North Korea is building nukes and ICBMs to prevent the United States from attacking. Meanwhile, the United States does not want to attack North Korea. And yet we find ourselves at the brink of nuclear war while not actually having a root problem on which we disagree. They don’t want to be attacked and we don’t want to attack them. Doesn’t that seem solvable?
The problem, as I see it, is psychology more than weaponry. As long as North Korea sees the United States as a military threat, expect North Korea to keep upgrading their nuclear arsenal.
So what would it take to “reframe” the situation from two mortal enemies on the brink of war to something less dangerous?
Perhaps we should look at the same reframing strategy President Trump is using to apparent success with ISIS. The president reframed our involvement from temporary to permanent. Then he added a momentum change courtesy of General Mattis. Under President Obama, ISIS probably saw the U.S. military involvement as a temporary problem because that’s exactly how it was framed. Now they see it as permanent … and they observe themselves losing. The “permanent loser” frame is a different framing than before, and it might be the reason we see more surrenders. (Or we might be seeing more alleged surrenders because exaggerated reports of that type would be good persuasion too.)
At the moment, North Korea sees the economic sanctions as temporary. They also see our threats as temporary until they have full nuclear deterrent. The temporary frame is a losing frame for the United States.
On top of the temporary frame, things look personal between the U.S. and North Korea. Dignity is in the game. Ego is in the game. Those things need to be reframed out of the situation to get any kind of solution.
So consider the following reframe. Imagine depersonalizing the North Korean situation by pushing for a United Nations rule that any not-yet-fully-nuclear country building nukes and ICBMS is permanently barred from any form of global commerce. Ever. Period. And it’s not personal to North Korea. It’s just the new rule.
It’s the “ever” part, along with depersonalizing things to a generic rule that creates the new frame. In this frame, there is no winning to be had for North Korea. They can build their nukes, but only at the expense of permanent and total economic collapse, courtesy of the the rest of the world as expressed by the United Nations.
I don’t think total economic ruin of North Korea was ever a realistic strategy option until recently. But China seems to be onboard. And President Trump is unlikely to take his boot off Little Rocket Man’s tiny wallet anytime soon. I can’t imaging President Trump backing off until he gets what he wants. But we haven’t framed it as permanent. And we could, with the help of the United Nations.
Let’s call this the “I’ll just take my ball and go home” strategy. And it works best if we reduce military presence to something more obviously defensive. In this model, it’s not personal. It’s just a rule the UN agreed on.
There is great persuasive power in saying something is a general rule as opposed to a specific action against one player. It takes ego out of the game and it has a non-negotiable feel from the start.
Note: My main topic for this blog lately is persuasion. I’m not an expert on North Korea or international affairs. I don’t expect anyone to take my noodling on this topic today too seriously. If you learned something about persuasion by reading this far, that’s all I’m hoping to achieve here.
You might want to pre-order my book about practical persuasion, Win Bigly, at this link because that’s how you get a free bonus chapter by email.
Almost everything President Trump does has an impact on the economy, and on consumers. That includes national security, immigration, taxes, health care, budgets, treaties, government regulations, and international relations. If the public is optimistic about the economy, that is normally the same as having confidence in the president. At least on the big-ticket items.
The types of presidential actions that have lower impact on the economy include court appointments, opinions on confederate statues, NFL kneeling, transgenders in the military, birth control funding, unpresidential tweets, poorly-executed disavowals, hyperbole that fails the fact-checking, seemingly unnecessary political attacks, and all manner of obnoxious presidential behavior. The majority of citizens disapprove of President Trump on at least some of those topics.
I don’t think we’ve ever seen something like this before. A majority of citizens disapprove of President Trump while simultaneously having confidence he’ll get most of the big stuff right and the economy will reflect it.
During the 2016 campaign, my haters mocked me mercilessly on Twitter for predicting that a candidate with insanely low approval ratings could ever get elected president of the United States. I said it wouldn’t be the problem people thought it would be. And it wasn’t. Part of the reason is that Hillary Clinton also had low ratings. But I also suspected there were so-called shy Trump supporters who held private opinions that were different from what the pollsters could suss out.
Now we see a similar situation shaping up. I don’t know whether or not President Trump will seek a second term. But if he ran for reelection today, I expect he would win by a larger margin than the first time, not matter who ran against him. To put it another way, approval ratings aren’t as predictive as you would expect. But consumer confidence is probably close to 100% predictive. Ask Bill Clinton. He’ll tell you It’s the economy, stupid.
Prior to President Trump’s inauguration day I predicted we’d see this story arc play out in the media:
Spring 2017: “Trump is Hitler!”
Summer 2017: “Okay, Trump isn’t Hitler. But he’s incompetent!”
End of year 2017: “Crap. He’s effective. But we don’t like it.”
Consumer confidence is peaking while the president’s approval rating is in the cellar. That means people expect him to be effective on the big stuff. But they don’t like him because of the other stuff.
Right on schedule.
If you read this entire blog post, you might also like my new book, Win Bigly. Pre-order at this page and get a bonus chapter by email.
For your Friday reading, first check out Politico’s excellent article by Michael Kruse on how the “Power of Positive Thinking” guru, Norman Vincent Peale, influenced President Trump’s approach to rewriting reality. Then see my Periscope where I tie together those thoughts and more. People on Twitter are saying it’s my best yet. You be the judge.
Scott Adams drinks delicious coffee and talks about Trump, affirmations, positive thinking, and Norman Vincent Peale https://t.co/sVGlXtconv
I’m pro-gun. I say that up front because your beliefs about my intentions will color how you see this post. My intention is to be objective. You can be the judge.
The Vegas gunman used bump stocks on semi-automatic rifles. Those were totally legal. They are also a poor choice of weapons, or so I am told by gun experts. In fact, they are so inaccurate at the distance involved in the Vegas incident that professional snipers say Paddock could have done more damage with a single-shot weapon and some aiming.
The gun experts I talked to (informally) also agree that the shooter would have killed more than a hundred additional people had he used a fully-automatic weapon. You can legally buy an automatic weapon that was made prior to 1986, for about $15-20K. The shooter was a millionaire, and he seemed to know a lot about guns. He would have known a fully-automatic rifle is designed to not jam the way his bump stock rifles did. He would have known they fire more bullets per second and more accurately. The death toll would have been much higher had the Vegas gunman used the right weapon.
He knew a fully automatic rifle would be more lethal than a bump stock rifle.
He was rich enough to afford the fully automatic weapon.
He had months to plan and prepare.
He was smart.
And yet he didn’t use a fully-automatic weapon in the attack.
The probable reason is that a fully-automatic weapon is harder obtain and it raises some flags. I believe even private transactions with those weapons require some government paperwork.
I’m speculating, of course, but it seems to me that the ban on fully-automatic weapons did, over time, create enough friction for the Vegas gunman that he decided to settle for relatively worse weapons.
Ask a gun expert how many more people would be dead if automatic weapons were as easy to procure as bump stocks. My estimate of a hundred extra dead in Vegas is probably low.
Gun control apparently worked in this case, at least to an important degree. The tragedy could have been far bigger. A little bit of friction for obtaining a fully automatic weapon probably saved lives. We can’t know for sure what was in the mind of a madman, but we do know that any kind of friction causes some people to change plans. That’s probably what happened here.
My hypothesis is that crazy people will use whatever weapon is the most effective killing device they can obtain at acceptable cost (friction). Gun laws introduce friction. They are not intended to stop every type of crime or to deter every type of criminal. But it looks like they helped a bit in Vegas. Had there been no friction to procuring fully automatic weapons, it is likely the Vegas gunman would have used them. Why wouldn’t he?
After years of trying, I think I came up with an idea that nearly 100% of people would agree is a good one. Rare!
The idea is to create a national “dashboard” for citizens to track the progress of government. Imagine a website with a bunch of small graphs on it for each element of national interest, from gun deaths, to national debt, to stock market performance, to the number of people covered by health insurance, and more. Click any graph to see more information, including the legislation in the pipeline to address that area.
I’m imagining some semi-independent group managing the site, but the figures would mostly be generated by the government.
If you want to make something better, you have to measure where you are and how you are trending. Measurement is a base idea behind all management theory. The government already measures lots of stuff, but citizens don’t see it gathered in one place for an overall picture. And you can’t allocate resources until you see how all the topics are doing, because resources are limited. Every expenditure comes at the cost of not spending the same dollars elsewhere. A national dashboard would let everyone see the problem areas at the same time and in the same way.
I’m pro-gun, but mostly for selfish reasons. Some people (such as celebrities) are probably safer with defensive weapons nearby. But I acknowledge the reality that guns make people less safe in other situations. No two situations are alike. That’s partly why the issue can never be fully resolved. Both sides pretend they are arguing on principle, but neither side is. Both sides are arguing from their personal risk profiles, and those are simply different. Our risk profiles will never be the same across the entire population, so we will never agree on gun control.
That said, I want to call out the worst arguments I have seen on the issue of banning bump stocks. If you are new to the conversation, a bump stock is a $99 add-on to an AR rifle that turns it into an automatic-like weapon for greater kill power. The Vegas gunman used bump stocks. They are legal, whereas a fully automatic rifle is not.
Many pro-gun people in the debate seem to be confused about the purpose of laws in general. Laws are not designed to eliminate crime. Laws are designed to reduce crime. The most motivated criminals will always find a way, and law-abiding citizens will avoid causing trouble in the first place. Laws are only for the people in the middle who might – under certain situations – commit a crime. Any friction you introduce to that crowd has a statistical chance of making a difference.
Humans are lazy and stupid, on average. If you make something 20% harder to do, a lot of humans will pass. It doesn’t matter what topic you are discussing; if you introduce friction, fewer people do it. With that in mind, let’s look at the least-rational gun control arguments I am seeing lately.
Gun advocates like to point out that Chicago has strict gun control laws yet high murder rates. This is an irrational argument. The only valid comparison would be Chicago with gun laws in 2017 versus Chicago without gun laws in 2017. Any comparison to other cities, or to other time frames, is pure nonsense. Nothing is a rational comparison to Chicago. There is only one Chicago. And because Chicagoans can easily buy guns from nearby places, the gun ban is probably useless in that case.
Gun opponents use a similarly irrational argument. For example, anti-gun folks might point out that London bans guns and has fewer gun crimes. That’s as irrational as the Chicago argument. There is only one London in 2017. You can’t compare it to anything.
In general, any argument that says, “Look at that one city” is irrational, anecdotal thinking. It has no place in policy decisions.
Criminals Will Break Gun Laws Anyway
As I explained up front, laws are not designed to stop the most motivated criminals. We’ve never seen a law in any realm that stopped all crime. At best, laws discourage the people on the margin. Gun control is no different. The objective is to add some friction and reduce the risk that someone angry enough to pick up an AR doesn’t also have a bump stock in the house.
The Vegas gunman had over 40 guns yet he used bump stocks on his weapons instead of buying illegal fully-automatic weapons in the first place. He also did not purchase grenade launchers, which would have been ideal for his purposes. The reason in both cases is that there was more friction for acquiring the illegal weapons. It wasn’t impossible. It was just harder.
You can Make a Bump Stock on a 3D Printer
No, I can’t. I don’t own a 3D printer. Neither do most criminals. What you mean is that the few people who own 3D printers and have the skill to use them can print bump stocks. Chances are, you’re not one of those people. Again, laws are not designed to stop the most motivated super-criminals. They have lots of ways to get weapons. A 3D printer might be an ideal solution for a few super-criminals. But it won’t have much impact for a number of years on the average person who flips out and wants to start shooting today.
Rubber Bands and other Bump Stock Workarounds
Yes, I know you saw on Youtube a video in which someone rigged an AR with a rubber band on the trigger, or some other clever device that increased the firing speed. I’m no weapons engineer, but I’m fairly certain the rubber band method is less reliable than the bump stock method. And the other workarounds have either more friction (it takes some talent and tools to make anything of that nature) or they are less reliable. I remind you that the goal is not to stop all crime; we’re just trying to add friction to discourage the lazy and less-resourceful types, of which there are many. And perhaps we can add some unreliability to their choice of weapons.
Yes, clever people can create bump stock workarounds that function well enough for making a Youtube video. But most people are not clever, and not terribly resourceful, and they probably haven’t personally tested the rubber band trick. Even a dumb mass murderer wants more reliability than a rubber band suggests. Personally, if I flipped out and decided to kill everyone in my workplace, and I had never tested the rubber band trick, I wouldn’t even consider using it for a real crime, no matter how cool it looked on Youtube.
Hardly Anyone Has Ever Been Killed by Bump Stock Guns
True. Even if you include the Vegas tragedy, the total percentage of people killed by bump stock-modified guns is tiny. But many people apparently don’t realize that laws are not designed to change the past. Laws are forward-looking devices. And after the Vegas tragedy, 100% of adults have been trained by news organizations on how to procure and use a bump stock. We even know we need multiple rifles because they jam. Compared to last week, the friction for modifying a semi-automatic to an automatic just went from “some” to non-existent. The idea of passing a law banning bump stocks is to add friction to reduce future crimes, not to change the past.
Keep in mind that North Korea might nuke us in the future even though they have no record of nuking us in the past. Policies and laws are not designed to address past risks, only future risks. And our future risk from bump stocks just went through the roof because they are now universally known and also top of mind.
And before you say you already knew how to get a bump stock, just imagine me laughing at you for saying it. I know you already knew how to do that. You are not representative of the entire population of potential killers. No one is suggesting passing laws directed at you personally.
A Guy in Japan Once Killed 30 People With a Knife
The argument here is that motivated killers will find a way to do damage with or without a gun. But does anyone think the guy in Japan killed more people with a knife than he could have with an armory of automatic weapons? And I remind you (again and again) that laws are not designed to stop the most motivated criminals, such as the Japanese stabber. Laws are designed to add friction to the less-clever and less-motivated.
A week ago, a potential killer with low skills and motivation might not figure out how to turn an AR into an automatic rifle. Today – thanks to the news – almost every adult knows how to do it. The existing friction disappeared. You would need to make bump stocks illegal to reintroduce some friction.
Gun owners sometimes say banning any weapon leads to banning all of them. In general, the slippery slope argument is nonsense no matter what topic you are discussing. Things do lead to other things, but every decision stands on its own, and should. Banning personal use of grenade launchers did not lead to confiscation of hunting knives, and probably never will. The slippery slope idea inspires fear in gun lovers – because creeping regulations feel like a risk – but in the real world, each decision stands alone. The slippery slope is an irrational fear, not a reasonable factor in policy-making.
The President Can’t Ban Gun Stocks by Executive Order
Sure he can, but it might not be legal. Does that matter?
You think it matters, but it doesn’t. When the Commander-in-Chief makes a thoughtful military decision, and the decision is clearly in the interest of temporarily plugging a security hole during a time of war (with ISIS), that’s defensible no matter what the Constitution says. And you want it that way.
The Constitution grants the Commander-in-Chief a lot of power to make quick decisions on homeland security because speed often matters in such things. As time allows, Congress can do its work. Banning bump stocks until Congress can look into it would be pure Commander-in-Chiefing. It would be public and temporary. Would the Supreme Court overturn the illegal ban? Maybe, but not right away. Remember that the Constitution gives real power to We the People. As long as We the People see our Commander-in-Chief acting responsibly, we’re going to give him a pass, especially for something temporary until Congress gets going.
I acknowledge that the President has no legal authority to ban the sale of legal items. But he could do it anyway. And We the People would largely back him on it so long as it was temporary and clearly intended to give Congress time to address the question.
That’s how Thomas Jefferson would have played it. But he might have looked for a technical way to make his executive order seem legal. I’m sure such an argument exists because lawyers.
Update: The Vegas Killer Would Have Been MORE Deadly Without Bump Stocks
The argument here is that bump stocks make the weapon harder to aim, therefore less lethal. That probably makes sense in some instances, such as a sniper situation. It does not make sense when spraying a dense crowd from above, at long distance. In that case, speed beats accuracy every time.
In summary, I have genuine respect for both sides of the gun control debate. But the arguments I listed above should not be part of the conversation if we are trying to be rational about it.
I usually plug a product here. It doesn’t feel right today.
Lately I have been describing my personal political views as “left of Bernie, but with a preference for plans that can work.” In other words, I would love universal healthcare and free college. I just don’t know how to get there in any practical way. I don’t think anyone else does either.
This indirectly brings me to Sam Altman, CEO of Y-Combinator, and a billionaire investor. He’s embarking on an experiment to see what happens when you give citizens free money, no strings attached. This is important because our robot-centric future will mean the end of most forms of human labor. And that means one of two things, in all likelihood: 1) 90% of the world starves to death while the robot-owners thrive, or 2) 90% of the world receives some sort of “free money” from the rich, with no strings attached. Sam is testing option two.
Stop right there. I know what you are thinking. You’re thinking it is far too soon to be thinking about a robot takeover of labor. But you might not know that Sam is heavily invested in robot startups. He’s seen things you haven’t seen. If he’s planning for a robot takeover of labor, get worried. He’s not guessing.
This is the sort of experiment your government should be doing but doesn’t know how to do. So Sam is doing it. And his results could easily inform government decisions when the robot revolution kicks into high gear.
I’ve said before in this blog, and on Periscope, that our old system of government – the republic – has already been replaced by citizen influencers. Thanks to social media, the best ideas go viral, and our elected representatives end up being more like followers of good ideas than leaders with their own plans. If Sam’s experiment shows us something we didn’t know, and the results can be reproduced, it will inform public policy on one of humanity’s greatest inflection points.
A smart investor always insists on small-scale tests of big ideas before committing big dollars. In the world of business, this is standard practice. Compare that to the current GOP healthcare plan that involves granting all the federal money for that cause to the states so they can work it out.
The responsible approach would be to test some healthcare ideas in a few states or counties and then work with what we learned. A wholesale change such as transferring responsibility to the states is reckless and, in my opinion, unethical. The unethical part is that moving funding to the states is little more than a political trick to protect Republicans in the 2018 election. It has nothing to do with helping citizens.
Regular readers of this blog know I am forgiving of politicians who intentionally exaggerate and ignore facts, so long as their intentions appear to be directed at the greater good. But shifting money for healthcare to the states is for the benefit of Congress, not the greater good.
My bottom line is that I can support a government plan that involves testing small before going big. But going big on an untested idea is not leadership. It is just bad management, or worse.
I don’t know if Sam Altman’s test of free money will tell us something important or not. But I do know it is a sensible and responsible approach to leading. Maybe someday our elected officials will learn how it’s done.
Speaking of leading, you might enjoy pre-ordering my book, Win Bigly, because it is filled with pages.
You might enjoy my Periscope playback from this morning in which I describe the several persuasion techniques President Trump is using on the topic of The Wall and DACA.Here’s the quick summary.Visual Persuasion: President Trump describes border …
Win Bigly is a tutorial on weapons-grade persuasion, using as a backdrop the personal story of how I used my knowledge of persuasion to predict a number of unlikely events during the 2016 election. You’ll have a new superpower when you are done with it. And you’ll never see reality the same way again. (In a good way.)
Our duo of hurricanes, Harvey and Irma, have elevated the perceived risks of climate change in a lot of people’s minds. Are these disasters, and the record heat in many places, a sign of climate warming already out of control?
The quick answer is maybe, but climate scientists will need a lot more data and probably a few more years to know whether we are seeing a blip or a trend. From a persuasion perspective, the fascinating thing to me is that the climate science “sides” have reversed because of the storms. And here I am only talking about non-scientists on social media.
Last winter I saw climate skeptics (or deniers in some cases) proclaiming climate change a hoax because it was cold outside. The scientists and pro-climate-change folks mocked those poor souls for not understanding the difference between anecdotal evidence and science. You can’t determine a long term trend by looking out the window, say all scientists. And if you think you can, you’re being a big dope who doesn’t know the first thing about science.
If you don’t understand that anecdotal data in isolation is generally useless to scientists, you don’t understand anything about science. A year ago, that described a lot of climate skeptics who were looking out their windows, seeing snow, and declaring climate change a hoax.
But that was last year. This week the sides reversed. Now I keep seeing climate alarmists on social media looking at the hurricanes and declaring them strong evidence of climate change. They might be right. But if they are, it is by coincidence and not by science. Scientists say it is too early to tell. So now we have a bizarre situation in which the pro-science side is disagreeing with the scientists on their own side. That’s what confirmation bias gets you. Both sides see anecdotal evidence as real. Both sides think they respect and understand the basics of science. Both sides are wrong.
Please excuse my generalities here. Obviously there are plenty of smart people on both sides who understand that anecdotal information is not confirmation of anything. But in terms of what I see on social media, the hurricanes have turned a lot of people on the pro-science side into believers in anecdotal evidence. Here’s one example. Read from bottom up.
And this brings me to my topic of the day: How do you know when to trust experts? My hypothesis is that people who have the most experience in the real world trust experts the least. To make that point, allow me to give you a brief tour of my experience with experts.
When I was a kid, scientists seemed to agree on what constituted good nutrition. They even put that knowledge into a handy visual aid involving a food pyramid, and provided it to every school. We now understand the science behind it to be bunk.
I’m old enough to have observed fitness experts revising their advice countless times. I’m no longer sure if stretching is good or bad. And the exercise experts also had the nutrition stuff wrong, along with the rest of the world, for most of my lifetime.
When I was a kid, Sigmund Freud was considered the leading expert on psychology even though he was dead. Now the experts in psychology considers Freud a fraud. His science wasn’t science at all.
When I was young, I assumed experts could pick stocks better than a monkey with a dart board. It turns out I was wrong. Index funds with no experts whatsoever routinely outperform the expert stock-pickers.
I have a degree in economics and an MBA from UC Berkeley. I did financial projections for a living, first at a major bank and later at the local phone company. People considered me an expert in that narrow field. In a number of cases, I got to track how my projections compared to actual results. They were rarely close. As an expert, I deserved no credibility whatsoever. And for a good reason. My projections required human judgment on lots of variables, so the output was little more than guessing and massaging the numbers to meet my boss’s expectations.
Some of you know I lost my ability to speak for over three years because of a bizarre disorder called spasmodic dysphonia. The experts almost unanimously agreed that the source of the spasmodic dysphonia is in the brain, not the vocal cords. I ended up diagnosing myself correctly after my primary care doctor and his recommended specialists were totally stumped. (I figured it out using Google.) Once I knew the problem, I found the one surgeon in the world who claimed he could fix my problem by rewiring the nerve pathways in my neck. The operation was a success, and I recovered from an “incurable” problem. Had I listened to 99% of the experts who said the problem was in my brain, I would not have considered an operation on my neck.
I could go on like this for hours, but I think you start to see my point. At my age, and given my type of experience, I have seen experts get the big stuff wrong lots of times, even when that seemed deeply unlikely.
That brings us to climate change. The experts are strongly aligned on one side. If you have neither the age nor the experience to know how often experts can be wrong, you probably assume the experts are credible. But if you have my type of experience, watching the fields of finance, diet, exercise, psychology, and medicine get the big stuff wrong, you start from a place of skepticism. Ideally, we would look at the details in any given situation to make our final decisions on the credibility of experts because no two cases are alike. Unfortunately, we humans are not good at using facts and reason. We tend to use our biases and then rationalize them later.
So how do we know when to trust experts and when to be skeptical? Here are the red flags you should look for in order to know how much credibility to assign to the experts.
When the players have money on the line, the truth gets distorted. In climate science, money influences both sides of the debate. That’s a red flag.
Complexity with Assumptions
Whenever you see complexity, that is a red flag. Complexity is often used to deceive. And complexity invites human error. When you see complex models that claim to predict the future, stay skeptical, especially when humans are making assumptions that influence the results.
The exceptions are planetary predictions and other straightforward physics. We can predict the future location of planets without any human assumptions. That is just math and physics. But in the fields of finance and climate science, to name just two, humans are influencing the models with assumptions. That is always a red flag. I am aware of no complex prediction model populated with human assumption-tweaking that is credible, in any field. Is climate science the first exception? Maybe. But it would be unusual in my experience.
The Important Fact Left Out
When people have the facts on their side, they are quick to point it out. When a key fact is glaringly omitted, that’s a red flag.
In the world of climate science, most of you would not know the answer to this key question: Are the temperature measurements peer reviewed?
You probably assumed the temperature measurements are peer reviewed. Maybe some, or most, are. All I know for sure is that climate scientist Michael Mann says his temperature data is proprietary. He refused to release it to a Canadian court for that reason. is that a common situation, that data measurements are “secret.” I don’t know. Neither do you. That’s a red flag. It is conspicuous that you and I don’t know the answer to that basic question. Because if the raw temperature data is not peer reviewed, is it really science?
To be perfectly clear here, I don’t know the state of peer review for temperature measurements. But it is such a key question it raises a red flag as to why scientists aren’t making sure we know the raw data is clean and widely reviewed.
Conflation of Credibility
Whenever you see someone conflate a credible thing (such as the peer review system in science) with a less-credible thing (long term prediction models), that’s a red flag. If you question the accuracy of climate models, someone will mention the gold standard of peer review, even though that doesn’t address climate models that involve human assumptions. Conflation of credibility is a red flag.
My view on climate science is that different elements have different levels of earned credibility. Like this:
Basic Science: The chemistry and physics of climate change seem solid. When you add CO2 to an environment, expect some extra heat, all other things being equal.
Temperature Measurements: The temperature measurements used by climate scientists might be solid. But the way science has so far communicated this topic does not inspire confidence. I think you have to put a lower credibility on the temperature measurements than on the basic science, simply because of the way the topic is presented to the public. If the measurements are credible, why not tell us all about the peer review process that has validated them? And why would Michael Mann even have “proprietary” data? Isn’t everyone looking at the same stuff?
Climate Models: As soon as you hear that someone has a complicated prediction model, that’s red flag. If you hear that the model involves human assumptions and “tweaking,” that’s a double red flag. If you hear there are dozens of different models, that’s a triple red flag. If you hear that the models that don’t conform to the pack are discarded, and you don’t know why, that is a quadruple red flag. And if you see people conflating climate projections with economic models to put some credibility on the latter, you have a quintuple red flag situation.
To be fair, none of the so-called flags I mentioned means the models are wrong. But they do mean you can’t put the same credibility on them as you would the basic science.
Have you noticed that I seem to be the only person talking about economic models when it comes to climate change? That’s because there is a tendency to assume the economic decision is so obvious no study is needed.
That’s the sort of thinking that no economist would find credible. Moreover, economists don’t believe anyone can forecast the future with long term economic models. Science might tell us we have a big problem, but economists have to tell us when to start addressing it and how hard. That part is missing.
I have seen some economic guesses of how much damage would be caused by climate change. But I have not seen one that considered opportunity cost, or the benefit of waiting for better technology. No economist would respect a prediction that ignored those two enormous variables. And those variables are deeply unpredictable by their nature.
The One Sided Argument
When I see climate scientists in the media, they are never accompanied by skeptical scientists who can check their statements in real time. Likewise, articles by and about skeptics are usually presented without simultaneous debunking by the experts on the other side. Those are red flags. Any presentation of one side without the simultaneous fact-checking by the other is useless and almost certainly designed for persuasion, not truth. The problem here is that both sides of the climate debate are 100% persuasive when viewed without the other in attendance. If you think your side is the smart side, check out the other side. They look just as smart, at least to non-scientists such as me.
I’ll summarize by reminding readers that I am not a scientist and I don’t have the tools to evaluate the credibility of climate scientists. If you think you do have that ability as a non-scientist, my guess is that you are younger than me or you have less experience of the type I described above.
When I present this sort of framing to climate change believers, they generally retreat to Pascal’s Wager, which says in this case that we should treat any risk of catastrophe as if it is likely, so we aggressively address the risk and eliminate it. That makes sense in a world where resources are not constrained. But our world is the opposite. Everything we do is at the expense of something else we wanted to do. And I am aware of no economic model that considers the opportunity cost of spending a trillion dollars for perhaps a half-degree temperature improvement.
Climate change isn’t our only mortal threat. We have pandemics, terrorism, nuclear war, the singularity, asteroids, and probably a dozen more threats I don’t even know. If we could eliminate all of those threats and have money left over, I say let’s do it. But if resources are limited (and they are), I need a strong argument to put a trillion dollars into any one of the risks.
My new book, Win Bigly, is available for pre-order. It’s about persuasion in a world where facts don’t matter to our decisions. (Even when they should.)
It wasn’t that long ago that climate scientists and their supporters mocked the critics who looked out their window, saw snow in the winter, and declared “global warming” to be a ridiculous hoax.
The climate scientists were right about that. You can’t predict the future by looking at today’s weather, even when the weather is setting records.
Likewise, my latest understanding of climate science (which is always sketchy at best, and certainly in need of updating now) is that we haven’t yet seen the “signal” of climate change in the hurricane data or the weather extremes. But that view is perhaps a year old. Has science updated its opinion to say the two super-hurricanes and our heat extremes are indeed a credible signal of the beginning of a climate catastrophe?
I watch a lot of news, continuously sampling both sides. I haven’t yet seen a climate scientist weigh in on our recent weather extremes. (Perhaps I missed a few?) So I have no idea whether we are seeing something statistically meaningful right now or not.
Let me put this in more stark terms.
If the recent hurricanes and weather extremes are meaningful in terms of climate change, we really, really, really need to know that. THAT is NEWS. In fact, no news is bigger than that news. Even the risk from North Korea is smaller than the risk of total climate catastrophe. So if the current weather extremes are statistically meaningful, and science confirms, why-the-hell isn’t that the lead story everywhere?
On the flip side, if climate scientists do NOT believe our current weather extremes are meaningful in terms of climate predictions, I’d say THAT should be the lead story too, simply because so many people believe they are seeing the beginning of the end times, climate-wise.
So why is the biggest story in the world conspicuously missing from the news? Keep in mind that climate change is still the biggest story even if the hurricanes are NOT telling us something new. The public wants to know how big the threat is. We’re scared!!!
Instead of that news, we get mostly crickets.
My working hypothesis is that science doesn’t know one way or another whether the current weather extremes are predictive of things to come. And if they are not yet sure, they would say as much. And that would be a problem for news organizations dedicated to reporting climate science risks as real and dire. If you think the world is best served by convincing the public that climate risks are real, your most socially responsible play in this case is to ignore climate scientists at the moment and let the public believe (without the benefit of scientific support, at least right now) that current temperature extremes are a clear sign of climate collapse.
Take this guy, for example. He’s typical of the what I am seeing on Twitter and even from my friends.
[If Tumblr were not broken right now, you would be seeing an image of a tweet that mocks climate critics for thinking the hurricanes are not proof of climate change. But instead you see this boring text because Tumblr won’t accept an image this morning.]
This fine gentleman believes our current hurricanes are indeed a clear signal of climate change. To be perfectly clear, he could be right. But if he is right, it is not because he is well-informed or smart. It would be a coincidence in this case. As far as I know, climate scientists are not onboard with Roger. They might confirm his gut feeling at some point soon, but for now, Roger is doing his own climate science by watching CNN.
So we have an odd situation in which news organizations can report the most “truthful” version of the reality – according to them – by NOT reporting the best thinking on the topic. Here I’m assuming the best thinking is that it is too soon to know how important recent weather extremes are to our predictions of climate change. But if that story is reported, viewers will get the wrong idea and conclude that climate change is not such a big deal even though these weather extremes are clearly a big deal.
Conversely, by not putting climate scientists on TV, and avoiding the trap of having them say, “We can’t tell yet,” which would be over-interpreted by skeptics, news organizations might be doing the most ethically defensible thing they could do. If they believe climate change is a big problem, and they want the public to agree, these hurricanes are doing a great job of persuasion without the benefit of science. It’s hard for the public to see what is happening right now as coincidence, or a normal variation in weather. It just doesn’t feel like normal. It feels like the first big signal of climate change to many observers because they have been primed for confirmation bias on that topic.
If you are a producer for CNN, and you believe climate change is an enormous problem that the public needs to understand, you would hesitate to allow any segment on the air that conflicts with that objective. For example, you would not give equal time to climate skeptics. And while all attention is on the hurricanes, you might not want a climate scientist to come on the air and say some version of “We have no idea whether these specific weather extremes mean something. We’ll need more data to know if this is a real trend or a blip.” That message would sound to skeptics like confirmation of their skepticism, even though it isn’t. Not even close. But it would be received that way by skeptics because of confirmation bias. Everyone hears what they want to hear.
So the biggest story in the world is largely ignored by news organizations because – and here I speculate – reporting any uncertainty about climate change is not as persuasive as allowing the public to look out the window and generate their own illusions of certainty while also frightened to death.
What would Sam Harris say about the ethics in this situation? Should news organizations lie by omission when they sincerely believe doing so is good for the planet? Or should they put scientists on the air to say “We don’t know yet” and give fuel to the climate skeptics whom they believe are jeopardizing the future of humanity?
I say give us the truth in this case, even if the truth is “We don’t know yet.”