Asymmetric certainty [updates]

The initial column from the New York Times’s newest columnist, Bret Stephens, makes the case that advocates for doing something about climate change are expressing too much certainty about what will happen.  In making his case, Stephens makes two logical mistakes.

First, he says that anybody who expresses certainty about the future is a conceited fool. OK, so GG will risk this one: the sun will rise tomorrow.  Summer will come and the days will get longer. Want more specific? OK; there will be a solar eclipse August 21st at 11:42 am in Casper, Wyoming.

Well, you say, this is silly; after all, these things are really well understood.  Yes, all true–and why? Because of careful observation and development of theory–you know, science. So ridiculing certainty as a general principle is, um, foolish.

Second mistake? By suggesting that skepticism is warranted, he implies that the unstated uncertainty would reduce the risks, that it is one-sided. Unfortunately, until recently the climate science community has been rather conservative about what is going on in the Arctic (for instance, only the last IPCC report tried to deal with melting ice), and now you have a report suggesting that things in the Arctic are worse than have been assumed. Yes, what will happen is uncertain–but it can be worse than is being forecast just as it could be better. So if you are going to be skeptical, allow that the forecast might be too optimistic.

[Arguably there is a third mistake in misrepresenting his opening quote, which applies to all the predictions a person might make, versus the confidence a community might have in a single prediction.]

Now, GG does agree that climate change advocates all too often place too much faith in their models, and he would tend to agree that oftentimes things are presented as more certain than they are, but he has pointed out that the basic relationship of carbon dioxide to global temperature is robust from a geologic perspective. If your decision to spend money on combating climate change hinges on, say, the size of the snowpack in the Wind River Mountains in the last half of this century, yeah, the uncertainties are huge. But if all it depends on are ocean acidification, which goes directly with atmospheric CO2, or sea level rise, or more intense droughts and heat waves, well, the uncertainties get relatively small. And Stephens does seem to recognize that the predictions are really probabilities and that the risks are real. So Mr. Stephens, how about taking the next step and working with expectations and risk minimization rather than simply criticizing the strategy of some of the players? Its fun to second guess a coach or manager; its a lot harder to get in the game.

P.S. A story at CNN claims lots of people are cancelling subscriptions to the NY Times over this column.  A sillier response is hard to imagine; while the column has problems as noted above, it is at least material one can engage with, and the news side of the Times operation is really pretty good on climate change. You aren’t going to hone your arguments by only listening to those you agree with (and if you think this guy is a waste of space, you could just not read his contributions).

P.P.S. A Vox story goes into far greater detail of why many people are unhappy with this columnist, much of which predates this column, but also notes how these kinds of “we don’t know enough” arguments are really irrelevant.


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