When compound certainty leads to sheer folly

Piers Corbyn makes real money off of his climate forecasts, not expropriated taxpayer money like the UN IPCC crowd

Piers Corbyn makes real money off of his climate forecasts, not expropriated taxpayer money like the UN IPCC crowd

This is a short simple post about the danger of what I like to call “prescriptive science“.  Prescriptive science is science that likes to do a bunch of studies, reach a bunch of conclusions, and then try to use the results to lobby legislators to create laws that regulate, control, and coerce people into behaving a certain way based on these conclusions.  Mostly done in the name of the ‘greater good’, this type of science usually only benefits a very select group of people and constituencies and saddles the rest of us with more onerous regulations to obey that usually raise the costs of living and doing business.

This is contrasted against ‘progressive science’, which is science that likes to do a bunch of studies, reach a bunch of conclusions, and then try to use the results to create ground-breaking technological advancements in everyday goods and services that will be voluntarily bought and sold by free people, adding to general prosperity and leisure time by increasing trade options, productive specialisation, and time-saving efficiency.  Usually benefitting millions or even billions of people, this type of science if often vilified for being individualistic, driven by greed and ego, and ultimately serving an elite ‘capitalist class’.

It is plainly obvious that the prescriptive sciences are inherently political projects as much as they are scientific ones.  They are usually the most beholden to state funding, and they usually produce the result that would suggest more state intervention.  In fact there are very good basic rules of thumb for determining a prescriptive science.  If a scientific endeavour is 1) state-funded, 2) requires verbal political support and lobbying, and 3) requires more state intervention and legislation to implement its recommendations, then you can just about safely say it is a prescriptive science.

Smoking bans and smoking advertising bans are classic results of prescriptive science.  Banned foods and school canteen laws are more textbook results of prescriptive science.  And of course the recommendations that the entire planet be regulated by a central authority in order to control carbon emissions is probably the most conspicuous and rotten manifestation of prescriptive science gone wild.

So I’d like to show a very simple example of how prescriptive sciences can basically fall statistically flat.

Let’s say that there a number of criteria that need to be in place before we can make a very important decision regarding public policy to achieve a desired end.  Let’s take global warming.

  1. You need to be certain that the earth is warming
  2. You need to be certain that this warming is unprecedented
  3. You need to be certain that man is causing this warming
  4. You need to be certain that on balance it is a net ‘bad’ for the planet
  5. You need to be certain that policies can be implemented that can effectively reverse this problem
  6. You need to be certain that these policies will actually cost less than the problem itself
  7. You need to be certain that any remedial measures taken can restore ‘equilibrium’ and not overshoot and create another perhaps even worse problem in the other direction.

Mmmm, sounds a bit trickier than passing a few resolutions at a UN meeting.

Now, according to most scientific arenas, a 90% confidence interval is considered an excellent level of confidence.  After all, it suggests that AT LEAST 90 times out of 100 your particular proposition will be correct.  The problem creeps in when you have to start compounding confidence levels across a string of key criteria that usually need to be in place in prescriptive science.

So let’s say that you were 90% sure about each of the 7 individual propositions mentioned above.  That means you would be 90% sure of a condition over which you were 90% sure of a condition over which you were 90% sure of a condition over which you were 90% sure of a condition over which you were 90% sure of a condition over which you were 90% sure of a condition over which you were 90% sure.

In rather more elegant terms, (0.9)^7 = 0.48, or 48%.

So if this happened to apply to the recommendation that we adopt global emissions regulation to stop and reverse unprecedented and harmful man-made global warming, a whole series of very confident propositions all amount to a very big 50/50 call.  Call me old-fashioned but I was taught not to risk your future on the flip of a coin.  And what’s more, thanks to the laws of compounding, if one were just 70% confident on each of these propositions (as one might feel is a more realistic confidence interval for the climate sciences), then overall ‘compound confidence’ would slump to a dismal 8%.

Only 60% confident about each of our propositions? Compound confidence falls to 3%. You get the picture.

And so here’s my gripe. Progressive sciences may in many instances deal with as much confidence or uncertainty as prescriptive sciences.  The difference is that progressive sciences turn ideas and theoretical propositions into profits, and over time there is no arguing with sustained profitability of ideas.  Entrepreneurs sum up their confidence interval, risk their own capital, and take their idea to market where it must sink or swim.

Prescriptive sciences on the other hand turn ideas into regulation, and regulation as it turns out requires only the will of politicians to enforce it, a will easily found once politicians realise the proposed regulation requires more government intervention.  Prescriptive sciences therefore can operate at far lower levels of confidence, and get away with it because their chief sphere of survival is not in the market place, where standards for truth are incredibly high, but in the political arena, where back-scratching, lobbying, and any other means of convincing the people in power are the main currencies of persuasion and longevity.

When you just sit back and consider the scientific obstacles to legitimately proving that the world should hyper-regulate its economies to reverse unprecedented and harmful man-made global warming, you begin to realise why these scientists will never be able to let their ideas loose in the market place.  The exacting standards of the free market would crush climate science into a little ball and throw it on the scrap heap.

That is why the global warm mongers will choose to remain firmly entrenched in the bloviating halls of the UN – they just can’t cut it anywhere else.

One Response to “When compound certainty leads to sheer folly”

  1. Piet says:

    “The kind of man who demands that government enforce his ideas is always the kind whose ideas are idiotic,” observed H L Mencken – an American writer/journalist – in the first half of the 20th century.

    (From Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek: http://cafehayek.com/2010/03/mencken-on-merchants-of-idiotic-ideas.html)