Thursday, June 21, 2007

Thought Experiment

Jumping off from my previous post on how people argue as a clue to who to believe, I encourage my readers to try the following thought experiment.

You are a researcher in a climate related field who believes that your new data points in a certain direction. Let us say that it tends to confirm the current majority view that observed warming is anthropogenic. You are confident of your methodology and the trustworthiness of your assistants. Nonetheless, you know enough about the rigors of scrutiny to acknowledge that someone might legitimately find flaws in your method or reasoning, or that some unreliability has crept into your data, unknown to you. Part of your confidence comes from the further knowledge that even if your research is shown to have weaknesses, these might be minor or reparable. You wish to uphold the standards of your profession, and your writing contains the proper acknowledgement of uncertainty and limitation.

As your research becomes known, the predictable happens: environmental activists play up your data, burying your appropriate cautions. Skeptics play up your standard uncertainties, overestimating what these mean.

Because of your understanding of general climate issues, you believe that warming beyond a certain point could be catastrophic. The likelihood of this worst-case scenario is low, perhaps even very low – that sort of estimate is out of your expertise. But it is clear to you that it is a real possibility. The people who exaggerate its likelihood irritate you, but nothing like the people who deny its possibility or dismiss it irritate you.

In a fit of obsessive ethicality you try to set all your prejudice-dials to zero. You suspend from consideration what the effect of your statements will have on your career, even subtly; you overlook for the present who is irritating and who is a friend; you review much of the data which led you to your general conclusions; you seek out credible opposition; you make judicious adjustments according to the track record of accuracy of all parties.

If you read the Assistant Village Idiot’s blog, you also make allowances for your tribal loyalties of culture, religion, ethnicity.

You arrive at a general comfort zone of where you “stand” on the related political issues. You make an honest effort to discover how much various interventions will cost, even though cost is way out of your area of expertise.

Rinse. Repeat monthly. This is your considered professional opinion of what humanity should do about carbon, methane, energy, sequestration, abatement, and all the rest.

The experiment: controversial research emerges that suggests that some key factor is off by a factor of 5, e.g., polar warming is five times faster, or only one-fifth as fast, as previously thought. Or, a proposed intervention’s hidden costs mean it will cost five times as much, or a new technology reduces the cost by 80%. In some way, the problem is five times bigger or five times smaller than you thought. Respond.

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