Earth Day, Doomsday, and Chicken Little

It’s Earth Day, so time for a brief break from my laserlike, day-long focus on complexity theory, and for my long-promised post about climate change.

Let me lay my cards on the table. I think that we’re in the same position with climate change today that we were with Hitler in 1938. That position, in case you’re wondering, is on the brink of a shitstorm. And as with the lead-up to that earlier shitstorm, some people are sanely worried, some are in active denial, and the rest are in “passive denial” — accepting the obvious if pressed, but preferring to think about more pleasant things like NP intersect coNP. It’s frustrating even to have to defend the “worried” view explicitly, since it’s so clear which way the debate will have been settled 50 years from now.

At the same time, I can’t ignore that there are thoughtful, humane, intelligent people — just like there were in the 1930’s — who downplay, equivocate over, and rationalize away the shitstorm that (again from my perspective) is gathering over our heads.

After all, isn’t the climate change business more complicated than all that? Do we even know the Earth is getting warmer? Okay, so maybe we do know, but do we really know why? Couldn’t it just be a coincidence that we’re pumping out billions of tons of CO2 and methane each year, and 19th-century physics tells us that will make the temperature rise, and the temperature is in fact rising as predicted? What about feedbacks like cloud cover, ocean absorbtion, and ice caps? And sure, maybe the feedbacks could at most buy a few decades, and maybe some of them (like melting ice caps darkening the Earth’s surface) are rapidly making things worse rather than better, but even so, wouldn’t the loss of some low-lying countries be more than balanced out by warmer winters in Ontario? And granted, maybe if our goal was to run a massive, irreversible geophysics experiment on an entire planet, it might be smarter to start with (say) Venus or Mars instead of Earth, but still — wouldn’t it be easier to adapt to a climate unlike any the planet has experienced in the last 200 million years than to drive Priuses instead of Cherokees? Isn’t it just a question of how to allocate resources, of how to maximize expected utility? And aren’t there other risks we should be more worried about, like bird flu, or out-of-control nanorobots converting the planet into grey goo?

I’ll tackle some of these questions in future posts or comments — though for most of them, the professionals at RealClimate can do a better job than I can. Today I want to try a different tack: flying over most of this well-worn ground, and aiming immediately for the one place where the climate skeptics invariably end up anyway when all of their other arguments have been exhausted. That place is the Chicken Little Argument.

“Back in the 1970’s, all you academics were screaming about overpopulation, and the oil shortage, and global cooling. That’s right, cooling: the exact opposite of warming! And before that it was radiation poisoning, or an accidental nuclear launch, and before that probably something else. Yet time after time, the doomsayers were wrong. So why should this time be any different? Why should ours be the one time when the so-called crisis is real, when it’s not a figment of a few scientists’ overheated imaginations?”

The first response, of course, is that sometimes the alarmists were right. More than once, our civilization really did face an existential threat, only to escape it by a hair. I already mentioned Hitler, but there’s another example that’s closer to the subject at hand.

In the 1970’s, Mario Molina and F. Sherwood Rowland realized that chlorofluorocarbons, then a common refrigerant, propellant, and cleaning solvent, could be broken down by UV light into compounds that then attacked the ozone molecules in the upper atmosphere. Had the resulting loss of ozone continued for much longer, the increased UV light reaching the Earth’s surface would eventually have decimated populations of plankton and cyanobacteria, which in turn could have destabilized much of the world’s food chain.

As with global warming today, the initial response of the chemical companies was to attack the ivory-tower, tree-hugging, funding-crazed, Cassandra-like messenger. But in 1985, Joseph Farman, Brian Gardiner, and Jonathan Shanklin looked into a weird error in ozone measurements over Antarctica, which seemed to show more than half the ozone there disappearing from September to December. When it turned out not to be an error, even Du Pont decided that planetary suicide wasn’t in its best interest, and CFC’s were phased out in most of the world by 1996. We survived that one.

But there’s a deeper response to the Chicken Little Argument, one that goes straight to the meat of the issue (chicken, I suppose). This is that, when we’re dealing with “indexical” questions — questions of the form “why us? why were we born in this era rather than a different one?” — we can’t apply the same rules of induction that work elsewhere.

To illustrate, consider a hypothetical planet where the population doubles every generation, until it finally depletes the planet’s resources and goes extinct. (Like bacteria in a petri jar.) Now imagine that in every generation, there are doomsayers preaching that the end is nigh, who are laughed off by folks with more common sense. By assumption, eventually the doomsayers will be right — their having been wrong in the past is just a precondition for there being a debate in the first place. But there’s a further point. If you imagine yourself chosen uniformly at random among all people ever to live on the planet, then with about 99% probability, you’ll belong to one of the last seven generations. The assumption of exponential growth makes it not just possible, but probable, that you’re near the end.

That’s one formulation (though not the best one) of the infamous Doomsday Argument, which says (roughly speaking) that the probability of human history continuing for millions of years longer is less than one would naïvely expect, since if it did so continue, then we would occupy an improbable position near the very beginning of that history. Obviously cavemen could have made the same argument, and they would have been wrong. The point is that, if everyone in history makes the Doomsday Argument, then most people who make it (or a suitable version of it) will by definition be right.

On hearing the Doomsday Argument for the first time, almost everyone thinks there must be a fallacy somewhere. But once you accept one key assumption, the Argument is a trivial consequence of Bayes’ Rule. So what is that key assumption? It’s what Nick Bostrom, in one of the only metaphysical page-turners ever written, calls the Self-Sampling Assumption (SSA). The SSA states that, if you consider a possible history of the world to have a prior probability p, and if that history contains N>0 people who you imagine you “could have been,” then you should judge the probability of your being a specific one of those people within that history to be p/N. Sound obvious? Well, you might imagine instead that you need to weight the probability of each history by the number of people in it — so that, if a history has ten times as many people who you “could have been,” then you would be ten times as likely to exist in that history in the first place. Bostrom calls this alternative the Self-Indication Assumption (SIA).

It’s not hard to show that switching from SSA to SIA exactly cancels out the effect of the Doomsday Argument — bringing you back to your “naïve” prior probabilities for each possible history. In short, if you accept SSA then the Doomsday Argument goes through, while if you accept SIA then it doesn’t.

But before you buy that “SIA not SSA” bumper-sticker for your SUV, let me point out the downsides. Firstly, SIA forces you to treat your own existence as a random variable — not as something you can just condition on! Indeed, the image that springs to mind is that of a warehouse full of souls, not all of which will get “picked” to inhabit a body. And secondly, assuming it’s logically possible for there to be a universe with an infinite number of people, SIA implies that we must live in such a universe. Usually, if you reach a definite empirical conclusion starting from pure thought, your best bet is to look around you. You might find yourself in a medieval monastery or an Amsterdam coffeeshop.

On the other hand, as Bostrom observed, the SSA carries some heavy baggage of its own. For example, it suggests the following “algorithm” by which the first people ever to live, call them (I dunno) “Adam” and “Eve,” could solve NP-complete problems in polynomial time. They simply guess a random solution, having formed the firm intention to

  1. have children (leading eventually to an exponential number of descendants) if the solution is wrong, or
  2. have no children if the solution is right.

(For this algorithm, it really does have to be “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”) Here’s the punchline: the prior probability of Adam and Eve’s choosing a wrong solution is close to 1, but under SSA, the posterior probability is close to 0. For if Adam and Eve guess a wrong solution, then with overwhelming probability they wouldn’t be Adam and Eve to begin with — they would be one of the numerous descendants thereof.

Indeed, there’s a loony, crackpot paper showing that if Adam and Eve had a quantum computer, then they could even solve PP-complete problems in polynomial time. Every day I’m dreading the Exxon ad: “If the assumptions underlying the Doomsday Argument were valid, it’s not just that Adam and Eve could solve NP-complete problems in polynomial time. Modulo a plausible derandomization assumption, a theorem of S. Aaronson implies they could decide the entire polynomial hierarchy! So go ahead, buy that monster SUV.”

If this discussion seems hopelessly speculative, well, that’s exactly the point. The Doomsday Argument is hopelessly speculative, but not more so than the Chicken Little Argument. Ultimately, both arguments rest on metaphysical assumptions about “why we’re us and not someone else” — about the probability of having been born into one historical epoch rather than another. This is not the sort of question that science gives us the tools to answer.

For me, then, the Doomsday Argument is like an ethereal missile that neutralizes the opposing missile of the Chicken Little Argument — leaving the ground troops below to slog it out based on, you know, actual facts and evidence. So I think the environmentalists’ message to the climate contrarians should be as follows: if you stick to the science, then we will too. But if you fall back on your favorite lazy meta-argument — “why should the task of saving the world have fallen to this generation, and not to some other one?” — then don’t be surprised to find that metareasoning cuts both ways.

96 Responses to “Earth Day, Doomsday, and Chicken Little”

  1. Bram Cohen Says:

    That whole line of reasoning seems utterly unmotivated to me. It’s a simple statement of fact that we live in a time of historically unprecedented technology and number of living humans. Anyone who isn’t old enough to have seen some of the transitions themselves can simply ask their grandparents about it.

    Since we know our times are *not* typical, why should we even contemplate claims that they *should* be typical?

  2. Scott Says:

    Since we know our times are *not* typical, why should we even contemplate claims that they *should* be typical?

    Don’t ask me…

  3. wolfgang Says:

    > It’s a simple statement of fact that we live in a time of historically unprecedented technology

    I am sure the Wright brothers were thinking the same way.
    I wonder what the guy was thinking who discovered a way to handle fire …

  4. Anonymous Says:

    Bram, did you RTFBE?
    (that’s “blog entry” I guess)

    It’s a simple statement of fact that we live in a time of historically unprecedented technology and number of living humans.

    As Scott has just argued, statements like this don’t mean much; it’s possible that, at most points in human history, this statement was true.

  5. wolfgang Says:

    Dear Scott,

    using the same Bayesian reasoning, my daughter and I estimate a very different point in time for doomsday due to global warming.
    Does this indicate that something might be wrong with the doomsday argument and the problem of self-localization?

    By the way, I wrote about the D.A.
    here , about self-localization here and about the problems of Bayesian man here. The exponentially expanding blogosphere seems to exhaust the finite reservoir of interesting topics quite quickly and I forecast the impending collapse of blogoland.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    The DA is clearly bogus: The more people there are in the world, the less opportunity the average person has to sit down and think peacefully (in the limit, the majority of most peoples’ days will consist of standing in line at Starbucks). Thus conditioned on the fact that I am even conceiving of the doomsday argument at all, I am more likely to be in an era with fewer people.

  7. wolfgang Says:

    anonymous,

    a great way to look at it.
    The D.A. also helps a lot when dealing with the blogosphere.

    If I come across a well written and maintained blog with a rapidly increasing number of readers, I conclude it will come to an end quickly.

    If I find a boring blog with stagnant or declining number of readers, I conclude it will be there for the long run.

    This explains why so many blogs I read are boring …

  8. Scott Says:

    using the same Bayesian reasoning, my daughter and I estimate a very different point in time for doomsday due to global warming. Does this indicate that something might be wrong with the doomsday argument and the problem of self-localization?

    Err, two Bayesians can certainly have different estimates for the same random variable…

  9. wolfgang Says:

    Yes, but in this case the relatove error does not converge to zero with more data whcih is quite odd.

  10. wolfgang Says:

    Let me try without the typos:
    Yes, but in this case the relative error does not converge to zero with more data, which is quite odd.

  11. wolfgang Says:

    Let me be more precise:
    We label al humans ever living on this earth as i = 1, 2, … E

    I find myself with index i=N and estimate that another kN people will be born (usually k=2 in the DA literature) my daughter uses the estimate kGN, where G is the growth rate from one generation to the next (G>1). The difference is (G-1)kN and the relative error is (G-1)kN/(E-N).
    It certainly does not behave like the usual statistical errors (1/sqrt(N)).

  12. Leonid Says:

    Dear Scott,

    Convincing ourselves that ours may indeed be the Doomsday generation is not enough, we still need to pick our favorite Doomsday scenario. Hardly a year passes by without a new Apocalipsis being predicted. Giant asteroids, 2K bug, a new pandemic – those are just a few picturesque examples from the recent years that were chosen by Hollywood. As scary as all they sound, only one of them may eventually extinguish our civilization (personally, I’m a pandemic’s fun). Well, may be two, if, as suggested by Futurama, the global warming would be rectified by the nuclear winter.

    Speaking seriously, I think this Doomsday retorics is counterproductive, if only because it was used too many times. The reason that the problem with the ozone layer was successfully addressed is because a relatively cheap technological solution was found. Similarly, with the global warming we should concentrate on the practical issues. What are really going to be the implications of global warming? Can we realistically prevent them? If yes, what is the best solution? If no, how we adapt to the new conditions?

    Some people in the US, for example, may need to realize that the global warming will not go away on the day that “the evil Bush administration” leaves the office. Whatever the administration is going to occupy the White House, it may need to make very unpleasant steps of raising the gasoline prices to lower the consumption. It may also need to put heavy pressure on the less ecologically-minded countries, like India and China, creating high international tensions (somewhat paradoxically, this policy would probably be least popular with the liberal critics of current administration).

    Come to think of it, seems highly unlikely that any US administration will start making these steps in earnest before the Pale Rider can be seen with the naked eye. So we are approaching the Doomsday after all. I’m going to sleep with this cheerful thought and I wish everybody best of luck in the next Universe.

  13. Anonymous Says:

    one of joseph biden’s (democratic presidential candidate, 2008, please don’t let hillary win the democratic primary thank you) claims is that most americans are willing to suffer in order to improve the energy dependence and environmental situations in the US, but no one has asked them to make this sacrifice. I think it’s very possible for a non-bush administration to both (1) raise gas prices and (2) raise R&D funding for alternative energy by orders of magnitude. In 5-6 years, when it’s clear that the US is making a change, it will not seem nearly as hypocritical to put international pressures on india and china.

  14. Scott Says:

    Yes, but in this case the relative error does not converge to zero with more data, which is quite odd.

    Wolfgang: I agree that it’s quite odd. Bayes’ rule + indexical assumptions = more fun than a barrel containing all monkeys who ever lived or will live!

    Indeed, here’s another observation: even if Doomsday arrives tomorrow, people who believe SIA will have no need to revise their views. As they gasp their last breath, they can simply say: “Well, the mere fact that Doomsday arrived so soon proves that we were in one of the unlikely worlds where it would arrive soon…” Similarly, people who accept SSA will have no obligation to stop believing the Doomsday Argument if humans colonize the galaxy. Of course that’s tantamount to saying that no evidence can ever force you to revise your (non-degenerate) prior, only your posterior.

  15. wolfgang Says:

    > it may need to make very unpleasant steps of raising the gasoline prices to lower the consumption.

    from 1998 to 2006 the price of crude oil moved from 11$ to 74$
    If this increase by a factor of >6 over just eight years did not do the trick, I am afraid only a severe economic recession is the next best option.
    But then we might really talk about 1938 scenarios …

  16. Scott Says:

    Leonid: I agree that the big difference between ozone depletion and GW is the cost of the solution.

    I also agree that the problem won’t disappear if (may it please the Lord) the Democrats win in ’08. Here’s the difference: Clinton and (particularly) Gore understood the hard choices, but were unable or unwilling to fight Congress for them. Bush fails to understand not only global warming, but the existence of empirical reality itself.

    As I said, I also don’t like to use Doomsday rhetoric; I advocate it only as an antidote to Chicken Little rhetoric.

    I also agree with the anonymous commenter that we (meaning the US, not Canada :-) ) should put pressure on China and India, but will be better placed to do so once we get our own act together.

  17. Jonathan Shewchuk Says:

    Scott,

    You wrote “More than once, our civilization really did face an existential threat, only to escape it by a hair,” and gave two examples (Hitler and the ozone layer).

    You might also have added all the nuclear war near misses. Many people still remember the Cuban missle crisis, but fewer have heard about the many other incidents, like how close the USSR came to nuking us in 1983.

    The reason we’ve escaped oblivion isn’t because all the doomsayers were chicken littles (even if most were). It’s because smart people have thus far saved us from occasional brushes with extinction. If smart people stop doing that, we’re dead. The climate skeptics need frequent reminders of that.

    Jonathan

  18. Scott Says:

    Jonathan: Thanks — that’s a great point! Yeah, it’s a lot like having a heart attack, being saved by the world’s best cardiologists working around the clock, and then drawing the lesson that you can eat all the butter-fried bacon you want.

  19. Paul Beame Says:

    Speaking of Chicken Little… I read the Club of Rome’s much-maligned “Limits to Growth” back in 1972 when it first came out. I don’t remember the details and several of the timelines have clearly proved to be incorrect in detail. (I recall that 2025, my expected retirement year, was a year when we would run out of oil and food.) However, the fundamental logic of the book is inescapable: exponential growth of resource usage eventually comes in conflict with bounded supply (or even renewable supply that grows at a linear rate) and we must become more efficient users of resources in order to avoid their exhaustion.

    The food production prediction was clearly way off (we face a distribution rather than a production problem thanks to exponential improvements in efficiency) but it is interestng to note that our lack of efficiency improvements in the use of petroleum for transportation has meant that the proven oil reserves have begun following the downward pattern suggested in L2G, albeit delayed by a number of years.

    The fundamental objection that people have had to the L2G claims is that the exponential increases in population means that there is more labor to find and extract resources and more ingenuity to figure out how to use them more efficiently. Let’s take the second part first: The improved efficiency only works to the extent that people have an incentive to innovate; denying the problem causes potential innovators to reduce their effort in solving it until it is too late.

    I recently read Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” (a poorly focussed and vastly inferior book to his “The Third Chimpanzee” and “Guns, Germs, and Steel”) which describes many examples in which the improved extraction of resources by larger populations has simply led to the exhaustion of the resources; the more people => more available resources never seems to work out on the plus side.

    The striking aspect of many of Diamond’s examples of societies reaching or exceeding these limits to growth is the role of the societies’ reactions in succumbing to or staving off their collapse. Diamond’s basic argument is that the only way to avoid collapse is through making solving resource problems a matter of enlightened self-interest for those who control the resources.

    (Of course our version of “enlightened self-interest” made my L2G generation the big buyers of gas-guzzling SUVs. Hey, if none of us was really going to make it past 2025 then why not take advantage while we’re here?)

    We need to make sure that the problems seem important enough for us to work on them and not so insurmountable that we don’t have anything much better than to ignore them. Nuclear war was/is such a horrible possibility that few of us could function if we really thought it was something we needed to deal with on a daily basis. So, let’s say that we all agree that global warming is happening and a bad thing. Now what? The Kyoto protocol is a fig leaf. What should we really do?

  20. JesseM Says:

    Doomsday argument aside, it should be pointed out that scientists in the 1970s were not predicting global cooling with anything close to the level of confidence that scientists today are predicting continued global warming–see this page for references, along with this post on “the global cooling myth” from realclimate.org.

  21. Anonymous Says:

    the funny thing is that there is really no scientific hurdle to overcome with respect to energy independence and fuel emissions. I’ve seen estimated costs at ~ 1 trillion $US for the number of new nuclear power plants (100) needed to produce enough hydrogen to power all the cars in the US. are we not willing to pay $100 billion/year over the next ten years for a project like this? it’s less than what we’re spending on iraq.

  22. Scott Says:

    Thanks, jessem! Of course, global warming could also lead to cooling in parts of the world, but that’s another issue…

  23. Scott Says:

    The fundamental objection that people have had to the L2G claims is that the exponential increases in population means that there is more labor to find and extract resources and more ingenuity to figure out how to use them more efficiently.

    As theoretical computer scientists, we should be thinking in terms of upper bounds. If current population trends continue, the entire Earth will consist of human flesh by 3750. As obvious as that is to us, it seems to fly right past most people who discuss this issue.

  24. Scott Says:

    the funny thing is that there is really no scientific hurdle to overcome with respect to energy independence and fuel emissions.

    To me, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that there is. The scientific hurdle is this: how does one induce a population of hairless, large-skulled chimpanzees to practice a long-term rationality for which it’s never shown the slightest inclination in its 5-million-year evolutionary past?

  25. Anonymous Says:

    Scott:
    “The scientific hurdle is this: how does one induce a population of hairless, large-skulled chimpanzees to practice a long-term rationality for which it’s never shown the slightest inclination in its 5-million-year evolutionary past” – I can see why you’re not in politics :-)
    Wouldn’t the dommsday argument also mean your warnings aren’t likely to work?
    Gilad.

  26. Scott Says:

    Wouldn’t the dommsday argument also mean your warnings aren’t likely to work?

    Yeah, there’s a paradox in how these indexical arguments relate to free will.

    Notice that the Chicken Little Argument has a similar paradox of its own: if we know from metareasoning that everything’s going to be fine, then we might as well empty every oil tanker into the ocean, release some smallpox, auction ICBM’s on the open market, etc. Therefore everything won’t be fine.

    To me, this is yet another strike against metareasoning.

    But there’s a further point: as in the late 1930’s, even if we knew we had very little chance of making a difference, we would still be morally obligated to “register our complaint.”

  27. wolfgang Says:

    > as in the late 1930’s

    Somehow I feel really uneasy with your Hitler analogy.

    When I grew up (in Austria) Hitler and the Holocaust were understood as a unique horror.
    Many years later every other psychopath in the Middle East is ‘the next Hitler’ and now we compare ‘global warming’ with WW2 and the Holocaust.
    If this trend continues, Hitler will be used in car commercials soon, or perhaps some Broadway comedies …

  28. Bram Cohen Says:

    With all this metareasoning mumbo-jumbo it’s surprising noone’s brought up quantum immortality.

    For those who asked about whether people in past eras would have thought theirs was different, that’s partially true, but if you look at the world circa 1900 versus the world circa 2000, it’s a vastly greater change than in any previous century. We are, in fact, living in a time of historically unprecedented technological advancement.

  29. Scott Says:

    Wolfgang: I understand your unease, and it’s not an analogy I made lightly. I believe that tampering with the climate the way we are is likely to destroy millions of lives around the world. If we allow that to happen, then we’ll be, not like the Nazi thugs themselves, but like the vastly more numerous “good” people who equivocated, wrung their hands, and ultimately stood by in the face of tragedy.

    With regard to Middle East psychopaths, the connection is rather more direct, as many of them have loudly praised Hitler and expressed their desire to finish what he started.

    Finally, with regard to Broadway comedies, I guess you haven’t seen The Producers.

    Springtime for Hitler and Germany
    Deutschland is happy and gay!
    We’re marching to a faster pace
    Look out, here comes the master race!
    Springtime for Hitler and Germany
    Rhineland’s a fine land once more!

  30. wolfgang Says:

    Bram,

    if you look careful at the progress made from 1920 to 1960 in various fields and the progress amde from 1960 to now, you could make a good argument that we are slowing down already …

    QM, computers, space exploration, DNA, etc. all of that happened (more than) 40 years ago.
    I doubt we even have the capability now to go to the moon, as we did at the end of the 1960s.

  31. wolfgang Says:

    > I guess you haven’t seen The Producers

    that is why I wrote my comment that way …

    I guess I am not as frightened by climate change as you are (which is why I do not know as much about it as I should), but I understand that you will discuss the real issues (rather than the meta-topics) of the climate change debate later.
    I still hope Lubos will show up one day, not because it would be yet another fight to watch, but because I hope that we all could learn something from an honest debate.

  32. Nagesh Adluru Says:

    Scott: You mentioned about the hurdle of inducing long-term rationality.

    I think long-term rationality will be obvious to relatively few and that makes it less powerful (not theoretically but practically). A warning of a hurricane disaster alerts more people than a warning about global warming disaster.

    Moral obligations (you did mention them in later comments) can be induced relatively easily as they can get into to masses even if they are long-term. And again I think we need a new religious effort that takes into account these new problems.

    Mostly religions in their original forms evolved to solve certain basic problems like not killing each other etc. We might think people don’t kill each other because of the system but to get such a rule into the system in the first place we needed strong moral obligations.

  33. Anonymous Says:

    Bram, the derivative of e^t is also e^t!

    Yes we are living in a time of unprecedented technological advancement, but so were the people in 1900!

  34. michael vassar Says:

    “wouldn’t it be easier to adapt to a climate unlike any the planet has experienced in the last 200 million years than to drive Priuses instead of Cherokees?”

    It would be FAR easier for any given person to drive a prius instead of a Cherokee than to adapt to massive climate change.
    Actually, I’m only about 85% confident about that after I time-discount money. It depends radically on the return on investment of alternatives. If the prius costs $5000 extra and you can get a 14% return on that over 50 years, you can probably adapt nicely with your $5,000,000 of extra savings. OTOH, if you only get a 7% return, adapting with only $150,000 may be tough. That doesn’t rebuild one house destroyed by a hurricane.
    But anyway, who is this “we” you are talking about? How strong is the correlation between the consequences of my personal decision to drive a prius and my need to adapt to global warming? There is an incredibly huge coordination problem (prisoners game type situation) here, on multiple levels, individual and national. Without an effective and fairly non-corrupt world government, it doesn’t seem very solvable. If we could solve arbitrary international coordination problems it seems to me that the benefits to the world (no poverty, world peace including a 100% peace dividend for all nations, efficient use of government funding, free trade with compensating wealth redistribution, almost no environmental problems of any type) from that ability would dwarf the harms from global warming.

    “Isn’t it just a question of how to allocate resources, of how to maximize expected utility? ”

    That’s clear. Every decision is such a problem after all.

    “And aren’t there other risks we should be more worried about”

    I’m not very worried about goo or bird flu either, and I don’t think that there is much point for people who aren’t in the 99.999th percentile with respect to certain cognitive abilities to worry about AI either…
    but…
    a) for most of the world’s people, doing what they can about extreme global poverty, working for nuclear disarmament (why the hell do Russia and the US still have gigatons of payload pointed at one another? plus, this would be a good precedent for solving more difficult coordination problems. Unlike your strawman skeptic I think the risk of an accidental nuclear launch may remain significant), and trying to reduce the very real risk that the US will actually become a rogue hyperpower in the next few decades seem like far more efficient ways to allocate their resources.
    and
    b) it seems to me that you personally might be in that relevant and tiny minority Scott, and that you personally are almost certainly positioned to have a much larger chance of having a substantial positive impact if you pay attention to AI (as understood by the singularity institute, http://www.singinst.org) than if you pay attention to global warming (your physics work may have a larger chance of personal positive impact than either).
    “As theoretical computer scientists, we should be thinking in terms of upper bounds. If current population trends continue, the entire Earth will consist of human flesh by 3750.”

    I think we need to define the current trends. Are you talking about the trend for there to be ~6E9 people (zeroth derivative of population), the trend for there to be 1E8 more people each year than the last (first derivative), the trend for there to be 2% more people each year (second derivative), the trend for the percent change in population to fall by .03% per year (third derivative), or the trend for the percent change in population to fall 2% faster every year? Extrapolate the last two and humans will be extinct long before 3750.

    “how does one induce a population of hairless, large-skulled chimpanzees to practice a long-term rationality for which it’s never shown the slightest inclination in its 5-million-year evolutionary past?”

    Finally you are seeing things my way. That IS the key issue, but remember that it’s relevant to FAR more than just global warming. Actually, we humans have shown the slightest inclination to rationality, which is just what creates the illusion that there’s no problem and causes the same silly errors to be made over and over. Anyway, as far as I’m concerned the first place to start is by trying to act rationally yourself, and the first place to start on that is by focusing on the real problem, institutional rationality, rather than on the tangential desiderata such as global warming.

    Wolfgang said
    “Bram,
    if you look careful at the progress made from 1920 to 1960 in various fields and the progress amde from 1960 to now, you could make a good argument that we are slowing down already …
    QM, computers, space exploration, DNA, etc. all of that happened (more than) 40 years ago.
    I doubt we even have the capability now to go to the moon, as we did at the end of the 1960s.”

    Do you and Bram really disagree?
    He pointed out an acceleration between the 19th and 20th centuries, you pointed out a short term decelleration. Both appear correct to me. I will only point out that if there has been a decelleration rather than continued acceleration (I think there has been one, by the way) it is probably another consequence of institutional irrationality, and may be a much more serious (and subtle, thus resistant to correction) tangential problem than global warming.

  35. secret milkshake Says:

    arguing with Lubos is like wrestling with pig. I guess Wolfgang likes to be called “zmrd”

    Light-water-moderated reactors consume quite a lot of uranium. Known U-ore would run out in few decades if we switched from fossil to full nuclear with current technology. The generated radioactive waste is another problem.

    As a chemist, I like to see the oil being used for better things than just making fuel.

  36. Scott Says:

    Milkshake: Really? I thought nuclear could last us quite a bit longer, especially if we recycled the spent fuel like Britain and France do.

    Unlike many environmentalists, I’ve never had any principled opposition to nuclear. Sure it generates wastes, and sure there’s a chance of meltdown, but I’d rather ruin part of the planet than the whole damn thing!

    For me, the main question is just economic. Could the money needed to build new nuclear reactors buy us a bigger CO2 reduction, were it spent on (say) better energy efficiency?

  37. Anonymous Says:

    Milkshake: Really? I thought nuclear could last us quite a bit longer, especially if we recycled the spent fuel like Britain and France do.

    See this link about using Uranium-238 instead of 235. As I said before, there aren’t really any scientific barriers here (only surmountable engineering ones).

  38. secret milkshake Says:

    The current technology. With expensive oil, breeder reactors+re-processing, and low-grade U-ores could become competetive. Garwin has written a lot on this; look up Garwin archive.

    The current re-processing and Pu-extraction from lightwater reactor spent fuel would less-then double the time to exhaustion but at great cost and risk. (Reactor-grade Pu is rather useful for making bombs, contrary to common wisdom.) Graphite-moderated reactors tend to be somewhat more fuel efficient – but the real saver would be some scheme using fast neutrons to fission U238. That is not yet the current technology.

  39. Scott Says:

    Michael:

    There is an incredibly huge coordination problem (prisoners game type situation) here, on multiple levels, individual and national.

    You’re telling me…

    “Isn’t it just a question of how to allocate resources, of how to maximize expected utility? ”
    That’s clear. Every decision is such a problem after all.

    Well, yes. But precisely because it’s so tautologically obvious, one sometimes suspects people who repeat it constantly of having an ulterior motive.

    I think we need to define the current trends. Are you talking about the trend for there to be ~6E9 people (zeroth derivative of population)…

    I was talking about the recent trend of doubling every 40 years, which is what I took to be relevant to Paul’s discussion of exponential growth. I know perfectly well that the doubling will stop way before 3750 — indeed, it’s likely that the population will peak at ~9 billion by the middle of this century.

    I don’t think that there is much point for people who aren’t in the 99.999th percentile with respect to certain cognitive abilities to worry about AI either

    it seems to me that you personally might be in that relevant and tiny minority Scott

    Yowzers! From your post I’ve learned both that I’m way smarter than I thought I was, and that I’m deeply deluded and irrational. :)

    Anyway, as far as I’m concerned the first place to start is by trying to act rationally yourself, and the first place to start on that is by focusing on the real problem, institutional rationality, rather than on the tangential desiderata such as global warming.

    I think you’re missing a key point: that global warming is becoming one of the main test cases for the sort of “institutional rationality” you crave. It’s not the first existential crisis our civilization has faced, and it won’t be the last. But it’s often more effective to show people rationality in action on a specific (important!) issue, than to talk about it in the abstract.

  40. michael vassar Says:

    You know perfectly well that the tautologically obvious generally eludes recognition by ordinary people even when it is pointed out. Many environmentalists have “Principled” objections to even the idea that costs and benefits should be estimated and considered. It’s not always wrong to suspect ulterior motives, or to ignore those who’s statements are dominated by such motives, but it’s often a good idea not to assume an ulterior motive when the obvious motive (reminding people to think in terms of decision theory) might make sense in the context of non-obvious conditions (an audience which almost never does think in terms of decision theory).

    Don’t be flattered or insulted. 99.999th percentile isn’t *that* special, but it’s worth my paying a significant amount of attention to. There are, after all, 10,000 1st worlders who are 99.999th percentile in any given thing, and hundreds of thousands who are 99.999th percentile in some extremely useful domain. Being a physicist *already* indicates about a 99.96th percentile ability in the relevant intellectual specialities. Only 800 physics PhDs are granted each year in the US (out of an age cohort of over 4 million) and they probably represent a good chunk of the pool of potential physicists. Add in that much of the population is old, young, or impaired in some way and this estimate is fairly sound. Anyway, not being deeply deluded and irrational would make you a much rarer sort of person than one in 100,000.

    Hmm. Layers of irony here. It turns out that influencing you is also something of a test case. If it’s not possible for me to convince someone with your high level of prerequisite knowledge and ability to follow my arguments, then I clearly have no basis for expecting to be able to influence more epistemically muddled thinkers. One of the first lessons that I am stuck trying to convey is the Utter Hopelessness of trying to get a large group of people to do the right thing by arguing to them. The debate we are engaged in will influence whether I should likewise see influence on resistant individuals as utterly hopeless. Anyway, if we are to show people rationality in action we will have to do it, as we have to do everything, as individuals working through and with other individuals. We have to take actions that we actually expect to reduce CO2 emissions (or whatever) rather than just wishing that people will do what we want if we just complain and call them stupid. Denmark already shows more dedication and rationality in action than you can hope to ever see from the US. We aren’t going to win that way, but please keep trying. Here’s a hint, the way to get rational (or otherwise novel) institutions is not to ask for them but to either
    a) make them yourself
    or
    b) modify/alter existing institutions in such a way as to make them display the desired traits.

    It seems to me that either of these tasks is achievable within 40 years with a fair chance of success, but those who wish to perform them must
    a) get pretty lucky. We may not have 40 years
    b) get to work ASAP

  41. Scott Says:

    Now I see what you were getting at: I’m merely in the top 0.001%, practically a burger-flipper compared to the Archimedes who’s chosen to grace this blog with his presence… ;-)

    (Sorry, I know that wasn’t cricket, but I needed some comic relief. Also, I’m a computer scientist, not a physicist.)

  42. Jud Says:

    You’ve never had a principled opposition to nuclear? How about a practical one: Let’s try to avoid making thousands of big piles of radioactive crap that we don’t have a clue about how to clean up in any financially reasonable way.

    Here, check this out: http://appropriations.house.gov/_files/GeneAloiseTestimony.pdf

    And that’s at a place where the local population favors nuclear, so the greater expense of protracted legal maneuvering doesn’t play the role that it is likely to nearly anywhere else in the U.S.

    You may also want to check out old Scientific American articles on the order-of-magnitude increase in numbers of people affected by radiation if one decides to detonate a nuclear weapon at a nuclear power plant versus, e.g., a city. Oh but surely even if the rapidly developing nations of Asia constructed thousands of such plants, no one among the couple of billion Indians, Chinese and Pakistanis would be crazy enough actually to do such a thing; or if they would, they would certainly be stopped by excellent security measures, eh?

    Yeah, right.

  43. wolfgang Says:

    > arguing with Lubos is like wrestling with pig. I guess Wolfgang likes to be called “zmrd”

    I like to focus on *what* Lubos has to say and not *how* he says it. And I think he makes some important points:
    e.g. the hockey stick debacle and the way the ‘global warming’ community handled it.
    Or the fact that critical exponents of temperature variation observed in the real world does not match with the computer simulations. In other words CGMs overstate trends.

    I would also like to point out that the connection CO2 and ‘global temperature’ is not as direct as one would expect.
    CO2 increased in an almost straight line from 1900 to 2000 (except for seasonality), but temperatures increased strongly from 1900 to 1940, remained flat from 1940 to 1980 and then began to increase again.
    By the way, from 1998 to 2006 temperatures have been essentially flat.

    I am no expert on climate change, all I am saying is that you will have to convince the sceptics who are (or at least control) the majority in the US with good arguments.

    So far I have seen at least two climate researchers make a fool of themselves when debating with Lubos. It was not difficult for him to expose their ignorance of some basic facts.

  44. L Says:

    “By the way, from 1998 to 2006 temperatures have been essentially flat.”

    You’re a dupe, repeating a lie. Look at a graph.

  45. michael vassar Says:

    Why would I waste my time writing to insult you? I’m just establishing that it’s not very a-priori implausible that you are about as rare as I suggested was likely. Now obviously no-one is going to actually draft you because of that, but reality metaphorically has done so. If you want things to actually work out for the best you may have to keep in mind that there are certain things that you would like to see accomplished or not accomplished and that you can’t just rely on someone else doing it because there aren’t that many relevant “someones”, and especially because the actual number of relevant “someones” is is much smaller (thousands) than it seems (billions).

    Look, if you want to address global warming rather than addressing more serious problems because you see it as a “test case” then go ahead and treat it as one, but give it your honest best shot, don’t just do what you see everyone else doing, e.g. bitching.
    Apply your abilities where you have a comparitive advantage, in this field like any other. You *know* that it’s a coordination problem. OK, try to work out mathematically how we can solve complex coordination problems. Don’t waste your time propagating information which is already widely available and which is insufficient to solve the actual problem even if everyone accepts it. Instead, create and promote some new and valid information that can actually improve the situation. Here are some other examples, excluding those involving solving coordination problems in general or those involving AI or novel technologies.
    a) design and market (or find people to market) financial derivatives that should reflect in their value the value of global warming’s negative externalities.
    b) develop solutions to the coordination problems faced by poverty relief agencies wasting net resources in chasing after a relatively inelastic total supply of poverty relief funding
    c) Develop statistical solutions to correct for the scientific method problems, identified by Feynman and others, that make meta-analyses generally worthless, e.g. the asymmetry between incentives that favors publishing papers that overturn the null hypothesis
    d) Examine history to identify situations where scientists had greater or lesser impact on public policy and identify the differences.
    e) Identify organizations and individuals with substantial personal responsbility for CO2 emissions (promoting Hummers, for instance) and figure out ways of legally (this is a public blog after all) compelling them to stop.
    f) try to work out some of the actual science of memetics, as opposed to the pseudoscience that we have now, by generalizing the work of RA Fischer, JBS Haldane, John Maynard Smith, and the like.

  46. wolfgang Says:

    > You’re a dupe, repeating a lie. Look at a graph.

    I did, did you?
    The monthly deviation from the long-term mean was 0.75C at the beginning of 1998 it was subsequently lower and is currently (2006) around 0.6. (The exact numbers depend on what chart you look; The science of ‘climate change’ is not terrible precise.)

    I am sure you will want to explain to me how El Nino needs to be subtracted etc.
    But since I am a ‘dupe’ there is no reason to debate this with me; And I see no reason to debate it with you either.

    Have a good day.

  47. wolfgang Says:

    A Wikipedia picture which shows 1998 – 2005 (on the right) is available here.

  48. Pepe Says:

    Have you a car?, Have you electricity in your home?, have you heating?

    When you resign to these CO2 producers, nazi technology in your words, you will be able to sermonize us.

  49. Anonymous Says:

    I am worried about global warming but how do we tell the difference between warming caused by natural factors and that caused by artificial means? The world after all has gone through warm and cold periods long before humans were capable of generating mass quantities of CO2 or whatnot. Perhaps one can tell by looking at the rate of warming?

  50. Scott Says:

    Have you a car?, Have you electricity in your home?, have you heating?

    When you resign to these CO2 producers, nazi technology in your words, you will be able to sermonize us.

    Reread my post. Did I call electricity and heating Nazi technologies, or say that people who use them are the moral equivalent of Nazis? No! I said that the danger we’re in now is comparable to the danger we were in then. Why are you so apparently unable to make that elementary distinction?

    Even aside from the moral question, I think the rational response is not to retreat into the woods; it’s to try to contribute something, however small, toward a change in government policy. And I didn’t drive until a year ago, when I broke down and got a Prius. :)

  51. Anonymous Says:

    Al Gore global warming movie coming soon to a theater near you!

    An Inconvenient Truth

  52. Scott Says:

    Anonymous: I am worried about global warming but how do we tell the difference between warming caused by natural factors and that caused by artificial means?

    That’s an excellent question, and was exactly the question that climate researchers faced 30 years ago. So they did what scientists usually do: they tackled it. If we assumed sunspots were involved, how well would that explain the actual temperature variations over the past 500 years? What about volcanic eruptions? etc. By the mid-90’s, the results were clear: there’s no way to reproduce the observed temperature pattern without a large “anthropogenic” contribution — one that tracks human CO2 and methane emissions. These days the anthropogenic “forcing” is the dominant one.

    Unfortunately, many people still discuss the issue as if none of this research ever happened. It’s a lot like the quantum computing skeptics (I’ve met them) whose response to the fault-tolerance theorem is not to challenge its assumptions, but to ignore it and repeat the same flawed intuitions that motivated the theorem in the first place.

    That’s the short answer; if you want to know more I’d suggest visiting RealClimate or reading The End of Nature by Bill McKibben.

  53. Cheshire Cat Says:

    “Sorry, I know that wasn’t cricket”

    You just made my day a little cooler :)

  54. CapitalistImperialistPig Says:

    Doomsday, Anthropicy, and related notions annoy the heck out of me. From the standpoint of pure stat mech, it actually seems to be more likely that all the ordered world we imagine is just a random fluctuation, which managed to produce us, our apparent memories, and our illusion of a low entropy past. That way madness lies.

    Wolfgang – I want to pursue your remarks over at CIP

  55. L Says:

    wolfgang:
    What’s absolutely obvious from your graph is that people who pick 98 as an endpoint are trying to deceive.

  56. wolfgang Says:

    The point of my original comment was (and is) that the relationship between CO2 and global temperature is not as direct as one might expect.

    The point of your comment was that I am a ‘dupe’ who is spreading lies.

    I guess we have established that my comment was correct and yours was not.

    As for choosing endpoints. One (but probably not you) may have noticed that it begins 1980, which just happens to be the time when the flat periode ended and the warming started again. I guess this is just a coincidence …

  57. CapitalistImperialistPig Says:

    Wolfgang – This explains why so many blogs I read are boring …

    Ouch!

  58. wolfgang Says:

    Dear CIP,

    how could ‘Secret Milkshake’ know that I would have to wrestle a pig?

  59. michael vassar Says:

    CapitalistImperialistPig: Reality and logic don’t care what annoys you. Madness also lies in the disbelief in free will. How do we handle it? I’m not sure? Some incoherence and hypocricy I guess, but we don’t shoot the messenger or reject the conclusion (that free will is a silly non-concept)

    Scott: Why is Pepe so apparently unable to make an elementary distinction? I don’t know. Probably because he’s human. Most people are, most of the time. Sadly, you can’t hide with that sort of excuse, as you have a demonstrated ability to make elementary distinctions. You could distinguish between an insult and a clarification but chose not to. Why am I bothering you? For precisely that reason. Is it fair of me to demand that everyone who demonstrates the ability to reason fairly well live up to that high standard all the time? Probably not, but it’s worked for me so far with other people.

  60. Anonymous Says:

    Scott: Why is Pepe so apparently unable to make an elementary distinction? I don’t know. Probably because he’s human. Most people are, most of the time. Sadly, you can’t hide with that sort of excuse, as you have a demonstrated ability to make elementary distinctions. You could distinguish between an insult and a clarification but chose not to. Why am I bothering you? For precisely that reason. Is it fair of me to demand that everyone who demonstrates the ability to reason fairly well live up to that high standard all the time? Probably not, but it’s worked for me so far with other people.

    Now can I make a comment about elitism, ineptitude, and insipidness without it being deleted? Please let me know when, thanks.

  61. Scott Says:

    Michael: Look, I don’t think you were trying to insult me, and I apologize if I gave that impression. I was trying to crack a joke. (Sadly, my jokes often seem to misfire.)

    Your suggestion to “create and promote some new and valid information that can actually improve the situation” with global warming, instead of just carping and kvetching, is an excellent one. I have no good answer as to why I’m not doing that right now.

    But as for the charge that I’m just “propagating information which is already widely available,” I did think I was making a new point: namely, about the “symmetry” between the Doomsday and Chicken Little arguments. Even though that was the “thesis” of my post, nobody’s commented on it yet. What do people think? :)

  62. Scott Says:

    Now can I make a comment about elitism, ineptitude, and insipidness without it being deleted? Please let me know when, thanks.

    When you choose to reveal your identity, you can spread all the vitriol you want.

  63. Anonymous Says:

    When you choose to reveal your identity, you can spread all the vitriol you want.

    Well, I apologize if you found it vitriolic. My comment was only meant in jest at two people arguing over which percentile they fall into, and whether they should feel complimented or insulted, and to how many decimal places they should feel that way.

    I don’t think that there is much point for people who aren’t in the 99.999th percentile…

    Seriously, let’s just end this sentence with “to be allowed out of their cages” and be done with it.

  64. Scott Says:

    Anonymous: I dislike this topic too, which is why I was trying to parody Michael’s apparently-serious proclamations about it. But again, the humor seems to have fallen pretty flat.

  65. L Says:

    Scott:
    If you want comment on the symmetry on the Doomsday & Chicken Little arguments, I’ll repeat Leonid’s: the conclusion is that you should worry about other catastrophes.

    “try to contribute something, however small, toward a change in government policy”

    So why did you blow $4k on getting a Prius in place of a normal car, when you could have donated it to the nuclear industry lobby?

  66. Anonymous Says:

    Anonymous: I dislike this topic too, which is why I was trying to parody Michael’s apparently-serious proclamations about it. But again, the humor seems to have fallen pretty flat.

    No, you’re right. I got the joke, but then Vassar responded, and I subconsciously blamed you for provoking him. Okay, okay Scott, fine–they’re natural complexity classes.

    Clearly I should pose my arguments as if I’m on a complexity blog…

    Vassar: You know perfectly well that the tautologically obvious generally eludes recognition by ordinary people even when it is pointed out.

    The “tautologically obvious” is coNP-complete, so fuck you.

    Better? It’s like a cheerful mix of complexity and vitriol. (I wonder if what kind of CO2 emissions you get from burning vitriol…)

  67. Scott Says:

    So why did you blow $4k on getting a Prius in place of a normal car, when you could have donated it to the nuclear industry lobby?

    (1) It sends the right message. Several people, having seen my car, are considering getting one for themselves.

    (2) I’ve already saved almost $1k in gas.

    (3) I wanted to. (Let me remind you that not everyone here is being asked to defend his lifestyle choices… :-) )

  68. Scott Says:

    The “tautologically obvious” is coNP-complete, so fuck you.

    Michael did not personally attack you. One more trip to the gutter and I’ll start deleting.

  69. Anonymous Says:

    Michael did not personally attack you.

    Oh, you didn’t realize? I’m in the lower 99.998 percentile.

  70. michael vassar Says:

    I don’t know who “I” is, but he is making the exact correct comment about the nuclear lobby and the prius (technically he could donate ($4000-net present value of gasoline savings)/(1-his tax rate) assuming the deductibility of donations), though I’d substitute some other phrase for “nuclear lobby”. I likewise think that Scott answered it in an excellent manner, pointing out that the net benefit of his action exceeds the CO2 saved (or at least would if prius demand was less than supply…as is, the point’s debatable) and that we should consider second order effects, and also pointing out that not every lifestlye decision he makes must be justified. I suppose I always assumed that the parallel with Chicken Little was, to Nick and others who care about Doomsday arguments, the whole point. OTOH, I probably made a mistake because the target audience of this post was people who potentially cared about Chicken Little arguments but not about Doomsday arguments. Some such people may have been made better informed. Scott, I appreciate that this blog is your recreation, not your serious work, and so to some degree it is *supposed* to reflect your acrasia. Please don’t feel guilty about not doing something useful when you spend your time in this manner just so long as you don’t feel a self-righteous buzz reflective of the implicit belief that you *are* doing something (significant and) useful when you repeat a party line, even a true one, rather than trying to develop a workable solution. I don’t want you to try to be some sort of Utilitarian ubermensch in denial of all of his emotional needs. I’m not trying to claim control of your lifestyle choices, but only of your beliefs, which I was of the impression that you had signed away control over years ago, selling out to the Lucifer Rationality after a beautifully chronicles monologue of self-doubt entitled “On Self Delusion and Bounded Rationality” :-)

  71. wolfgang Says:

    > namely, about the “symmetry” between the Doomsday and Chicken Little arguments. Even though that was the “thesis” of my post, nobody’s commented on it yet. What do people think?

    I thought I made it clear that I think the D.A. is nonsense, the same goes of course for the C.L. argument.
    Thus I agree that there is a ‘symmetry’.

    But the D.A. is much more popular (e.g. it has its own Wikipedia entry), while the C.L. argument is mainly a Scott A. thing IMHO.

    I guess what you call the C.L. argument is in the real world the argument “Should we really turn the economy upside down because of some flimsy evidence?”

    In this sense I think I adressed both arguments 8-)

  72. Scott Says:

    But the D.A. is much more popular (e.g. it has its own Wikipedia entry), while the C.L. argument is mainly a Scott A. thing IMHO.

    Dude. You can find the Chicken Little Argument in any conservative op-ed about global warming, in Michael Crichton’s latest bestseller, in testimony before Congress, in the minds of the President and tens of millions of his supporters. You can find the Doomsday Argument debated by a few nerds who read Wikipedia.

  73. Scott Says:

    Michael: Thanks for your comments. Yes, it is slightly presumptuous of you to tell me how I should live my life — but I should have been less focused on that than on what I could glean from the free, personalized, voluminous, and at times insightful advice.

  74. michael vassar Says:

    I’m sorry that anonymous and Scott dislike the topic of differences in optimal resource allocation for different types of resources, but it remains an *important* topic, and one which cannot be ignored without compromising efficacy. Allow me to offer an example, borrowing Scott’s Hitler metaphor. It’s 1938, Hitler is openly contemptuous of all treaties and has annexed Austria and Czechoslavakia. War is inevitable. From the perspective of a concerned Allied citizen what should be done? Yes they should use political action to raise awareness of the problem, but really by then they will just be acting as one voice in a crowd. Such action by one more or less person is rather useless. If they are very seriously concerned about Nazism, extremely dedicated, and fairly obtuse about Communism they can fight against the Nazis and Franco in Spain. However, if they are going to put any real effort into a life-threatening project like that, they are, when you get down to it, probably acting more out of machismo and Romantic ideas of self-sacrifice than out of anything like a rational desire to help the world. For a consequentialist, someone who chooses actions based on their (rationally) expected (not desired) impact, by 1938 there is quite obviously only one thing to be done about Hitler. He has to be killed. Now the vast majority of people don’t have the skills to make a credible assassination attempt on a head of state (and the world is surely better off if these people stay at home, try to live good lives, and fight if they are able to once the war actually begins). However, there are surely many people who do speak perfect German, look “aryan”, and have an excellent grasp of German culture, the ability to produce fake documents, skill as a marksman or with explosives, etc. In a country the size of the US or the UK it is all but inevitable that if a large fraction of the hundreds or thousands of people who could have made credible attempts to kill Hitler had made such attempts he would have been dead, or at the very least left hiding in some fortress unable to inspire his followers.

    We have a situation where it is vitally important that some very small but still significant fraction of the population self-identify as having an extremely rare skill set and take it upon themselves to
    a) find potential allies,
    b) develop the relevant skills to their necessary level,
    and
    c) perform a long and extremely dangerous task without external reward or recognition or any significant chance of recieving either even if successful.
    The situation makes stark demands, and it only makes them of certain abnormally capable people. One demand that it makes of everyone however is that they ask themselves “Can I do this? Am I one of the people who can realistically expect to prevent the slaughter of millions? Do I care enough to make a prolonged effort?” Egoistic declarations of “specialness” are distasteful, but some people really are, by situation and ability, special, and if they refuse to recognize this and to perform vital tasks that fairly few others can perform they are abdicating their responsibilities.
    I am not asking Scott or any other highly capable readers of this blog to sacrifice their lifestyle/image as environmentally concerned or anything else. I am asking them to consider seriously and honestly whether they can Get Things Done, and if they can, to do so despite any fundamentally unsatisfyable qualms of insecurity regarding their right to acknowledge the atypicality of their circumstances.

  75. michael vassar Says:

    Your welcome.
    Thanks for looking at the logic of the posts rather than at the associations they create.
    Thanks for tolerating the presumption. Take it and pass it on to others.
    We NEED presumption by the abnormally rational. If only the insane are willing to believe things that SOUND insane from where our civilization is today then our collective beliefs can only change in the direction of insanity. We need people who will allow themselves insane beliefs ONLY when they reach those beliefs through the same belief process that leads them to sane beliefs and only when they can still use the same belief process to select their responses. Kazinsky’s beliefs about the world were reached in a basically rational manner, but his actions were NOT rational consequences of those beliefs.

  76. Pepe Says:

    Scott, to my post:
    “Have you a car?, Have you electricity in your home?, have you heating?

    When you resign to these CO2 producers, nazi technology in your words…”

    I don’t think that you really believe that electricity and heating are Nazi technologies, or that people who use them are the moral equivalent of Nazis.

    It was only an irony.

    “Why are you so apparently unable to make that elementary distinction?”

  77. Osias Says:

    What about using vegetal energy sources, like sugarcane alcohol? Don’t they get co2 from the air?

  78. Cheshire Cat Says:

    Michael, thanks for your eloquent advertisement for Al-Qaeda.

  79. michael vassar Says:

    Glad you think I’m elegant Cheshire ;-)
    I wasn’t sure

    Do you actually disagree with my statement?

    Do you think that Al Quaida is doing something that they actually have a rational expectation of leading to the fulfillment of their goal systems? (remember my explicit reminder of Kazinsky)

    That they have coherent goal systems? (Ben Ladin’s no Ted Kazinsky)

    That you know what a coherent goal system is?

  80. Jud Says:

    Michael –

    Your reminder was not so explicit, since the name I believe you meant to refer to is actually *Kaczynski*.

  81. L Says:

    Scott:
    (1) It sends the right message. Several people, having seen my car, are considering getting one for themselves.

    (2) I’ve already saved almost $1k in gas.

    (3) I wanted to. (Let me remind you that not everyone here is being asked to defend his lifestyle choices… :-) )

    1. But you could (though less passively) be sending them a message that they could do something much more significant. Heading in the opposite direction of what Michael Vassar was saying, you don’t have to be special to make a difference, but you do have to try.

    2a. Didn’t you claim to drive less than the average Prius owner?
    2b. $1k Canadian.

    3. I have no objection to your buying toys, just to your feeling virtuous about it. Are you just whining about global warming for status, or are you trying to make a difference?

  82. Scott Says:

    Are you just whining about global warming for status, or are you trying to make a difference?

    Are you just whining about my behavior to score cheap points, or are you actually trying to influence me? :-)

    Look, I’m tired of being the only person here who’s judged, not by the soundness of his arguments, but by whether making those arguments is the best way he could be spending his time, whether he has other (subconscious?) motivations for making them, etc. This is not a burden that many of us could withstand.

  83. JesseM Says:

    capitalistimperialistpig wrote:
    Doomsday, Anthropicy, and related notions annoy the heck out of me. From the standpoint of pure stat mech, it actually seems to be more likely that all the ordered world we imagine is just a random fluctuation, which managed to produce us, our apparent memories, and our illusion of a low entropy past.

    Only if you make the assumption that there is nothing in the laws of physics themselves which make it probable that the universe started out in an extremely low-entropy state; without a full understanding of quantum gravity and quantum cosmology there is no basis for such an assumption, “pure stat mech” certainly doesn’t lead you to any definitive conclusions about the entropy of the early universe. And in fact, most physicists who have thought about the issue think there is going to turn out to be some reason that a low-entropy big bang is favored by the laws of physics, partly because the alternative leads to the weird conclusions you discuss above about all our memories and observations of the outside world being most likely false.

  84. Anonymous Says:

    Look, I’m tired of being the only person here who’s judged, not by the soundness of his arguments, but by whether making those arguments is the best way he could be spending his time…

    Personally, I’m amused that in a thread that includes the destruction of our planet and the Nazis, you took offense to someone’s usage of the word “fuck.”

  85. Scott Says:

    Personally, I’m amused that in a thread that includes the destruction of our planet and the Nazis, you took offense to someone’s usage of the word “fuck.”

    You read me completely fucking wrong. It’s not the word that angered me; it was the use of it to launch an unprovoked personal attack.

  86. Anonymous Says:

    One non-complexity entry, and look at the resulting mess…

  87. Anonymous Says:

    Take heart Scott: some of us are still quitely content to

    (a) act in such a way that (we believe) if everyone else acted in that way then our problems would eventually be solved.

    (b) spread the message whenever it’s convenient.

    As bad as it could get, global climate change hasn’t annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia yet, so I don’t yet feel compelled to ruin my life for the cause.

    It’s conceivable that buying a Prius wasn’t a step in the direction of absolute steepest ascent in the utility function induced by your unique skill set, but it’s still a step in the right direction. At least you didn’t buy a Hummer with a bumper sticker that says, “support our troops.” ;-)

    Also, kudos for incorporating metareasoning into a post about global climate change instead of pretending to be a climate scientist.

    Gus

  88. Scott Says:

    Thanks, Gus.

  89. L Says:

    Scott:
    You aren’t the only person whose motivations I’ve condemned on this thread. Also, in the phrasing of your previous complaint about me, I certainly felt that you were attacking my “lifestyle choices” by making comparisons with bystanders to Hitler. (I should add that the phrase “fail to make elementary distinctions” is the classic aftermath of a Godwin’s law violation.)

    As to your complaint that we’re not discussing your arguments, one problem is that the post was about a class of arguments you wanted to avoid.

    Anonymous:
    (a) act in such a way that (we believe) if everyone else acted in that way then our problems would eventually be solved.

    Aside from the obvious problem that not not everyone else is going to act like you, what does that mean? Be rich enough to afford a hybrid? It is far more effective to do things to lower the price of hybrids than to buy them now.

    One thing about hybrids, unlike other worthless rituals environmentalists do, is that you can put a dollar amount on them. The owner of a hybrid has said he’s willing to make that size sacrifice. Unfortunately, it’s usually too late to convince him to use it differently. But, Scott could advise those influenced by his car to come up with a more effective use of their money.

  90. Anonymous Says:

    Scott,

    normally I appreciate your posts, but this one is just looney, reflecting the religious nature of your feelings regarding global warming. The reason why many rational people are skeptical about human caused global warming isn’t connected to any of the absurd things in this post, it’s that there’s little evidence for it.

    The people who feel like you are typically fond of citing the supposed “scientific consensus”, but what the IPCC 2001 report stated was not that human cause of global warming is an established fact, but rather
    that there was > 2/3 chance greenhouse gasses had caused a substantial fraction of global warming. Even this degree of confidence was controversial rather than consensual, as witness the fact that it was beefed up from the draft report.
    I doubt any of the skeptics would say there was less than 1/4 chance humans had contributed significantly to GW (most if not all skeptics agree that humans have increased CO2, and argue not that we understand the physics well enough to say this has no effect, but rather that we don’t understand it well enough to say it will cause massive warming) so the argument is over probabilities, not certainties.

    Moreover the IPCC 2001 “consensus” was mostly based on the hockey stick, which at the time was regarded as fact, but is now, to be tactful, at best in limbo.

    Its also not completely irrelevant to note that the climate scientists, not to mention politicians, have substantial financial interest in finding a human caused climate catastrophe.

    My own view is that there’s significant evidence of a little Ice Age in Shakespeare’s time, so its hardly surprising, or alarming, that the world has warmed a bit since. The recent move is well within the noise of natural climate moves over the earth’s history, so well within that there’s no reason to be surprised it occured exactly now. The climate models may be based on 19th century physics, as you say, but that’s not exactly an endorsement. They make zero
    predictions, and didn’t bat an eye when factor of 10 effects such as heat absorption in clouds were suddenly discovered in the late 90’s and introduced into the models. (In fact, so little fuss was made about the fact that the models absorbed a suddenly discovered effect
    that was a factor of 10 larger than any alleged CO2 greenhouse effect without any change in their predictions, only some parameter retuning, that I suspect you were unaware of it.) In short, humans may be having an impact, or they may not,
    I guess I’d lean towards the less than 50% school, but its not an established
    fact like Al Gore would have you believe.

  91. Scott Says:

    Anonymous:

    Have you looked into what McIntyre and McKitrick’s “debunking” of the Mann et al. hockey stick actually consists of? When I did (in response to another climate skeptic who brought it up), I could barely believe it. All they’re saying is that, if you do principal components analysis on random temperature data, you’ll get some component that looks like a hockey stick. Well, duh!! The point is that the magnitude of the hockey stick component in the actual temperature data is bigger than chance at something like a 5-sigma level. Yet, from this one doofus statistical error, the claim got repeated from op-ed column to another that “the hockey stick has been debunked.”

    You say it’s “not completely irrelevant” to note the financial interest of the scientists involved. My favorite answer to that was given on RealClimate: if you wanted more funding for climate research, you would emphasize the uncertainties in the science, not the certainties! Also, it’s conceivable that Exxon, Texaco, etc. might have a financial stake as well, though I’ll concede it’s more likely that they, unlike the scientists, are solely motivated by the rigors of intellectual honesty.

    Suppose I accepted (which I don’t) that the probability of an anthropogenic climate disaster was only 25%. Wouldn’t that already justify a major policy response? What if we were talking about a 25% chance of nuclear war? Somehow, in the minds of the climate contrarians, 25% quickly becomes 5% becomes something like 0%.

    I’ll try to answer some of your other “talking points” in future posts. Let me close with this observation: I think a reasonable observer would find your feelings on the subject every bit as “religious” as mine. But only one of us is willing to sign his name.

  92. Anonymous Says:

    Hi Scott,

    as it happens the day after your post (May 3) Lubos Motl has a post of simulations from a computer program demonstrating
    “that the reconstructions that imply that the 20th century climate was unprecedented are as statistically trustworthy as sequences of random numbers.”
    Motl

    On the question: “Suppose I accepted (which I don’t) that the probability of an anthropogenic climate disaster was only 25%. Wouldn’t that already justify a major policy response?”

    The answer to that is, depends on a cost benefit analysis. For example, even if the models were proven to be 100% accurate, with human caused global warming a certainty, the Kyoto protocols would make no sense whatsoever, because the gain, according to the models, (and assuming even that all the countries actually kept to the emissions goals, which has already proven to be a pipe dream) would be not to prevent global warming, but to delay the warming by a grand total of 6 years over the next century. Achieving this would however cost a trillion $, 5 times the cost of global sanitation and clean water Lomborg article

    On the subject of name signing, I wonder if you saw Lindzen’s article in the WSJ a week or so ago, which listed various scientists who were punished for dissenting from the global warming chorus. Lindzen Op-Ed
    The fact is, making leftist noises is regarded within academia as showing ones credentials as members of the club and rewarded, whereas conservative comments are often punished.

  93. TW Andrews Says:

    I’m not sure why exponential growth of population is so quickly assumed without even a nod to the idea that without it, the whole DA thing falls apart.

    In fact, most populations do *not* grow exponentially, but rather go through a phase of exponential growth but then asymptotically approach a stable population as they become resource limited.

    As far as I understand, given the falling birthrate around the world, the human population looks to stablize in the foreseeable future.

    This has little to do with global warming (except as an example that conclusions arrived at with a unsound model are themselves unsound), but I’m amazed that no one else pointed it out.

  94. Scott Says:

    Anonymous: Awww, you poor persecuted right-wing babies! ;) Speaking for myself, I have plenty of opinions that differ from the “Berkeley mainstream” (say, about whether the SAT is evil, whether Israel should be wiped off the map, whether there exists an objective reality…), and have never hesitated to sign my name to them. Thankfully, I haven’t suffered any negative repercurssions for that. I don’t know, maybe CS departments are more tolerant than most…

    I don’t agree with Lomborg’s cost estimates (again, something to blog about later), but I completely agree that the Kyoto protocol would be only a small beginning. But look, if you’re driving full speed toward the edge a cliff, tapping the brake slightly is better than doing nothing. At least your foot is over the brake now, so you’re in a better position to slam it when it becomes apparent to everyone in the car that there’s no other option…

  95. Anonymous Says:

    Let me summarize a few points you haven’t disputed and presumably agree with. (1) The evidence to date has not permitted any scientific consensus that there is less than 1/3 chance that any warming which has or will occur is largely of natural origins.
    (2) The Kyoto protocol, even if followed by all nations (and incidentally, the US is doing a much better job of conforming to it than many of the signatories) would have little effect on human induced global warming even if the models are correct.
    (3) Implementing the Kyoto Protocol would cost a hell of a lot. (You questioned Lomoborg’s figures, but haven’t yet provided others. I haven’t read Lomborg in a while, maybe I never read his cost accounting closely, but I predict you will find he more or less took his figures from some consensus UN report, because that’s his general modus operandi. He just reads the UN or NAS or the like reports on various environmental topics, and summarizes the consensus scientific opinion, which invariably turns out to have little relation to the press coverage and the public statements of leftist (ie mainstream :^) academics, including those who co-author the reports.)

    Yet you think we should impose Kyoto, because it might lead to later effective reforms. I would love to see you attempt some kind of cost-benefit analysis to justify that position. I’d also like to see (before we spend what may turn out to be a trillion $ if it later turns out Lomborg is right or may turn out to be 10 trillion $ if Lomborg left out some important costs, such as additional hidden costs to the economy coming from governments’ asserting additional control in order to implement Kyoto or worse protocols) some proposal of what your later effective reforms might look like, and what their cost benefit analysis might be.

    Absent a rational proposal of why Kyoto would be cost-effective and what realistically could be accomplished, support for it has the aura of being religiously motivated:
    mankind has sinned and must atone, independent of whether making the appropriate sacrifices has any actual effect, and maybe the more it costs, the better the sacrifice.

    Incidentally, I highly recomment Lomborg’s reply to Scientific American.
    Lomborg
    Lomborg’s rebuttal makes quite clear that the various critiques of his book by highly respected academics published in Sci Am, while extremely tendentious in tone, don’t even challenge his main conclusions. They just throw heat on the subject in an attempt to obscure the issue. I find it quite illuminating from a sociological perspective. Its very positive, in my view, that while (unfortunately) politicized scientists are willing to make all kinds of rash and unsupported statements to the press, they mostly remain unwilling to publish such things, even in places like scientific american (hence the divide between their published papers, from which Lomborg extracted his book, and their sciam comments which have to resort to obfuscation rather than admitting that Lomborg has summarized the situation.)

  96. Scott Says:

    I’m not sure why exponential growth of population is so quickly assumed without even a nod to the idea that without it, the whole DA thing falls apart.

    No, it doesn’t. Exponential growth makes the Doomsday conclusion more dramatic, but the logic of the argument is independent of it. See Bostrom for more on this point.