For the closing days of summer, I am posting every chapter of the first edition of Everything You Believe Is Wrong. My enemies ravaged the first edition, inserting typos galore while I was distracted in the service of our people. I here leave their efforts untouched, so that the insidiousness of their behavior is plain. Meanwhile, I am completely revamping and expanding the book, and looking forward to incorporating your comments and criticisms (no need to point out typos and grammar errors). The second edition will be glorious.
This is the Chapter 9: Somebody Might Get Hurt!.
Word is, our beneficent government, which loves us and would not see us fall into harm, is working on a design for a system of chains to anchor both citizens and our non-citizen visitors firmly to the earth. Why? Because gravity might reverse itself.
That, dear reader, despite its rank absurdity, is a true statement. Gravity might reverse itself. And if it does, we’d be in some pretty deep kimchi. So the government would be well justified in shackling us to the ground.
What we have is an actual possibility, a non-zero probability, of a unimaginable calamity. The ill effects of the calamity would be so awful that nobody could calculate them. Why, they’d be costlier than the entire Federal debt times two. It would be so horrific that the hosts of NPR would raise their voices.
Yet the whole thing is obviously preposterous.
This is the Somebody Might Get Hurt! Fallacy, a.k.a. the What About The Children! Fallacy, a.k.a. the We’re All Going To Die Fallacy, a.k.a. the Better Safe Than Sure! Fallacy. It is the only fallacy comes with an exclamation point: technically it should also be written in italics to emphasize its dire nature.
The only time this fallacy is written about soberly is when when it appears in scientific literature, where it is called the Precautionary Principle.
The old joke used to be that a sweater was defined as an article of clothing that a child put on when its mother got cold. The joke is the same, but without the laughs, when “mother” has been swapped for “government.”
Now for the structure of the fallacy. The problem lies in the nature of contingency. All physical events, such as gravity reversing itself, the climate spinning out of control and forcing the atmosphere to resemble a giant pizza oven, plastic bags tainting the water supply turning us all into three-armed mutants, dust in air causing hearts to seize up solid, and on and on, are all contingent possibilities.
Contingent physical events are not logically necessary. It is a rock-solid undefeatable fact of the universe that what happened could have happened differently, and thus that what might happen could be virtually anything. Mountains might grow legs and dance, goats might swell to terrible size and begin goring the populace, social justice warriors might become tolerant of dissent. Anything that can be imagined to happen that is not impossible to happen might happen.
This includes the worst that could happen: the world might be destroyed. Yet just as the entire planet may be in peril, it may also be saved if only we exert enough effort to guard against the danger. The costs incurred from an apocalypse would by definition be astronomical, incalculably large, almost infinite. Therefore, no expense would be too large, no measure would be too draconian, no action would be too desperate to “Save the planet!” Anything the government wants to do would be justified, as long as it is done in the name of “Saving” the planet.
The kicker is that because any peril that can be named might happen, those the rule over us always have an excuse for any action. As long as the peril is made convincing enough, and if the action can be justified in the name of removing the peril.
In spite of these indisputable truths, the Somebody Might Get Hurt! Fallacy is an informal and not a formal fallacy, much in the way that the No True Scotsman and Slippery Slope are informal fallacies. This means that calling out an argument by labeling it one of these fallacies is not a rigorous proof your enemy’s argument is false. This is why it never does any logical good to tell the government that its latest action is silly or absurd. They can always retort truthfully that unimaginable evils await unless they have their way.
Still, the Somebody Might Get Hurt! Fallacy is an informal fallacy, which means it can be answered.
When your mother told you to put on a sweater or to come out of the water, your natural retort was “I’m not cold!” What that answer does is reject the premise used by your mom in issuing her demand. Or you might have been cold but were having too much fun, so you said, “Oh, mom. Just five more minutes!” That rebuts the cost.
You have to do the same thing with the government. When it says we have to, for instance, “Stop climate change!” you have to ask, Can the climate be stopped from changing? The answer is no. Can the government at least stop citizens from influencing the climate? The answer is no. (Every breath you take influences the climate, albeit to a microscopic degree.) What can the government do, then? Certainly not as much as promised. Again, if global cooling—or global warming, or climate change, or whatever it is next—is or has been so dangerous for the last forty or fifty years, ask Why does it seem so nice outside? If all you hear are horrible, but vague threats—no specific dates or locations given—you are likely in the realm of the Somebody Might Get Hurt!
Here is a more robust example. Hostile aliens from outer space might attack. These malicious aliens will know we are here on earth because of our electronic emissions, which bathe the planet in a soft but increasingly bright glow. If these aliens discover us and manage to get here, it’s obvious that mankind is kaput. As in wiped out. À la mort.
Solution? Hide! Cease immediately all use of anything and everything powered by electricity. This shuts off the glow like flicking a switch. Sure, this necessary action will cause some inconveniences such as the ruination of the world;s economy and maybe the odd mass starvation since food will become scarce. But, hey, we’re talking about the survival of the entire human race! Don’t you care what happens to people? Women, children, and minorities will be hardest hit. You brute.
What’s the likelihood of an alien attack? It’s complicated, but all the best scientists say it’s not impossible. Which is logically equivalent to saying it’s possible. Anyway, what’s the difference? As long as the chance is non-zero and the costs of failing to act are near infinite, shutting down the world is the only sane move.
What’s that you say? The burden of proof is on me? There’s no evidence of a forthcoming invasion?
What are you, some kind of denier? I’ve already told you a consensus of scientists agree the attack is possible. Just listen to a thinker like Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb is the author of the influential The Black Swan, Fooled by Randomness, and other works which warn of the over-certainty and dangers that result from relying too strongly on models and accepted wisdom. Taleb thinks people often have an incomplete understanding of the risk of “unpredictable” situations.
On the subject of planetary risks and why it is unwise to ignore them, Taleb and three others said recently1, “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.”
Let’s check this statement with respect to an alien invasion. (1) Absence of evidence. Check. No aliens have been sighted on the plane of the ecliptic. (2) Enormously consequential action; indeed, none more consequential. Check. The death of all of us has to be up near the top of the list of calamities. (3) Thus, ancestral wisdom and scientific decision-making demand we hit the OFF switch. Shut it all down!
Taleb and pals were invoking the precautionary principle, that tough-to-pin-down philosophical argument which might be classed as the secular version of Pascal’s Wager. Pascal showed that, given God exists, the reward that awaits those who believe in Him are incomprehensibly greater than the punishments in store for those who don’t. He also said that if God didn’t exist, it costs very little to believe anyway; plus, there’s not much to be gained in not believing (maybe you get to wear a t-shirt with a pasta-God on it at some atheist convention down at the Ramada Inn).
Pascal’s wager works because proving whether God exists, showing what God is, and understanding the penalties and rewards resulting from belief are metaphysical and not scientific exercises. God’s omnipotence is not subject to empirical measure, for instance. Only philosophy and theology can explain the nature and conditions of the wager.
Conversely, the precautionary principle, while it is much in vogue, is substantially less useful because it is empirical and therefore reliant on our state of scientific knowledge. It is used for questions where the evidence for a threat and for consequences of actions in response to that threat are rarely or never certain, or are even unknown.
That second conjunction is almost always forgotten—and that’s the problem.
Taleb and his co-authors are pleading for action on global warming. They remind us, “We have only one planet,” (which is often heard, as if the information were not remembered), and say that even “a risk with a very low probability becomes unacceptable when it affects all of us.” And they argue that “it is standard textbook decision theory that a policy should depend at least as much on uncertainty concerning the adverse consequences as it does on the known effects.” After suggesting carbon dioxide is “pollution” they conclude that “we should build down CO2 emissions, even regardless of what climate-models tell us.”
Climate models tell us the world should be much hotter than it is, which is a polite way of saying they’re poor indicators of what might happen. Any model that doesn’t predict reality for as long as climate models have not should not bee heeded. Taleb and friends tacitly agree with this, but still insist “precaution” (that is, reduction of carbon dioxide) is the route to take.
They’re wrong; here’s why.
First, what is the difference between the dire threats of global-warming-of-doom versus alien invasion? Given the evidence, both have low probabilities, and both would affect all of us. But hostile aliens would be worse. Global-warming-of-doom would at least leave some of us alive.
The most important similarity is that we have little reason to believe either one. The failure of climate models is proof that global-warming-of-doom as theorized by scientists isn’t true (in its current form). If the theory were true, then the models would have worked. They didn’t work (at predicting future observations), so the theory can’t be true. Of course, it remains a trivial logical truth that carbon dioxide, or indeed any other chemical or compound, might cause doom in some unforeseen way, but then it is also logically true that aliens might wipe us all out.
Taleb believes in the threat of carbon dioxide even after that threat (in the form envisioned by the models) has been disproved. This is not believing in the absence of evidence, it is believing in spite of it.
Second, Taleb and co-authors fail to imagine the consequences of heavily suppressing carbon dioxide emissions. This is the part fans of the precautionary principle always forget (and which Pascal did not). The likely effects on mankind of shutting down fossil fuel use would be something like the effect of making ourselves invisible to alien invaders: mass poverty and starvation.
Here’s the real kicker: Planet-wide limiting of carbon dioxide would also have an effect on the climate—and on many other things, including all plant and animal life. But what would those effects be? Nobody knows. And nobody knows whether they would be good or bad. They could be really bad, if, as some scientists are supposing, we’re coming into a period of solar quiescence and possibly much cooler temperatures.
The stress is on “nobody knows.” If we knew what would have happened, then our models would have worked. They didn’t, so we cannot claim to know what the effects of carbon dioxide additions or deletions would be (within the limits of possible human actions).
If we want to know what is the best course, then we need to first understand the real drivers of the climate and the resulting uncertainties. And we also need a vastly better handle on what changes in human behavior would do. We lack both of these.
The precautionary principle could as easily be used to justify doing nothing, or even to warrant increasing our output of carbon dioxide.
Or to guarding against angry little green men.
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