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September 26, 2007

Causes of Global Warming – Are We Fooled By Hubris?

According to Nassim Taleb in Fooled by Randomness we like to tell ourselves stories, perhaps to aid in remembering otherwise unrelated events. Often these stories can mislead us because we tend to assume that events which come first are the cause of events which come after even though the events may actually be either unrelated or both the independent results of some unknown third event. Philosophers are sufficiently aware of this fallacy to give it a Latin name – post hoc ergo propter hoc.

Among other examples, Taleb, who is a trader, points to the absurd sound bites in the daily financial press which ascribe a cause to every statistically insignificant market move. If the market moves fast enough, the same cause is often used for the move in both directions.

Taleb points out that scientists are no more immune to bad logic and group think than the rest of us. Those who mistook scientific consensus for proven fact “knew” that the earth was flat and that the sun circled it.

We have another tendency in our storytelling according to me: we humans like to be the cause of everything. We hate being helpless. Think of all the stories about the wrath of various gods in all the mythologies of the world. The people were sinful so God destroyed the city; the woman was vain so the Goddess punished her; the sacrifice was not properly prepared and therefore…

What these stories really say is that we control the gods and not vice versa. My friend W, who prefers to remain anonymous, pointed out to me that the sale of indulgences to those who felt a need for some kind of forgiveness is another example of man controlling God. He also pointed out that there are resemblances between individual purchases of carbon credits and indulgences. Hmm….

The arguments in favor of the hypothesis that human-caused increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are unfortunately laced with post hoc ergo proctor hoc thinking:  many past warming cycles have been accompanied by a significant increase in CO2 (fact); therefore, the current increase in atmospheric CO2 (which is probably attributable mostly to human activity) MUST be causing the causing the recent short-term (so far) acceleration in global warming (conjecture) and that warming will continue unless humans reduce their production of CO2 (prediction).

It is quite possible that all of the above hypothesis, conjectures, and predictions are right. It is also possible that some or all of them are wrong. Unfortunately, it is critically important that we figure this all out. For example, if the oceans are going to continue to rise no matter what we do (as they have many times in the past clearly without our help because we weren’t there) and if anthropogenic CO2 emissions are NOT causing global warming, we should be spending money directly on plans to deal with billions of coastal refugees rather than on reducing coal burning or in carbon sequestration (or on rebuilding coastal properties destroyed by storms in the same about-to-be-inundated places).

It hurts to believe that we have almost no control over our environment. Somehow it’s psychologically more comfortable to believe that it’s all our fault (or at least the fault of our neighbors with SUVs) and we have it within our control to placate the gods or nature with some well-designed sacrifice.

The assumption that climate is within our control is hubris even though it may eventually be true. There is stuff – lots of stuff – that we neither understand nor control. Many civilizations spent much of their declining fortunes in rituals and monuments designed to ward off the effects of climate change and other catastrophes they didn’t cause – but wanted to believe they were in control of. Everyone knew that witches were responsible for crop failures – most people even “knew” who the witches were.

We have to answer critically important questions like is the current warming trend short or long-term? Is it reversible? Did we contribute to it or cause it? In either case, can we reverse it? if warming continues, will seas continue to rise (not  a given because snowfall patterns as well as temperature govern glacier extent)? We’ll have to takes many actions before all the results are known since no action is an action in itself.

This will all take our best thinking but Nassim Taleb’s point is that we are not actually designed to think very well. We have the same brains as the people who believed the earth was flat and who conducted witch trials. In order to do good thinking, we have to be aware of and fight against our tendency to tell ourselves stories when no story line actually exists. I’d add that we also have to watch our tendency to cast ourselves as major characters – even villains – rather than believe that we are just bystanders.

Does skepticism imply inaction? Nope – next post.

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Tom Evslin has an outstanding post up today titled Causes of Global Warming Are We Fooled By Hubris? Amy and I just finished watching Rome Season 2 and our conclusion is the more things change the more they stay the same.&nb... [Read More]

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