Yesterday, I critiqued a video that used Pascal’s Wager to implore us to take drastic action in order to fight the threat of global warming.
It occurred to me that my critique might be a bit more forceful if I showed how trying to predict future outcomes using incorrect assumptions leads to unintended, bad consequences. There’s no better way to do this than to explore a few historical events and the way society reacted to them.
Here are a few examples I came up with:
-Nutrition advice in the 1960s
Each of these events can easily be put into the rubric of Pascal’s Wager using the incorrect assumptions used at the time.
In the late 1950s, heart disease was a major concern for health professionals and politicians alike. It was such a major concern, that Congress and various bureaucracies of the Federal Government insisted that drastic action must be taken soon to stave off a major disaster.
Let’s fit it into Pascal’s Wager:
Either saturated fat is a major contributor to heart disease and is responsible for killing thousands of people a year, or it’s not.
If it is a major contributor, and drastic action is not taken: The consequences will be dire. Tens of thousands could die in the coming decades.
Drastic action was taken and the Federal Government came up with nutritional guidelines outlined in the now infamous Food Pyramid. These weren’t just recommendations. School children have been indoctrinated with these guidelines for 40 years. Doctors and nutritionists have followed them religiously. Countless millions (if not billions) of dollars have flowed into programs to ensure these guidelines were followed.
It’s only been within the last ten years or so that we’ve discovered that not only are these guidelines are most likely wrong, they’re probably murderous. We are dealing with health epidemics which could not even begin to be be imagined 40 years ago. Cases of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, auto-immune disorders, etc, have exploded all over the country.
Why? Because it turns out that the original assumptions were wrong. Saturated fats are far more beneficial and far less harmful than originally thought. Complex carbohydrates are just the opposite.
Eugenics was all the rage at the beginning of the 20th Century. Progressives were all a flutter about taking drastic action to ensure that not only the white race not be mixed with what they deemed “inferior stock,” but that other deficiencies be culled from the gene pool as well. It was feared that the white race would all but disappear from the face of the earth, or more likely, become so bogged down with genetic imperfections as to destroy it.
Either race mixing and undesirable genetics will destroy the white race, or it won’t.
If it will destroy the white race, and drastic action is taken: The white race will be saved, and civilization will not be destroyed.
Drastic action was taken and Federal/State governments, as well as numerous private organizations funded by the leading Progressives of the day, put into motion a system of forced eugenics, forced sterilization, and immigration policies which still live with us today.
The torrid tale spans from Cold Harbor, to tiny Appalachian mountain towns. From the birth control movement to the front door of the White House. From local policy, all the way to Hitler’s gas chambers.
The War on Drugs:
The war on drugs goes back over a century, but for the purposes of this example, we’ll start in 1971 with President Nixon. At that time, drugs were considered to be a problem so monumental and pressing that drastic action was immediately needed.
Illegal drug use is a scourge that has the power to destroy civilization, or it isn’t.
If it is a scourge that has the power to destroy civilization, and drastic action is taken: Civilization is saved.
Drastic action was taken. Billions of dollars have been poured into the War on Drugs over the past 40 years by Federal and State governments.
Well, the results are too legion to list out individually. Suffice it to say, it has proven to be one of the most colossal failures any modern government has ever been responsible for. In terms of money wasted, lives ruined, rights lost, and people murdered, the War on Drugs has brought this nation to its knees. I challenge anyone who says it’s hyperbole to speculate that short of complete decriminalization and dismantling of the system built up to keep the War on Drugs going, America will never recover from it.
This is my main concern about the video I critiqued yesterday. It’s not so much that the gentleman is attempting to fit and extremely complex problem based on uncertainty into an overly simplistic model. It’s that he’s starting with an unquestioned assumption which you are just supposed to accept, no questions asked.
Why is taxation, regulation, and government control the solution? I have no idea. He doesn’t bother to explain. It’s just an axiom that you’re supposed to accept.
Why will taxation, regulation, and government control work this time, when it has proved to be a disaster in the past? Again, I have no idea. Not only doesn’t he bother to explain, one gets the impression that he’s never even considered it. It goes beyond being axiomatic to being a religious belief. There’s nothing of any substance to his belief other than faith.
But, even with all the historical examples available to us (I’ve only touched on three), we are made to believe that this time, if drastic action is taken, it will avert disaster. And, what’s the worst that can happen if he’s wrong? According to him, the very worst that will happen is a global depression that “makes the depression of the 1930’s look like a cake walk.”
Except, that’s not the worst that could happen. Not even close.
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I was sent this video this morning and asked to comment on it. It was described as, “One guy with a marker just made the global warming debate completely obsolete,” on upworthy.com.
The person making the argument starts out with this challenge: “Nobody I’ve shown this argument to has been able to poke a hole in it.”
Before we start, keep in mind that this video was made in 2007. I don’t know if this gentleman has changed his views on the matter or not, so I’m not going to assume either way. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and grant that he may not understand the economics behind what he is proposing. But, economics or no, there are some serious problems with his line of thinking.
To begin with, this is nothing more than an obfuscated attempt at Pascal’s Wager.
In 1669, Blaise Pascal invited humanity to consider the following:
Either God exists or he doesn’t exist.
The wager set in motion a new field of probability theory, which still exists today. At the time, it was considered a groundbreaking argument, made on wholly pragmatic grounds.
Now, I contend that when atheists call this wager a “fallacy,” they are over-reaching a bit. Given the strict definitions of the argument, Pascal is basically right. If there is a God, and you don’t believe in Him, you’re going to burn (working within the parameters of 17th Century Christian scholarship).
Pascal was working in a world where the boundaries are clearly delineated. Do X, and Y will happen. Don’t do X, and Z will happen.
The fallacy lies in in the “if God doesn’t exist,” statements. Who is Blaise Pascal to say that anyone’s life was lived well according to his definitions? How many wasted hours were spent worshiping a deity that didn’t exist? What could have been accomplished otherwise?
It’s the ultimate Broken Window Fallacy. All Blaise Pascal sees is a person who lived a life in alignment with his preferences, regardless if those preferences are based on truth or not. What he doesn’t see are the infinite possibilities lost. In short, Blaise Pascal lacks imagination. He dismisses the unseen.
Pascal also fails to understand that the person who doesn’t believe in a God that doesn’t exist still must deal with being a heretic in a world of believers. That could be very, very bad for you, indeed.
A more honest version of Pascal’s argument would look like this:
If He exists, and you don’t believe in Him, it will be infinitely bad for you.
Okay, enough with the background…you see where I’m going with this. Let’s spot the fallacies within the fallacy:
If global warming is not happening, and we take significant action, the results are global depression and wasted money.
Unlike Pascal’s theoretical world, this world is much more uncertain. We’re not dealing with the clearly delineated choices between heaven and hell (infinite good vs. infinite bad). Instead, we’re dealing with speculation based on uncertainty.
How does this gentleman propose that we deal with speculation based on uncertainty? By taking significant, clearly defined action, of course. What action might that be? He let’s you know right at the 2:38 mark: Taxation, regulation, and government control.
Why is this the action that needs to be taken? No answer. It’s just an a priori axiom we are supposed to accept.
Why is it assumed that the action proposed will result in the conclusions proposed? No answer. It’s just something you’re supposed to know, for some reason.
In fact, the conclusions could be infinitely worse than what he proposes. It could result in mass starvation, continued abject poverty for the majority of the world, and outbreaks of war leading to the deaths of tens of thousands. The “what is the worst that can happen” conclusion could be every bit as bad as the worst that can happen if global warming is happening, and we don’t take action. Both are infinitely bad.
Now, what if the assumptions were switched?
If global warming is not happening, and we take significant action, the results could be infinitely bad.
If global warming is not happening, and we don’t take action: UNKNOWN. (The unbeliever still has to live in a world full of believers, after all).
If global warming is happening, and we do take significant action, the results could be infinitely bad times infinity.**
If global warming is happening, and we don’t take action, the results could be infinitely bad.
Why is the last conclusion unknown? Because, nobody is talking about the benefits global warming could have on the world. I mean that seriously. Allow yourself to think of the kinds of benefits a rise of a few degrees in temperature over the span of a hundred years would have.
And, that’s the crux of the whole problem. We are being asked to imagine a future world free of all possibilities except two, both infinitely bad.
We are crippling ourselves by thinking this way. We are ignoring infinite possibilities, the stunning complexity of randomness, the laws of economics, spontaneous order, marginal utility, and we are assuming that we know what the best solution is for all of humanity based on speculation and uncertainty squeezed into a wager that was made 350 years ago.
This isn’t an argument. This isn’t proof. This tiny little exercise did not “just make the global warming debate completely obsolete.” This is simply another attempt at justifying controlling the entire global economy by the enlightened because the benighted just won’t pray hard enough.
**Pay attention to this particular point. The person in the video readily admits that to take significant action in a world where global warming isn’t happening will cause harm. But, he understates his case by many factors. Not only will it cause harm, it is very likely that it will be catastrophic harm, unimaginable to us. A few minutes later, he invites us to assume that these actions will be beneficial if global warming is really happening, because…in his estimation, these actions will stop something which will cause catastrophic harm, unimaginable to us.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
And, he’s not even considering that the drastic action he proposes may well have zero effect on global warming. Worse, he doesn’t consider that these drastic actions may make global warming worse, instead of solving it.
What happens when you apply a solution that may well have catastrophic consequences on a world where global warming is not happening to a world where global warming is happening? What happens if that “solution” has zero effect on global warming, or makes it worse, because it’s the very opposite of a solution?
The ultimate fallacy here is, the proposal this gentleman is urging us all to wager on has the possibility of being the absolute worst thing that has ever happened to humanity. It’s infinite bad (2)^infinity.
Filed under: Environment
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This weekend, Justin Stoddard brought up Arthur Koestler’s views on faith, in the context of Mises on human action. The discussion at first struck me as tangential to the main thrust of the first chapter of Human Action, which we both read as part of an attempt at a tandem, co-ordinated reading. But considering that in that first chapter Mises tries to mark the differences between praxeology, the theory of action, and other domains of thought, such as psychology, epistemology, metaphysics, etc., and that faith would normally be thought to reside somewhere in these other domains, perhaps it is not so tangential. Perhaps it is a good prefatory discussion.
Like Justin, I see that the common maxim that warns us that you “cannot reason a person out of a position that person did not reason himself into” is obviously false. It may be that I did not “reason myself into” the religion of my family; it was “in the air,” a part of my heritage as much as the house I lived in the and the forest nearby: I did reason myself out of it, though.
Most people never accomplish any task of a similar nature. They fall into a religion, or an ideology, like they fall into love: the object of adoration was near at hand, and quite serviceable, and seemed willing to reciprocate and meet some basic needs of the psyche. Most people become liberals or conservatives in this way, and I’m sure some libertarians are born this way, too.
It was Justin, also, who brought up matters of belief as an element of reason, rationality. This is not the primary object of Mises’ interest, in Human Action. But, to clear the way for future commentary, I’ll consider, briefly, the doctrine of the minimum wage legislation, which Justin mentioned as if a stand-in for the many positions of libertarianism (a social philosophy Justin and I both hold to). And I’ll do this in frank autobiography.
When I was a teen, and extricating myself from the faith of my mother and my aunts, et aliae, I was also beginning the process of settling on a political ideology. I considered myself a liberal. I deemed my basic attitudes liberal, and on some important issues I favored liberty over regulation. But I had been taught in school and from the TV (and in part from my encyclopedia set) that concern for the poor had led to laws like those establishing a minimum wage, and I was basically accepting of the practice, and many others of our society and its government.
But I had the wit enough to see that minimum wage laws were comparable to laws about marriage and sex (say, the prohibition of prostitution) that I objected to. So I thought the only rational thing to do was consider the case against the minimum wage, as made by some economists and most libertarians.
That case involved scarcity, wealth production, supplies and demands, etcetera, and I became convinced that minimum wage laws didn’t have the univocally good results hoped for and trusted in — as, I could see, a matter of faith — by proponents of the dirigiste state. I knew some folks who, without blinking, supported minimum wage laws and legal prostitution, both, without blinking an eye. And yet it was obvious that laws against prostitution were of a similar nature to minimum wage laws. Both prohibited certain contracts at certain rates. Both had seemingly plausible arguments in their favor, but neither worked as their proponents thought.
The “faith” element, here, is the belief in the advisability of a program while refusing to believe in the negative effects of the program in question, or of judging the program on the general results, or with reference to those results. Some evidence must not be not considered.
And the world is a complicated enough place that one can easily shield one’s eyes from things one doesn’t want to see. There’s always something else to look at.
In the case of the political opponent of prostitution, it’s the inherent vileness of the activity as it is when the practice is illegal, and the pure morality of sexual activity confined to pure barter in bilateral monopoly. The negative effects of anti-prostitution laws are just a “cost of promoting the good.” Or, it is asserted, though without much careful thought, “the cost of ameliorating a great evil.”
Mutatis mutandis, it is just so with the opponents of low wage contracts. The suffering of the people who must endure low-paid work gets concentrated on, as does, even more so, the imagined alternative: higher wages — hooray! The idea that the actual alternative under minimum wage laws is that at least some segment of the low-skill labor force will suffer no employment? Blankout. Not addressed.
I noticed this at the time. I was the only liberal I knew who had looked squarely at the arguments made against minimum wage laws. And when I would relate these arguments back to fellow liberals, they dismissed them, not merely with lack of interest, but derision. These people who made them did not care about the poor!
And I have heard this reaction many times since.
My own take was that a person who wishes to help the poor, upon hearing that one’s chosen means to do the work would not work, instead of rejecting the news, would be concerned, and look into it. Why? Because of the ostensible aim, helping the poor. If one did not look closely at the challenge, then it was obvious that helping the poor was not the real aim. The real aim might be something more like “seeming to help the poor” or “appearing moral.”
And this is where my commonality with Mises becomes clear. He aims to provide reason to the processes of causation from human choice, to clear up the confusions, and to find the regularities in social causation. His science, that of a rather formal ends and means structure, he calls praxeology. It is the underlying principle to much of the work done by economists up to his time.
As Mises saw it, the main opponents of the development of such a science have been those whose approach to social life and public policy relied too heavily on faith and defensive inattention. And so Human Action, in the course of developing the principles of praxeology, also elaborates quite a few critiques of the dominant faiths of the age — many of which remain dominant after all the years since Mises first published his great book.
Praxeology does not itself require faith. It requires careful reasoning to figure out. One reasons one’s way into an understanding of economics.
But it is possible to sloppily approach a doctrine of laissez-faire, and proceed on faith. I know many libertarians who rely entirely on their bets about the world, and do little actual investigation into the reality of the underlying claims. That’s only natural. Human beings have limited time. Not everyone can be an economist, or philosopher.
But I don’t think we should equate those libertarians whose approach is almost entirely intuitive with those who have engaged in deep study. The libertarian faith and the libertarian wisdom have at least some differences. Much of it relies on what we bring to the issues. A deep prejudice for freedom is a great thing in a person, and it often leads to the full flower of a libertarian individual. But it’s not enough. Not if you really want to understand the world.
I am not sure that I’ve addressed what Justin was broaching. I’m pretty sure I have not in any way summarized the first chapter of Human Action.
But perhaps now we can proceed to a discussion of the book? We can return to the issue of faith — and, in general, of non-rational approaches to belief and action — as we proceed.
Filed under: Economic Theory, Philosophy
Sometime back in the beginning of September, several of us decided to form a somewhat losely affiliated book club in order to read and discuss Human Action by Ludwig von Mises. Though some of us have read all or part of it in the past, a chance to collaborate with like-minded people on a work of such importance could not be passed up. So, the date of October 1st was chosen to start our reading. I assure you, the government shutdown that also occurred that day was pure coincidence.
I’ve sped ahead of my co-readers somewhat, so to slow myself down, I’m also reading The God That Failed, which is a collection of essays by 20th Century writers about their disillusionment with Communism. As you might imagine, the subject matter of both books go well together.
I wrote the following on our Facebook wall:
This struck up an interesting back and forth between Brian McCall and myself:
Brian may be on to something here, but I’m not fully convinced. I often accuse liberal atheists of substituting their faith and belief in God with an equal faith and belief in government. I’m not the only one. So many people have recognized this phenomenon that the phrase “secular theist” has started trending. But, really, this is just a re-discovering of old attitudes. Old school atheists were very open about why theistic religion had to be sacrificed before secular religion could be implemented. The intellectuals of the day used this cynicism brilliantly. They simply shifted (sometimes with great violence) the Proletariat’s faith in God to a faith in the government.
The new atheists fail to see the connection at all. They scoff at the idea of God, but they become indignant when their faith in government is pointed out to them. Their faith is blind to them, even though they profess it daily.
I’ve often puzzled over why people are so blind to their faith in government. Why would one choose to believe that minimum wage laws not only work, but are actually beneficial? Why would one choose to believe that there can be such a thing as “free” health care?
Back to the original quote by Koestler:
It very well may be as Brian postulates. It may be that “faith” is an inherent instinct in all of us. Some of us are better at either tuning it out or repressing it.
I think it’s a bit more nuanced than that. This faith we speak of is largely a social signaling system. It is acceptable to believe that minimum wage laws work and are beneficial because our peers believe it. It is acceptable to believe that going to the voting booth and pulling the lever actually does anything because our peers believe that it does.
That kind of faith seems incredibly rational to me.
Anyway, feel free to discuss.
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