Do you freaking love science? Then you might be a big enough sucker to fall for a claim like this one: “Across the span of their lives, the average American is more than five times likelier to die during a human-extinction event than in a car crash.” Which was actually made by an environmentalist group called the Global Challenges Foundation and reported with a straight face in The Atlantic.
What this report means by a “human-extinction event” is one “that would wipe out more than 10 percent of Earth’s human population.” Not exactly extinction, but I’ll grant that it’s big and horrible enough. Nominally, they are referring to rare and unusual cataclysms that we can’t do much about, like supervolcanoes and killer asteroids. But you can guess at what they’re really aiming. The Global Challenges Foundation describes its mission as raising “awareness of the Global Catastrophic Risks. Primarily focused on climate change …” Bet you saw that one coming.
The fact that such claims are taken seriously tells you a lot about how global warming has become a religion with a veneer of science — down to the specific form of argument that it borrows from religion in this case.
Consider the peculiar, probabilistic nature of the claim being made here. They are pretty obviously fudging the probabilities in both directions. A fatal car accident seems like an ordinary and commonplace danger, but it is actually quite rare these days, after decades of steep declines in traffic fatality rates. (Keep that in mind, because it will be relevant later.) But at least it can be measured and quantified based on actual past data from experience. The basis for calculations about “human-extinction events” is a lot fuzzier. But it doesn’t really matter, because even though they are actually far rarer than car crashes, when a “human-extinction event” happens, then by definition everybody dies. So the sheer scale of the disaster makes up for its extreme rarity.
Everything Old Is New Again
There is something that sounded familiar to me about this argument, and I realized that it borrows the basic form of Pascal’s Wager, an old and spectacularly unconvincing argument for belief in God. (Go here if you want to give the idea more thought than it probably deserves.) Blaise Pascal’s argument was that even if the existence of God is only a very small probability, the consequences are so spectacularly huge — eternal life if you follow the rules, eternal punishment if you don’t — that it makes even a very small probability seem overwhelmingly important. In effect, Pascal realized that you can make anything look big if you multiply it by infinity. Similarly, this new environmentalist argument assumes that you can make anything look big if you multiply it by extinction.
The basic problem is that this is arbitrary. If you can base an argument on merely the small possibility of the existence of the Christian God, then why couldn’t you base the same argument on Allah or Buddha? And if following the wrong rules can send you to heaven or hell, how does Pascal’s Wager help you decide whether you should follow the Catholic rules or the Protestant rules or how to resolve myriad other theological disputes?
If Pascal’s probabilistic argument works for Christianity, then it also works for Islam, or for secular versions like Roko’s Basilisk. (And yes, an “all-seeing artificial intelligence” is included in this report as a catastrophic possibility, which gives you an idea of how seriously you should take it.) Or it works for global warming, which is exactly how it’s being used here.
Pascal was a great mathematician, but this was an awful abuse of the nascent science of probabilities. (I suspect it’s no great shakes from a religious perspective, either.) First of all, a “probability” is not just anything that you sort of think might happen. Imagination and speculation are not probability. In any mathematical or scientific sense of the word, a probability is something for which you have a real basis to measure its likelihood. Saying you are “95 percent certain” about a scientific theory, as global warming alarmists are apt to do, might make for an eye-catching turn of phrase in press headlines. But it is not an actual number that measures something.
Similarly, when the Global Challenges Foundation “estimates a 9.5 percent chance of human extinction within the next hundred years,” based on the Stern Review’s predictions about global warming, the tip-off is the false precision of that extra 0.5 percent. Given the enormous complexity and uncertainty of all the different factors involved, it would be dubious to state a conclusion on the level of precision of one in 10. How much more ridiculous is it to say that it’s not just 10 percent but 9 percent, and not just 9 percent but 9.5 percent. That’s the tell that they’re just making up numbers in an attempt to sound all sciency.
The other rule about using probabilities is that you don’t get to consider one probability in isolation. You have to consider it in the context of other, similar probabilities. If Pascal wants to consider the probability that Christianity is true, he also has to assign a probability to other, conflicting outlooks. Similarly, if you believe that there is a 9.5 percent probability of a global warming apocalypse in the next 100 years, then you also have to look at other competing probabilities. For example, what is the probability that regulations intended to constrict the use of fossil fuels will damage economic growth and prolong widespread global poverty, which will also kill millions of people? (Answer: much higher.)
Or ask this: what is the probability that in the next 100 years, scientists, activists, actors, and politicians will claim a “consensus” in favor of a theory that turns out to be false? Given the long-term historical track record — the flat-earth theory, phlogiston, eugenics, that embarrassing incident in which plate tectonics was dismissed as a crackpot idea — I’m guessing that the probability is way north of 9.5 percent.
The Precautionary Principle
But look, let’s not pick this apart any more. Let’s ask what this abuse of probabilities is meant to accomplish. Like Pascal’s Wager, it is designed to make your ability to imagine a scary scenario — believe this or there will be horrible, horrible consequences — into an argument to stampede everyone into compliance. It is similar to the “strong” versions of the Precautionary Principle, where the mere ability to imagine negative consequences from a new technology compels you to ban it.
This kind of Pascal’s-Wager-for-global-warming is part of a larger environmentalist program: a perverse attempt to take our sense of the actual risks and benefits for human life and turn it upside down.
If we’re concerned about the actual dangers to human life, we don’t have to assume a bunch of bizarre probabilities. The big dangers are known quantities: poverty, squalor, disease, famine, dictatorship, war. And the solutions are also known quantities: technology, industrialization, economic growth, freedom.
For example, let’s return to the big decline in deaths from automobile accidents. There are a variety of factors behind this, including dramatically increased punishments for drunk driving. One of the biggest factors is the adoption of a whole variety of new safety features, which are usually expensive and debut in luxury cars before becoming available to (and then mandatory for) the masses. This is one of the reasons why the biggest improvements in traffic fatality rates have been seen in wealthy, industrialized countries, which can afford to build safer cars and safer roads.
Or take other big risks like global pandemic and famine. There’s a reason these things haven’t killed 10 percent of the population in a very long time, and it’s not just dumb luck. It’s because of the spread of hygiene, nutrition, and medicine; of modern agricultural techniques and trade; and a thousand other benefits that are possible only in wealthier, more advanced economies operating under relative economic freedom.
The overwhelming evidence is that industry, technology, and wealth decrease the chance of random natural events having catastrophic consequences by making us far better equipped to withstand these disasters. That’s what the environmentalists are trying to make us forget, in order to scare us into sacrificing those advantages to their new environmentalist religion.
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