Posted by: bmeverett | February 21, 2014

The Kid’s Logic


Several of my students at the Fletcher School have sent me a link to a brief video on climate change which you can find at http://www.upworthy.com/one-guy-with-a-marker-just-made-the-global-warming-debate-completely-obsolete-7. You have to love the title. In 9½ minutes, Greg Craven, an Oregon science teacher, wins the climate change debate with only a magic marker as a weapon. If you watch this video, you will see what happens when smart young people study environmentalism instead of science, mathematics and logic. I wouldn’t worry so much if this video had been made by a high school student, but this kid is teaching other people’s children.

Here’s what The Kid does. He draws a 2 X 2 matrix. The rows are whether global climate change (GCC) is true or false. The columns are whether we take action – yes or no. He then proceeds to fill in the four boxes as follows. In the upper left, GCC is false, but we take action anyway, resulting in (in his worst case) a global depression “which makes the 1930s look like a cakewalk”. In the upper right, GCC is false and we take no action, which means we made the right choice and everything is hunky-dory. In the lower left, GCC is true and we take action, thus incurring a cost, but it’s money well spent. In the lower right, GCC is true but we take no action, resulting in catastrophe with “sea levels rising 10-20 feet, entire coastal countries disappearing, hundreds of millions of people worldwide displaced, crowding in on their neighbors, causing widespread warfare over scarce resources and longstanding hatreds. We’ve got entire forests dying and burning, massive droughts alternating with catastrophic floods. We’ve got the breadbaskets of the US and Russia turned to dustbowls causing catastrophic famines, terrible disease epidemics spreading like wildfire. Hurricanes like Katrina becoming the norm. This is a world straight out of science fiction. Economic collapse because the global economy has been hit by crisis after crisis. This is a world that makes Al Gore look like a sissy Pollyanna with no guts who sugar-coated the bad news.” He also notes that “We’ve learned in the last five years that it’s possible… it’s plausible that this might happen abruptly.”

OK, now here’s The Kid’s argument. We have to choose between Column A (no action) and Column B (action). The worst that can happen if we choose Column A is a worldwide depression, but the worst that can happen if we choose Column B is (in The Kid’s words) “the end of the world as we know it.” Therefore, “When faced with uncertainty about our future, the only responsible choice, the only defensible choice, really the only choice is Column A in order to eliminate [the climate catastrophe] as a possibility.” The Kid then smiles smugly and urges everyone to adopt his perfect argument and demand climate change action.

There’s only one small problem with his argument: it’s wrong. He runs afoul of what logicians call The Fallacy of the Excluded Middle, also known as a False Dichotomy. In essence, the argument boils down to the assertion that we should take whatever action is necessary to avert serious catastrophe, regardless of the costs of action or the probability of disaster.

Here’s my analogy. Let’s say we are a society of 10,000 people living on a tropical island with a big volcano in the center. The High Priest says that unless we take action, the volcano will erupt killing everyone on the island. He proposes that we carry Fred to the top of the volcano and throw him into the lava to appease the Volcano God and thus prevent the eruption. Let’s use The Kid’s approach and make a 2 X 2 matrix. The rows are whether the High Priest’s prediction is true or false. The columns are whether we throw Fred into the volcano or not. The upper left hand box of the matrix is the case where the High Priest is wrong, but we throw Fred in anyway. The result is just a dead Fred. The lower left box means the High Priest was right and we’ve saved 9,999 people or 99.99% of the population for the loss of just one person – a pretty darned good result. The upper right hand box is the case where the High Priest was wrong, and we don’t thrown Fred in. No problems there. The lower right-hand box means we don’t throw Fred into the lava, and every one of us dies. The Kid says that we shouldn’t spend much time worrying about whether the High Priest is right or wrong. Just throw Fred in the volcano ASAP. The downside of taking action is just the loss of Fred (a person nobody really liked anyway), while the downside of taking no action and letting Fred live is that we all die.

Now I’m not comparing climate scientists to witch doctors. Scientists in fact have some serious tools available to them to examine the physical world and make reasonable predictions. The core of The Kid’s argument, however, is that required action doesn’t depend on knowing the probability of disaster, merely its severity. The Kid is telling you not to worry about whether there is a connection between the eruption of the volcano and throwing Fred into the lava. You need only concern yourself with the consequences of a volcanic eruption, which in our hypothetical case would be truly apocalyptic.

Setting the climate change problem up in this manner takes oversimplification to a new level. Global Climate Change is not a true/false proposition. There is strong theoretical and empirical evidence that carbon dioxide emissions contribute to atmospheric warming. We also know that there are other variables (cloud formation, ocean absorption, vegetation, solar cycles cosmic rays and others) that also affect climate. The question is whether we understand the climate system as a whole well enough to predict anything at all. Rather than a dichotomy, there is a wide range of possible outcomes. In my opinion, the Climate Community has not made the case that the catastrophe outlined by The Kid has any more plausibility than the volcanic eruption predicted by the High Priest. Furthermore, the actions that are being proposed by the Climate Community and implemented by President Obama through executive orders, will prove quite expensive but contribute nothing whatsoever to the reduction of any atmospheric warming. These are “big buck – no bang” policies. The Kid really needs to define what “action” means.

Here’s my recommendation. Delete this silly Youtube video and send The Kid back to school for some real education. Alternatively, let’s ask The Kid whether it’s OK to throw him into the volcano.

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Responses

  1. Dr. Everett,

    I’m the Kid in the video, and I agree with your assessment of that video. That’s why–after soliciting and reading every objection I could to it–I posted an updated one that (briefly) alludes to the excluded middle. (I use Giant Mutant Space Hamsters rather than a volcano.) That 10-minute video titled “How It All Ends” serves as the anchor to an additional 8 hours of videos in which I tried to respond to every critique I could find.

    That in turn led to a book titled “What’s the Worst That Could Happen? A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate.” I know you must have a full plate, but I would be very interested in your assessment of the book, which is based on the approach of the videos, but is a more well-developed (or at least, my amateur attempt at it) proposal for how to make a decision about climate change. It’s basically a proposal for a layman’s risk-assessment process.

    I’ve had loads of skeptics give me critiques of the videos, but have heard from only a few of them who have read the book. I’m interested in improving my methods of thinking, and serving the debate, and that happens best when I get thoughtful critiques, such as yours. I’d very much like to have your critique of the book, as it is far more developed than the simple arguments in the videos.

    You can contact me directly at the email I’ve provided.

    Thanks much for your consideration.

    Sincerely,
    Greg Craven

    P.S. And no, I’d rather not be thrown in a volcano.

    • I’ve emailed Greg to let him know that I will read his book and offer him some comments. I’ll share them with you all.


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