Climate of Complete Incomprehension
by Peter Dorman (originally published at Econospeak)
Climate of Complete Incomprehension
I finally got around to reading the NY Times new “responsible conservative”, Bret Stephens’, call for skepticism and moderation on climate change. He adopts an attitude that exudes reasonableness and rejection of hubris. Complicated modeling is an uncertain business and often fails; just look at Hilary Clinton’s Big Data campaign gurus. Climate change is such a difficult, uncertain business, so why don’t liberals just back off and stop invoking a “scientific consensus” to bludgeon common people who don’t think decarbonization is the be-all and end-all?
If this is the outer limit of right-wing sanity, we’ve really got our work cut out for us.
First off, the guy seems to live in a binary, pre-probability universe. At least, that’s the only sense I can make of a paragraph like
Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warming of the earth since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future. To say this isn’t to deny science. It’s to acknowledge it honestly.
Well, yes. I’ve read the latest assessment reports and the ones that preceded it, and it’s true that each claim is assigned a rough probability.
But to counterpose “fact” and “probability” is to really not understand how modern science works. Science is always a matter of probability. When I do a statistical test, I don’t sum it up by saying that it proves that my result is a “fact”, but that I can assign a provisional probability to it, or a confidence interval or (best yet) a plausible probability distribution around my best guess of what’s going on. This is the basis for all modern work in the empirical sciences, and singling out the use of probabilities by IPCC as somehow demanding less credence or urgency is to demonstrate his own ignorance.
And there’s more. Implicit in the entire piece is that the uncertainty is one-sided, that climate change might be as bad as the models predict, or it might be a more minor problem. It never dawns on him that probability distributions have two tails, and the consequences of foregoing climate action might be much more severe, catastrophic even, than the mean prediction suggests. This makes it clear that Stephens’ use of “probabilistic” to denigrate concern on climate change is pure ideology: he’s using the word to blow smoke over the issue rather than to illuminate it.
This is just op-ed #1 from their new guy, but it already looks like the Times has hired a hack.
although I think people in general have great problems intuitively grasping stochasticism. He is not alone in that.
But he may not be a hack, he may genuinely not understand science. In which case he is merely totally unqualified to write the column he did.
it is good that you are keeping track of this. there is no doubt that “the Right” pays people to lie about everything that affects their interests in power and money without regard to immediate or long term consequences to human beings.
please let me suggest that when you are speaking (writing) in the “voice” of the person you are disagreeing with that you take more care to identify that is what you are doing. otherwise the careless reader may think you are expressing your own opinion.
in case it’s not clear, i agree with you entirely. not sure what to do about it. most people can’t understand this and are easily fooled by arguments they want to believe if it promises them lower taxes or they get to keep their big, powerful car.
I am not sure that words like “stochasticism” help much.
If you pitched the changes needed as insurance against the potential bad things folks might better understand it. After all with the exception of life insurance most insured events have a probability of less than 1, as of course does term life. People at least sort of understand insurance since so much of it is required in todays world. So ask how much would you pay to avoid the potential problems in the furture. No need to invoke stochasticism at all. You say there is a non zero probability these things will happen if nothing is done, but we can avoid them by doing x,y,z for some amount of money, do you want to pay the premium requested?
Of course this does raise the issue of how to calculate NPV etc., as well as how valuable the future is to folks.
I have not read the Stephens article, and I did not see Peter bringing this up, although it is implicit in his post, but a major issue regarding probabilities involves whether or not the weather is normally or otherwise distributed. If it is normally distributed, no fat tails, then the probability of a really catastrophic temperature increase of say 12 degrees Celsius is truly miniscule. But if it is power law distributed, a Pareto distribution say, which is very likely given the nonlinearities in the global climate system with positive feedback effects, then the probability of a 12 degree or more temp increase is as high as 1%, not high, but not miniscule either . Martin Weitzman made this argument a few years ago.
This has to be one of the dumbest posts I’ve read in a long time. Ostensibly the author disagrees with Stephens’ op-ed, then he sets out and validates it, adding a lot of snark. ???????
Looks like you didn’t understand the post.
Just what this blog needed, a dumbed down version of he who must not be named.
Dumbered down? Dumbest down?
When I saw the story of the breakup of the Oroville Dam overflow, I smugly thought to myself that someone had blown it, they should have been releasing water long before, had all generators on line at capacity, etc. Few weeks later, I heard an interview of the dam’s Dept. of Water Resources Mgr. on NPR whereon he said that the rainfall in the watershed preceding the incident had, in very short order, exceeded 500% of normal. How likely, how foreseeable, such a deluge?
Consequent incidences of this sort, we often hear the term ‘100 year’ flood, wave, storm, etc. Occasionally one hears the term ‘1,000 year’ flood, wave, storm, etc. The term ‘100 year —-‘ is an actuarial term speaking to the statistical probability of an event’s occurrence; in this case, a 1% probability or a 1 in 100 chance of occurring in any given year. . Actuarially, an insurance company would quote a premium of about $10.00 plus overhead and profit for a one year policy coverage of $1,000.00 for such a possibility. Likewise, an insurance company might quote an annual premium of $1.00 plus overhead and profit for coverage of the possibility of a ‘1,000 year event’ given that the probability of the event occurring was 1 in 1,000, or 0.01%.
What about an event with a probability of occurrence of 97%, or, a 97 in 100 chance of occurring? The insurance company would most assuredly want at an annual premium of at least $970.00 plus overhead and profit for one a one year $1,000.00 policy: about $970.00 + (15% of $970.00) + (10% of $970.00 + $97.00) = $970.00 + $145.50 + $111.55 = $1,227.05.
97% of climate scientists agree that human-caused climate change is happening. What would be the one year premium quote for a policy covering damage from climate change?
Coberly, I’m not sure what your problem with “stochasticism” is. What word would you rather use? I’m not sure that many people who don’t understand what it means read this blog.
In general, humans have a big problem with the idea that the world is not deterministic. The human brain is a pattern fitting machine and even tries to determine a cause when there isn’t one.
I think your self-referential post is absolutely brilliant satire. I hope it doesn’t go over your own head.
I guess it’s because its another “ism.” And because I don’t think it’s a real word. But I have to admit I am having trouble coming up with another word that means “ability to understand statistical concepts,” or even if that is what you meant.