Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Damned If You Do...

A philosopher thinks it should be a crime to conduct an "organized campaign funding misinformation" about climate change, and describes the criminal conviction of Italian scientists for not adequately warning the public about the earthquake in L'Aquila a few years ago. While he says this shouldn't have been a crime, he provides a rather nauseating apologia for the court that convicted them. This is clearly the opinion of someone who has never had to provide scientific advice in a situation where it really matters.

He frames the earthquake example in classic textbook manner, completely ignoring that there is a cost to avoiding risk. If the Italian scientists had warned people to flee the city, and then the earthquake didn't happen, I guess the stupid Italian law would have made them liable for losses due to interruption of business, travel expenses, and so on. How sure do you have to be before you warn people? 50%? 90%? Who decides? Who the heck would be a scientist if it means you have to go around with a target painted on your back?

The other problem is that to win damages for fraud, you should have to prove that you suffered harm. At least in the Italian case, the earthquake actually happened. We won't know until years in the future, if ever, whether people suffered because of bad climate models, so there's no way to prove harm. But our philosopher friend wants to throw people in jail now, just in case. I daresay he would be more moderate if we could throw him in jail should the climate models prove off-base. Having skin in the game makes you think a little harder before opening your mouth.

Essentially, he thinks it should be a crime to give self-serving advice. But if he knows the truth about climate change, can't he simply ignore advice that contradicts that truth? I have news for him: 99.9% of what people say is self-serving. If it gets too self-serving, we call it lying, but if you can't stomach self-serving advice, you should go live in a cave. If he's worried about governments basing pollution laws on research done by oil companies, then the problem is the government, not the oil companies.

A Buddhist teacher once told me, "Buddhist teachers are full of shit." He didn't have to complete the statement, which is that the rest of us are, too. By the time most of us grew up, we developed sort of a sliding scale of trust. People whose interests line up very well with yours (your parents, for instance) can be trusted. People whose interests don't line up with yours (a stranger from Nigeria sending you an email) can't. If someone doesn't owe you the truth, then you probably aren't going to get it.

The liars aren't the problem --- the believers are the problem.





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