Guest Post: Friends vs. Reason, or the Cost of Being Wrong

Please welcome my MIT colleague Jim Bales, who is the only teacher I know who has to weigh the pros and cons of handing his T. A. the rifle.  He writes here on a post over at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen that I meant to excoriate myself…only he got there faster and better.

_________

Our host (and my colleague) Tom Levenson was kind enough to loan me his soap box, so let me introduce myself. I’m Dr. Jim Bales (Ph.D., Physics, MIT ’91), I teach Strobe Project Lab here at MIT.

Over at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, Mark Thompson weighs in on the debate sparked by DougJ’s two questions over at Balloon Juice. (Namely, “Do you believe in Evolution?” and ” Do you believe that the average temperature on earth has increased over the past 30 years?”)

What struck me were Mr. Thompson’s words (in the context of the climate change debate):

Why would only an unreasonable person trust one’s ideological compatriots (whom you know to have expended far more effort into understanding a given issue than you have) more than one trusts a group of self-appointed experts whom one has never encountered and who you know to have a vastly different set of priorities than you?

Who, I asked myself, are these “self-appointed experts”? On climate change, the widely acknowledged “experts” are those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I wondered when they appointed themselves as “experts” on Climate Change?

So, I turned to Wikipedia and found:

The panel was first established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), two organizations of the United Nations—an action confirmed on 6 December 1988 by the United Nations General Assembly through Resolution 43/53. The IPCC shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President of the United States Al Gore.

OK, so they are not self-appointed. However, they must be a bunch of cranks right?

” The IPCC bases its assessment mainly on peer reviewed and published scientific literature.[5] … IPCC reports are widely cited in almost any debate related to climate change.  National and international responses to climate change generally regard the UN climate panel as authoritative.[8]”

Ok, they aren’t crackpots. But, I think, no doubt, I’ll find it’s a handful of ideologues banging out propaganda with no oversight or review. Digging into the IPCC web site I learned that the 4th Assessment Report (AR4) is the product of “more than 500 Lead Authors and 2000 Expert Reviewers, building on the work of a wide scientific community and submitted to the scrutiny of delegates from more than one hundred participating nations.”

In other words, Mr. Thompson created a strawman with the words “self-appointed experts” to avoid dealing the simple fact that the IPCC’s authority over its subject matter derives from the demonstrated accomplishments of its member scientists. These are not “self-appointed experts”, these are, by any objective standard, experts.

At which point, my answer to his question is:

The reason to trust the IPCC over one’s “ideological compatriots” is because the IPCC’s reports are the broad consensus of a body of bona fide experts, appointed to investigate climate change, and whose work is subject to extensive technical review prior to publication, with no ideological position outside of a) getting the science right, b) extracting the most accurate picture possible of the current state of the world’s climate and c) discerning the trends of climate change. Given the facts to date, one could only trust one’s “ideological compatriots” if they could present direct, unequivocal, empirical evidence that the IPCC has consistently and systematically made assertions or predictions that are demonstrably false.

Notice the very high bar I set here: “direct, unequivocal, empirical evidence that the IPCC has consistently and systematically made assertions or predictions that are demonstrably false.” It is not casting doubts on selected conclusions of the IPCC. It is not showing that, out of the massive amount of work published by the IPCC, some assertions or predictions are false. To cast valid doubt on the IPCC requires showing that the IPCC has a pattern of getting the science wrong. If Mr. Thompon’s unnamed “ideological compatriots” have such evidence, they have hidden it very well.

The bottom line is that reasonable people trust reason over ideology.

Finally, Mr. Thompson asks:

What if, as is the case with global warming, there are a handful of experts with facially similar qualifications to the main group of scientists who: 1. share your ideological or religious predispositions; and 2. dissent from that main group? Is it the mark of an inherently unreasonable person to trust the former over the latter?

Mr. Thompson’s unstated concern seems to be that some scientists may allow their ideology (or religion) to color their interpretation and understanding of the evidence, leading them to false conclusions. He has two, and only two choices. Either i) he will blindly trust his minority “ideological compatriots” because the stakes of being wrong are so low that it isn’t worth the effort to assess who is trustworthy, or ii) he will make the effort to figure out who is trustworthy because the cost of being wrong is too high.

For the issue of climate change I would hope he feels obligated to follow the second path, and engages in “the heavy lifting that is necessary for a political system to function” by digging in and establishing for himself the credibility (or lack) of the IPCC. It is what a reasonable person would do.

Image:  Jacques-Louis David, The Coronation of Napoleon, 1805-1808

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21 Comments on “Guest Post: Friends vs. Reason, or the Cost of Being Wrong”


  1. You have completely missed my point. So far as I’m concerned, I’m perfectly happy to defer to the IPCC; why? Because I trust the procedures involved in its creation, I trust scientists to follow the scientific method, and I have learned that the scientific method is, at least in the physical sciences, by far the most trustworthy, albeit still imperfect, way of obtain certain truths.

    My point is that this deference is ultimately based primarily on trust and argument by authority. This is true for the overwhelming number of people, regardless of whether they believe in AGW, evolution, whatever.

    But guess what? My trust of those things and my deference to certain recognized authorities isn’t any more inherently reasonable than any number of alternative possibilities for me to trust.

    And from the perspective of someone who doesn’t think they have much reason to trust a particular group, that group will most certainly appear self-appointed. This is what I was trying to get across with that quote – not that I think the IPCC is self-appointed but that someone with a significantly different set of trust relationships might quite easily reach that conclusion, even if it is a wrong conclusion.

    Mr. Thompson’s unstated concern seems to be that some scientists may allow their ideology (or religion) to color their interpretation and understanding of the evidence, leading them to false conclusions. He has two, and only two choices. Either i) he will blindly trust his minority “ideological compatriots” because the stakes of being wrong are so low that it isn’t worth the effort to assess who is trustworthy, or ii) he will make the effort to figure out who is trustworthy because the cost of being wrong is too high.

    Fortunately for you, I long ago came to find scientific consensus to be well worth trusting even if it meant disagreeing with ideological compatriots. But again the point is that someone who doesn’t is not inherently unreasonable. Fact is that there are plenty of people for whom the risk of being wrong on AGW is quite rightly perceived as being sufficiently low as to be unworthy of investigating who is and is not a reliable source. Not everyone has the time and wherewithal to blog or read scientific treatises or whatever. Most people go to work, spend time with their families, do housework (a serious pain in the ass when you don’t live in a city or a tightly-packed suburb), and then focus on the stuff that makes life worth living.

    No, the people who are unreasonable are not the ones who believe in Creationism and deny AGW. The people who are unreasonable are instead those who know better -and whose job in fact it is to know better – but betray their trust and lie to them.

  2. Jim Bales Says:

    First, my thanks to Mr. Thompson for his quick and detailed response to my guest post!

    He states:
    “I have learned that the scientific method is, at least in the physical sciences, by far the most trustworthy, albeit still imperfect, way of obtain certain truths”

    In other words, physical scientists (in a collective sense) have demonstrated their authority in an objective manner, and thus have earned Mr. Thompson’s trust. This seems eminently reasonable to me!

    Then Mr. Thompson contradicts himself, saying:
    “My trust of those things and my deference to certain recognized authorities isn’t any more inherently reasonable than any number of alternative possibilities for me to trust.

    Either these “alternative possibilities” (presumably the “ideological compatriots” of his original post) have the same track record as that of those he has empirically found to be the “most trustworthy” authorities, or they do not. If they don’t, how can it possibly be “reasonable” to deprecate the opinion of those who are, in fact, the “most trustworthy” authorities and, instead, put one’s faith in the demonstrably less trustworthy “alternative authorities”?

    Let me be plain — I believe that it is inherently reasonable to defer to the most trustworthy over the less trustworthy, absent clear, direct, and strong evidence that the most trustworthy are in error in this specific case. [*]

    Mr. Thompson goes on to write:
    “[T]he point is that someone who doesn’t [trust the demonstrably most trustworthy authorities more than less trustworthy authorities] is not inherently unreasonable. Fact is that there are plenty of people for whom the risk of being wrong on AGW is quite rightly perceived as being sufficiently low as to be unworthy of investigating who is and is not a reliable source. “

    Again I find his choice of words to be baffling. Had Mr. Thompson said that some “perceive” the risk of being wrong on global climate change to be negligibly small, I could not argue.

    However, Mr. Thompson contends that these un-named persons “quite rightly perceive” the risk as negligibly small. Given the potentially drastic consequences of climate change, in what universe can the risks be “quite rightly perceived” as small by a reasonable person?

    Best,
    Jim Bales

    [*] Had Mr. Thompson said it was “understandable”, “natural”, or “all-to-human” to put one’s faith in one’s ideological compatriots over true authorities, I would happily concur. However, he claimed that their faith in a demonstrably less trustworthy authority is somehow “reasonable”. I see little of reason (i.e., sound judgment) in his scenario.)]


    • A few items:
      1. Just to be clear, I do not consider conservatives to be my ideological compatriots. To the contrary, the most frequent theme of my writing is my desire that libertarians distance themselves from the Right and recognize that we have more fundamental common ground with the Left.

      2. You write:

      Either these “alternative possibilities” (presumably the “ideological compatriots” of his original post) have the same track record as that of those he has empirically found to be the “most trustworthy” authorities, or they do not. If they don’t, how can it possibly be “reasonable” to deprecate the opinion of those who are, in fact, the “most trustworthy” authorities and, instead, put one’s faith in the demonstrably less trustworthy “alternative authorities”?

      I think you are imputing your experiences and knowledge to the average conservative and assuming that, for the average conservative, science is empirically more reliable than faith or Rush Limbaugh or whatever.

      Were you to really speak with and listen to an average movement conservative (an endeavor I do not encourage undertaking online), they will tell you that in their personal experience there are plenty of other things and sources that have been demonstrably more trustworthy than science (which, after all, counts as one of its strongest features an implicit recognition that it is inherently imperfect). Where their faith in God is ever-present to them, the output of the scientific method is far less apparent (though it is certainly implicit in just about everything they touch in the modern world). When forced to choose between a conflict of empirical data (compiled by faceless, nameless strangers with whom they share nothing in common) and their own personal experiences or someone who has earned their trust, they are rationally going to choose their personal experience or the person they already trust almost every time. The trick is to earn their trust at least enough that they will be willing to believe you when you show them that the sources they’ve been trusting aren’t so trustworthy. This is the heavy lifting to which I refer.

      • Jim Bales Says:

        As I need to prepare for my lecture, let me dash off a quick response to Mr. Thompson’s point 1) above, and respond to his point 2) later in the day/evening.

        Mr. Thompson wishes to make clear that he was describing a position that, while not his, is one he considers reasonable. This is an important distinction, and one I have not made consistently in my post and comment.

        My apologies to Mr. Thompson, and I will strive to maintain the distinction between his personal position and the position he considers reasonable to hold, even though he does not.

        Best,
        Jim Bales

      • Jim Bales Says:

        Let me start at the ending, where Mr. Thopson writes:
        “The trick is to earn their [i.e., conservative’s] trust at least enough that they will be willing to believe you when you show them that the sources they’ve been trusting aren’t so trustworthy. This is the heavy lifting to which I refer.”

        This is an excellent prescription on how to help someone shift from trusting less reliable sources to trusting more reliable sources. It is rooting in our all-too-human psychology, and exploits the weight we put on sources we know personally. It is an approach that will typically fail if one opens with “You know, you are being unreasonable in relying on these sources …”

        My point is: the fact that this approach is persuasive doesn’t make relying on untrustworthy sources is reasonable. It isn’t. On the other hand, just because I believe someone is relying on untrustworthy sources doesn’t mean I have to be an ass about it to them.

        (Or, to put it another way, I did not write the above post to persuade conservatives who reject science. I wrote it to refute Mr. Thompson’s claim that such conservatives are reasonable in doing so.)

        Again, the position Mr. Thompson describes is natural, all-too-human, and common. But it is not reasonable (i.e., exhibiting sound judgment). This is the core of my issue with his post (and comments).

        On the whole, I have no problem with Mr. Thompson’s descriptions of how “average movement conservatives” approach the question of which authorities to trust. What I have found baffling have been his statements:

        1) Average movement conservatives are reasonable to reject demonstrably more trustworthy sources in favor of ideological compatriots.

        Yes, they do so. Yes, it makes them somewhat self-consistent. This is still not resonable.

        2) The unsupported assertions that:
        a) [M]y deference to certain recognized [demonstrably most trustworthy] authorities isn’t any more inherently reasonable than any number of alternative possibilities for me to trust.

        Mr. Thompson has yet to explain how it is reasonable to disparage the opinion of the objectively and empirically most trustworthy authority and, instead, promote the opinion of a demonstrably less trustworthy authority.

        b) Fact is that there are plenty of people for whom the risk of being wrong on AGW is quite rightly perceived as being sufficiently low …

        Mr. Thompson has yet to explain why this perception is “quite rightly held”

        c) [To average movement conservatives] there are plenty of other things and sources that have been demonstrably more trustworthy than science

        Mr., Thompson has shed no light as to what these sources might be that are “demonstrably more trustworthy than science.”

        3) Mr. Thompson asserts that these average movement conservatives are oblivious to the reliability of the scientific method even though “it is certainly implicit in just about everything they touch in the modern world”. Mr. Thompson would have us believe that their position is reasonable, but does not tell us how this is so. (He does show that their position is self-consistent, but that is not the same as being reasonable.)

        In short, I contend that it, given the existence clear, empirical evidence that A is A, and given some substantive social, economic, or physical risk in denying that A is A, it is unreasonable to hold that B is A (much less that C is A) simply because it offends one’s ideology (or faith) to admit that A is A.

        Best,
        Jim Bales

  3. Leader Says:

    Very interesting concept you’re proposing here. I’d like to read more on the topic!

  4. AJ Hill Says:

    I studied physics and later biology, then spent my professional life practicing medicine. Does any of this background give me specific insight into the sciences that support global warming – things like orbital astronomy, paleobotany, geomagnetics, … ? Not much! In evaluating these and many other sophisticated disciplines, I’m as much a tory as anyone. I do have a basic understanding of science-of its fundamental methodology and philosophy- but that’s well within the reach of any intelligent adult.

    I reject the notion that scientific illiteracy is compatible with good citizenship. What’s the risk of being wrong about AGW? Merely global catastrophe overtaking our grandchildren and succeeding generations. In what sense is this “unworthy of investigating”?

    If I can bone up on the science of ice cores or tree rings enough to make an informed decision about whose data or whose opinion is trustworthy in this regard, then by God so can anyone else!

    • Jim Bales Says:

      AJ Hill writes:
      I reject the notion that scientific illiteracy is compatible with good citizenship.

      To which I reply “Amen!

      Best,
      Jim Bales

  5. jre Says:

    Perhaps there is a subtle difference between Jim Bales’ understanding of the term “reasonable” and mine. For example, in his post sparking this discussion, he says

    … I do not see how it is the mark of an inherently unreasonable person to trust his interpretation of a holy book over the product of the scientific method.
    Faith is experienced, and it is experienced personally in different ways by different people of different religions.

    To my mind, to reject the product of reason in favor of the product of faith (however experienced) would be precisely and unavoidably unreasonable.

    At the core of Jim Bales’ argument seems to be a plea that we acknowledge different kinds of reasonableness — that, since no one of us can be an expert in all things, we accept responsibility for carrying whatever expertise we do have across the gulf of credibility to those who are stuck in place by ideology or faith.

    I don’t buy it. In my view, there is an essential flame of honesty that science, done right, keeps alight. The ability to see it is not restricted to any particular expertise, and the inability to see it is the defining quality of unreasonableness.

    • Jim Bales Says:

      jre,

      If I am reading you correctly, I would only add one modification. Trust is, IMHO, earned. It is earned by a track record of being mostly correct, and directly acknowledging one’s error when shown to be wrong. Those authorities with these two traits are well worth following!

      Best,
      Jim Bales

      • jre Says:

        Yes! And I think that is where we part company with Mark Thompson, for example when he says

        When forced to choose between a conflict of empirical data (compiled by faceless, nameless strangers with whom they share nothing in common) and their own personal experiences or someone who has earned their trust, [movement conservatives] are rationally going to choose their personal experience or the person they already trust almost every time.

        The term “rationally” seems misplaced here. The process by which someone would choose to trust another’s Biblical or ideological interpretation of the evidence is the opposite of rational. By contrast, the process by which we might choose to trust someone with a track record of acknowledging and correcting error is rational indeed.
        The (deservedly) most-quoted essay on scientific integrity is probably Richard Feynman’s Cargo Cult Science, in which he expands on the point you just made:

        But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science.

        It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty–a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid–not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked–to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

        That kind of honesty can and should earn the trust of our hypothetical movement conservative interlocutor, but only if he or she values it to begin with.

  6. jre Says:

    Oh, rats!
    in the comment above globally s/”Mark Thompson”/”Jim Bales”/

    Don’t know what was wrong with my verbal center when I wrote that.

  7. Ian Preston Says:

    However, Mr. Thompson contends that these un-named persons “quite rightly perceive” the risk as negligibly small. Given the potentially drastic consequences of climate change, in what universe can the risks be “quite rightly perceived” as small by a reasonable person?

    The collective risk to humanity of getting this one wrong is enormous. However, a typical individual, rightly perceiving their own influence over the issue as effectively negligible, could, it seems to me, quite correctly judge the private risk to them of assessing it wrongly as tiny. I think that is part of the problem here. Corporate players with lots at stake can find it easy, especially if abetted by a conniving media, to pervert public discussion of issues where the gains and losses are largely collective by generating ill-considered doubt over issues which the ordinary person understandably lacks the incentive to look into in depth.

    I want reasonableness to encompass some degree of engagement with civic society that would require some sort of public-spirited effort at informedness. Nonetheless there are so many important public issues that one realistically has negligible influence over that I am loth to criticise anyone for being selective in what they choose to inform themselves about. I wouldn’t go as far as Mark Thompson to suggest that it is ever reasonable for laypersons to trust evidently untrustworty sources but I do like the way he wants to concentrate scorn on “those who know better -and whose job in fact it is to know better – but betray their trust and lie to them.”

    • Jim Bales Says:

      Mr. Preston rightly cites Mr Thompson’s desire to concentrate scorn on “those who know better -and whose job in fact it is to know better – but betray their trust and lie to them” — sign me up to join in the scorn concentration!

      Mr. Preston also notes that “a typical individual, [could] rightly perceiv[e] their own influence over the issue as effectively negligible”, which is certainly true. However, while such individuals might choose to do nothing to mitigate climate change, essentially hoping to be free riders on the efforts of others, I don’t see how they can be exempted from experiencing the consequences of climate change.

      For example, if climate change causes food shortages, then all will face higher food costs and less food available. The free riders might be able to fare somewhat better than their more conscientious neighbors, but they will nonetheless personally experience the consequences.

      Best,
      Jim Bales

      • Ian Preston Says:

        There is no doubt that free riders (or, more likely, their children) will feel the consequences if climate change is unstopped but the point is that they will feel the consequences even if they get the judgement personally right.

        Reliable information on matters of public importance is about as clear an example of a pure public good as I can think of. In a well-organised and honest society there should be no need for everyone to duplicate the efforts of everyone else to understand the best evidence available on a subject like this. Free riding would not be a shortfall in conscientiousness but a feature of sensible social arrangements. There are some people who find it more fulfilling than burdensome to look into the evidence on this sort of thing but there are plenty of people who could serve themselves and society better by doing things they value more. That’s where I think I agree with Mark Thompson.

        Those who spread lies to foster their private interests or to enjoy the social advantages of comforting the comfortable do not only harm us all by undermining the quality of social decision making but, even when they fail, impose huge social costs in the waste of intellectual resources that they impose on the rest of society. Scorn is too good for them.

  8. Jim Bales Says:

    Mr. Preston raises the point that, as a society, we would be far better off if we had widely accepted, demonstrably reliable sources of information on matters of public importance. He notes that this would free many people to “serve themselves and society better by doing things they value more [than taking on the burden of vetting sources of information on important matters]”. I agree that this would be a valuable feature in a society, and I would fully exploit this feature, were it available!

    However, we live in a society that employs a marketplace of ideas, a marketplace where caveat emptor is the rule.

    Therefore, in our society, reasonable people question the reliability of their sources. And, as the cost of being wrong increases, reasonable people increase the intensity of this scrutiny. This is the point I tried to make (using many more words) in my post above.

    Here, then, is the answer to Mr. Thompson’s question. In our society, which employs the “marketplace of ideas”, it is inherently unreasonable for one to rely upon the opinion of one’s ideological compatriots over that of bona fide experts on topics of grave import.

    Best,
    Jim Bales

  9. KWillow Says:

    When forced to choose between a conflict of empirical data (compiled by faceless, nameless strangers with whom they share nothing in common) and their own personal experiences or someone who has earned their trust, [movement conservatives] are rationally going to choose their personal experience or the person they already trust almost every time.

    But the scientists warning us about Climate Changer are NOT faceless or nameless, and they have quite a lot in common with the rest of Humanity: we want to survive.

    The strawman is poorly constructed out of rotten straw.


  10. This post is amazing, I am gonna put this in the bookmarks before
    I misplace the link, I don’t think I’ll ever find
    my way back here again otherwise!


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