Sunday, November 11, 2012

In the Part 1 of the series, we discussed how:

1. It would be nice if someone told us what is going to happen in the future.

2. Scientifically speaking, prediction of any future event is best expressed in terms of probabilities. (Also, prophets and astrologers predicting the future by twirling a peacock feather up your nostrils does not count as science).

3. We suck at probability. Many a time, we have a problem interpreting most predictions. Especially, the most complex ones like earthquakes, climate-change, our own lives etc.

4. Nevertheless, we still think it will be very nice if someone told for sure what's going to happen.


CHAPTER 1: Laplace’s demon slayed by the God who plays dice

Seriously. I think we should take a chance this one time and be scared of climate change.

I know that we were taught by that assertive, machismo, posturing, consumerist advertising subculture to "always be ourselves, know what we want and do what we like" but there are some serious complex issues facing us that we might want to roll back some of that arrogance once in a while. These oil and coal companies have been saying for a while now that the whole "climate-change due to greenhouse gas emissions by humans" thingy is a hoax. They have been ramming this argument down our throats for a while now which goes something like: 
"Oh, but we are not "100% sure" that it is happening. After all, why take measures when you are not sure ? Why scale back profits, hurt the economy and cut jobs?

On first glance, it almost seems logical. Isn't it? Sure!!! In a perfectly deterministic world, in a world where we know EVERYTHING, this argument makes total sense. Because if we know EVERYTHING, we can easily devise a way to test if it's a false alarm or not. For in such a universe, the future is entirely predictable given the present conditions (see Laplace's Demon) and whether humans are contributing to altering our climate patterns would be as simple as tossing and seeing if it's heads or tails. We know it's not so simple. Yet, these oil companies behave as if it's a simple TRUE or FALSE question, as if the whole thing is totally testable and they have already completed the tests. They sound so confident as if we understand the science behind how everything (literally, everything !!!) around us works and we are able to precisely calculate what's going to happen. That is equivalent to us having a good scientific model for every atmospheric cycle on our planet - the nitrogen cycle, the oxygen cycle, the water cycle, the carbon cycles and how each of them interact with millions of life-forms and millions of plastic bags. So, we simply got to plug all that information into a computer model and press "ENTER". Simple as that ??? 
Alas, we don't have a large enough computer to handle nearly infinite amounts  of information. Do you know that  it has been proven that the computational power of the entire universe is itself finite which means that even if we manage to use our entire universe as a computer, we cannot compute the correct answer anytime soon.

We can fantasize all we can want but we can never live in that deterministic paradise, that TRUE or FALSE utopia. May be, that is why all religions, as if reacting to a market demand, claim to know a place ("heaven") where everything is black or white, all is true or false, there are no doubts and where there are vending machines at every street-corner that can dispense hot hunks or beautiful babes depending on what your mood's like. Like it or not, we are stuck with this probabilistic world. In fact, our lack of knowledge about everything is indeed what makes our world probabilistic. Probability is a measurement of our lack of knowledge: what we don't know and how much we don't know. Of course, it's confusing: how the heck can we calculate how much we don't know ? Worse still, is the calculation correct? Who says so? Yeah. I hear you, loud and clear. Even the whole definition of probability is imprecise and vague. Isn't it? But, that’s the whole point of probability: talking with vampires of vagueness, slaying the dragons of doubt and making peace with uncertainty. well ... as much as possible ...
We live in a world which is still very vague and our brain is not good at processing vague stuff. We are wired to be uncomfortable with vagueness. We find vagueness irritating and disingenuous. We often say, "Don't be vague. Get down to the point. Are you the one who ate my ice-cream?". We keep searching for explanations. That's the reason when we don't find one, we even make them up. If a girl likes you, you think, "Oh! I am a complex person. And she appreciates that. May be, it's the magnetism of the dark side in my personality. I am that genius who can hold opposing points of view. After all, I am not one of those monochromatic, boring people … ". And if she rejects you, you rationalize it by blaming the whole gender, "Girls, these days … …Uff, I tell you ... God only knows what they are looking for ". See? We can be really versatile with this. We will do anything to have a consistent framework for why things are happen the way they happen - even if it's based on complete imagination.
Give us a story. Any story. Don't leave us hanging in suspense.

CHAPTER 2: A loophole in "not guilty until proven" jurisprudence
Our sub-conscious need for a consistent theory for everything and our unbearable discomfort upon it lacking thereof is our weakness that these companies conveniently capitalize on. They just point to us that we don't have a good understanding of what's going on and we could be over-reacting with our fears. It sounds like a good argument from a deterministic point of view. But considering the scale of the phenomena, it is highly unlikely that we would have a well-agreed upon theory anytime soon. Just because we don't know for sure, should we stop acting on it ?
Hence, the question of "Are humans causing climate change?" is a probabilistic question, not a deterministic one. The oil companies very well recognize how our general aptitude in the science of probability is roughly equal to the aptitude of a vacuum cleaner in sounding melodious. They know that if they can manage to make the question sound like a deterministic one, then they have a ready argument under the "not guilty until proven" jurisprudence. They get to conveniently argue that "we can't be 100% sure" and get away.

Actually, I grant that the above trick is still a mild one. I think, on a certain level, everyone knows that we cannot predict completely everything. Unless you are a heart-broken guy who having been dumped recently and is musing somberly about checking oneself into rehab, no reasonable person really expects us to wait to act on the climate-change issue until we are completely sure. That's quite lame. Which is why the oil companies got reinforcements for their attack. They take the argument further (I am paraphrasing, of course): 

"Look, folks. One of your scientists is saying that the Arctic will be ice-free by 2050. Another says it will be ice-free by 2150. Can we be a little more consistent like the Bible? Why!!! The other day someone predicted that the polar bears will be pissed off and eat off all the fish in depression sitting on a couch and reruns of 'Finding Nemo'. And another study agrees with what Douglas Adams once predicted that the dolphins will depart Planet Earth leaving behind a note that says, "So long, and thanks for all the fish".

"There is no confidence in your own models. Who is really going to eat the fish? The polar bears or the dolphins? Also, when will the arctic be entirely free? We got to start making plans to start mining for minerals there. Why don't you guys sit down and come to an agreement?

See how cleverly they are dragging us back to deterministic world-view ? They ask, "If all these people are solving the same problem, shouldn't they arrive at the same answer. After all, if you and I add 2 and 2, both of us get the same answer: 4. If these people assuming that the climate change crisis is real and they are doing the same science, why are they not agreeing on the same result?" Their logic is that "since the results are not same, may be the assumption that climate-change is real must be questioned". Again, a classic situation of that deterministic TRUE or FALSE thinking which is, of course, valid ONLY IF the science is perfect, which we have discussed, is not. It may be noted that there is virtually unanimous consensus in the scientific community that the humans are responsible for climate change. The only disagreement is between the quantitative effects - "what will happen?". Also, remember that the question was never "what are the effects of climate-change?" but it was initially "Is human-propelled climate change true ?" But by raising the issue of a downstream topic like "ok … we grant that climate change is happening … so what's the worst case?", they effectively switched the discussion to something the scientists are still vague about. And we have seen how we feel about vagueness.


Global warming controversy - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The climate-deniers emphatically won this round. They engaged in confusopoly by implanting their own models by hiring scientists that confuse the community. And you can't say this tactic didn't work. It got even Michael Crichton. It gave us a good reason to ignore that poor little girl who took to the podium at the UN and begged us to do something about it. It was embraced by most of the pro-capitalist job creators whose self-interest in profits over people. It made all major economies go, "Oh! Let's study these things a little more". India and China reacted with the seriousness of a circus joker: "Oh! You western economies did all the burning of carbon. You fix it. Now, we have a growing economy. It's our turn to burn some shit. We will join later". Thanks so much for getting even the scale of the problem entirely wrong and for dismissing a crisis at a planetary level as if it's a country-level problem. 

The last part is the easiest. Accurate prediction of what could happen requires data. Lots of it. How are we to get data on a new phenomena like climate-change ? These issues are so new that evidence takes a lot of time. Asking for more certainty is a brilliant bullying tactic for buying time and delaying responsibility. In fact, the more complex the accusation, the better the argument works.  Everyone knows it's going to take a lot of time to gather evidence. Besides, if they are powerful enough they can even delay your efforts in gathering the evidence: hiring lawyers, the public-relations industry to manage public opinion, lobbying the government to restrict funding for further research on climate-change and shove into our faces with wry smiles something called "Green Coal" as a cynical solution. Being powerful has it's perks, after all.  

CHAPTER 3: The mono-trick

It's text-book stuff. By disguising a complex, not easily answerable, probabilistic question as a TRUE or FALSE deterministic one and pointing out that there is no definite answer, companies can manipulate our opinion. And we easily fall for them thanks to our under-appreciation of probability and our default discomfort with doubt and vagueness. Actually, forget the climate change issue. Take any social, political or economic controversy and you will find the same pattern of companies and propaganda machinery exploiting our emotional way of dealing with our uncertainties.

The book "Merchants of Doubt" takes us through the journey of how corporations have previously engaged in "deliberate obfuscation" regarding tobacco smoking, acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer and now, the climate-crisis. Wall-street convinced us that the whole deregulation of the financial markets and the trickle-down economics was working all the time before that terrible 2008 stock-market crash. Take the Genetically-Modified Food industry. The controversy there is that factory-synthesized chemicals and alternatives to naturally occurring seeds like soya or corn are suspected to have unknown long-term effects on our health while diminishing the quality and productivity of the crop while leaving the soil unsustainable. The allegation was that these GM products were approved without complete testing of plausible health and environmental concerns. Recently, California proposition 37 that sought to label all the items containing genetically engineered food and prevent these items from being branded as "Natural". After all, they are not natural. They are manufactured in a lab. Companies funded an aggressive campaign and managed to defeat the proposition. The debacle of BT Cotton which was banned after being identified as the reason for suicides of hundreds of Indian farmers is a similar case. Monsanto-Mahyco marketed their patented BT cotton promising better yields and better resistance against pests. It was found that the claims were vastly untrue and by introducing the improperly tested seeds, even the fertility of the soil was found to have depleted considerably. 

It's not surprising that all propaganda lies in this gigantic gray area of probability between TRUE and FALSE. Nobody wastes money on propagandizing against something we can easily verify. When was the last time you saw a TV ad doubting the square-root of 2 or if Indian ocean really exists?


Whatever be the controversy, it’s the one template, the same mono-trick: "Prove it to us that the allegations are definitely TRUE". Remember that, in the deterministic universe, one counter-example is sufficient to disprove any claim. They appeal to that simplistic logic of "since we know it's NOT entirely TRUE, it must be FALSE" completely destroying the probabilistic nature of the question in the context of extremely complex issues fraught with uncertainty and might take lot of research to conclude: effects of tobacco or free-market capitalism or long-term health effects of genetically modified food or consequences of climate change or using genetically modified seeds for better yield. 

Chapter 4: Whose stakes shall we stake?

One last thing. It's not that we are so bad with probability. As my friend Twilight Musings points out:

"Some might wonder what is the use of probability at all?  

But, how are people using rainfall forecasts in everyday weather news? If it is 10% and I have nothing important planned, I don't care for a rain jacket. On the other hand, if it were an important meeting day, I will take one (as the consequence of getting drenched isn't small anymore).

Aren't people making these kind of decisions every day?  

This means that we take probability seriously if the stakes are high enough. If the stakes are high enough, we take all kinds of extra precautions. In such a high stakes game like climate-change, why are we not taking the probability that it's happening seriously? Well, it's our stakes Vs. their stakes. The profitability of the fossil fuel industries will be threatened if people realize the high stakes of it. So in a classic evolutionary manner, they make all attempts to downplay the stakes. It's a near-perfect strategy. That way, we won't know we are being screwed.


Note: This post doesn't aspire to solve any crisis or openly criticize current technologies but instead endeavors to bring out the importance of incorporating probability in the language of public discourse and risk communication.



Twilight Musings said...

I don't know what you are pulling on that poor girl friend, but if someone is not 'more confident' after 4 years, there are bigger issues than probability at play. :)

Love doesn't give you a rational choice. The 'gollum' (genes) in us make us go 'precious, my precious' at any potential mate who gives out unconscious signals of genetic health, reproduction availability, and some emotional trigger from past.

That was important for the survival of our species.

Are we going to apply the decision process that nature has perfected over millennia to issues that weren't even in play couple of hundred years ago?
Looks like, we do.

Sash! said...

ha ha ... exactly ... that's why I bundled that girl-friend example in the same bracket as the cunning corporate tactics ...

wanting to be "more sure" is a much effective excuse than we usuallly acknowledge ...

LOL at that comic ...

the issues may be new but our software in our brains is pretty old ... pretty ancient :)

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