Tag Archives: False Dilemma

The challenge that can not be won

loaded dice

Christopher Keating, an ex-physics teacher, proposed a challenge to climate change skeptics. He promises to write a check of $30,000 for those who can point to scientific proof that “global man-made climate change” isn’t happening. He is also bragging about no skeptic been able to do that and is sure they can’t. He says that it should be dirt simple. Skeptics make all sort of statements, just let them prove their claims. But not all is what it seems.

Let’s first see how he proposes the challenge:

I have heard global warming skeptics make all sorts of statements about how the science doesn’t support claims of man-made climate change. I have found all of those statements to be empty and without any kind of supporting evidence. I have, in turn, stated that it is not possible for the skeptics to prove their claims. And, I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is.

I am announcing the start of the $30,000 Global Warming Skeptic Challenge. The rules are easy:

  1. I will award $30,000 of my own money to anyone that can prove, via the scientific method, that man-made global climate change is not occurring;
  2. There is no entry fee;
  3. You must be 18 years old or older to enter;
  4. Entries do not have to be original, they only need to be first;
  5. I am the final judge of all entries but will provide my comments on why any entry fails to prove the point.

That’s it! I know you are not going to get rich with $10,000. But, tell me, wouldn’t you like to have a spare $30,000? After all, the skeptics all claim it is a simple matter, and it doesn’t even have to be original. If it is so easy, just cut and paste the proof from somewhere. Provide the scientific evidence and prove your point and the $30,000 is yours!

This is no joke. If someone can provide a proof that I can’t refute, using scientific evidence, then I will write them a check.

But, I am sure I will never have to because it can’t be proven. The scientific evidence for global warming is overwhelming and no one can prove otherwise.

Any takers?

This is how he sees skeptics: they are deniers who make silly statements, rejecting science and calling anthropogenic climate change a hoax. He apparently likes the word “deniers”, he uses it plentiful. It is no surprise that his vision is a rather black and white. Reality is much more colorful. Climate is a complex matter and details can make quite a difference. He also seems to have some preconceived vision on skeptics and he clashes constantly with them. In reality they are seeing things differently. But that doesn’t prevent him from rubbing it in that they don’t react the same as those skeptics in his mind would do. Those pesky deniers who make all kind of statements without supporting evidence and telling him it is easy to prove.

Now skeptics get the “chance” to prove that “man-made global warming is not occurring”. Keating keeps on insisting that he is doing skeptics a favor and that it is incredibly simple. The longer it takes to take the price home, the stronger the science. Isn’t it? well, not so fast.

I don’t think his characterization of skeptics is honest. I don’t believe there are many skeptics that unconditionally believe man-made global warming is not occurring. There probably are some that think that black and white, but the skeptics that I know of all agree that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, that we increasingly emit it in the atmosphere and that it will have some influence on temperature. They don’t necessarily agree that this would be catastrophic or that it creates the pressing need to act against it. It is more a discussion about levels. How much of the atmospheric CO2 is there because of man-made emissions and what is the effect of that? Beside the “dragon slayers” I don’t know skeptics who don’t believe our emission will at least have some warming effect.

Obviously, the bet is stacked, it is impossible to prove. He is right, his money is safe.

It is a negative and a negative can not be proven. Nobody can ever proof for example there are no black swans. Even if some guy who want to do it has been in every country of the world, there still might be a place where he hasn’t been and were there are black swans. Maybe even plentiful. As an ex-physics teacher he should know that. It is however possible to falsify the statement “All swans are white” by seeing a black swan. A single one is enough.

Keating is not only the judge, but also the jury and the accuser. He does say that the deniers “don’t have to prove him wrong” or “prove anything at all”, which I doubt. In reality they will have to convince him. It is very difficult to convince someone who already has made up his mind, whatever the side they are on.

Even if it was possible to prove a negative, in the case of climate it would be extremely difficult to do so. The climate system is incredibly complex and to us it seems a chaotic system. This means there will be probability involved. This probability might even rely on opinion rather than on fact. That will be very difficult to assess.

The actual challenge is stated really broad and ambiguously. When one need to follow the scientific method, one need a clear question to begin with. “Climate change” doesn’t say much. Climate changes all the time. If one takes change in a chaotic system as a proof, then there is no limit on what one can prove. It should be defined what he means specifically by “climate change” and more specifically by “man-made global climate change”. What does it consist of? How is it measured? Which dataset to use? How much is the natural variation exactly?

Luckily he made “clarifications” and put them in a separate post, which I think is not a good idea. The clarifications should be on the page that contains the challenge or there should be at least a link to the clarification page. I had a hard time finding the page and I think others do too. On the clarifications page there are exactly zero comments although it is there for more than a month. While other pages have hundreds of comments. The challenge pages are also spread out over several pages. I have seen two versions of the challenge plus the clarification. Maybe there are even more? He makes it really difficult for those who want to take the challenge or he is somehow struggling with the concept of a blog.

These are the clarifications:

Option #1:

The basic tenets of AGW are these two IPCC conclusions:

It is extremely likely (95-100%) that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.

Climate sensitivity is likely in the range 1.5°C to 4.5°C and extremely unlikely (95-100%) less than 1°C.

So if someone was able to scientifically disprove these two extremely likely / unlikely statements, then that should suffice. That said, the climate debate has shifted a bit over the past decades I’ve following it into at least “skeptics” grudgingly accepting (1) that the planet is actually warming and (2) the physics behind sensitivity excluding feedbacks being 1.1°C.

Option #2:

Deniers love claiming that previous cycles in the climate prove that the current warming cycle is nothing more than a naturally occurring warming cycle (of course, you have to concede that it is warming in order to make this claim). The problem is that they never provide any proof, or even evidence, that there is any connection between the current warming cycle and naturally occurring cycles.

Proof that today’s warming cycle is a naturally occurring event would satisfy the challenge.

That is something completely different than the original claim!

I found it quite ironic that he chooses exactly these two statements in the first option. I had to chuckle when I came across them. I recognized both of them from the AR5 Summary for the Policymakers. The 1.5-4.5 °C was in fact backpedaling from the values in AR4 (2-4.5 °C). Not really an argument at such, but knowing that climate sensitivity is a measure of the effects of CO2 on temperatures, it was a big surprise that the IPCC increased their confidence that humans were the dominant cause of the warming, in stead of decreasing it. So basically, if this is really one of the basic tenets of AGW, then the IPCC ignored this basic tenet when they came up with their confidence trick. It showed that other considerations than scientific were in place. Not totally unexpected knowing the IPCC is a political organization.

By the way, the 95-100%-figure is not the result of a calculation, but is the opinion/expert judgment of a group of scientists (who probably were chosen for their adherence to the theory in the first place).

Is it really the task of the skeptics to prove that man-made global climate change doesn’t exists? Shouldn’t skeptics trying to demonstrate that this high confidence was not really justified? To me it seems a very bad choice of clarifying statements. The second statement in option 1 weakens the case of that very high confidence in the first statement. Especially in the view of the (political) process in which they were decided.

On the other hand: couldn’t the challenge be reversed? In his superiority feelings over the skeptics, Keating seems to assume that the consensus science he adheres to, has it all figured out and the evidence is gathered by the use of the scientific method. Is this really true? If I want to use his own tactics I could as well state that the warmers often claim that “the science is clear”, “there is overwhelming evidence”, “there is a scientific consensus”,… yet these statements seem empty and not supported by the observations. So let them prove their case. Via the scientific method! That would be fun. At least for the skeptics, that is.

Pascal’s wager revisited

It is always interesting to find out how different people have different understanding of things. Recently I found a link to a video made by school teacher Greg Craven: A guy with a marker aims to make the global warming debate obsolete. The site that provided the link brought it as “an example of engaging and effective science communication“.

Well, that sounds promising!

According to the author it is possible to choose how best to act on the issue of Global Warming (he uses both Global Warming and Climate Change) without knowing something about the science of it. That is interesting. When I started looking at the global warming issue about five years ago, I also was searching for a way to find if the arguments about global warming were true or not. I found that in some cases this is possible (when certain logical fallacies were used), but in most cases it is necessary to know at least something about the science. I am a bit skeptical hearing him say no knowledge of the science is needed.

This is how it is presented: if we can’t be sure if global warming is true and we want to know what action to take, we can make a table in which we put the outcome of different possible scenario’s. On the left the question: “is Global warming true or false”? On top the question: “do we take significant action now”? From that outcome of these questions he claims it is possible to decide what is the best option to take right now.

Climate Change wager

Climate Change wager.

This is nothing new, I saw similar reasonings before. It looks very similar to Pascal’s wager. This says that “it is safer to believe in God, even if there is no proof that one exists”. Pascal’s starting point was also that it was not necessary to know something about the existence of God to know what do in our life. This is how Pascal saw it:

Pascal's wager

Pascal’s wager.

Pascal also wrote down the different outcomes of possible scenarios. These are the outcomes

    If we believe and:

  • God doesn’t exist: we lost some time worshiping and weren’t able to do things we probably would like to do → finite sadness (until we die).
  • God does exist: we go to heaven and are rewarded for our efforts with eternal bliss → infinite happiness (forever and ever).
    If we don’t believe and:

  • God doesn’t exist: we didn’t loose some time worshiping and did everything we liked without restriction → finite happiness (until we die).
  • God does exist: we go to hell and are punished with eternal misery → infinite sadness (forever and ever).

So if God exists, the reward and the penalty are huge (because they are forever). If God doesn’t exists, the reward and the penalty would be minor (because we have short lives). Therefor his conclusion was that it is better to believe in God because the outcome is better when we believe than when we don’t believe.

So far so good, but as I learned in school this wager is based on an array of logical fallacies and he cherry picked a bunch of assumptions that lead directly to this conclusion, therefor invalidating it. For example, in the wager Pascal assumed the God to be the God we know in this part of the world and that this is the “right” God. He also assumed that there is an afterlife and that believing in God is enough for eternal bliss and failing to believe will give eternal misery. Also that this God cares or is fair. That one can get away with calculated worship. Etcetera, etcetera. There are many others. A lot of books have been written about this wager.

As far as I know, the Craven’s wager has basically the same problems as Pascal’s wager.

It gives about the same outcomes as the Pascal wager. He adds that we can’t choose which row we want to be in, but we can choose in what column. He likens it with a lottery ticket. For example if we buy lottery ticket A then it will cost us a lot of money in both cases (we will ruin our economy whether global warming is true or not). But when buying lottery ticket B it is possible to have a rather nice reward if global warming is false, but a really nasty one if it is true.

Therefor he says that it is better to choose ticket A: we will loose money, guaranteed. But when we buy lottery ticket B, the outcome is much more uncertain: it is or extremely good (if climate change doesn’t exists) or extremely bad (if it does). So, if we want to avoid the extremely bad, we need to choose ticket A. In which we will have to pay a lot of money whether climate change is true or not, but if it is true we would survive it.

The author makes the suggestion for everyone to remake this for other outcomes (also the less extreme ones), but adds that whatever scenario you will choose, it will always come to the inescapable conclusion that ticket A will be better than ticket B…

But is this really true?

In analogy with the Pascal wager, this “inescapable” result is completely dependent on the smiley face in the bottom left quadrant; combined with the over-the-top dramatic scenario in the bottom right. If both scenario’s are taken as constants, the only sensible choice will indeed be ticket A. The over-the-top scenario of ticket B will overshadow the grim outlook of both scenario’s in ticket A. But I could imagine other scenario’s in which this is not necessarily the case and then ticket B might be much more interesting.

Let’s go through all quadrants and see what the range of possible scenario’s will be.

The only quadrant that we really can be sure of is the one on the top right. This means: we didn’t spend any money to prevent global warming, but it was not needed. Whatever scenario you choose, there will alway be a happy face in that quadrant.

The values in the three other quadrants will depend on the assumptions made and will be somewhere between the best case scenario and the worst case scenario.

In the top left quadrant he assumed: we spend money where it was not needed and we came into a (global) recession. That is the worst case scenario. The best case would be for example: we spend money, but we could afford it and spending it didn’t hurt us much.
All other options would be between those two.

In the bottom left quadrant he assumed that Climate Change existed, we took action and we came to the solution. That is in fact the best case scenario, not the worst as he assumes. Worst case would be: Climate Change exists, we did spend money on it trying to prevent it, but it didn’t work out (we spend it on the wrong solution, it wasn’t preventable anymore or whatever). In that case we would be with much less money and still facing the horrors of Climate Change. Like the victims of Haiyan who were unprepared for it.
All other options will be between those two.

In the bottom right quadrant he assumed that Climate Change existed, no action was taken and all the horrors of the world come at once and catapults us into oblivion. That is the worst case scenario. The best case scenario is that Climate Change exists, we took no action to prevent it and it was possible to adapt to it with not much effort.
All other options will be between those two.

Now we start all over and go for the two extremes (the real extremes, not the assumed ones):

  • When we take the worst case scenarios in all cases, we will likely choose ticket A. So far so good. That was also the conclusion of the author
  • But when we take the best case scenarios in all cases, we will likely choose ticket B.

In the end this exercise will learn us exactly nothing, except that the scenarios will depend on how one defines the assumptions for the different scenarios.

Just as the Pascal’s wager this wager it starts from a number of assumptions. For example that climate change is preventable by us, that we would be safe when we do something now, that the outcome of not acting is dramatic, that it is not possible to adapt and many, many more. Therefor the conclusion was skewed to ticket A.

This was a system assumed for those who have no knowledge of the science, but those are now presented with a one-sided presentation of the facts. But either way, my opinion is that when one starts from the premise that it is not necessary to know if global warming is true/false or if it is happening/not happening, then this table is useless to find out what the best option really is. Making this just a modern version of Pascal’s Wager, numerous assumptions and fallacies included.