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25Sep 2013

AP: Global Warming our fault? Not as sure as sun rise tomorrow. But at least as likely as that smoking is dangerous.

AP: Global Warming our fault? Not as sure as sun rise tomorrow. But at least as likely as that smoking is dangerous.

  'Fact is that the way most people think about science and certainty and hypothesis and belief is so totally in line with what our weirdly effective yet scrambled brains evolved to survive the Stone Age via wit, guile, fear, and pure guesswork that it's a wonder that we stumbled on to the scientific method at all. But we did. Good for us, we're not hopeless. Such musings and admiration of the possibility of human reason come to mind after the following stimulus:

   This clever and inspired piece of enterprise reporting is, natch, a way to get a few background matters out of the way, and percolating in the public, before the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issues on Friday its latest assessment report on Climate Change. The report has been heavily leaked, so it likely will carry few surprises.  But the delegates gathered at a meeting in Stockholm will surely have some fiery yet pretty well couched things to say, and contrarians will hoot and holler that it's all smoke and mirrors (very scientifically complex topics by the way) and a political myth to boot. We'll do some kind of round-up on that.

   Borenstein does something admirable here. He looked over the tendency of many people - most after all have better things to do than be scientists or try to think like them - to mistake the IPCC's professed 95 percent confidence in global warming as primarily due to humankind's alteration of the atmosphere and to take from it that they are not at all sure about it. To a lot of people belief is like faith, and faith is either 100 percent or it's not worth a damn.

    So, Borenstein just put out feelers, eventually asking 16 scientists in various fields to list a few things in which they have more than 95 percent confidence, a few that about equals that, and some that are lower in their mental odds rankings. It's still a rather imprecise metric, but the answers provide a way for those of us with average brainpower and logical discipline to understand the IPCC's certainty measures. So, kudos to him. Even though the first comment listed this morning said (with typo fixed): "On the other hand we have 100% certainty Seth Borenstein doesn't know his posterior from a depression in the earth's surface." That's about par for Seth. As a man of considerable rationality, he gets some notably hateful email etc., much of it far worse than that.

  By the way and somewhat amusingly, 95 percent comes up this week in a piece from one of the UK's most clever and virulent enemies of the IPCC's consensus:

   Dellingpole is like the US's Mark Morano in his relentless scoffing over global warming, but he does it with a better and  bitter style. His wordsmithery can elicit admiration if not agreement from most actually intelligent people. This particular column, while a send-up, is ironic in that it uses the 95 per cent figure in its correct meaning. That is, of people who Dellingpole intuitively guesses are intelligent (they think like him?), 95 percent laugh in unison at global warming as a lefty delusion. Thus, in this context, his 95 per cent means the rest of us should act accordingly. That's exactly opposite from the false thinking that Borenstein digs into - the belief that anything short of 100 percent certainty is the same as 50-50 at best and that is therefore an excuse to do nothing that would take hard work or a lot of money.







Faye - Good point. How that didn't clang in my brain, I dunno. The story's analogy inverts the odds. To expand your good point, the parallel would be that scientists are estimating just a 5 percent chance that human error has not drastically reduced the odds of a safe landing. And chances of a crash, whatever the reason, is similarly high. So don't get on the plane (but if you do and it's a bad day, at least you'll have somebody to sue!). Had Seth stated it more or less like that, it'd make a good parallel the specific causality referent for the 95 percent that the IPCC is trumpeting this morning.

   The analogy aside, the enterprise to call 16 experts and ask for other examples of such scientific confidence makes the issue much easier to understand and discuss in public.

Overall I agree this story is based on a good idea but it suffers from a logical flaw. The problem starts here:  


Some climate-change deniers have looked at 95 percent and scoffed. After all, most people wouldn't get on a plane that had only a 95 percent certainty of landing safely, risk experts say.

 What kind of a risk expert would say something this misleading and nutty? The analogy is backwards. They IPCC is saying there’s a 95% chance we have a problem, not a 95% chance everything is fine. A better analogy would be a plane that had a 95% chance of some mechanical malfunction. The deniers would be analogous to people who would board anyway because they don’t want to be inconvenienced over a risk that hasn’t been proven. 


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