Pascal’s Precautionary Wager: The Logic of Fear

An interesting green variant on Pacal’s wager.

The Precautionary Principle has an important place, provided it is used to assess risk rather than be a total luddite and imagine risks

If this principle was followed they’d be no planes, trains or computers and probably medicines too

The Risk-Monger

When I wrote the Poison of Precaution earlier this year, one piece was missing from that puzzle. What was the logic behind the acceptance that being right didn’t matter? And why do some scientists, who know better about what is not right, then tolerate this scientific illogic? I had to put precaution into a belief system.

What would happen if we compared the precautionary principle from today’s environmentalist religion to Pascal’s Wager on the existence of God from pre-Enlightenment Christian religion? Both do not follow an evidence-based approach and build their logic on the conclusion that, in the face of uncertainty, being factually correct is not as important as the potential consequences from the risk of being wrong. Just as Pascal’s argument is neither genuine nor convincing, the precautionary logic does not reinforce the eco-theology and is merely a manipulative tool to emotionally manage away uncertainty.

When your belief system…

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17 thoughts on “Pascal’s Precautionary Wager: The Logic of Fear

  1. Paul Braterman

    No. When it comes to environmental policy, we are not dealing with unknown but possibly small probabilities, but with the predictions of well-reasoned scientific models, some of which are being fulfilled as we speak.

    Describing environmentalism as a religion is enough to warn that we are going to be presented with a strawman argument. And if the argument is that excessive concern is excessive, that of course is true but tells us nothing at all about what level of concern is appropriate.

    In the case of climate change, the precautionary principle requires us to take seriously the credible risk of very bad outcomes. In this sense, Margaret Thatcher invoked the precautionary principle explicitly in 1990; https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/108237. And she wasright.

    Michael, why are you posting this? It undermines your reputation as a credible critic of a lot of people who do indeed badly need to be criticised.

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    1. michaelroberts4004 Post author

      I think he makes fair comment on Extinction Rebellion and Hallam. Especially their desire to be net zero by 2025. Also there is much fear and scaremongering rather than a hard-headed “we have a problem, which must be solved” I also note that ER etc are associated with anti-GMO.

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  2. wkdawson

    Like Paul, I also sense some “Republican dog whistles” at work in this piece with the atheist card pulled to make it sound intellectually progressive.

    The author only cites the most extreme and unhinged groups that push these views and names no one of even a moderate position on the matter. There are some — many of them publish in PNAS or Science or Nature. As far as I know, most are not quiche-eating bliss ninnies. This kicks up the flags that this is largely a crafted (but surfacy) piece of intellectual dishonesty and if you dig below the surface, you find a lot of issues.

    However, the author does offer a somewhat valid point at the end of the article; that progressives (on the fringes) only state what we are supposed to give up, not what we might do instead; though most do suggest “alternative energy” (including AOC — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — a standard Republican dog whistle), so part of this is that the author has already made up his mind that alternative energy is not a legitimate option even in principle. which is surely not exactly true). Roundup has been implicated in damaging bee populations, though perhaps the matter is not fully settled. Logic would say that if it doesn’t help the pests, it probably doesn’t help the insects that we want to keep around either. Without bees, we’ll have far bigger problems. I do concede that there are serious problems with respect to realistic planning (especially in the case of fringe groups).

    w

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    1. michaelroberts4004 Post author

      The writer is half-canadian half belgian so can’t be GOP. Extinction Rebellionis calling the shots in the UK at present and supported by FoE, Green Party, Greenpeace and other green protest groups. My observation is that moderate people are publically marginalised though they do the msot work on the environment. These type of views are onj a roll at present and as you say have no alternative

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      1. Paul Braterman

        Indeed not GOP, but there is a strong, politacally parallel, climate change denialist element in Canadian politics, connected to Alberta’s oil industry.

        You said earlier that “ER are associated with anti-GMO”, but what you have just mentioned seems no more than what one might say about Evangelical Christianity and Young Earth creationism. It is shabby to judge any movement by its least reputable associates. If you have any evidence of anyone speaking for ER when lauching an unreasoned attack on GM, please tell us about it.

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      2. wkdawson

        OK, I could have googled the author for the details.

        Still, the writing reads like stuff from conservative publications in the US like National Review (NR, which I try to look at a few times a week). NR is not as thoroughly mind-muddling as Fox News or (worse) Breitbart, but rather partisan and evasive of serious studies on complex issues such as global warming. Almost all the rightwing conservative writes for these publications rant on global warming, though some are a bit more sensible than others. Ocasio-Cortez is just a young congresswoman and the green new deal quickly died on the house floor, It was overly ambitious and not-so-deeply thought through. It strikes me as a bit of a cheap shot. It does help rally young kids, but House Speaker Pelosi has basically quieted most this stuff as far as I can tell.

        It is something to think about and I think it was useful to read, I just wish it had been a bit more circumspect.

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  3. michaelroberts4004 Post author

    ER is associated with anti-GMO.. One of the main leaders of ER is Rupert Read who is very strong on his version of the Precautionary Principle which he uses against GMO https://rupertread.net/precautionary-principle/precautionary-principle-basis-post-gmo-ethic . You can google rupert read precautionary principle GMO . Further another leader Roger Hallam makes absurd predictions about how many will die from Climate Change

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      1. Paul Braterman

        Yes, you have made your charge against ER stick. I would have wished otherwise. Taleb is the author of “fooled by randomness”, and “Anti-fragility”, which I described (https://paulbraterman.wordpress.com/2014/04/09/antifragility-and-anomaly-why-science-works/) as “meandering, often insightful, and frequently infuriating”, and has become rich by insuring against the fat tail of risk. His fallacy is not statistical (where it would be foolish for a non-expert to disagree with him” but with regarding possible results of GM as ruinous. It may also be relevant that he mistakenly regards scientific theories as fragile (destroyed by a single counterexample”, when, as I show in that article, they are a wonderful example of anti-fragility. Much the same may be true of agricultural practice.

        The total extinction of humanity as a result of climate change is extremely unlikely. A logically better tactic would be to point to the very real possibility of a reduction in the carrying capacity of the planet, and to invite the public to imagine how the implied population reduction might be accomplished.

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  4. michaelroberts4004 Post author

    Wayne. Like you I can’t stand the ultra-conservative crap from the USA whether GOP nutters or Cornwall Alliance (I am in print against the latter) . However I have noticed an increasing tendenecy that if you do not go along with the ER/Greenpeace/FoE/billMckibbin consensus then you must be a climate denier. What worries me is that the way out Green New Deals will prevent any Green New Deal

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  5. wkdawson

    Paul, I remember reading Taleb’s “fooled by randomness”. I agree that “fragility” is not a good argument — it is maybe more like “subject to refinements and revisions”. Even something as drastic as getting it backward with heliocentric/geocentric is actually a case of perspectives in an overarching concept of accelerated frames of reference. Had the earth and the sun been of similar mass, we would have had a very different description.

    I was a little confused … Scanning your review, I would not assume that Taleb attacked GMOs. Am I wrong there?

    At any rate, I see anti-GMO as even ridiculous for the most part. Short of a rogue nation like North Korea with nutty ideas, the reason for doing GMOs is to obtain a particular (desirable) trait. For example, the survival of a crop in a cold climate. We would look for “antifreeze” proteins — ones that are a little more flexible at colder temperatures — and we would probably look ways to increase the production of growth hormones to compensate for the shorter growing season. We would then try to change the genome accordingly. There is nothing in such work that involves making bioweapons to kill people or to spread some pandemic. Yet what is most ridiculous is that people seem to think that controlled development of such a crop is somehow far more dangerous than crossing various plants to form a hybrid (as we used to do before we could directly modify them). Using the same logic, are there no consequences to breeding dogs or crossing a horse and a donkey to form a mule?

    People have confused “natural” with “good” and controlled experiments with “bad” when the truth is that it depends on the situation. In fact, it seems far more likely for nature itself to go rogue. SARS was a coronavirus that crossed several species barriers (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Severe_acute_respiratory_syndrome). We still worry that the influenza H5N1 (bird flu) virus might cross the species barrier (not so likely but it could). Yet in the laboratory, we are completely in control of what we add or delete to a particular GMO. There should be restrictions on people playing with virii because those could potentially go rogue, but there probably are those restrictions already.

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  6. wkdawson

    That is disappointing of Taleb. I could only do a quick scan of it, but his argument that working on GMOs could (in the black swan event) cause enormous harm … well, what developers of GMOs are doing is educated action on a system with highly predictable and targeted results. Although the outcomes are not fully known, they are done in a highly organized and address specific goals in genome modification. They are less dangerous than letting nature decide and the potential benefits they bring are enormous. The risks seem far less problematical than even nuclear power, which he rightly dismisses. Scientists working with diseases or dangerous organisms without any clear objective, maybe this argument is valid. But here the argument is really isn’t strong. I cannot see how experimenting with a rice place will ever bring on the world’s next horrific pandemic. Taleb is good with statistics but doesn’t understand genomics.

    This is not a stock market where greedy fools and experienced investors both strive to maximize their profits. Driving a car is unsafe, look the wrong way and something bad could happen.

    If I have time, I’ll try to read it carefully, but Taleb’s argument is shockingly falacious in the case of GMOs, as far as I can tell, because he does not understand genomics and is treating the cell like a black box that people of no account dump all sorts of random junk into.

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