Yong on the Urge to Cling Harder to Shaken Belief

Awesome science blogger Ed Yong wrote back in October about a new study demonstrating the lengths to which people will go to avoid cognitive dissonance: When in doubt, shout – why shaking someone’s beliefs turns them into stronger advocates.

You don’t have to look very far for examples of people holding on to their beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Thousands still hold to the idea that vaccines cause autism, that all life was created a few thousand years ago, and even that drinking industrial bleach is a good idea. Look at comment threads across the internet and you’ll inevitably find legions of people who boldly support for these ideas in the face of any rational argument.

That might be depressing, but it’s not unexpected. In a new study, David Gal and Derek Rucker from Northwestern University have found that when people’s confidence in their beliefs is shaken, they become stronger advocates for those beliefs. The duo carried out three experiments involving issues such as animal testing, dietary preferences, and loyalty towards Macs over PCs. In each one, they subtly manipulated their subjects’ confidence and found the same thing: when faced with doubt, people shout even louder.

There are a couple of obvious tie-ins to the climate change debate: Deniers deny even more fiercely in the face of mounting scientific evidence that climate change is real, and that urgent action to address it is imperative. And I guess it cuts the other way, too, as shcb is no doubt already preparing to type in response: In the face of public relations setbacks, the climate change believers are redoubling their own efforts. If you believe that the believers are factually wrong, and that the evidence against them is legitimate, then it matches up in exactly the same way.

And accused people tend to protest their innocence, whether or not they are guilty. That doesn’t make the two cases equivalent, though. There is such a thing as actual innocence, and it makes a difference.

For more great stuff from Ed Yong, check out his NERS Review of the year Part 9 – Twists and lessons.

25 Responses to “Yong on the Urge to Cling Harder to Shaken Belief”

  1. shcb Says:

    “I guess it cuts the other way, too, as shcb is no doubt already preparing to type in response: In the face of public relations setbacks, the climate change believers are redoubling their own efforts. If you believe that the believers are factually wrong, and that the evidence against them is legitimate, then it matches up in exactly the same way.”

    Exactly, and I don’t know how to get this off the dime. At this point I think I need another ten years of data. The last ten years have been mostly flat, the previous 25 were heating with the 25 previous to that cooling. I would feel better if the next ten cooled, and I think they will, but if they don’t, if temps go up would that convince me?

    If Mann came out tomorrow and said he made up some of his data, manipulated most and cherry picked others just like I contend he did would that change your minds? Probably not, you would most likely say that so many others have come up with the same conclusions that it doesn’t matter if he fudged a little.

    There is a point to be made that even though the last few years have been flat they would have cooled without AGW and the previous 25 would have been flat.

    I don’t know… interesting waste of time though… beats chasing women in bars.

  2. jbc Says:

    Well, to go along with your scenario, let’s look at risk-benefit ratios. If the scientists are right, and we are indeed facing a substantial risk of catastrophic impacts (drought, famine, war over a scale of centuries) unless we take dramatic action during the next 10 years to head off amplifying feedback loops, then acting now is (obviously) very much in our collective interest.

    If the scientists are wrong and you are right, though, what do we lose by engaging in aggressive action now? We get some boosts in energy efficiency and reduced environmental impacts, at a slightly higher short-term cost than we might otherwise have chosen to pay. But those initial costs will be paid back over the long term, since those changes are things we know will have long-term benefits, even in the absence of any climate benefits.

    Consider this hypothetical: We’re in a casino. We’re standing in front of the roulette wheel, and it’s spinning, and we have a $10 chip that we can bet on either red or black. Either choice will cost us $10 if we’re wrong, and pay out $20 if we’re right, but there’s a catch: the casino owner has our wife and kids tied up in the back room. If the ball lands on black he’ll let them go regardless of what we bet on, but if it lands on red and we bet on black, he’s going to cut their throats. If it lands on red and we bet on red he won’t necessarily kill them; instead he’ll flip a coin, heads they go free, tails they die.

    If you were actually facing that scenario, which would you bet on?

  3. shcb Says:

    I’d pull out my Colt 45 and shoot the bastard. I just put in a variable that wasn’t in your scenario because I think you’re missing another possibility other than the scientists are right and we fry or they are wrong and limited harm is done to the economy. Another possibility is they are right (or wrong, either works) and we go down a path that wastes time and resources instead of actually fixing the problem. There is a very real possibility they are right that AGW is causing the planet to warm but they and the politicians (this includes politicians in the scientific community) are exaggerating the timeframe we have to work with, this leads to people making bad decisions. Like taking the time to carefully remove an injured person from a car wreck. If someone is yelling to get him out because the car is about to explode when it isn’t unnecessary injury is actually caused. I have no problem with reasonable upgrades to our systems even if they cost a little more as long as the cost isn’t too high and they make sense, because I don’t think the risk is that high, I believe it has been hyped.

    For instance using natural gas to produce electricity seems short sighted and ultimately detrimental if the AGW has been hyped. Coal is more plentiful and can really only be used for producing electricity. Using natural gas to make electricity now will cause more problems later if we have to start using coal to heat homes in 50 or 100 years because we used the natural gas for no good reason. Of course if AGW hasn’t been hyped using natural gas might be the right decision. I guess it comes down to who do you trust.

  4. Anithil Says:

    “I’d pull out my Colt 45 and shoot the bastard”.

    I admit, this is by far the most satisfying option in this particular risk-benefit scenario. Does humanity have an awesome gun we can whip out to change the odds and choose our own, new outcome? We don’t have a new, awesome planet that we found/terraformed, so no, we do not have an awesome gun that can solve the whole situation (which is too bad).

    The car metaphor is an interesting one, and I think it presents a good point. However, when I look at this whole situation again using the risk-benefit analysis, I’m still going to have to go with the crowd that believes global warming is not being hyped. Mass worldwide disaster and terror is quite a large deterrent, to understate things.

    And waiting a decade or two more to get more data? That sounds great, I’m all for waiting something out and making a decision only when one has to. However, it’s easy for us to decide to wait a decade or two, we’re not the generation that will have to find out what the consequences will be.

    On another note, very interesting article, thank you for sharing!

  5. jbc Says:

    I’m a little confused. At one point you say this, which makes me think you’re accepting that the extremely grave risks that climate scientists are warning about might be real, and worthy of attention: “Another possibility is they are right… and we go down a path that wastes time and resources instead of actually fixing the problem.”

    That’s an interesting position. It sounds like you’re saying that maybe the scientists are right, at least as to the risks, but that they are advocating a response that might actually prevent us from avoiding those risks. If true, that would definitely be something I would want to consider.

    Except there’s this other part of what you said (which I omitted via the ellipses above): “Another possibility is they are right (or wrong, either works)…”

    Here’s where I get confused. If the scientists are wrong (presumably, as to the risks represented by climate change), then how does your scenario hold together? The danger you’re describing is that there is a real risk, but by wasting our effort on the scientists’ proposed preventions and mitigations, we will somehow avoid “actually fixing the problem”. Right? But if the scientists are wrong as to the risks, what is the problem we need to actually be fixing?

    Then, at the end of that paragraph, you say this: “I have no problem with reasonable upgrades to our systems even if they cost a little more as long as the cost isn’t too high and they make sense, because I don’t think the risk is that high, I believe it has been hyped.” Now it sounds like you’re saying something different.

    Let’s return to my casino metaphor. Maybe it would help if I explained in more detail what I meant by it. The ball can land on either black or red. If it lands on black, the wife and kids go free. In terms of climate change scenarios, that’s the scenario in which the scientists turn out to have been wrong: The earth actually isn’t warming, or it isn’t going to have these super scary amplifying feedbacks. The scientists are hyping the risks. This is what you’re saying you believe is the likeliest case, right? You think the ball is going to land on black. Maybe you’re not positive, but you think it’s at least relatively likely. Maybe 60% probability? 75% Higher? Okay; fine. You can adjust your version of the roulette wheel to have more black spaces and fewer red ones. The metaphor still works to make my point.

    As long as there are some red spaces on the wheel, there is a chance that the ball could land on red. In that case the wife and kids really are in jeopardy. (With climate, that’s the scenario in which the scientists are right about the dangers. Maybe you think it’s less likely than a 50% probability, but you accept that it’s got some chance of happening, right?)

    If we choose not to spend the money now to take aggressive action on climate (that is, if we bet on the roulette wheel coming up black), and it does come up black (that is, the scientists turn out to have been over-hyping the risk), then we’re fine. The wife and kids go free, and we saved the money we would have lost by betting on red.

    But if we bet on black (by not bothering to take early aggressive action on climate) and the wheel actually comes up red (that is, the scientists were right), we’re really, really screwed. In that scenario, the wife and kids are definitely killed.

    Alternately, we can bet on red (by taking early, aggressive action on climate). In that case, if the wheel comes up red (the scientists were right), we still have the hope of the casino owner’s coin flip. True, if the wheel comes up black we will have lost our $10 bet. But the wife and kids will be safe, which, on balance, seems like a pretty good deal, all things considered. It would have been worth it, at least to me, to lose the $10 in order to have retained that chance of the coin flip if we turned out to have needed it.

    Hm. Maybe another metaphor would make the point clearer. Let’s say you’re confronted by that scary Javier Bardem character from No Country for Old Men. He’s pointing a gun at you, and he puts on the counter in front of you two coins: A penny and a silver dollar. He makes you the following offer, which you know, magically, he really will follow through on:

    A) You can ask him to flip the penny. If it comes up heads, you get the penny. If it comes up tails, he gets the penny. Either way, you get to walk out safely.

    B) Or you can ask him to flip the silver dollar. If it comes up heads, you get to keep it, and leave safely. But if it comes up tails, not only does he get the silver dollar, but he gets to shoot you in the knee.

    To make the best choice, it’s not enough to look only at the probabilities of success or failure. You have to look at the potential consequences.

    You offered the metaphor of injuring an accident victim by removing him or her from a car because of an incorrect fear that the car was going to explode. I certainly understand your point there; having trained as an EMT, I’ve had it drummed into me over and over again that when confronted by a possible spinal injury, immobilization of the spinal column is crucial, with any movement of the patient that could compromise that immobilization being the sort of thing you would consider only as an absolute last resort. (The paramedics who taught my EMT class also drummed into us that car explosions are way more commonplace in movies than in real life.)

    But that metaphor doesn’t really match the climate situation, because the risks are too similar in terms of severity. The harm that could be done by moving a person with a spinal cord injury is roughly comparable to the harm that could be done by a car explosion. So you’re not balancing a great risk on the one hand versus a relatively minor risk on the other.

    With climate change, the hypothetical risks on each side aren’t comparable. If climate scientists are correct, a 10-year delay in taking aggressive action runs a very real risk of triggering runaway warming, which in turn carries a substantial risk of drought, famine, war, and refugees on a scale unprecedented in recorded history for a duration of (literally) centuries. I mean, it’s risk of a mind-boggling magnitude.

    You seem to be saying that you believe the consequences of taking aggressive action on climate now, if it turns out the scientists were wrong, would be comparable to that. But I don’t see how that could be. Could you maybe describe for me how hardships of a comparable magnitude could result in that case?


  6. shcb Says:

    I know it is a little confusing, I forget you aren’t here for all the discussions. You even have me confused.

    There are two factions on your side of the argument the socialists and the environmentalists, the socialists want to advance their agenda without regard to the environment, I think you are an environmentalist first so when I say something helps both of us I mean that that solution helps you and I both since we want the environment to succeed. I’m more to the right so I want the socialists to fail, you are more to the left so you don’t care so much if they succeed, that still fits into your secondary objective as long as they don’t go too far, environmentalists have an unholy alliance with the socialists.

    When I say I’m in favor of doing things now to help global warming I am talking about doing things that we would do anyway, we just do them a little different now. Things that will help us conserve oil or coal or natural gas because we need to conserve those things, not because we need to slow carbon emissions. Now of course we do slow carbon emissions so we both win. You can say your new building renovation uses light shelves and solar panels to slow emissions and I can say it uses them to slow the use of fuel, win-win. I just don’t want to have congress mandate all buildings be retrofitted with solar panels because some scientist is crying wolf.

    I don’t think the risk of us overheating the planet in the next say 50 years because we keep burning coal is very high, I think it has been hyped, but I understand I may be wrong. If I am, my bad, and good lord will there be hell to pay, I understand that, but I am a risk taker, which is a philosophical difference we probably won’t be able to reconcile.

    What I am afraid of is we are making decisions based on hype. An example you can relate to is the invasion of Iraq, this is just an example so let’s not discuss Iraq here. You guys think the Bush administration hyped the need to go in there with the nuke threat and we used valuable resources for no good reason. That is what I am afraid we will do here. I don’t like things like mandating a certain percentage of electricity has to be produced by wind arbitrarily like we have done here in Colorado and Kansas. If wind can be used economically fine, if it needs a little subsidy to get it started, fine. What we have now are windmills popping up at the same rate our electric bills are going up, the people that are most affected are the poor so we end up subsidizing them and our bill goes even higher, and for all that we only make a very small percentage of power. Not enough to help the climate. Turning corn into fuel actually puts more junk into the air than it takes out, but it reduces greenhouse gasses in cars so it makes people feel good, but people in Mexico can’t afford tortillas, don’t like that.

    Casino analogy, leave half or ¾ of the slots black, one slot red and all the others grey, the wife and kids just get slapped around a little to varying degrees if it lands on a grey slot, more like your movie analogy. I don’t think this is black and white, we can adjust and adapt if I’m wrong. You are right about the car wreck; the risks are too similar to work perfectly.

    Your last paragraph, I’ve said in the past things like we will destroy the economies etc. but that is more for theatrical effect. If we did everything you want to do with the exception of things like cap and trade we won’t kill the economy, we probably won’t see much difference. Things like cap and trade and Kyoto do make a difference because they are just redistributed taxes without producing anything, at least the boondoggle windmills make a little electricity. I just hate to do things now that hurt us later, same as you. You think if we do little now we will pay later, I think if we do what we are doing now we will pay later.

  7. jbc Says:

    In the interest of lessening confusion, let’s simplify things. Please forget for the moment about socialism vs. environmentalism, cap and trade vs. Kyoto, and the casino metaphor. We can come back to those in a moment, if you want.

    For now, let’s just talk about the Javier Bardem metaphor. I understand your statement that you are a risk taker, but there are risks and then there are risks. If you were facing a guy who was going to flip a penny or a silver dollar, letting you keep the coin if it came up heads and taking the coin himself if it came up tails, and also shooting you in the knee (your actual knee; no prosthetics allowed) if you chose to flip the silver dollar and it came up tails, which coin would you flip?

    Please just consider this in the abstract, separate from any connection it might have to climate change. I promise to stick with the discussion long enough for you to argue that it’s a bad analogy, if you want to do that. But before we get to that, in the interest of simplicity, please just tell me which you would choose: the penny or the silver dollar.

    In my view anyone who is remotely rational, facing those literal circumstances with no possibility of altering the rules, would choose to flip the penny. Do you agree? If so, great. We can go on and talk about whether this has anything to do with climate change. But first, please tell me whether you would choose the penny or the dollar.


  8. shcb Says:

    Of course I would take the penny. Those odds are easy (I haven’t seen the movie so I don’t know the context but it doesn’t matter). Of course this issue isn’t as simple as that, more three dimensional chess than flipping coins. Continue please.

  9. knarlyknight Says:

    Excuse me for interrupting such a promising psychology experiment!

    I thought jbc was going somewhere good with this, then realized maybe it is shcb doign the Jedi mind trick thing on us all. Really. Just consider how magical it was for shcb to get jbc to stop thinking about AGW as a scientific fact agreed to by 98% of the leading scientists and instead to start framing his arguments about what should be our response to AGW in terms of coin toss analogies.

    shcb sure is persuasive… it almost makes one cling less tightly to old ideas about AGW and consider dissenting studies, such as this recently published paper:


    Excerpt of the description of the paper:

    … it shows that the Earth’s climate may be much more sensitive to solar radiation than previous models have indicated, which in turn casts doubt on anthropogenic warming theory — the idea that human carbon dioxide emissions bear the primary warming influence on the climate over the last several decades.

  10. shcb Says:

    No mind games here, JBC is setting up a false dichotomy but it’s good to have him involved for a change, let’s see where this goes.

  11. jbc Says:

    Okay. It sounds like we’re in agreement at least as to the basic principle I was trying to illustrate, which I’ll generalize as follows: If you are facing a choice between two options ‘A’ or ‘B’, where the choice is determined in part by your assessment of which of two possible future outcomes ‘C’ or ‘D’ will actually happen, a sufficiently dire consequence for one of the choice+outcome combinations would be sufficient to make a reasonable person choose one of the choices, even if that increases the risk of paying some other, smaller penalty. For easy reference, I’ll call this the “hedge your bets” principle.

    I currently believe that on the question of whether or not to take dramatic, immediate action to address human-caused climate change, we are facing a case where the “hedge your bets” principle applies, such that we should take action. My understanding is that you believe the opposite: that the situation we face does not match up with the “hedge your bets” principle, such that dramatic, immediate action to address the risks of human-caused climate change is not justified.

    Does all that sound right? Please note that I’m not asking you to agree that “hedge your bets” applies to climate. I’m just asking whether or not the following three things are true, to the best of your knowledge:

    1) There is such a thing as the “hedge your bets” principle that in some cases would compel a reasonable person to take a particular action. (I realize you already agreed to this above; I’m just trying to keep things really clear and simple by including it here.)

    2) I (jbc) believe the current situation with the earth’s climate constitutes a “hedge your bets” scenario that compels us to take immediate, dramatic action to try to reduce the negative consequences of climate change.

    3) You (shcb) believe that the current situation with the earth’s climate does not constitute a “hedge your bets” scenario that compels us to take immediate, dramatic action.

  12. shcb Says:


  13. jbc Says:

    Cool. I’d be interested in trying to figure out more precisely where it is that we agree and disagree, such that we come to our different conclusions. If you’re game, I’ll go ahead and describe in more detail the circumstances as I see them.

    For ease of discussion, I’m going to combine my two original metaphors (the casino and the No Country for Old Men coin flip) to make a new metaphor, so we can explore our respective views on the various parameters in play. Picture this: You’re in a casino. In front of you is a roulette wheel; behind it stands a croupier. (For this version of the metaphor, we’ll keep things simple and omit the wife and kids in the back room.)

    The roulette wheel has 100 slots, some number of which are red and the remainder of which are black. You have to choose either black or red, after which the croupier spins the wheel. There are four possible scenarios, which I’ll refer to with the Roman numerals I through IV. Arranged in order of the best outcome (from your perspective) to the worst outcome, they are:

    I. You choose black, and the ball lands on black. You win: no negative penalty is applied.

    II. You choose red, and the ball lands on black. You receive a small penalty: You lose the amount of your bet.

    III. You choose red, and the ball lands on red. You receive a medium-sized penalty: The large penalty associated with the red outcome, but with the penalty reduced by some amount.

    IV. You choose black, and the ball lands on red. You receive a large penalty.

    I propose that we treat the basic outline of the metaphor, as described above, as fixed. The following parts of the metaphor I propose that we treat as variables, which we each get to play around with in order to construct a version of the metaphor that we each believe accurately represents the choices society faces in dealing with the possibility of climate change.

    Variable A: How likely is the red outcome? There are 100 slots. If half of them are red, the chance of the red outcome is 50%. If one of them is red, the chance is 1%. If 99 are red, the chance is 99%. And so on.

    Variable B: How big is the lost-bet penalty in scenario II? How costly would it be to bet on red and have it come up black? How bad would it be to have bet wrong in that case, assuming we did not also have to cope with the additional penalty associated with the red outcome?

    Variable C: How much is the red-outcome penalty reduced in scenario III? Assuming the red outcome happens, how much are our circumstances improved by having bet on red?

    Variable D: How severe is the unmitigated red outcome in scenario IV? By definition, scenario IV is the worst possible outcome, but how bad is bad?

    Now, let me make the connection between the metaphor and the climate question more explicit:

    Variable A, the likelihood of the red outcome, refers to the percentage chance that the climate scientists are right. Specifically, that they are right in believing all of the following things:

    1. The world is warming.

    2. The principal cause of that warming is human activity (primarily the release into the atmosphere of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuel).

    3. There is a substantial risk that the consequences of that warming will be extremely dire, on the scale of many centuries of drought, floods, famine, war, and refugees across most of the world’s inhabited areas.

    4. There is a possibility of significantly reducing those consequences by taking action.

    5. The window of time during which we can take effective action may be relatively brief, due to amplifying feedback effects that will kick in at some point during the warming process, and which will render subsequent actions ineffective.

    Variable B refers to the cost of taking action now to avert the effects of climate change, if it subsequently turns out that the scientists were wrong. This is the variable we were disagreeing about earlier. If society makes a big investment now in things like fuel efficiency and renewable energy, for example via something like a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, and it turns out that the scientists were wrong, how big will the negative consequences for society be? In terms of the new metaphor I outlined above, I guess we could address this by playing around with the size of the bet, and the consequences of losing it. Are we betting our lunch money? The mortgage payment? Or the money we need to pay off the loan shark who’s going to shoot us anyway, even if the red scenario doesn’t come up? (That is, scenario II is effectively just as bad as scenario IV.)

    Variable C refers to the effectiveness of society taking rapid, dramatic steps on climate change, assuming we choose to take those steps. Will those steps actually make things better? Might they be ineffective, or even make things worse?

    Variable D was kind of covered in the definition of Variable A, where I was talking about the doomsday scenarios that climate scientists point to as the possible result of inaction. If you accept that we’re talking here about the scenario in which the climate scientists are right in their current assessment of the risks, this needs to be a pretty dramatic penalty in order for the metaphor to be an accurate model of our situation. But if you think it would make more sense to make this penalty smaller, I’m open to listening to your explanation for why.

    Whew. Almost done. I appreciate your willingness to read this far, assuming you have.

    Okay. Here is a version of the metaphor that I believe is more or less accurate in terms of modeling our current situation with respect to climate change:

    Variable A: I think the chances that the climate scientists are correct in their worries is relatively high. They have been putting a lot of effort into researching these questions for several decades now, and according to the sources I read, the picture that has been emerging as they refine their models and track actual changes versus predicted changes has been trending in the direction of greater worry, rather than less worry. For the metaphor, I’m going to suggest that a version of the roulette wheel that feels accurate to me would be 75 red slots (the scientists are substantially right) versus 25 black slots (they’re wrong).

    Variable B: As previously discussed, I think the consequences of a lost bet would be relatively small. For the metaphor, I’m going to make it $10,000 for a typical middle-class American: A painful amount to lose at the roulette table, with consequences that would be felt over an extended period of time, but not a longterm existential threat to life and happiness.

    Variable C: I think this is kind of an open question. I’m not aware of any really good data that would let me say confidently that implementing the sorts of things that climate hawks are calling for (say, a dramatic cap-and-trade system to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions, combined with aggressive diplomacy aimed at reducing emissions from emerging industrialized nations like China) would be effective in mitigating the predicted effects of climate change. I’m going to define a version of the metaphor that lets me put a percentage reduction of risk here, and for the purposes of modeling the current situation on climate I’m going to say that a 25% reduction of red-scenario risk feels appropriate to me. That is, I believe that taking dramatic, immediate steps to counteract the negative effects of climate change would reduce the chances of the really bad predictions coming true, if the scientists turn out to have been right, to something like 75% of what they would have been without mitigation. That’s still really scary in Scenario III, obviously, but still a substantial improvement in our fortunes compared to Scenario IV.

    Variable D: To accurately model the nature of the threat we’re facing if the scientists are right, I’m going to stick with a gunshot at our hypothetical gambler. And not at the knee, but at the body. Maybe that reflects a wishy-washy liberal identification with the people who will be most affected by climate change if the red scenario plays out, and maybe you’d prefer to discount those consequences, since you (like me) are unlikely to live long enough to experience the worst of those consequences firsthand. Also, the consequences of climate change in the red scenario are likely to fall first and heaviest on the third world (though they will also be severe in the industrialized north). But I’ve got kids, as I believe you do. And on some level, I think all of us, even conservatives (maybe even especially conservatives, at least in the sense that Edmund Burke was talking when he articulated the philosophy in the 1800s) have an obligation to consider our descendants when choosing a course of action. Anyway, I’m going to make the consequences in the metaphor looks like this: The croupier pulls out a gun and shoots at us. In Scenario IV (we bet on black), he will take that shot at point-blank range, effectively guaranteeing a mortal injury. In Scenario III (we bet on red), he will take a number of steps backwards first, increasing the distance to us, according to a formula that reduces his chances of actually inflicting a mortal wound by 25%, as I described above under Variable C.

    So, summing up, here’s the metaphor that feels more or less accurate to me in terms of summing up the situation with climate change: We are at the roulette wheel, which has 25 black slots and 75 red ones. We have to place a $10,000 bet on either red or black. The scenarios play out like this:

    Scenario I: We bet on black, and it comes up black. The croupier hands us our money back, and we walk away.

    Scenario II: We bet on red, and it comes up black. The croupier keeps our money, and we walk away.

    Scenario III: We bet on red, and it comes up red. The croupier hands us our money back, then backs up a sufficient number of steps to reduce the chance of mortal injury to 75%, and shoots at us.

    Scenario IV: We bet on black, and it comes up red. The croupier collects our money, pulls out his gun, and shoots us. We fall with a mortal injury.

    Facing those four possible scenarios, I assume you would agree that betting on red would be the best choice. Since you don’t believe that “betting on red” in the sense of acting quickly and dramatically on climate change is the best choice for society, you must believe that one or more aspects of the metaphor as I’ve described it do not accurately represent the situation we face.

    You’ve been really patient, and I really appreciate that. Now it’s your turn. It would be really interesting to me if you would outline an alternate version of the metaphor that you believe more-accurately represents the situation we face on climate change, and under which your choice to “bet on black”, by not taking quick, dramatic action on climate, is the best choice for society. If you can limit yourself to only adjusting Variables A through D, while leaving the basic outlines of the metaphor alone, that will be especially awesome. But if you think there is some more-fundamental problem with the metaphor as I’ve structured it, such that you can’t accurately model reality only by adjusting Variables A through D, feel free to make larger changes. In that case, I’d appreciate if you could explain why such larger changes are necessary.

    Thanks again. Regardless of where we end up, I think this exercise has been really valuable to me in clarifying my own thinking.

  14. shcb Says:

    Ha Ha, I’m going to have to get out a piece of paper to map this out!!! I’ll do that this evening, no time now, this is fun!

  15. shcb Says:

    You understand that by making your analogy so bloody complicated I’m going to have to print it out, making you an accessory to deforestation of the planet.

  16. enkidu Says:

    try using the back of a piece of paper in your waste bin

  17. shcb Says:

    Okay I’ll take a stab at this.

    Variable A: I would put this at about four, the reason for my choice is that early on in the discussion I heard an expert say that the most affect humans could have is about 4%, that includes our breathing. So if we stopped driving our cars and producing our electricity and all held our collective breaths for five minutes we wouldn’t make a spit bit of difference. Like George Carlin said, the only reason for our existence is that God couldn’t figure out how to make Styrofoam, now that we have a accomplished that goal there’s no use for us and mother Earth can shake us off like a case of bad fleas. I also think you’d be hard-pressed to find many experts who agree on all of those five points, at least to the level you’re suggesting. Even the original 2200 or so signers of the petition that got this whole global warming thing started something like a decade ago didn’t believe more than one or two of your points when you delve into the internals of that poll.

    Variable B: your $10,000 sounds about right, but I think you also have to add a positive amount to that if we don’t do anything extraordinary. Let me boldface, italicize, and underline extraordinary, that doesn’t mean we can’t do something, and it doesn’t mean doing something won’t cost us a little bit. To keep with your analogy let’s say we don’t do anything negative that would hurt the economy without producing something, like cap and trade. In that case the economy will probably grow instead of recede, a modest amount to fit your analogy would be something like $2-$4000. Making a few practical changes to our lifestyles and are building methods might hamper that a little bit but we would only gain or lose say $1000.

    For variable C I pretty much have to agree with your worst case scenario for it to have any meaning, which I don’t. But playing along, if I were to agree with you, your assessment seems fair.

    Variable D: I would replace the gun with a waffle ball bat, but if you hold me to the gun, make the feller behind the table blindfolded and drunk, spin him like he was taking a stab at a piñata and let me run around a 10 by 50 foot box. I think there are way too many variables of which we are very minor (drunk and blindfolded) and we and the earth are very adaptable (running around in a box). Of course I want my kids to have a better life than us, that is why they are in college, something my wife and I didn’t have the chance to do. But they will adapt and thrive just as we did, our folks worried about what would become of us for this reason or that because of an ever changing world, but we’ve done alright.

    I’m more worried about running out of economically available fuel before an alternative is found, or that raising the temps a little will provide enough food to really overpopulate the earth as some scientists are saying.

    Thanks for putting so much thought into this, I really didn’t answer your red, black scenario did I? As I mentioned to Knarly, you have set up a false dichotomy here, all the multiple red black possibilities did was make that a dichotomy a couple layers deep so I didn’t see much point in it. Follow up questions?

  18. jbc Says:

    Well, the value (to me at least) of the exercise is this: We have different views on the big-picture question (should society take aggressive, immediate steps to combat the risk represented by climate change?). To me, the answer is obviously “yes”, based on the “hedge your bets” principle. For you, the answer is “no”. By teasing apart our views into separate pieces, I’m hoping to clarify where it is that our thinking diverges. It’s a sort of “divide and conquer” strategy.

    Let’s start with what we agree on.

    Variable C:

    You are agreeing with me, it sounds like, on this variable (the amount of benefit we will achieve if the scientists are right about the risks, and we act quickly and dramatically to try to avert those risks). That is, you are agreeing that speaking very roughly, in that scenario we might reduce the risks by about 25% over what they otherwise would have been. You wrote, “I pretty much have to agree with your worst case scenario for it to have any meaning, which I don’t”. But that’s the beauty of the divide and conquer strategy. We can set aside that disagreement for the purposes of talking about Variable C (the size of the benefit if the scientists are right, and we do act quickly and dramatically), because we are already covering that disagreement separately under Variable A (the percentage chance that the scientists are right). More on that in a minute.

    Variable B:

    You start off sounding like you are agreeing with me, at least somewhat, but then you introduce some extra complexity by talking about an additional condition that the efforts we undertake can’t be very dramatic (at least, that’s what I think you’re saying there). But I don’t think that’s quite kosher. Again, this is the variable that describes how bad things would be for us, if we take the dramatic, rapid action that the climate scientists are asking for, but it turns out that the scientists are wrong. I understand that you really don’t like cap and trade, or anything else that carries a high pricetag that is only going to be justified if the scientists are right. But that’s what this variable is trying to measure: How big the negative consequences will be if we take the scientists at face value, and take dramatic, immediate action, but then it turns out the scientists are wrong.

    Again, I understand that you think the negative impact would be large. But how large? We have to be able to compare Scenario II (we take action, but the scientists are wrong) to Scenario IV (we don’t take action, but the scientists are right) in order to figure out if “hedge your bets” applies.

    So, please answer either in terms of the analogy, or in terms of real-world effects on society if that particular scenario (Scenario II) plays out. We’re not debating whether or not it is correct to bet on red when we’re talking about this variable. For this variable, we’re just focusing on what the negative impacts would be if that scenario plays out (where we do invest in immediate and dramatic action of the sort the scientists are calling for, but then it subsequently turns out that it was not necessary because the scientists were wrong).

    Now let’s move on to the variables where we have less agreement.

    Variable A:

    This is the variable that expresses the percentage chance that the scientists are right. More specifically, that the scientists are right who say that 1) the climate is changing, 2) the change is being caused mainly by human activity, 3) the consequences if we do nothing about it will be catastrophic, 4) we can reduce the risks of catastrophe if we take action, and 5) the window of time during which that action has a chance to be effective may be relatively short, due to amplifying feedback loops that kick in as the warming progresses.

    You may be correct that there are few scientists who actually say all those things, and if that’s your position we can certainly look at that in more detail. But we can worry about that later. For now you can just lump that in with whatever else you’re using to decide what the percentage chance is that the scientists who do believe those five things are in fact correct to think that.

    It sounds like you are saying that the chance is 4%. That is, you are saying that to the best of your knowledge, you believe there is a 4% chance that the scientists I’m referring to, who believe the 5 things I listed above, are actually correct to think that. Is that right?

    I’m not forcing you to pick any particular value here, by the way. If you honestly believe the possibility is 0% you can pick that. But this is the variable where you should apply whatever uncertainty you have about the underlying question of whether or not the scientists who believe the five things I listed above are right. It’s not fair to apply it here, only to apply it again later in one of the other variables. It all needs to go here, in Variable A.

    Variable D:

    This is the variable that expresses how bad things will be if the scientists are right but we don’t take the actions they recommend. From the analogy, this is Scenario IV: We bet on black, and the ball lands on red. You did a lot of adjusting of the metaphor in your response on this variable, first saying you wanted to replace the gun with a waffle ball bat, then saying if you had to stick to the gun you were going to blindfold the gunman and spin him around and let you dodge and so on. But again, that sounds to me like you are not really playing fair with the exercise. This variable doesn’t concern the likelihood that the scientists are right or not; we’re already accounting for that in Variable A. This variable is about how we should design the metaphor to cover the case where the scientists are right, but we don’t take the actions they are recommending.

    When you talk about a waffle ball bat, are you referring to those lightweight plastic bats for hitting what I think of as whiffle balls, those large, hollow plastic balls with the holes in them? If so, I don’t think this works in terms of representing the real-world consequences that the metaphor is supposed to be modeling. Similarly with the drunken, blindfolded, spun-around gunman. Those are both descriptions of circumstances in which it would be very unlikely that you would suffer any substantial harm. But in the case where the climate scientists are right who believe those five things I listed above, the consequences would be hugely catastrophic in Scenario IV, constituting a calamity that is substantially worse than anything in recorded human history, at least when you factor in both the global nature of the impacts and their many-centuries-long duration.

    It’s not fair to downgrade the consequences in Scenario IV to something that a reasonable person would willingly undergo for the chance at a modest reward, just because you think the scientists are actually wrong. That amounts to replacing Scenario IV (we bet on black, and the ball lands on red) with Scenario I (we bet on black, and the ball lands on black). Now, it may be that you think that the odds of landing in Scenario IV are actually zero (that is, that there is no chance the scientists are correct), but if so, you need to apply that belief in Variable A (the chances that the scientists are right), not here in Variable D (the consequences we will experience if they are right, but we don’t take action).

    Again, you can pick whatever values you want for the four variables. I’m not telling you what to think. I’m just trying to understand where and how our thinking diverges. To do that, it will be very helpful for me if you can do your best to deal with each variable by itself, separate from all the others.

    Thanks! I’m really enjoying this, and appreciate the time you’ve put into it. I look forward to reading your response.

  19. shcb Says:

    Variable B:
    The problem with the cost of things like cap and trade or this regulation of carbon dioxide by the EPA is that it doesn’t apply globally so while my family (the United States) may take that $10,000 cut my neighbors family (China) will get a $4000 raise. To make matters worse the problem of carbon dioxide caused global warming, if the scientists are right, won’t change. The widgets will still be made using electricity produced in coal-fired plants, it’s just going to be over there and not over here. This is the problem with an analogy on something this complex, it can be very helpful for small facets of the discussion but not the discussion is a whole.

    Keeping strictly with your analogy, I think your $10,000 is about right in terms of if the scientists are wrong and we have so to speak wasted the money it won’t bankrupt us will be the end of Western civilization as we know it but it will be fairly painful. Maybe this will help, imagine the difference between spending $10,000 on a life-saving operation for your wife versus spending $10,000 defending yourself for a drunken driving conviction, one is just something you have to do, while the other was easily avoidable. I just hate spending any money for things like cap and trade because I think it is so obvious that it will have little to no effect whether the scientists are right or wrong.

    Variable A:

    I always hate to use zero for something like this because obviously they are right about some things and again I think the percentage of scientists who actually believe all those things is a very small percentage. Let’s just say they are correct somewhere under 10% with my 4% probably being pretty close. It wouldn’t take very much loosening of your specifications to get that number up to 20 or 25%.

    Variable D:

    So are you asking if the scientists are right in the worst possible way how bad will it be 9if we don’t do much)? (sorry coming off my 3rd or 4th 70 hour week, little fuzzy) my answer to that would be not that bad, they are way overestimating how bad it will be and way underestimating how resilient we and the planet are.

  20. jbc Says:

    Thanks for the responses. This really helps me begin to see more clearly where and how we disagree.

    On Variable B (in the metaphor, the cost of placing the bet; in the real world, the cost of our investing in rapid dramatic action if it turns out the scientists are wrong), I understand completely your concerns that instituting something like a cap and trade system in the US might not be all that effective, if it just means the carbon is going to be injected into the atmosphere from places like China that will then be better-positioned to compete against cap-and-trade-burdened US manufacturers. I think the right place to try to reflect that concern is not in Variable B, though, but in Variable C, which concerns the percentage possibility that the rapid dramatic action will actually be effective in preventing the bad outcome in the case where the scientists are correct.

    As to your comments on Variable A, I think I understand pretty well where you’re coming from there, and I think you’re playing fair with the rules of the metaphor as I’ve constructed it. I (obviously) place the number higher (75% versus your 4%), and maybe we could have some productive discussion at some point that focuses just on that discrepancy. That is, you could offer some links showing why you think 75% is too high, I could offer some links showing why I think 4% is too low, then we could read and discuss and see if either or both of us feels like changing our numbers.

    On Variable D, I think you’ve convinced me that I need to go back to the metaphor, and make this more of a true variable, rather than something I just dictate as being a gunshot. Maybe I could let the user choose from a range of targets, (“whistling through the air past your ear,” “in the foot”, “in the knee”, “in the gut”, “in the head”), so the user could indicate how serious they think the consequences would be if the scientists are correct that there are going to be consequences. That is, I could pluck out from the list of things the scientists are asserting the part about how bad the consequences of unmitigated climate change would be, and let the user specify the degree of those consequences here, in Variable D, rather than forcing the user to accept a catastrophic outcome automatically if they are looking at the scenario where the scientists’ beliefs turn out to be true. I think that might make it easier for people to give their opinions without feeling like I’m shoe-horning them into having to accept a version of the metaphor that they believe doesn’t accurately reflect climate-change reality.

    I’m going to give this some more thought, after which I’ll maybe post an updated version of the metaphor as a new posting on the site, and solicit people to comment with their chosen values for the variables. I might even go as far as trying to set up some kind of simple web application that would solicit users’ inputs in a form, then display the resulting version of the metaphor. (Sort of like an online MadLibs.)

    Hm. And if I were to gather some quick anonymous survey information from the submitting user as well (age, gender, nationality, educational background, income, political affiliation), that would allow me to publish some interesting data about the values different groups of users select for the variables. If I do a good enough job of setting this up, I could see this being something that a number of bloggers on both sides of the debate would be willing to link to.

    Thanks again for your help with this. You’ve really been extraordinary helpful. Now go get some rest — you’ve clearly earned it. :-)

  21. shcb Says:

    That was a fun discussion, I hope maybe others will follow suit, I really don’t like being an ass, I would rather discuss issues.

    The problem you and I have here is I don’t buy the basic premise of your 5 items in variable A, some of them are ok, like the earth is warming, but the other 4 need to be toned down a bit for someone like me to be able to play along. I have been having to play devil’s advocate so much with those 4 items it spills over to the other aspects of the analogy and that confuses things.

    Analogies are hard, you need to keep the possibilities few so as to avoid confusion but then complex issues are hard to judge since it usually ends up being a false dichotomy. Who is the most beautiful woman in the world, Ginger or Mary Ann? False dichotomy, left too many out, but ask someone to rate them on a scale of 1 to 10 and it becomes useful to see if the preference of the responder is country girl next door or city mouse supermodel. If you add Sandra Bullock and Christie Brinkley (showing my age) you haven’t added enough to get out of the false dichotomy but the data is going to be more confusing.

    When I try and get people to make a decision I try and keep the possibilities to 2 or 3, then depending on that decision they get 2 or 3 other choices and so on, basic vertical flow chart. I used to give them all the possibilities right up front so show how much I had thought about the project but found that led to them taking 6 months to release a purchase order for the machine while they discussed all the nuisances, in the meantime my kids were getting hungry.

    Glad to play along.
    (this bug thing has me a little worried maybe you need some rest too :)

  22. knarlyknight Says:

    While we all await JBC’s metaphor survey (with baited breath and a prayer that he’s not sidetracked videotaping more bugs doing god knows what in his bedroom) you might enjoy this. It’s about 15 minutes of an engineer blowing stuff up and showing how stupid Mythbusters, National Geographic and others are in their supposed expert opinions. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5d5iIoCiI8g

  23. shcb Says:

    I watched a little of it this morning, I’ll try and watch it all this evening, this is an interesting aspect of your conspiracy theory. I haven’t seen the tie in to Myth Busters yet, probably haven’t seen enough. one thing that drives me nuts with MB is they take $10 worth of duct tape and copper pipe and say their experiment proves the myth one way or the other. I see that happening here (as much of the video as I’ve watched anyway) the guy says aluminum won’t give off that color, but what about magnesium? or a mixture of items? More later.

  24. knarlyknight Says:

    I’m not convinced aluminum won’t give off an orangy color like steel at lower temperatures – am investigating that, may have to disregard that molten metal flowing from the NE corner – yet even so there are at least a dozen other anomolies that do not fit with fire induced collapse and do fit with thermate based destruction. Thanks for taking this seriously.

  25. shcb Says:

    we had a big bar of magnesium once that sat around the shop for years, one night the night crew took it and turned it into chips (beer was involved). The chips were maybe 0.005 thick and 0.250 wide and nearly continious. they then made a big ball and stuck a Bic lighter in the center then lit fuse and ran like hell. I wasn’t there but the story was it burnt with the most intense light any of them had seen, when the fire got to the lighter it shall we say accelerated. The story was the ball of flame went several stories in the air and melted the asphalt in the street. It’s hard to tell what could have mixed in there.

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