There is a new UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. It contains nothing but bad news, of course. But I am busy with my real life; I have obligations to others; I have to feed myself and shower; I even go to the gym regularly. What to do? Just trust a hysterical sixteen-year-old? (Yes, I mean Greta.)
When someone or something claims that there is, has been, change in something I perceive might be important, I apply the following four quick tests. I do this to decide how much I must attention I should pay to the change news.
1 Source credibility
Not all sources are created equal. Some stink, some have a long record of being reliable. The Wall Street Journal is one of the latter. Almost all anonymous internet sources are not even sources. The National Enquirer will publish anything (although it has had a few remarkable scoops). Normal sixteen-year old girls are only credible when they pronounce on show biz stars or on something related to a skill they have personally acquired, such as piano or gymnastics.
2 Main text: description of process
I scrutinize the description at the heart of the announcement of change though only for a short time. Does the process described make sense? Is it derived in an intelligible way from a study, or studies, that conform to conventional scientific, or other scholarly standards? If no claim is made that they do, they don’t, ever. If there is such a claim, there can still be abuse but there will shortly be a denunciation, in most cases, at least.
3 Narrative around description
Most change descriptions not directly in a scholarly journal come wrapped up inside a narrative. The narrative is often more interesting than the findings to which they are supposed to be linked. That’s intentional but dangerous. Suppose your doctor carefully measures your heartbeat and records his observations. Suppose that then, he gives you a very good lecture on the faults of Social Security. However valid the latter is, it should gain no authority whatsoever from the impeccable measurement of you heartbeat. This is a crude example but people do this sort of things all the time. Do you think climate activist do?
I ask myself how tightly connected the narrative is to the straightforward description of the relevant change? Often the answer is: barely, sometimes: not at all.
4 Gauging critically the order of magnitude of change
Suppose I tell you that I have lost weight. (I could use that.) Courtesy requires that you congratulate me but rationality demands that you ask: How much? If my response is one ounce, you will tend to dismiss my announcement and you will be right. One ounce out of 220 lbs is like nothing. (That’s aside from the fact that it might actually be nothing, a measurement error.)
The mysterious issue of “statistical significance” (that I will resist going into here though I am tempted) is only indirectly related to this matter. A difference between before and after, for example, may be statistically significant but yet, completely unimportant.
The short Wall Street Journal piece (1) covering the publication of the report is rich in narrative and short on figures. (That’s usually the case with climate change announcements, I think.) On rare figure drew my attention:
In the past 140 years -covering most but not quite all of the Industrial Age – global surface temperatures have risen by one (unit) degree Celsius.
To give you a practical idea, that’s not enough of a rise to cause me to take off my cotton sweater, or even to unbutton the top of my shirt. If the temperature rose by only one C between 8 am and noon, I would think something was wrong with the weather! I can easily believe that at this rate, in another 1400 years, it will be ten degree centigrade (Celsius) warmer and, we will still be here. That’s unless something else, something much more likely, like an epidemic. wipes us out. (2) and (3).
As this example illustrates, it may often be wise too reverse the critical sequence described above. Why bother to assess the source credibility associated with an announced change, or the conformity of the description change process to good scientific practice, or check out the attachment of the surrounding narratives to the process in the description, why do all this if the measured change is too small to merit attention?
My more complete ruminations on climate change skepticism are in Liberty Unbound: “Climate Change Denier.”
1 “U.N. Panel Sees Threat to Ocean” – by Robert Lee Hotz, Wall Street Journal 9/26/19, P. A8.
2 I am well aware that this is a sort of arithmetic average. Surface temperature may have gone up more in some areas and less in others. They may have declined in some places. If the subject is dealt with, it will be in: Watts Up with That.
3 The WSJ accounts implies that the UN report is oddly concerned with fisheries. This is odd because fishermen have known forever that there are warm and cool patches at the same latitude in the oceans. They also know that those shift positions and that the positions of such warm and cool patches affect the movements of fish.
A well-known Latin adage reads “de gustibus non est disputandum”, roughly translated as “about tastes it should not be disputed”. In English, we usually refer to the maxim as “over tastes there is no argument”, indicating the economist’s fundamental creed that tastes and preferences may very well come from somewhere but are useless to argue over. We can’t prove them. We can’t disavow them. Ultimately, they just are and we have to live with that.
In November last year, ridiculing a prominent Swedish politician, I used the example of ice-cream flavours to illustrate the point:
“I like ice-cream” is an innocent and unobjectionable opinion to have. Innocent because hey, who doesn’t like ice-cream, and unobjectionable because there is no way we can verify whether you actually like ice-cream. We can’t effortlessly observe the reactions in your brain from eating ice-cream or even criticize such a position.
Over tastes there is no dispute. You like what you like. We can theorize all we want over sociological or cultural impacts, or perhaps attempt to trace biological reasons that may explain why some people like what they like – but ultimately we must act in the world (Proposition #1) and so we shrug our shoulders and get on with life. We accept that people believe, like, and prefer different things and that’s that.
Being strange rationalising creatures, you don’t have to scratch humans very deeply before you encounter convictions or beliefs that make no sense whatsoever. Most of the time we’re talking plainly irrational or internally inconsistent beliefs, but, like most tastes and political opinions, they are very cheap to hold – you are generally not taxed or suffer noticeable disadvantages from holding erroneous or contradictory beliefs. Sometimes, by giving the speaker social kudos for believing it, the cost of holding an erroneous belief might even be negative – portraying openly it gives us benefits with our in-group. (yes, we’re all Caplanites now).
When I make a decision in the world (as I must to stay alive, Proposition #1), I occasionally feel the urge to explain that choice to others – because they ask or because I submit to the internalised pressure. I might say “eating ice-cream is good for me” (Proposition #2a).
Now, most people would probably consider that statement obviously incorrect (ice-cream is a sweet, a dessert; desserts make you fat and unhealthy, i.e. not good for you). The trouble is, of course, that I didn’t specify what I meant by “good for me”. It’s really unclear what that exactly means, since we don’t know what I have in mind and what I value as “good” (taste? Longevity? Complete vitamins? How it makes me feel? Social considerations?).
This version of Proposition 2a therefore essentially reverts back to a Proposition 1 claim; you can like whatever you want and you happen to like what ice-cream does to you in that dimension (taste, feeling, social consideration). Anything still goes.
I might also offer a slightly different version (Proposition #2b) where I say “eating ice-cream is good for me because it cures cancer”.
Aha! Now I’ve not only given you a clear metric of what I mean by ‘good’ (curing cancer), I’ve also established a causal mechanism about the world: ice-cream cures cancer.
By now, we’ve completely left the domain of “everything goes” and “over tastes there is no argument”. I’m making a statement about the world, and this statement is ludicrous. Admittedly, there might be some revolutionary science that shows the beneficial impacts of ice-cream on cancer, but I seriously doubt it – let’s say the causal claim here is as incorrect and refuted as a claim can possibly be.
Am I still justified in staying with my conviction and eating ice-cream? No, of course not! I gave a measure of what I meant by ‘good’ and clear causal criteria (“cure cancer”) for how ice-cream fits into that – and it’s completely wrong! I must change my beliefs, accordingly – I am no longer free to merely believe whatever I want.
If I don’t change my behaviour and maintain enjoying my delicious chocolate-flavoured ice-cream, two things happen: First, I can surrender my outrageous claim and revert back to Proposition 1. That’s fine. Or I can amend Proposition 2b into something more believable – like “eating ice-cream makes me happy, and I like being happy”.
What’s the story here?
If we substitute ice-cream for – I posit with zero evidence – the vast majority of people’s beliefs (about causality in the world, about health and nutrition, about politics, about economics and religion), we’re in essentially the same position. All those convictions, ranging from what food is good for you, to how that spiritual omnipotent power you revere helps your life, to what the government should do with taxes or regulations to reduce poverty, are most likely completely wrong.
Sharing my own experiences or telling stories about how I solved some problem is how we socially interact as humans – that’s fine and wonderful, and essentially amounts to Proposition 1-style statements. If you and I are sufficiently alike, you might benefit from those experiences.
Making statements about the world, however, particularly causal relations about the world, subjects me to a much higher level of proof. Now my experiences or beliefs or tastes are not enough. Indeed, it doesn’t even matter if I invoke the subjective and anecdotal stories of a few friends or this or that family member. I’m still doing sh*t science, making claims about the world on seriously fragile grounds. It’s not quite Frankfurt’s “Bullshit” yet, since we haven’t presumed that I don’t care about the truth, but as a statement of the world, what I’m saying is at least garbage.
I am entitled to my own beliefs and tastes and political “opinions“, whatever that means. I am not, however, entitled to my own facts and my own causal mechanisms of the world.
Keeping these spheres separate – or at least being clear about moving from one to the other – ought to rank among the highest virtues of peaceful human co-existence. We should be more humble and realise that on most topics, most of the time, we really don’t know. But that doesn’t mean anything goes.
There is therefore a category of phenomena to which the characteristic of being “simple” is attributed (in contrast to the so-called complex), ordered by logical models whose capacity for explanation and prediction is continuously tested by means of a system of trial and error that allows readjusting these models in a process of continuous approach to the truth. The progress in the knowledge of these simple phenomena also depends on the measurement tools that are available: statistical methods, more powerful microscopes, laboratory experiments, etc.. The investigation of simple phenomena consists of a process in which it goes to a greater degree of specificity and concretion. It is for this reason that it is difficult to distinguish whether their theories consist of logical models or empirical models, since they mostly consist of the description of relations and functions between given events.
In the opposite sense of intellectual inquiry, complex phenomena are located: their study consists in the statement of the relationships and functions that structure an abstract order of events. An everyday example of such abstract orders of events can be found in the phenomenon of written laws, both procedural and substantive. In them you can find credit relationships, procedural burdens, temporary periods to exercise actions or rights under penalty of estoppel, or prescription or expiration, assigned functions to produce legal norms of general or particular scope, etc.. The application of such abstract models to the concrete reality is known as “jurisdiction,” that is to say “to say the right for the concrete case.” Of course, for this depend elements of proof and a critical judgment that interprets the given events assigning the legal qualification and the legal consequences of that that the law prescribes in abstract and general form. The jurisdictional activity could be characterized as a “simple phenomenon,” however, the same would not happen with the “science of legislation.”
In effect, when what is studied is a legislative reform, what is being done is to increase in degrees of complexity in the study of standards. The legislator is no longer exclusively discussing legal issues. It could do it: study for example the coherence of a new norm whose sanction is under study with the rest of the juridical order, nevertheless still it is extremely difficult to foresee the set of consequences of a reform on the global operation of the juridical order. However, if this is already difficult in itself, it becomes much more complex when philosophical and political issues come into play in the legislative debate. In the legislative debate on the sanction of the norms, a point arrives at which the legal analysis ceases, in the sense that the discussion takes the fervour of the political philosophy or the cold calculation of the negotiation to reach a legislative majority.