A lesson in risk management

The first part of this video bugged me — it sounded like Pascal’s Wager for global warming warriors — but hang in there. He admits that treating the alternatives as equal in probability is bogus, and what you need to do is rational risk assessment, and it makes a lot more sense.


  1. BMatthews says

    PZ- If you hadn’t told me to hang in there I would have been throwing things around my office before he got to the good part.

  2. Jason Dick says

    As for Pascal’s Wager, yes, it does sound quite a lot like that. However, the situation is utterly different, because we actually have evidence (as he mentions, sort of) of the reality of global warming.

    But I don’t think he much mentioned that many of the things that we can do to slow or halt global warming are things that we should be doing regardless in the current socioeconomic climate, such as attempting to move off of oil as a natural resource.

  3. notthedroids says

    I have a quibble with “Since we put the most pessimistic thing up here, we should do the same down here.”

  4. Jason says

    I’ve watched all of his videos that are part of the series he calls “How It All Ends”. If you view playlists by wonderingmind42 he goes into much more detail in subsequent videos. Apparently he got slammed with emails and comments following his initial video. So he created an index and menu (they’re a bit primitive but give you an idea of the flow) and then proceeds to strengthen the argument and address criticism. For what it’s worth, even though it took a while to get through all the videos, I think he did a pretty thorough job.

  5. Christianjb says

    I’m familiar with this guy’s videos. They’re ALL variations on Pascal’s wager and even though he knows this criticism he still hasn’t successfully dealt with it.

    I suspect there are actually very profound philosophical problems involved. At what point do we take action given that the act of taking action causes harm in itself? Dealing with global warming, terrorism, the war on drugs etc. all involve hefty trade-offs which affect real people’s lives. I’m not sure that there is any simple solution to decide which battles are worth fighting.

    The strongest argument for fighting global warming is simply that we have a near watertight scientific case that it is going to happen. If the science were less clear- or for instance if there were only a 50% chance that the Earth would heat up then the moral choices would be much more difficult.

  6. noodlesoup says

    I’m sold! I was previously a sceptic but now I think we need to do something immediately, For starters, let’s mandate CO2 filters on every coal-fired power plant in America (as the single biggest culprit) and them move forward from there mandating filters on all jet aircraft and so on in stages. That’s not the proposal you say? What we really need is a weird version of Catholic indulgences where companies can barter CO2 credits on a global exchange? So, a company builds a ‘clean’ power plant and gets credit so they can build a ‘dirty’ plant someplace else. Seriously? Also, rather than CO2 filters on every coal-fired power plant in America – and high import tariffs against counties that don’t do the same – what we really need is PERSONAL CARBON OFFSETS so when somebody drives a gas guzzling SUV they simply sent $3.00 to Tanzania to plant a tree? Last I heard those trees aren’t actually getting planted and how is this better than an actual CO2 filter on the power plant down the street? Quite frankly, I avoid this issue specifically because of the goofy ersatz-solutions that are proposed by the vocal advocates when there are so many obvious common sense steps that could be implemented.

  7. Christianjb says

    Another thought: This kind of risk analysis comes up whenever we try someone for murder. We have decided as a society that the test should be whether someone is guilty ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ (at least in the UK courts).

    It is surely the case that murderers who are only 50% likely* to be guilty are freed even though a pay-off matrix would suggest that prison would be the more logical option. In fact, the severity of the crime has no effect (in theory) on the standard of evidence required- which is strange from a mathematical point of view.

    (*I have no idea if reasonable doubt equates to 50%, it’s probably more like 90%.)

  8. noodlesoup says

    The standard “preponderance of the evidence” used in a civil action is commonly referenced as 51% while “beyond reasonable doubt” is considered a much higher standard.

  9. Brian Macker says

    It is Pascal’s Wager. Just like Pascal’s Wager it fails because one can be even more certain of the bad economic (and authoritarian) consequences of CO2 abatement, than AGW.

    He’s asking us to fly planes into buildings for the sake of virgins in the afterlife (with some evidence that virgins do exist) vs. the known effect of suicide.

  10. Sideways says

    Re Christianjb in #6: Pascal’s Wager is problematic because it’s a false dilemma between Christianity and atheism and because there’s no way to assess the accuracy of Christian claims of hell (among other reasons, I’m sure). But there’s nothing wrong in principle with the strategy of choosing the path of least risk. For example, I would refuse to play Russian roulette for money, since regardless of the certain payoff I’m unwilling to accept the potential risk. You may not agree with my choice but surely the strategy itself is reasonable?

    The video mentions insurance as an example of choosing low-magnitude, high-probability risk (e.g. the 100% chance of paying a small amount for insurance) instead of high-magnitude, low-probability risk (e.g. the small chance of going bankrupt after a disaster).

  11. Fernando Magyar says

    Then we also have the little monkey wrench of “Peak Oil to complicate matters a bit.
    Dr. Albert Bartlett: Arithmetic, Population and Energy



    “Peak oil will not be a blessing in disguise with regard to global warming. The models of global climate change developed by the IPCC and others have not taken into account the impacts of Peak Oil and the North American Natural Gas Cliff. These models are based on faulty economic projections produced by neo-classical economics-a warped discipline which is blind to resource depletion.26 If we turn to coal and biomass to make up for the decrease in oil and natural gas production, then it is likely that our actions will push the average global temperature well beyond the 6º C threshold mentioned above.”

  12. AtheistAcolyte says

    Christianjb (#6) –

    He deals with that criticism quite nicely in his “Manpollo Project” series. He expands the four-box Karnaugh map-style diagram into a multidimensional array, covering possible action scenarios (up to 5), and three possible GW variables: GW happening or not, is anthropogenic or not, policies will help, make worse, or neutral. He also suggests five analysis points to be studied for each box: Environment, Economic, Social, Political, and Public Health.

    He also makes the point that we should not leave this large assessment to armchair analysts or laypeople like you or me, and that filling it in should be done by credible scientists and policymakers.

    Sounds pretty clear to me.

  13. AtheistAcolyte says

    Brian Magyar (#10)-

    It is Pascal’s Wager. Just like Pascal’s Wager it fails because one can be even more certain of the bad economic (and authoritarian) consequences of CO2 abatement, than AGW.

    What are those bad economic consequences of CO2 abatement, and where is the peer-reviewed (or at least large minority-agreed) papers on it?

    In the meantime, I point you towards:

    The carbon atom has several different isotopes (eg – different number of neutrons). Carbon 12 has 6 neutrons, carbon 13 has 7 neutrons. Plants have a lower C13/C12 ratio than in the atmosphere. If rising atmospheric CO2 comes fossil fuels, the C13/C12 should be falling. Indeed this is what is occuring (Ghosh 2003) and the trend correlates with the trend in global emissions.

    He’s asking us to fly planes into buildings for the sake of virgins in the afterlife (with some evidence that virgins do exist) vs. the known effect of suicide.

    Did you watch any of his videos? It’s by no means asking you to “fly planes into buildings for the sake of virgins in the afterlife”, or even anything of the like. It’s a matter of simple risk assessment. Your point is full of straw.

  14. says

    Was going to add something here but Sideways (#11) pretty much said everything I meant to. As I understand it, even Pascal didn’t intend his wager to be used as a theological argument, but used theology as a handy example of the mathematics of situations where the risks or rewards for a course of action were infinite.

    Pascal’s Wager is perfectly valid in all sorts of real-world scenarios – unlikely but disastrous events are worth significant costs to mitigate. My company spends thousands each year to back up data, encrypt it, and maintain a facility that will hopefully go unused forever, but is available to us in the case of a major disaster, because if that disaster came and we weren’t prepared, we’d be sunk forever. The problems with the wager as a theological argument have nothing to do with the utility of risk management.

  15. Christianjb says

    Has this guy contemplated the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’ type situation in which rational actors will all go for the short term gain even though they’re all ultimately worse off than if they had cooperated?

    For example: I could choose to lower my power consumption/carbon footprint but it would do virtually nothing to slow or stop global warming, and so the pay-off involved is virtually zero. However, if I chose to ignore global warming and splurge on energy, Hummers etc., I could get a very good personal pay-off from my selfishness. Sure- I would be contributing an infinitesimal amount to global environmental disaster, but not enough to tip the scales.

    It would be nice to live in a world where everyone acted in the best interests of the planet, but unfortunately they don’t. The fossil fuels are going to be used up whatever I do, so I might as well be one of the people who gets a slice of the pie before it all runs out.

    Looked at this way- it makes little logical sense for me to do anything about global warming.

    (I’m not saying I morally agree with this argument, but it is an argument that’s been used by mathematicians to study ‘rational’ human behavior.)

  16. Kyle Huff says

    1) People are absolutely terrible at risk asessment.
    2) The “possible threats” of global warming can be (and are) hyperbolized to an arbitrary extent thereby making this method of risk management useless.
    3) It again hinges on Hansen and his hypothesized “tipping points.”

    I suggest people get familiar with the work of Lomborg.
    Free link for you.

  17. says

    Christianjb – um, the Prisoner’s Dilemma isn’t supposed to be an argument about how people should behave, in the moral sense.

    It’s a very strong argument, in fact, for enforcing some kind of regulation on everybody so they don’t act strictly for short-term personal gain. See also the so-called “Tragedy of the Commons”, which is particularly apt in this case.

    This is exactly why lame-brained squawking about anti-global-warming activity being “authoritarian” gets under my skin. It is an unfortunate fact that sometimes you need some kind of authority to prevent everybody from forming a circle and shivving each other in the back. Even the founding fathers of this country recognized this, which is why they based their arguments on a rational, Enlightened definition of what constitutes a just authority – namely, one that acts with the informed consent of the majority of the governed.

  18. Christianjb says

    KSE: I didn’t claim the Prisoner’s Dilemma had anything to do with morality. In any case, I agree, ‘the tragedy of the commons’, which is related to the PD is probably a better description of the dilemma.

  19. AtheistAcolyte says

    Fernando –

    Sorry, I saw your name and Brian MACKER‘s on the same screen and melded them together in my head. My mistake, although I did get the post number right.


  20. Fernando Magyar says

    I suggest people get familiar with the work of Lomborg.

    Here’s a free link for you as well :-)

  21. Christianjb says

    Uh, well in regards to my last post: The Prisoner’s Dilemma is not in itself a guide to the ethical choices we should make, but it clearly has something to do with understanding moral behavior. So- I’m quite happy to contradict myself in the hope that one of me is right.

  22. Fernando Magyar says

    AtheistAcolyte, Yeah, for a moment I thought you were misunderstanding my comment but I think we are on the same page.

  23. JRM says

    This is really nonsense; the question is the degree of gain and probability of gain of action to slow or halt global warming.

    I believe that humans contribute to global warming, and I’m for taking action to deter it, but this argument is just lousy all the way. He seems like a sincere dude, but he’s confused.

  24. autumn says

    Just my little suggestion, but I believe it would be cheaper for America if everyone who wanted to buy a giant truck with backseats (my Outback is an SUV, your Escalade is just a really useless truck) was simply given free penis-enlargement surgery. The pathetic loser gets his imagined wang, and CO2 emissions go down as well.

  25. wildcardjack says

    There are more reasons than just global warming to reduce the % of electricity generated from coal.

    Coal produces prodigous amounts of waste, strips mountains, and releases large amounts of mercury and radon to the environment. This is a real problem, measurable and consistent. No needs to guess.

    I have come across a reference that converting another 1/5th of our electric supply from coal to renewables and nuclear would be the equivalent cut in CO2 emissions as taking every car off the road.

    The big problem is, and will continue to be, King Coal. Both in America and China. Heck, if something could ween China off of coal then you could reduce deaths by several thousand each year.

    Furthermore, nuclear power protesters should be shot. True Believers are not worth arguing with.

  26. andyo says

    Jeez, you’d expect such a science nerd who does and acts, and presumably films and edits his own youtube video would know something about exposure! Those dark scenes with the mostly white backgrounds were yelling at the photographer in me: dial some EC+ for god’s sake.

    What was he talking about again?

  27. Fernando Magyar says

    “Furthermore, nuclear power protesters should be shot.”

    I think I’d like to see a rational analysis of the EROEI of the long term feasibility of Nuclear Energy…

    Is Nuclear Power a Viable Option for Our Energy Needs?

    “Quantifying some of these costs is difficult as it requires an extrapolation into the future.”


  28. KC says

    Not to disagree with you all… actually, yes, to disagree with you all, I think you’re selling this fellow short. If you go to his index thingy and start watching, you’ll see he actually has sold his argument radically short. If you have the time to spare, and are honest about your objections, you should start here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2oCYW4ScUnw&feature=related

    I have still quibbles (And one glaring objection), but they’re all technical, and none stemming from the form of his argument as he has, thus far, done a superb job responding to criticism (Past and future). Further, he’s brutally honest with his own arguments, admitting what he sees as the chief weaknesses. I’m not saying this is the magic argument to end all arguments, but its more sound than it appears at first blush.

  29. Jason says

    Thanks for posting the link KC. I tried to say something like this earlier in the postings but I’m glad you posted the link to the Index. I’m curious to know what one glaring objection you had.

  30. KC says

    @ #32:
    While I can’t fault the form of his argument, I do disagree with his data. In particular, he uses the credibility of organizations as a proxy for the probability of of those events occurring. This, I posit, is incorrect. What would be most correct is if he assigned probability from the pooled uncertainty from the actual measurements that measure the climate, the pooled error in the climate model(s), etc. A credible threat doesn’t mean it’s a probable threat (though one would hope the reverse is true!), so while the number of credible agencies is in his favour, he’s not actually addressed probability.

    I’ll add that I’m not that far into his series. Perhaps he addresses this in a later video.

  31. Syntax says

    That guy is wearing a sports racer t-shirt!
    sings/ Sports Racer, racin’ sports! What is your power move!


  32. Dunc says

    it fails because one can be even more certain of the bad economic (and authoritarian) consequences of CO2 abatement, than AGW.

    Really? Are economics and sociology better understood and more rigorous sciences than climatology? Are they better able to make robust, testable predictions?

    Personally, I think not.