Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Thought Experiment

Lefties sometimes invoke the "precautionary principle" as justifying climate change public policies such as an emissions cap or carbon tax. This has the advantage (for them) of inverting the burden of proof and affirmatively using doubt against skeptics--even if the science isn't settled, they say, we must act immediately to avoid the worst case. This post assumes the soundness and validity of such logic.

I drafted this last weekend on the road without time for external research and links, but it occurred to me that I've seen this debate before--and progressives were on the other side. Specifically, President Bush adopted a new "preemption" policy, which was the first of three rationales he cited for invading Iraq. He reasoned that the widely-shared apprehension of Iraqi WMDs meant we could not wait for a threat to become "imminent."

Of course, it turned out that Iraq had few WMDs (though toppling Saddam advanced Bush's other two objectives). But assessing whether or not Saddam had WMDs demanded predictive judgment, which the Bush Administration made on the basis of the best info available. Whether or not Iraq had WMDs required assessing incomplete and ambiguous intelligence and then deciding: yes or no?

Fair-minded observers should agree that predicting earth's future climate is far more complex. True, analyzing the data is similar to reading intel. But climate numbers are only inputs to computer models of enormous complexity. (The fact that climate models often have been wrong is indirect evidence of the degree of difficulty.) Further, the models output high and low estimates of expected warming, not a binary choice. Such possible ranges (i.e., confidence or expected error) are both huge and hugely significant: some warming might be tolerable or even good, or better mitigated in other ways. So there are multiple possible scenarios supporting numerous public policy determinations.

Finally, my question: if we must act now to reduce alleged global warming based on disputed evidence, doesn't that validate the Iraq invasion? I ask because of the high correlation between warming alarmists and Iraq invasion opponents. Might this syllogism at least slow the carbon cut train wreck while progressives pause and parse: "Uh, um. . ."?


Anonymous said...

The difficulty with arguments like this is that they always, at least to some extent, cut both ways. Can't your progressive interlocutor say: OK, you bought the precautionary argument on Iraq, so why come out the other way on AGW?

--ScurvyOaks, playing devil's advocate

Carl said...

True, but that's why I stressed the difference in degree of difficulty and the likelihood we could address warming via other means, i.e., adaptation.

Marc said...

It is the rare person who forms his opinion through logic and evidence. In most cases, a conclusion has already been reach before supported evidence is gathered and argued. It's true for the Left and the Right. Ideology rules. All things being equal, I'd rather argue with a wise person on the Right than one on the Left.

When I was more liberal, I accepted AGW without question. When I turned more conservative, I argued against it.

Now I'm agnostic. I don't know what's going on. I'm not a scientist.

I do know that there's mendacious behavior and fuzzy thinking on both sides of the argument.

OBloodyHell said...

Carl: Excellent point.

Scurvy: Not really, since we aren't claiming that AGW must be dealt with, all the while ignoring the same application to US actions in Iraq. The leftists are using two mutually exclusive positions based on which argument they want to bolster.

In addition, the Iraq threat was hardly trivial even without WMDs, as I will describe below. This means that the precautionary principle can be applied to Iraq while still being inapplicable to AGW -- AGW has not only questions as to its veracity, but, even if you DID grant it, there are serious questions about the approach to be used, and massive evidence that the one being chosen ("carbon control") is not only a bad choice, it's one of the worst possible, since it narrows down our options in some far more scary disaster scenarios *IF* AGW is flat-out wrong. We could impoverish ourselves for nothing leaving us vulnerable to some other catastrophe. Apply your precautionary principle to that.

And finally on that, the precautionary principle only applies when you can define, within reason, the risks on both sides with some semblance of accuracy.

Without that ability, it instead becomes the logically flawed reasoning behind "Pascal's Wager" which is not the same by any means (though they are often conflated by people who don't grasp the difference -- I seem to recall having made this distinction before here, but perhaps it was elsewhere).

Pascal's wager is their argument, not the PP, which is a flaw in Carl's discussion, since by calling it the PP instead of PW, he is giving their claim veracity it does not deserve. (And that's something you ought to address in any discussion of this, Carl).


> Of course, it turned out that Iraq had few WMDs (though toppling Saddam advanced Bush's other two objectives).

The fact that Saddam HAD few WMDs is relevant but hardly the killer point it's often made out to be.

Hans Blix (hardly a Bushian shill) openly acknowledged that, while Saddam had very few WMDs, he retained the production capability to the extent that, within 90 days of the relaxation of sanctions, he would be able to make (botulin or anthrax -- I forget which) in industrial quantities, and, after another 90 (180 total) he would be able to make the other of those -- so less than six months after the end of sanctions, he would be able to produce both in quantity...

And as anyone who was paying attention would grasp, the vast quantities of Oil-for-Food money he was throwing around as bribes (enough to make Enron look like two-bit chiselers) were rapidly eroding those sanctions. They would certainly be gone by this point, for years.

In short, if we had not taken him out of power he would long since have had them at this point.

And then we would have been stuck sitting around with our pollexes inserted in our nether sphincters while he provided some terrorist group with the stuff, and/or had to take him out when he was armed with the stuff and had nothing to lose.

So, in short, taking out Saddam was the right move on the basis of concern over his having WMDs even without the WMDs.

Likewise, taking on Iraq, rather than Iran, was the proper move since Iran is still not a threat (yet, anyway) and Iraq, as shown above, would have become a major threat by this time.

Carl said...

OBH: You did make the argument about Pascal's Wager before--indeed, I cited it in the second link. I agree that warming alarmists often confuse the two principles but, for this piece, wanted to concede the point to force the contradiction.

Rick Caird said...

The precautionary principle is dragged out by the left when they have no real argument to make. They cannot argue on facts, so they argue on emotion. If the left really believed in the precautionary principal, they would never get into their car and drive anywhere. It is risky, ya' know.

OBloodyHell said...

Actually, Rick, that's not the Precautionary Principle you argue for, it's the defective Pascal's Wager.

I mean, if you haven't evaluated the alternatives, then how do you know it's not more dangerous to stay home?

Meteorites do fall, ya' know?



Rick Caird said...

I disagree that it is Pascal's wager. The precautionary principle argues there is potential danger, so we should do nothing rather than take the risk. While walking is not risk free, it is less risky than driving. Hence, the precautionary principle would argue you should walk or stay home.

Pascal's wager argues given a choice, we should take the more inclusive option. Pascal argued that if there is no God, there is no danger in believing there is one because no harm comes if you are wrong. On the other hand, if you do not believe in a God and there is one, the results could be catastrophic.