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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Slam Dunk Argument for Dealing with Global Warming

Strap in, because we're going to do some thinking here. Cruising through my RSS feeds last night, I came across this video posted in Peter Rothberg's blog at The Nation. "It's the best argument I've seen yet for taking immediate action on climate change," Rothberg writes. "The logic would seem undeniable even for the denialists."

Titled, "The Most Terrifying Video You'll Ever See," it's less terror and more logic. It's also nearly ten minutes long so, for those who are short on time, I'll give you the abridged version.

Basically, it's a cost-benefit analysis of doing nothing about global warming vs. doing what scientists say we need to do. In order to get around the argument that climate change isn't caused by humans (or isn't even happening at all), the person who made the video -- Oregon high school science teacher Greg Craven -- basically gives equal weight to both arguments. In other words and for the sake of argument, the he assumes that denialists and climate scientists have an equal chance of being right. It's a coin-flip.

So, if the deniers are right and we deal with a non-existent problem, we have a global depression -- that's taking their worst case scenario and assuming it's valid (we'll deal with the problems with this argument later). If the deniers are right and we don't do anything, then nothing happens and everyone's happy.

On the other hand, if the deniers are wrong and we deal with global warming, we've still spent that money, but it turned out to be necessary. If we don't deal with warming and the deniers are wrong, then the worst case scenario is the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; famine, disease, death, and war -- in addition to economic collapse comparable to the deniers' worst case scenario for dealing with what they believe is a nonexistent problem.

So, all things being equal, the only logical choice is to deal with climate change. The consequences of the deniers being wrong are much, much worse than those of the scientists being wrong.

And the deniers' worst case scenario is pure BS. All we're talking about doing is moving from one technology -- burning stuff -- to another technology. We've done this hundreds -- if not thousands -- of times in human history and it's never resulted in economic collapse. Was the automobile bad for the buggywhip industry? Yeah, it was. But so what? All the jobs lost in that industry were offset by new jobs in another industry. We're talking about creating new technologies, new industries, new markets, and new jobs. How could this possibly be bad for the economy?

Some may recognize Craven's argument as a variation on Pascal's Wager, where philosopher Blaise Pascal argued that the safer bet was to be a Christian. If God exists, then you gain eternal life. If God doesn't exist, then you still spent your life as a good person. The philosopher argued that it was a bet you couldn't lose. But Pascal ignored variables that didn't fit his argument; the existence of other religions for example. The argument for being a Christian could just as easily be applied to being a Hindu or Muslim -- the possibilities weren't the 50/50 that Pascal presented. And, of course, life is finite, so the argument that you're out nothing if you're wrong about being Christian is flawed -- you're out a big chunk of that finite time wasted in church, for one. In contrast, Craven's argument encompasses all possibilities and rules out nothing, so it's there that the comparison to Pascal dies.

But Craven's argument does have one flaw; it assumes deniers are rational and will be swayed by logic. Experience tells me this isn't the case. If you want an example of how little facts and reason mean to many on the right, check out the latest piece by syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts.

I got an email the other day that depressed me.

It concerned a piece I recently did that mentioned Henry Johnson, who was awarded the French Croix de Guerre in World War I for singlehandedly fighting off a company of Germans (some accounts say there were 14, some say almost 30, the ones I find most authoritative say there were about two dozen) who threatened to overrun his post. Johnson managed this despite the fact that he was only 5'4'' and 130 pounds, despite the fact that his gun had jammed, despite the fact that he was wounded 21 times.

My mention of Johnson's heroics drew a rebuke from a fellow named Ken Thompson, which I quote verbatim and in its entirety:

"Hate to tell you that blacks were not allowed into combat intell 1947, that fact. World War II ended in 1945. So all that feel good, one black man killing two dozen Nazi, is just that, PC bull."

So, of course, Pitts wrote back. He included verifiable facts and proved that Thompson was wrong. Thompson didn't care. He made up reasons to dismiss the evidence and insisted that Pitts was a fool for believing the facts.

"To listen to talk radio, to watch TV pundits, to read a newspaper's online message board, is to realize that increasingly, we are a people estranged from critical thinking, divorced from logic, alienated from even objective truth," Pitts writes. "We admit no ideas that do not confirm us, hear no voices that do not echo us, sift out all information that does not validate what we wish to believe."

So Greg Craven's argument, though entirely logical and well thought out, won't make a dent in the deniers' minds. We live in a world where, despite literally having all the proof in the world that they're wrong, people insist on believing that Barack Obama isn't a US citizen. Where people believe that The Flintstones is a better representation of early humans than anything in the theory of evolution. Where people still believe there were WMD in Iraq, despite overwhelming evidence that there were not.

If truth is meaningless and facts are irrelevant, then logic doesn't stand a chance in hell.


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vet said...

The deniers' case against Craven's argument is too simple: "You want us to be taken in by a con man just because his claim is bigger than all the others? That's a reason to reject him all the more forcefully."

Really, I doubt if Pascal's Wager ever convinced anyone to change their life.

ROXR said...

Greg Craven's video from 2007 has been greatly improved upon in his book "What's the Worst that Could Happen?". He used the climate change skeptics and deniers charges to improve his message. The book is a work book that helps you think through your position - even if you are still a denier when you finish.