William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Wrong -> Immoral -> Illegal?

Says Paul Krugman, a writer for a local New York paper,

The only way we’re going to get action, I’d suggest, is if those who stand in the way of action come to be perceived as not just wrong but immoral.

He means “action” on man-made global warming. We’ll come back to his musing after a moment.

The other day, Krugman wrote an essay featuring Martin Weitzman, a Harvard economist, who speculated that the earth was doomed unless something is done “before it’s utterly too late.” By “something” they both meant “elect Barack Obama.” Weitzman wrote a paper with “sophisticated” equations and which assumed climate model output was infallible, said that we humans will “effectively destroy planet Earth as we know it.” Again says Krugman

It’s true that scientists don’t know exactly how much world temperatures will rise if we persist with business as usual. But that uncertainty is actually what makes action so urgent. While there’s a chance that we’ll act against global warming only to find that the danger was overstated, there’s also a chance that we’ll fail to act only to find that the results of inaction were catastrophic. Which risk would you rather run?

There is something in economics called decision analysis. The idea is simple. Find out how much something will cost if it happens. Then find out the probability of that thing happening. Multiply these two numbers to get the expected cost. If the expected cost of that thing is too high, or higher than any other possibility, it’s best to try to alter or stop the thing from happening.

If you do not know the probability, then you cannot calculate the expected cost. Weitzman calculates there is a “5 percent chance” that global temperatures will rise at least “18 degrees Fahrenheit.” In Weitzman’s paper, he also calculates there is a 1 percent chance that temperature will rise at least 36 degress Fahrenheit. Yes, you read that right. 36 degrees. The expected cost of a 36-degree rise is, of course, enormous, meaning that we should certainly try and stop global warming.

But we are actually confronted with probabilities of two outcomes, not just one. There could be apocalyptic global warming or Wietzman could be wrong. This implies our probabilities are: (1) A 1% chance of truly catastrophic warming, or (2) The economist Weitzman has fooled himself into being too certain by relying on complex formulae with faulty input.

Everything we’ve ever experienced about the accuracy of economists’ predictions, especially in areas in which they have absolutely no expertise, makes most of us believe (2). Thus, (2) is the rational and optimal option.

Immoral?

Krugman, obviously, believes (1). He’s an economist, too, you see, and naturally sides with his brother economist. All of which would be perfectly harmless, even if Krugman did nothing more than write a column explaining Weitzman’s mathematical fantasies. Except for that one little thing that Krugman advocates: painting those who do not agree with him as not just wrong but immoral.

That is to say, not just wrong, but evil. Krugman, limited in imagination as he is, cannot conceive that anybody could possibly disagree with him, nor look at the same data and come to a different conclusion. People that fail to accord with him are not just making a mistake, they are being mischievous.

Krugman is not the first to suffer from this kind of delusion. La Shawn Barber has written an article called Is Climate Change… Racist? He looks at liberal Congressman James Clyburn, who has written a report echoing the old joke: “World Ends Due to Global Warming: Poor Blacks Hardest Hit.” The gist is that those who disagree with the end-time visions risk being called a racist, a frightening term in today’s USA. University of Amsterdam “philosopher” Marc Davidson has even written a peer-reviewed paper in a prominent journal alluding that those who disagree with Weitzman-like claims are no better than slave holders (no, I’m not kidding).

In a society, when something is wrong, it must be corrected. For example, a person who forgets to apply for a certain kind of building permit to repair his fence is punished by having to pay a small fee back to society. Few would claim that the homeowner had acted immorally, however. More heinous crimes are punished more strongly, such as by restricting the liberty of the perpetrator.

A crime is an act which is immoral. Acts which are perceived to be immoral by the ruling class of society are usually made criminal. These actions usually happen over time. For example, being a “racist” has gone down the path of being distasteful, to being immoral, to finally being illegal in certain ways. Disagreeing with newspaper columnists’ perception of climate change is already distasteful—those who disagree are called “deniars” and even, we now see, “racists.” Krugman now wants these people to be seen as immoral.

How much longer, then, before some enlightened journalist or politician calls for disagreement being illegal? For the “good of society”, of course.

UPDATE: Thanks to TokyoTom for the link to the Weitzman paper. You can read TokyoTom’s take Weitzman at this link. And you can read his take take on Jim Manzi`s take on Weitzman/climate policy at this link. Thanks also to Raven’s correction! My original, and stupid, “70” shows what happens when you are in a hurry.

27 Comments

  1. Weitzman evidently hasn’t heard that the average temperature has apparently been falling the past decade. Looks like we won’t be baking our buns after all. We may be freezing our fannies.

    Just remember, 30 years ago all the people were on the global cooling bandwagon but when the temperature started trending up they all jumped on the global warming bandwagon. Now they are climbing on the climate change bandwagon because that way you can’t be wrong. If the temperature increases or decreases it’s climate change.

  2. It is not just experience of economist’s predictions that leads the rational observer to believe (2). The same can be said of the “predictions” or “projections” of so-called “expert climate scientists”. Here are just two examples:

    On June 11 2008 Andy Revkin reported here
    that 11 out of 14 groups of “experts” predicted that arctic sea ice loss this year would be as bad as last year or worse. Less than two months later it is quite clear that these “experts” got it completely wrong.

    In January 2007 the Met Office predicted
    with 60% probability that “2007 is likely to be the warmest year on record globally, beating the current record set in 1998, say climate-change experts at the Met Office.” Again this was completely wrong: 2007 turned out to be cooler than any of the six previous years.

  3. How does this approach help if you also consider other possible catastrophes such as pandemics, asteroid hits and alien invasions? Doesn’t the presumed size of the catastrophe undermine the meaningfulness of the analysis and doesn’t Weitzman’s conclusion amount to “S**t happens!”

    Mathematically: (Infinitely large impact of Catastrophe a) * (Infinitely small probablility of Catastrophe A ) = (Infinitely large impact of Catastrophe b) * (Infinitely small probablility of Catastrophe b )=(Infinitely large impact of Catastrophe c) * (Infinitely small probablility of Catastrophe c )=…=(Infinitely large impact of Catastrophe n) * (Infinitely small probablility of Catastrophe n )=Infinitely large!! Assuming probabilitiies are all >0.

  4. Briggs

    August 4, 2008 at 8:52 am

    Bernie,

    Take a look at Weitzman’s paper. You’ll see he has anticipated your large-asteroid-impact theory and rates it lower in probability than catastrophic heat rise.

  5. Matt,
    I have it to read tonight but is he equating the two in terms of the size of their impact? Personally I am significantly more concerned with the asteroid issue – especially given how old Bruce Willis will be when we need him!! Plus what if we have just a little asteroid strike, would this mitigate the catastrophic AGW effects? But it is probably best if I read his paper with an open mind.

  6. Briggs,

    A minor point – the report claims that a 20 degC rise in temperatures is 1% likely. However, a 20 degC rise is a rise of only 36 degF. 68 degF is represents the absolute temperature of 20 degC.

    A quick look at the history of the earth (See http://www.geocraft.com/WVFossils/PageMill_Images/image277.gif
    tells us that CO2 concentrations of 10-20 times what we have today existed yet the temperature was no more than 8 degC (14 degF) higher than it is today.

    Assigning a 1% probably to a temperature rise >20 degC is clearly absurd and has no precedent in 4.5 billions years.

    A perfect example of statistics done by people who have no understanding of the physical processes that the statistics are supposed to be describing.

  7. While Matt and the responders have the right idea on the facts, this thing has gone well beyond the facts. In fact it has become impervious to fact; it’s the “story” that matters — not the facts. The quest for scientific truth is subjugated to the “story.” The technical-rational approach is obsolete next to the political/ideological imperative. If what is said and printed by a compliant media constitutes a coherent story of impending disaster, it is indeed the truth and is believed, like a set of folklore.

    To respond by critiquing those paying fast and loose with the facts is a waste of time. This is an ideology — a dielectic — that we are faced with. It needs to be addressed for what it is.

  8. Minor correction to your post.
    You used the pronoun he when referencing La Shawn Barber. Should be she.

  9. ” to demand money with menaces” springs to mindor extortion at the very least on a global scale.

    Was this what Al Gore had in mind when he said,
    “change the light bulbs yes,but change the laws.”
    Where’s James Bond when you need him!

  10. Richard S Courtney

    August 5, 2008 at 6:17 am

    I think Krugman’s article needs to be addressed head on because it is capable of refutation on its own terms. This is demonstrated by its two key paragraphs. They say:

    “It’s true that scientists don’t know exactly how much world temperatures will rise if we persist with business as usual. But that uncertainty is actually what makes action so urgent. While there’s a chance that we’ll act against global warming only to find that the danger was overstated, there’s also a chance that we’ll fail to act only to find that the results of inaction were catastrophic. Which risk would you rather run?

    Martin Weitzman, a Harvard economist who has been driving much of the recent high-level debate, offers some sobering numbers. Surveying a wide range of climate models, he argues that, over all, they suggest about a 5 percent chance that world temperatures will eventually rise by more than 10 degrees Celsius (that is, world temperatures will rise by 18 degrees Fahrenheit). As Mr. Weitzman points out, that’s enough to “effectively destroy planet Earth as we know it.” It’s sheer irresponsibility not to do whatever we can to eliminate that threat.”

    The question; “Which risk would you rather run?” is good but it is wrongly addressed.

    In effect, the question is a statement of the ‘Precautionary Principle’ which asserts that it is better to take avoiding action than to accept the possibility of some future possible risk. In this case, the possible risk is that “that the results of inaction were catastrophic” and the avoiding action is constraint of greenhouse gases.

    But choosing not to constrain greenhouse gases while monitoring to discern if there is need for such constraint is action, – it is not “inaction” – and the ‘Precautionary Principle’ says it is the correct action.

    Constraint of greenhouse gases would inhibit use of fossil fuels with resulting economic damage. The effects would be worse than the ‘oil crisis’ of the 1970s because the constraints would need to be more severe, they would be permanent, and energy use has increased since then. The economic disruption in the developed world would disrupt economic activity everywhere. The major effects would be in the developed world because it has the largest economies. But the worst effects would be on the world’s poorest peoples: people near to starvation are starved by disrupted economic activity. And this in a possibly futile to attempt to affect the climate of the entire world.

    So, the Precautionary Principle states that we should not accept the risks of certain economic disruption in attempt to modulate the world’s climate on the basis of assumptions that have no supporting evidence and merely because they have been described using computer games. (The description of climate models as “computer games” is justified below).

    This leads directly to the assertion that according to Martin Weitzman a “wide range of climate models” suggest “a 5 percent chance that world temperatures will eventually rise” to a level that would “effectively destroy planet Earth as we know it.” There are many extremely unlikely possibilities that would “destroy planet Earth as we know it”, and some are precedented. The fact that, for example, large meteor impact and super vulcanism have each destroyed the world in the past demonstrates that they are at least as likely as a 10 degree C rise in global temperature. But the world’s economy is not sacrificed to protect us from effects of large meteors or super vucanism.

    And the “5 per cent chance” is a statement of the models and not the risk to the world. The postulated 10 degree C rise in global temperaturethat did not happen when there was 16 times as much carbon dioxide in the air than now. And the models are very imperfect descriptions of the climate system. Indeed, they are statements of the opinions of those who constructed the models and, therefore, at their present state of development they are not predictive tools but are rightly described as computer games. This is simply demonstrated by mention of any of the several important climate variables that they do not include. For illustration, I cite one such important omission from the models.

    The recent US ‘Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) Issues Report on Climate Models’ describes the models, and it contains no mention (n.b. not one mention) of variations to cloud albedo. But cloud albedo variations are measured to have had several times more effect on radiative forcing in the last 30 years than the maximum possible estimated effect of changes to greenhouse gas concentrations since the industrial revolution.

    Richard S Courtney

  11. Richard,
    Nicely said.

  12. One other problem with predictions based on climate models is the ridiculous idea of “business as usual” being an extrapolation (usually linear or exponential) of whatever short-term trend happens to be occurring at the time. “Business as usual” involves technological progress, natural negative feedbacks and adaptation, all of which change the trend. Look no further than Paul Ehrlich and the “Club of Rome” to see the effects of ignoring the changes in “business as usual.”

    Down the street I’m watching construction of a high-rise hotel. The workers seem to be adding about a floor every two days. By my estimates, by next summer they’ll have themselves a 180 story hotel, by golly. In a few short decades they’ll have reached the moon.

  13. Roger, I agree.

    “To respond by critiquing those paying fast and loose with the facts is a waste of time.”

    Those interested in the facts will have sought them for themselves or given enough thought to such articles as to disregard them on logical grounds.. An emotional response to an emotional proposition is warranted here.

    The problem is not a matter of fact but a matter of emotion. Those pushing the precautionary principal (pp) know this, which is why they use the element of threat or menace to force “action. Action that they have predetermined should be that which they recommend would be the solution. So to argue using the term inaction as a type of action simply gives more credibility to the threat ab initio.

    It’s known as holding someone over a barrel, and should be treated with the same contempt, exposed for what it is.

    The facts should be proof that this method is the one used here. The proof revealed that this is not a genuine folly that can be blamed on a computer, but systematic lack of adherence to fact and empirical evidence in order to give credibility to a theoretical threat.
    So to point out the flaw in the fact does not go far enough if changing peoples minds is the desired outcome of critiquing an article that resorts to pp.

    It speaks directly to the fear, guilt, and natural survival instinct that exists in the human mind however rational that mind may be.

    No one likes blackmail, besides it’s “wrong, immoral and illegal.”

    Definitely litigable if one had the usual infinite funds and infinite patience.

  14. Matt:
    I have read through the paper and unless I have grossly misunderstood something I don’t get Weitzman’s point or rather his point seems blindingly obvious to the point of triviality. Namely, real catastrophe’s should be avoided and at almost any cost so long as there is a probability of greater than 5% that such a real catastrophe will occur.
    I am not sure that I can see anything startling in this assertion.
    What is stupefying is that he plays out this scenario over a 200 year time period. If memory serves me correctly 50 years ago we barely had functioning nuclear power plants, semiconductors were just emerging and jet engines were just being put on civilian aircraft. It is bizarre to think that we would not respond and relatively swiftly to a discernible and material trend in Global Temp and sea levels.

  15. That should be greater than 1%. Sorry.

  16. “The problem is not a matter of fact but a matter of emotion. Those pushing the precautionary principal (pp) know this, which is why they use the element of threat or menace to force ‘action.'”

    Right, Joy. And the underlying emotion is fear. It is always latent in us and available for appeal. Combine it with the illusion of the moral high ground (“save the planet”), and it is the Rx for the grip on our institutions, political, educational, and scientific. The counter to the pp is to begin educating the polis on its consequences in terms of the erosion and sacrifice of material and health well being worldwide. Raise the fear level of that, for that is the consequence.

  17. If I could prove using a “normal” curve that there is a 2% chance that Paul Krugman is an imbecile incapable of rational thought, I would bet that Paul would concentrate on the other end of the curve.

  18. Neo
    Krugman is probably a smart guy – but I assume you are referring to the outcomes of his smartness, which may not be that smart. Weitzman’s position is that you have to evaluate the size of the outcomes and the probabilty of the outcome – if Krugman’s opinions have no catastrophic consequences nobody cares how smart or dumb he is.

  19. It’s not about the one percent or the five or the twentyfive. It’s about “blind them with science” and use this to force some action.

  20. I think Krugman hasn’t even read Weitzman’s paper.
    Quote from page 7:
    “Without further ado I just assume for purposes of this simplistic example that P[S2>10°C]=5% and P[S2>20°C]=1%, implying that anthropogenic doubling of CO2-e eventually causes P[dT>10°C]=5% and P[dT>20°C]=1%, which I take as my base-case tail estimates in what follows. These small probabilities of what amounts to huge climate impacts occurring at some indeÂ…nite time in the remote future are wildly-uncertain unbelievably-crude ballpark estimates most definitely not based on hard science.”

    In other words: the 1% chance of 36°F temperature increase is just the assumption that Weitzman takes, it’s not at all a conclusion of his study.

    There are other arguments against Weitzman’s paper as well, but I guess this one should do.

    Imho, the fact that Krugman takes Weitzman’s assumption as a proven fact can either be labeled as ‘stupid’ (if he wasn’t able to understand the paper) or ‘immoral’ (if he did).

  21. I think that Krugman’s argument is simplistic. One quick reply is that when faced with a decision involving great uncertainty and signficant costs either way, a rationale response is to delay a decision until better information can be obtained.

    The AGW advocates argue in response that we are approaching a tipping point. This speculation is not, however, supported by the IPCC.

    Alternatively, they suggest that the cost of delaying action will increase costs in the long-run. This response, however, is based on existing technology. If we are going to assign probabilities to uncertain catastrophes, we need to also assign probabilites to possible “miracles.” Given the progress of technology over the last one hundred years, I think that there is strong probability that low-cost, non-carbon energy sources will be developed in the next one hundred years that will allow us to minimize the risk of AGW at very low costs.

    I personally have greater faith in miracles brought about by techological progress than I do predictions of catastrophes made by unproven computer models. Certainly the track record of technology is much better than the track record of predicted catastrophes.

  22. According to basic physics, absent all feedbacks, a doubling of CO2 will warm the earth by about 1 degree C. Since the effect is logarithmic, most of the warming will come with the first increases.

    Allegedly, the earth has warmed about 0.6C in the last 100 years. (Interestingly enough, much of that warming occurred before CO2 started rising.)

    One recent paper (I believe it was from NASA), found that up to 70% of the recent warming was due to oceanic oscillations. (PDO, AMO, etc.)

    M&M put out a paper last year that found that up to 50% of the warming was due to improper accounting of UHI. (Urban Heat Island)

    Even the IPCC has admitted that up to 30% of the warming was due to changes in solar output. (This ignores decreases in cosmic rays which a warmer sun causes.)

    Huge increases in future temperatures depend on massively positive feedback mechanisms. None of these feedbacks has ever been demonstrated in nature, but they are assumed for the purposes of writing models.

    Now given that the warming that has been seen, is equal to or smaller than the amount of warming that would exist in a no feedback world.
    And given the fact that most of the warming is caused by things other than CO2.

    The only rational conclusion is that the world is dominated by strong negative feedbacks, and CO2 is at best a bit player in climate.

    Those who want to re-order the world’s economies and sharply limit the freedom of the people are doing so for reason’s that have nothing to do with climate.

  23. Geoff Sherrington

    August 20, 2008 at 7:57 pm

    We don’t like the pecautionary principle, so we have to devise a better expression. I like the “Innovation Response Principle”. Never underestimate the ingenuity that peole have shown to overcome problems, including many that burst suddenly on the scene.

    Urban myth example (maybe) follows. Chairman Mao decreed there were too many rats. Each person had to take so many rat tails a week to collection points for a reward. Within days, there were rat breeding farms to supply those too unconvinced or whatever, to catch their own.

  24. How much longer, then, before some enlightened journalist or politician calls for disagreement being illegal? For the “good of society”, of course.

    Sorry, but the problem isn’t the “disagreement”, it’s the CO2 emissions that’ll cause our coastlines to turn to crap. It’s the same with racism too: “disagreement” isn’t the main problem, but when someone acts on the racism, it’s not just “disagreement”, it becomes outright literal murder.

    And of course, you climate change inactivists such as Anthony Watts are all too happy to kill off any report, news item, or statement calling for action on climate change. And Czech inactivist LuboÅ¡ Motl has called for “alarmists” to be quarantined and euthanized.

    But of course that’s all perfectly OK, since they’re on your side.

  25. Briggs

    August 26, 2008 at 9:05 am

    But Frank Bi, that is wonderful! You’ve hit upon the best name yet to describe the rational non-panic with which most of us view climate change. I am a climate inactivist!

    I’ll run by the others at our next secret meeting and I’ll let you know what their opinion is, but I can tell you right now that if they feel even half as strongly as I do, we’re on to a winner.

    You’ll get full credit, of course.

    Just in passing: acting on racism isn’t always “literal murder” of course. Sometimes it’s no more than calling somebody a bad name. But I’m sure you were exaggerating wildly for effect.

    You might also drop a note to Mr Motl and let him know that there isn’t any reason to quarantine those who are euthanized. Might save him some money in his planning. Also, euthanizing takes effort, which is to say, activity, so instead of “inactivist” perhaps we can just call him a nut. Let me know what you think.

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