Blaise Pascal was a 17th Century mathematician whose many discoveries included modern probability theory and the economy of scale. Back then he put his famous “wager” in religious terms: No one can prove there is or isn’t a God, but choosing to believe offers infinite upside benefit (Heaven) and no downside risk, whereas choosing to disbelieve offers minor upside benefit (e.g., you get to skip church) but infinite downside risk (Hell). I’m not focusing on religion but rather Pascal’s realization that in an economy of scale it never makes sense to bet a limited gain against a catastrophic loss. His wager was actually a no-brainer: We vote against loss.
This has been confirmed in endless psychological studies. If you offer people a good chance of winning $10 but a remote chance of losing $100, they won’t take the bet. You can make it mathematically sensible to take the bet, you can put the odds wildly in favor, as in offering a chance to win $5 million against an even chance of losing $500,000, but people won’t take the bet. Why not? When you think about it, people are operating with a valid logic, even though it’s not mathematically correct: It would be nice to win $5 million, because you could travel the world and buy a fancy car. Nice, yes, but the possibility of losing $500,000 is intolerable because in order to pay off you’d have to sell everything and dismantle your life. This is too high a price if you lose, and therefore too high a risk. The psyche throws mathematical science out the window if the economy of scale is so great that the magnitude of loss can’t be tolerated.
Except we’re willing to tolerate a bet on destroying the Earth. To preserve modest economic gain, we’re tolerating global warming and willing to risk an infinite loss, the irretrievable destruction of life itself.
Something’s whacky here.
Is global warming real? The answer cannot be No. Of all the scientific evidence warning against the catastrophic effects of global warming, there are zero arguments refuting this in juried scientific publications. Of the handful of scientists who doubt global warming, none has produced scientific evidence for their beliefs. So there’s lots of scientific evidence for global warning but zero evidence on the other side. What’s more, scientists warning about the effects of global warming aren’t just taking a “Yes” or “No” position. Years ago they started spelling out the specific changes the earth should be experiencing by 2012. These are happening as we speak: unprecedented flooding in such unexpected places as Vermont and Pakistan; unprecedented drought and fire in Russia, Africa, Australia. and central USA (from Colorado to Texas). In science, prediction points are the strongest possible evidence. The scientific evidence for catastrophic climate change is as strong as scientific evidence can get. Yet our society is making the opposite bet, as if scientific evidence can be ignored. What’s going wrong here?
I can think of 4 answers. If you can think of others, write me.
1. Frog in the Beaker: If you heat water in a beaker to boiling, then throw in a frog, he’ll jump out right away unharmed. But if you put this frog in a beaker of water and heat it slowly, a degree or so every half hour, the frog will sit in the water until it boils and kills him. We’re feeling the effects of climate change slowly, so it’s possible they seem tolerable and no big deal. Perhaps the human mind is incapable of registering critical temperature readings, just like the frog, so we’ll be found heming and hawing as we burn to death.
2. Denial. This is defined as acting as if what’s so is not so. Some folks, mostly on the right wing, have simply assumed climate change doesn’t exist. Their false reassurance may tap into our subjective wish to avoid having to make a difficult bet either way. In the scientific studies mentioned above, subjects keep declining bets they can’t handle. In Las Vegas, you can simply walk away from the table. The right wing has essentially seduced Americans with the (false) option of walking away, declining the bet, not having to examine the research and think, not having to decide. It’s a bogus seduction because, scientifically speaking, whatever we do is a bet (including doing nothing). We can try to preserve planet Earth and vote Yes, or we can hang on to our SUVs and vote No, but there is no such thing as walking away from the table, no such thing as a neutral pass. So when the right wing ignores climate change, they’re being deceptive and dangerous. The Earth itself is at stake. You can vote for the Earth or you can vote for your SUV, but you can’t not vote.
3. Let’s call this one Pascal in Reverse: Perhaps we find it so intolerable to take the bus instead of driving an SUV that we’re motivated to ignore scientific truth because we feel we cannot risk dismantling the life style we consider essential. In this wager, if offered a safe world for our children, provided we stopped driving SUVs, no scientific or mathematical evidence could get us to vote for the safe world as long as we feel that the so-called penalty of being without an SUV is intolerable. Remember the laboratory studies: people make scientifically incorrect decisions because they’re operating with personal definitions of what’s intolerable. Pascal in Reverse means we’ll allow Earth to burn before we’ll give up our lifestyle, because of our subjective feeling that our lifestyle is something we can’t live without. It’s a wacky psychology in which losing the Earth feels tolerable but losing an SUV doesn’t.
4. “Don’t worry, they’ll figure it out one of these days.” I am in awe of the power of scientific ingenuity to solve our problems. The trouble is, we’re hamstringing our scientists when it comes to global warming. We can hardly count on them to save us when we’re giving them nothing to work with. A direct parallel exists in the world of hypnosis: Eventually we may recognize hypnosis as the most powerful treatment of choice for panic attacks, addictions, and fears. But since today’s psychologists have mostly soured on hypnosis from watching silly stage shows, because psychology has turned elsewhere and has no interest in hypnosis, there is virtually no grant money available to document its treatment power and success. “Eventually” is indeterminate and empty; it could refer to hundreds of years from now, a time so long down the road that we’ll have burnt up the Earth before we get there. As Earth warms, we’re continuing to subsidize oil companies while alternatives that could save us (e.g., wind; solar) get pennies. Our inaction as of 2012 has already created global warming consequences until 2042. If we started a serious reduction of carbon emissions right now, we’d see no beneficial effects until 2043. If we do nothing right now, then things will be even worse in 2043. Once you’ve seen the horror of a glacier cracking and melting into the ocean, you realize it’s not going to rise up from the ocean and refreeze.
A cartoon years ago shows a CEO talking to his accountant and saying, “Oh, thank God you meant 35 years before we’ve destroyed the planet. For a minute there I thought you said 3 to 5 years.”