Sunday, December 13, 2009

A silver bullet argument

Whenever someone claims to have a "silver-bullet" argument on a controversial issue (such as climate change, abortion, etc), it should set off a red-light alert. A "silver-bullet" argument is something like a mathematical proof, only involving social issues. It's the kind of argument that any sane, rational person can agree with -- regardless of his values, preferences, etc. Presumably, having heard such an argument, any sane, rational person can't help but to agree with the conclusion.

So I just heard such an argument -- all 9.5 minutes of it. And I'm still not agreeing with the conclusion that drastic taxation and regulation is needed to stop global warming NOW. So... am I insane? Irrational? Or... could it be that the argument has holes?

Let's play a game. I don't care what your stance is on global warming science and policy. Just for fun, point out as many logical fallacies as you can in this vampire-slaying, inexorably compelling super-argument.


Anonymous said...

A major problem in his argument is that a global economic depression also would provoke the warfare and desperation that global warming would.
Also, he asks for input and then removes commenting from his video? What a hack!

Lev Reyzin said...

looks like somebody was a little too impressed with Pascal's wager

Anonymous said...

I guess probabilities are important when computing expected values.

Aryeh said...

This guy is supposed to be a science teacher. Taking at face value his claim that no-one he has shared this argument with has been able to poke a hole in it, what does it say about the state of America's education?

Ariel Brio said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mizhi said...

@aryeh, You assume the only folks he's shared with have been Americans.

That aside, I sincerely doubt that no one has been able to poke holes in his argument, or at the very least, point out where he has glossed over pertinent details and made implicit assumptions. e.g. Wouldn't spending a bunch of money on climate change actually occurring (Row-True, Col-Yes) have the same worst case economic and social risks that spending a bunch of money on climate change not occurring (Row-False, Col-Yes)? Instead, he marks it with a smiley face and says the only associated risk is cost.

He also has the implicit assumption that taking action will prevent climate change, and that's highly debatable. It's also debatable that humans are causing climate change.

This guy's argument is that we should "do something" regardless of the effectiveness, which is not wise policy. I'm all for environmental regulations that prevent wholesale pollution of the environment, but there are socio-economic concerns that need to be considered as well.

Quite frankly, both extreme sides of the debate bore me. There's no room for discussion with either side.

Full disclosure: I do think the earth is warming and humans have something to do with it, but I am not sure of the extent of our contribution to the warming and our ability to change it.

@ariel, agree completely.

Aryeh said...

In the spirit of catching logical lapses, I'll concede mizhi's point. In fact, I don't know anything about this guy: not that he's a science teacher, not who he's been in touch with, not who put him up to this, and so forth. The fact that he claims to encourage open debate het blocks the comments on youtube speaks volumes in itself.

A disturbing dilemma I'm wrestling with is who I'd rather have as a science teacher: a boring, minimally knowledgeble druge, or a guy like Greg Craven from the video.

Aryeh said...

OK, so I guess I know a bit more about Greg Craven now. His website leaves no doubt about his stance on policy. Don't you love it when totally objective, neutral, impartial SCIENTISTS!!! unequivocally dictate policy as if it were the only logical course of action?

BTW, he has a follow-up video, where his argument is strengthend by shooting flames and popping balloons (which totally sold me, btw). I didn't bother watching the whole 10-min segment (I do have a semi-real job to do). He's got 7 hours worth of video there, so it should be completely obvious to any sane, rational person that we must all drop whatever we're doing and immediately watch all 7 hours NOW -- because risking the alternative is too horrible to contemplate.

tawnabarmore said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Unknown said...

Ah yes, I'm familiar with this little number.

Hmm. Let's see. Where do I start. His actual argument starts at 1:28 into the video, but the first "hole" in his argument was 1:28 before that, when the title of the video showed up: "the Most Terrifying Video You'll Ever See."

Really? This is the title of the argument with which all "rational, reasonable people" should be able to agree? No, this is sensationalism and absurd panic-mongering (I mean he goes on between 3:47 and 4:50 saying more and more and more ridiculous stuff. "... AND global warming will give you terrible eczema and insult your mother and erase all your MP3s from your hard drive!!!")

Which is about 80% of the problem with what the global-warming true believers say. They have convinced themselves that the only possible consequences of the changes they predict are going to be terrible, and their mission now is to convince the rest of us. It is not outright malicious, but it is nothing short of religious fervor, of the proselytizing variety.

But I digress....
This guy's whole deal basically boils down to the Precautionary Principle (which, yes, is a form of Pascal's wager). Imagine the worst thing that'll happen, then WE HAVE TO DO SOMETHING!

He says it's like buying a lottery ticket. But it's much more like buying insurance. His claim is that we need to buy this insurance, in case the worst stuff ever imaginable happens. But that's now how people buy insurance, nor should they. People evaluate how much risk THEY are willing to tolerate, and how much money/time/whatever THEY are willing to pay as insurance to mitigate that risk. In fact at one point he directly states "the risk of not acting far outweighs the risk of acting." Which is a value judgment, and it may hold true for him, but certainly doesn't for me, nor does it, I expect, for at least a couple billion of the planet's inhabitants.

What this guy is advocating is roughly comparable to my buying earthquake insurance in which the premiums are $1M per year. Sure, I live in an earthquake-prone area, and it would be devastating if my life (G-d forbid) were destroyed by a severe earthquake. Nevertheless it makes zero sense to buy the insurance policy.

In the end, the argument is NEVER as simple as this. It always boils down to the details -- how likely is it that our current course will cause irreversible climate catastrophe, how likely is it that whatever actions we take will prevent it, and what are the costs in each scenario -- the answers to all three questions are very much uncertain. The climate alarmists have stopped trying to find the answers ("the peer-reviewed science is settled!"), and are now spending all of their energy trying to force the rest of us to drink their Cool-Aid. Sorry, not thirsty.

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