Sunday, April 12, 2015

Why "Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst" is Bad Policy

I made the mistake today of reading some Washington Post articles. After reading an economically illiterate, and terribly misnamed article, about Nestle supposedly being paid to borrow, which turned out to simply mean bond yields had briefly gone negative -- long after Nestle issued them, and thus had nothing to do with their cost of borrowing -- I ran into an idiotic Dana Milbank essay on "climate change deniers in retreat", which actually turned out to be about lobbyists and others who, to keep "green" clients dropped anti-AGW positions, proving nothing more than that money makes some people parrot AGW lines, as I have argued many times. (See "The Failure of Peer Review", "Publish Or Perish", "Funding and the Corruption of Science", "Debunking 'Debunking Global Cooling'", "Certainty and Pop Science", "The Nonsensical Nature of Some Statistical Analysis") (By the way, since when did the WaPO go in for click bait article titles like some internet startup? Are they really that pathetic? Hard to take them seriously. Next they will put up pictures hinting at nudity in their articles, or cures for cancer. I half expected to see multiple ads telling me lonely Asian women want to meet me.)

Worse still, at least for me, I then went on to read the comments to that essay, and, besides raising my blood pressure, basically learned a lot of Post readers can cut and paste from Skeptical Science, and that apparently a few people still think Mann is a valid resource (see "More About the Hockey Stick Graph", "Sampling Changes and Fictional Trends", "Again Improving Science Misleads", "Some Global Warming Links ", "Very Quick and Simple Logic").

But one good thing did come of this, when I was reading the comments by the AGW boosters, I came across a supposedly "moderate" and "sensible" argument, which I have heard before ("Catastrophic Thinking, The Political, Economic and Social Impact of Seeing History in the Superlative", "All Life in a Day, or, How Our Mistaken View of History Distorts Our Understanding of Events", "GMO? So What?", "A Misleading 'Right to Know'", "GMO Revisited - As Well as Hormones,Soy, Phytoestrogens, and a Host of Other Food Scares", "Transfats?", "'Better Safe Than Sorry' Usually Leaves Us Even More Sorry, And Much Less Safe", ""Salt, Transfats, DDT, Bad Science and Even Worse Law", "The Problems With 'Safe and Effective'", "A Question For Those Worried About Climate Change", "The Problem With Solar Energy", "A Thought On Solar Energy", "God Save Us From Simple Solutions", "Running an Economy on Compost, Saw Grass and Solar Cells", "The Sky's Not Falling Part 1", "Government by Emotion"), used to argue for everything from banning food irradiation and transfats, to passing the FairTax, to regulating various businesses, to outlawing DDT, or other pesticides, and most often in this AGW context, that being that we should take some action just in case the worst is true. In this case, the specific argument was as follows:

What happened to "Plan for the worst, hope for the best"?  
I have read thousands of papers over the last decade and accept what all the evidence is saying.  
As if that evidence isn't scary enough, the struggle with those that can't see it and obstruct attempts to deal with it is even scarier.  
When going all-in and gambling with the planet and the futures of everything on it, uncertainty is not your friend.

As you can see, not exactly a terribly stirring version of the argument, nor one which is especially well worded, but, since I was desperate to find anything worthwhile from my dip into the cesspool of WaPo on line -- and to find an excuse to stop reading -- I took what I could find, and so this uninspiring sample will be used to support my analysis of a popular, but deeply flawed, argument you hear all too often.

I suppose I should explain, in a very general sense, in everyday life, there is nothing wrong with planning for possible disasters. Nor is there anything particularly wrong with setting aside some resources in case things go wrong. A reserve in case of misfortune is a good thing. However, that is quite different from what this argument is inevitably used to support. It is never about setting aside resources in case of an unspecified mishap, it is always used to bolster a weak argument for a specific solution to a specific hypothetical disaster, and that is a very bad idea, as I shall explain.

The best place to start is to ask what "the worst" is. After all, since this argument is never used to support making some allowances for an unspecified mishap (as the quote was originally used, long ago, when people were somewhat less prone to panic), but rather asking us to plan as if a specific "worst case scenario" were true, that being the case, what is that scenario? And that is where you find the first problem with this theory. No matter how bad you think a given outcome might be, there is always someone who can argue a worse one is possible. And so, taken seriously -- in the modern usage of the phrase -- we would end up constantly shifting our focus as worse and worse hypothetical are created, especially since the argument never requires those hypothetical situation be even plausible, much less likely. So, with probability, even possibility, out the window, the only limit to what is our "worst case" is the imagination of those developing hypothetical situations, meaning we will end up planning for incredibly remote, and terribly overblown, disasters, all so, just in case this terribly unlikely event happens, we aren't caught with our pants down.

Even those who argue AGW is true fall into this trap, inevitably arguing that we should pass laws based on the assumption the most pessimistic of computer models are entirely accurate. In other words, assuming that we should simply accept a hypothesis as the basis for action because it has the greatest potential for harm.

Perhaps it would be easiest for people to understand if I couched it in the most basic terms possible, and since the AGW crowd who push this position often behave like Chicken Little, let us view this in terms of that familiar tale.

Chicken Little, as the story goes, was struck by a falling object (I forget what, my son is 10 now, so it has been a while), and assumes the sky is falling. Going into hysterics, Chicken Little agitates the other animals into sharing this belief.

So far, so good. This is exactly the model this argument would have us follow. In other words, according to this idea, Chicken Little and the other animals (who suffer a dire fate, if I recall correctly) are perfectly correct to panic, as the sky MIGHT BE falling, and so should "plan for the worst".

But our theory would actually go even farther. Suppose Chicken Little had a sibling, Big Chicken, who, upon hearing this, argued, no, the sky is not falling, it is not enough to cover one's head or hide, the entire world is falling apart! We need to immediately find a way to bind it together so we can survive! Now, according to this approach, the animals would be sensible to immediately start applying mucilage to everything in sight, as Big Chicken might be right, and we would be foolish to ignore this possibility.

As you can see, the people pushing this position apparently missed the whole point of the Chicken Little story. At least they must have, as their theory amounts to nothing more than maximizing panic. If we respond to the worst case, as we should "plan for the worst", without reference to probability, then we will simply end up all becoming Chicken Little, assuming the slightest sign of danger is a reason to panic, and listening favorably to the worst possible conclusions. That is not a recipe for sound reasoning, or sensible preparations, but for unbridled panic.

That the AGW boosters have been reduced to this sort of argument does not surprise me, a lot of environmentalism follows the Chicken Little model. That they can make these arguments openly, and not realize how foolish they are does.

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