DDP: Quack Cures For What Doesn’t Ail Us, Part I

I’m at the Doctors for Disaster Preparedness meeting in No-History City, Louisiana. Here’s Part I of (an earlier draft of) the speech I gave Saturday. Consider donating $1 for every typo you discover.

Watch the skies!

Two years ago I got into a minor public feud with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the man with some popular, albeit curious, ideas about probability. Well, “feud” is a grandiose word. What happened was this.

Taleb and some friends of his (Joseph Norman, Rupert Read, and Yaneer Bar-Yam) wrote an open letter called “Climate models and precautionary measures”.

The quartet noted that the debate in global warming focused on the accuracy of climate models. Those who say the models are good want immediate action. Those who say the models have no skill argue there is no evidence that anything needs to be done.

But Taleb says model accuracy is irrelevant. Why? “We have only one planet,” he says. And because “It is at the core of both scientific decision making and ancestral wisdom to take seriously absence of evidence when the consequences of an action can be large.”

Yes, and “the burden of proof of absence of harm is on those who would deny it.”

Thus, we ought to take the measures I’ll tell you about in a few minutes so that we can—all together now—save the planet.

Think carefully about his reasoning. One, we must take seriously the absence of evidence when the consequences of an event are large. And two, the burden of proof of the absence of harm is on those who would deny it.

All right. It is true—it is logically possible—that hostile aliens from outer space, Black Swan Aliens I called them, might attack and destroy the planet. The aliens will find us because of our constant global electronic emissions—the earth hums like a giant space radio. And when the aliens get here—whammo!—we’re goners.

Now the consequences of this attack, should it occur, are surely larger than anything global warming can do to us. Global warming is spilled milk next to the complete and literal destruction of the world as we know it when Black Swan Aliens attack.

Of course, there is no proof these aliens will attack. There is no evidence. But, like Taleb says, we have to take seriously the absence of evidence when the stakes are large—and they don’t come larger than this.

To prevent the attack requires that we immediately and for all time shut down all electronic appliances. No radio, no television, no satellites, no computers, even, because they emit loads of EM. We need to be like those submarines in World War II movies: we need to run silent, run deep, electronically speaking. Any EM leakage will allow the aliens to discover us, and when they discover us, we’re nothing but probe fodder.

We must spare no effort, spare no expense! Shut it down, shut it all down. Now!

Let Taleb deny it if he can! The burden of proof of the absence of these harms is on those who would deny it. Right?

I pointed these facts out in the Stream article “Attack Of The Black Swans From Outer Space“. I kindly provided a copy and links to Taleb so he could ponder his philosophy in action.

That’s when he blocked me on Twitter.


Taleb’s argument is actually old and goes by the name the precautionary principle, otherwise known as What about the children! Those who hold with the precautionary principle say that if a bad thing can happen, we must protect against that bad thing. Better safe than sorry. The culmination of effeminacy combined with irrational fear.

Which reminds me of the old definition of a sweater. A sweater is an article of clothing a child puts on when the mother gets cold.

Precaution is trivially dispatched as a reasonable argument. Here’s how. The list of things that could kill you, or everybody, is infinite. Each of these things, if they are contingent, i.e. involving logically possible things, must therefore be protected against if the precautionary principle is valid. Since the list of precautions you must take are infinite, you are paralyzed. No, it’s worse: you cannot even sit still.

Want to take a walk after—or, more likely, during—this speech? Well, a bus could careen off a cab, jump the curb, and flatten you. Or maybe sitting still is safer; maybe have a small nap. Stay put and a chandelier can plummet from the ceiling and plunge into your skull. Take a breath and you risk inhaling some carcinogenic compound. Hold your breath and asphyxiate.

There is nowhere safe, no amount of precaution that you could take that will save you from doom. Some try to rescue the principle by saying it is only those threats which are “plausible” which need to protected against. This move fails because to say a thing is “plausible” means to make assumptions that make the thing possible, and it is the assumptions that are always in dispute.

For instance, we can easily assume conditions that make it likely the Black Swan Alien attack will occur. Not too long ago scientists at some radio telescope began receiving mysterious, unexplainable signals. Well, I can explain them. It’s the Black Swan Aliens communicating with their Mother Ship which is hiding behind Jupiter. Why not? You have no proof I am wrong.

Now you can argue against my assumptions, but that is just the point. It is always the assumptions which are the point. It is never the horrible event. Everybody understands what the Alien attack means, just as everybody understands what runaway-global-warming-of-doom means. Both will destroy (they say) Life As We Know It. The consequences of any evil are well understood.

That means, as should have been clear from the start, that what counts are the assumptions. And other words for “assumptions” is “theory” or “model.” I’ll speak more about theory after discussing the proposed fixes of our impending doom.

What precautionary principle supporters are trying to do in saying their doom should be protected against but the alien attack shouldn’t is cheating. They are assuming the validity of their theory and denigrating mine without any argument except prejudice. They are trying to slip their theory past your defenses so that you start arguing about the consequences of the theory and not the theory itself.

It’s worse than it sounds. People invariably invoke the precautionary principle to advocate some expensive or power-accumulating scheme. Yet what folks like Taleb never realize is that if their schemes are adopted, then the principle can then be turned around and used against them.

People who want to “save the planet” want to do all kinds of curious things, like creating an army of short people, about which more in a minute. Now this miniaturization of mankind might very well lower the planet’s mean temperature by a tenth of a degree—who knows? But is it possible that shrinking everybody by forced genetic manipulation might have untoward effects?

I speak of the Doctrine of Unexpected Consequences, summed up well in the popular phrase, “What Could Go Wrong?”

Practical, ubiquitous electrification has done much good, but it has also caused soul-destroying. peace-wrecking music to harass you wherever you go. There is no escape from it in any public place. The Internet has showed us what the media in the West really is, but it has also made us stupider as we no longer know how to rely on our memories; what can’t be looked up in an instant may as well not exist.

The late and mostly great philosopher David Stove in his essay “Why You Should be a Conservative” said that the oldest and best argument for conservatism is

that our actions almost always have unforeseen and unfortunate consequences. It is an argument from so great a fund of experience, that nothing can rationally outweight it. Yet somehow, at any rate in socieites like ours, this argumeant is never given its due weight. When what is called a “reform” proves to be, yet again, a cure worse than the disease, the assumption is always that what is needed is still more, and still more drastic “reform.”

Human behavior is hideously complex. Nobody is consistently good at predicting it. Yet every politician and activist knows just what will cure all of what ails us.

The poet Robert Burns knew the Doctrine of Unexpected Consequences well.

But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Short people got no reason to live

Many otherwise reasonable and responsible people have so addled their minds with the belief that we face environmental (yet not spiritual) doom that they have proposed some of the most outrageous, preposterous, foolish, and idiotic schemes to save us. You can hardly open a scientific journal these days and not think you’re looking at plot treatments for 1950s science fiction B-movies.

An NYU professor name Liao—a short professor, a little guy—wants to shrink mankind so that big men like me can’t dominate people like him. Large men eat more than small, ceteras parabis, and growing food, he says, adds carbon dioxide and other gases to the atmosphere, acts which he takes on faith will kill or greatly harm us all.

How will Liao midgetify mankind? Via “preimplantation genetic diagnosis”, a process which involves “[re-]thinking the criteria for selecting which embryos to implant”. Liao, you see, is a dedicated follower of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It’s not clear what Liao advocates for those who slip by the Gene Police and inadvertently turn out tall. Perhaps post-birth abortions. Genetics is not a precise science.

Liao intimates only stupid people have many kids. Thus he suggests “cognitive enhancement” to lower birth rates. He says “many environmental problems seem to be exacerbated by—or perhaps even result from—a lack of appreciation of the value of other life forms and nature itself.” Solution? Shoot people up with the “prosocial hormone oxytocin” or a “noradrenaline reuptake inhibitor”. Also—and you could see this one coming from a mile off—reduce testosterone. Sorry, big men. Liao seems to have it in for us. Can you imagine the lines outside the government “Health” clinics to get your mandatory shots?

All this seem intrusive to you? Not so, says our little friend: “human engineering could be liberty-enhancing.” Liberty enhancing? Yes, sir. He says “if we were able to scale the size of human beings, then given the same fixed allocation of greenhouse gas emissions, some families may be able to have more than two children.” How generous!

Liao and his academic colleagues also suggest poisoning the food supply; or, rather, poisoning you so that you cease enjoying meat. They advocate making people wear meat patches, akin to nicotine patches, that “induce mild intolerance” by causing the immune system to “react” against meat proteins. He says, “henceforth eating `eco-unfriendly’ food would induce unpleasant experiences. Even if the effects do not last a lifetime, the learning effect is likely to persist for a long time.” You bet it will.

Let me read to you something written by Julia Pongratz of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology:

Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes had an impact on the global carbon cycle as big as today’s annual demand for gasoline. The Black Death, on the other hand, came and went too quickly for it to cause much of a blip in the global carbon budget.

Now both the Mongol horde and the Black Death lasted about a century, and while the Black Death killed twice as many people as did Genghis and his followers, it didn’t kill with the same efficiency as the Mongols. The plague would wander into a populated area and, depending on its mood, would take a out a few here, a few there. It left many survivors who would continue emitting carbon dioxide.

Contrast that with the Mongols. They would ride to town, surround it, encourage its occupants to surrender and be killed in an organized, efficient manner. Or, if the town were recalcitrant, the Mongols would lay siege and then kill everybody in a sloppy, disorganized way.

The good thing about this, according to Pongratz, was that when the hordes pushed on towards their next set of victims, they left only silence behind. And barren—freshly fertilized!—ground covered in tree seeds—seeds which were able to grow into forests which sucked CO2 from the air, thus cooling the planet.

Somebody said of Pongratz’s discovery, “Genghis Khan’s bloody conquests scrubbed 700 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere as depopulated land returned to forest.” The Mongols again killed only half as many as the Black Death, but by removing these folks contiguously, unlike the hit-and-miss approach of the plague, “there was enough time for the forests to re-grow and absorb significant amounts of carbon.”

Pongratz says, “Based on the knowledge we have gained from the past, we are now in a position to make land-use decisions that will diminish our impact on climate and the carbon cycle.” We now know that we can’t rely on disease to solve our global warming problems.

We wonder how Pongratz plans to ressurrect, or create a new, Genghis Kahn.

Besides killing people off, preventing their births, or chemically enslaving them, academics also often suggest monkeying with the atmosphere itself. The want to dump massive, stunning amounts of fertilizer into the ocean and stimulate plankton growth. Or they want to dump massive, stunning amounts of sparkily debris into the stratosphere and reflect away life-giving sunshine. The list is endless, or as endless as the grant money supporting these people.

These folks never pause to consider they know not of what they speak. Besides ignoring the Doctrine of Unexpected Consequences, they assume their theories of doom are true. Why do they make that assumption? Why do they rely so heavily on theory?

Part II tomorrow.


  1. “That’s when he blocked me on Twitter” How dare you impart reality! No wonder he blocked you!

    Actually, there’s a tick that causes a red meat allergy. Maybe Liao could breed a bunch of these and loose them on the population.

    As for geoengineering, as the climate people say when one rudely points out how models fail “We have RIGHT this time”. Don’t worry, they know what they’re doing. 🙂

  2. As I recall, one of the subplots in Vonnegut’s Slapstick was that the Chinese shrank their population microscopically. The population became airborne, were breathed in by unshrunk people and literally caused an “Asian” “flu” epidemic.

    Speaking of Vonnegut, “Cat’s Cradle” could be updated with a new subplot where Ice-Nine was developed to save the shrinking Arctic sea ice!

    “Bokonon saw that the truth was an ugly thing indeed, so he sought to offer the citizens of San Lorenzo hope through comforting lies. He created the religion of Bokononism and asked McCabe to outlaw it so that the religion would be more exciting and meaningful for its practitioners.”

    OH My Gosh! Al Gore and their ilk haven’t read their Vonnegut!

    They NEED Trump to OUTLAW Global Warming Theory so people will jump on!

  3. As a strict constructionist regarding the Precautionary Principle, I insist it be applied to itself. Considering the distinct plausibility of it being codswallop, PP should be completely ignored and not allowed to paralyze or make things worse. Doing otherwise is unfair and discriminatory and intolerant.

  4. The Precautionary Principle works both ways, sometimes evidence for pursuing something isn’t accepted until even more compelling evidence is generated — the FDA does this with emphasis on seeking high confidence that adverse side effects are not going to be an issue. Usually. To the extent that U.S. citizens are often deprived of helpful medications readily available in other advanced countries.

    Curious that didn’t make it into a speech to doctors.

    Corporations, and other large entities such as government agencies, do similar — endlessly studying something to ensure they’ll get the outcome right. “Paralysis by analysis” goes the saying for that.

    Sometimes, such agencies, organizations, and even individuals apply inductive reasoning (remember that recent blog essay here?) and conclude that cryptic inconclusive evidence is sufficient–due to the potential for extreme harm–to justify taking preventative action not only well before something is proven but before basic understandings pertaining to cause(s) [and effects] are understood.

    Isn’t that what the Precautionary Principle is — basing a decision on induction.

    Think about all the times one does this without thinking, or, after thinking. Consider the case of so-called anti-vax during the first Gulf War. Folks in the military were reporting what came to later be known as Gulf War syndrome (fatigue, etc. from indeterminate causes). A host of hypotheses were given, none proven, and one, or several, was/were associated with the cocktail of vaccines given to troops before deploying. It wasn’t long before a populist uprising from within the ranks of the military started zeroing in on symptoms correlated with the anthrax vaccine. No cause-effect relationship, just anecdotal patterns & gossip.

    Canada, for example, allowed its personnel to opt out of the anthrax vaccine in 2000 (e.g. see here: http://www.nti.org/gsn/article/half-of-us-military-personnel-refuse-anthrax-shot-5960/). But by then word leaked out that the type of vaccine was mismatched to the type of threat exposure, and, the source of the vaccine was itself tainted by failed FDA inspections (e.g. see http://www.michigandaily.com/content/anthrax-vaccine-manufacturer-seeks-gain-approval-fda).

    Was the vaccine really tainted, causing a syndrome in soldiers the press didn’t pick up on for some years? Don’t know. But does anyone think in hindsight that a perceived correlation that led people to refuse a particular vaccine, even at the risk of dishonorable military discharge, was imprudent? Hardly (though some/many will argue) — after all, it did come out the supplier failed FDA certification.

    Sometimes, induction does lead to a recognition of patterns highly indicative of serious effects — effects so serious that until one knows for sure, acting as if the effects ARE caused (and not just correlated) is universally regarded as prudent.

    The U.S. FDA does this routinely by withholding approval for use of drugs approved by other advanced countries — effectively treating as inductive information/data what other assess as highly credible, even proof, of safety.

    Similarly, the FDA commonly imposes a temporary ban on some drug, or drug from some source based on indicators of possible impropriety — they don’t wait for proof (they apply induction). And is that really so bad?

    Recall Briggs’ description of induction:

    “”There is no knowledge more certain than that provided by induction. Without induction, no argument could, as they say, get off the ground floor; this is because induction provides that ground floor. No argument could even be phrased if it were not for induction, … “The goal of induction,” Groarke tells us, “is not simply to prove that something is the case but to provoke an understanding of the general case.”” (http://wmbriggs.com/)

    When induction leads us to assess that something might be so bad, and irrecoverably damaging, that we need to inquire further, is it really so bad that some of us might want to stop altogether until we, ‘if not prove something is the case to at least better understand the general case’? (to paraphrase Briggs’ quote of Groarke)

    The fact is we as a society, and as individuals, do this sort of thing routinely. Our FDA does this routinely — and very few complain for having done so (those typically being firms whose drug sales are on hold pending FDA approval) …certainly not as loudly as the occasional cacophony when the FDA didn’t take action when it ought to have and bad things ensued as a result.

    The Precautionary Principle is, in lay terms, the old adage — a philosophy — “Better safe than sorry.” We ALL live by that, to varying degrees. For the most part, we ALL find that, in practice, prudent.

    What we see here is a recurring pattern — induction for cause is applied when the author believes in the perceived effect … and when the effect is doubted, or distasteful, maligned (e.g. as done to N. Taleb).

    Completely absent, so far, is some discourse for assessing when it might be prudent to act on induction absent compelling evidence for cause.

  5. Taleeb was a financial trader/speculator living in a world of heavy tailed distributions and ergotic series. He doesn’t distinguish between “has happened before” and Sci-fi extrapolation fantasies.

  6. (The next stanza)
    Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me
    The present only toucheth thee:
    But, Och! I backward cast my e’e.
    On prospects drear!
    An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
    I guess an’ fear
    -Robert Burns

  7. There is also the chance, however so small, Taleb’s next car ride produces the marginal carbon output that tilts (so to speak) the earth’s climate toward a firey death. Has he even considered that? Nah … he doesn’t mean what he says, as evidenced by his actions. He only “means” what he says when those statements lead to a conclusion he desires.

  8. No matter what bad things may happen to us we can always imagine something worse. A tennis pro at my local club was hit by a car while riding his bike. As a result, his humerus was broken in several places and shattered in another. It has ended his playing career and severely affected his teaching/coaching career. And yet, he considers himself lucky. You see he hadn’t practiced the precautionary principle and worn a helmet. He says he can only imagine what his life would be like if he’d landed on his head and ended up with brain damage.

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