Saturday, July 23, 2011

A revealing dialogue

I've taken the names out, but I will describe the players:

JMB: A Professor I used to work for, a really smart and fair guy who is unsurprisingly pretty liberal politically.

BG: When I knew him, a grad student working on his PhD, which he got--really smart and really cool.

dbp: Me

It started with a Facebook post by JMB:

JMB ‎"Globally, June was the 316th month in a row that had a higher temperature than the 20th century average." Five myths about extreme weather Let’s start with this heat wave.

dbp: If we define the 20th century average as ideal, then this could be a problem.

My point here, unaddressed by the other commenters, is that the headline seems alarming until you unwrap the assumption contained in it. That assumption is that the climate in the 20th century was perfect. Any change is therefore bad. there could be other interpretations of why one should be alarmed by the headline. None of the commenters could be troubled to point out why one really should be alarmed. It is assumed that any sensible person would be troubled by the headline and doubts or reservations are not taken as signs of healthy skepticism but rather are: Knave! Heretic! Fool! See>>>>>.

BG: But of course, global warming is a myth

I didn't even remotely say that, but what the hell, let's just put words in the mouth of the unbeliever.

Okay, I'm just fanning the flames here.

dbp: They call it "climate change" now, just to make sure all bets are covered.

JMB: Sadly, modern medicine does not yet have a cure for craniorectal inversions.

Let's not bother defending the point made by your original post or casting doubt on the logic of the comments which followed it. dbp has outed himself as a fool and therefore does not deserve a formal rebuttal. Anyway shaming always works: When a full Professor of Science says that you have your head up your ass, he might as well have been wearing a black mask and said, "I find your lack of faith disturbing."

The only sane response here is to play the martyr: It is not as if I am equipped to convert a person smarter than I am, who is nonetheless mired in dogmatic thinking on this subject. Rather, I will hark back to what science is really about, in the hopes of touching some inner core of a guy who must at one point (like all good scientists) have had more doubts than certainties.


‎"We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize the ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty -- some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain."


There was further dialogue, though I could not help but notice that each one came with a dig.

JMB: Feynman is correct, but he is not advocating inaction in the face of objective reality. When my house is on fire, I'm gonna grab a hose and call the fire department, not have a long discussion with my neighbor about whether to call it a fire or a conflagration. Especially when my children will have no other place to live.

dbp: This is an excellent point John! The question is, do we have the same level of certainty here as in the house example? I would say, "not even remotely". This climate which we are in has been good to humanity, even as it has varied somewhat in human memory. Prudence would favor this over some different climate. Large and expensive projects should demand a high degree of certainty that they will provide more good than they cost.

JMB: The global-warming-is-good argument does have some limited validity, if you choose not to consider the lives of a few billion poor people in low-lying coastal areas, and can pretend that their fate has no bearing on yours.

(I should add here that I was making the opposite argument that warming is good. I was saying that change should be presumed to be bad, but any expensive project to preserve the status quo must meet a cost/benefit analysis. This kind of analysis demands a very high degree of certainty as to what will happen with and without the remediation effort. That we have anything approaching this level of knowledge is laughable.)

dbp: I am more-or-less in the Bjørn Lomborg camp on this: We could do far more good for more people by focusing on proximate concerns such as AIDS, malaria, nutrition, clean drinking water etc. Resources are finite and we should spend them where we get the biggest bang for our buck.

MK (I don't know him): Much of Lonborg's argument--which he's backed off on a bit himself--separates out short-term gain and overvalues it compared to long term gain, partially using the economists' notion of opportunity costs.

dbp: @Michael: I hadn't heard of Lomborg backing down from anything. The assignment of discount values is always somewhat arbitrary, though I think it is fairly non-controversial to value current costs and benefits more highly than future ones. As to how much? You kind of have to estimate what future interest rates will look like, so there is certainly room for disagreement.

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