’s argument. You said: “It mixes some things that are not wrong with other things that are wrong”. Yes, but which?
Like many here, my knowledge of statistics is pretty basic. I agree with Ben #101 when he says “I would be no more impressed by a statistical proof of the theoretical plausibility of a perpetual motion machine than I am by this attempt to turn uncertainty into a call for action. My fluency in statistical terms is immaterial”.
But nonetheless, the statistically competent are always going to be able to run rings round the statistically challenged, like me. What we want is confirmation (or not) of our intuition that what he is trying to do is not simply invalid on statistical grounds, but totally mad. He appears to think that altering the shape of a graph in line with rising levels of uncertainty changes the way things are in the real world. Have I got that right?
See what happens if you try to use a bra cup size metaphor? Not a good idea.
I’ve posted I. There will probably be a II. Even though Lewandowsky posted III, I’m not sure this warrants III but people might have questions.
Lewandowsky’s stuff is tosh.
Stats is concerned with real data. Actual measurements that have really been taken in the real world. You weigh all the children in the class then calculate the mean and the standard deviation. You can also use stats to help decide if a sample will represent the entire population: eg can you weigh 30 children and expect this to tell you about all the 12 year-olds in the country.
What you cannot do with stats is what L tries to do. The climate guesses for the future are just different peoples guesses. There is no statistical method that will transform these into facts. The average guess is just an arbitrary number – its no better than any other guess and possibly worse because each guess has one believer but the average may not have any believers.
It’s all a bunch of crap – like calculating the average phone number of NYC and thinking it has meaning.
You are correct that there is a difference between the probability distribution for climate and for things like heights of children. In the case of climate, whatever the climate sensitivity “is” it is. It’s just one value. Randomness is used to describe our level of confidence in uncertain knowledge of that value. There is nothing in the process to guarantee that our best guess is right. The uncertainty interval isn’t a characteristic of climate sensitivity itself.
In contrast, the heights of individual children vary. So, if a person is waiting for a kid to come through the door, they can’t know what height that kid will be until the kid walks in and gets measured. Height is an inherently random value. So, it’s more like a coin flip.
So, they are different.
That doesn’t mean we can’t say meaningful things or make plans based on your best guesses of the correct value of ‘f’. We can. In fact, in life I think we individually make decisions based on our sense of what is likely– and that sense is an internal guess. (We don’t generally do math on these.) But we do need to remember that the probability distribution function for ‘f’ is a distribution of guesses and we do get to examine the basis for these guesses to decide whether we think the probabilities have been biased pessimistically, optimistically or what have you.
Also, even if we take the distribution of climate sensitivity supplied by modelers as a statement of fact, at least some of what Lewandowsky writes is ass-backwards, some is simply to vague to interpret, some things he says aren’t wrong. But sprinkling a few not wrong things into a blog post can’t salvage things if the bulk of it is wrong and the general message is both muddled and misleading.
The Ancient Greeks did this kind of stats with their model for how many teeth a horse had.
They thought that debate and calculation would get to the correct answer. I can picture them now building an “ensemble” of their different answers then calculating all kind of stats around them.
Would more uncertainty mean that a horse has “more teeth than you think” ?
Getting O/T but “ensemble” is another crock.
It’s like someone has been on a team-building exercise at work all about getting better performance by working together.
Then he tries to send the climate models on their own team-building course, hoping they can work together to become a better model.
What is weird is how the modellers play along with this. Instead of trying to build decent models thay just try to hide in the crowd and hope that someone else’s model will cover the gaps in their own.
Jack Hughes #117
If I’ve understood the reasoning correctly, the answer is: yes,if 1) the modal position remains the same (i.e. there’s some kind of consensus/majority view which doesn’t change, e.g. because Aristotle says so) and
2) Uncertainty increases, e.g. because people don’t look in horses’ mouths any more, maybe because they all believe Aristotle.
Because the modal value for the number of a horse’s teeth is presumably quite high, the fat tail to the right doesn’t swell so impressively, because the left hand side has plenty of space for expansion too. But if you really put the pressure on, e.g. by making it a capital offence to look in a horse’s mouth, then you can end up believing Dobbin is a piranha.
It’s a useful model for understanding belief systems where uncertainty is intrinsic and felt as being dangerous. Take witchcraft. The number of witches is very small, we all agree, because it’s necessary to a society’s stability to believe that most people conform. That’s the mode. But the existence of witches is felt as very threatening, and the method for detecting them uncertain. So our uncertainty makes us concentrate our attention on the fat tail, and you end up with Salem.
Substitute “climate sceptics” for witches, and you get a very interesting example of psychological projection.
There’s a problem of infinite regression in the conclusion of course.
“A horse has more teeth than you think”.
“Yes, I know, I already think that”.
I pointed this out on Annan’s blog but they don’t get irony.
Yes! Finally someone writes about lainaa 300.