We all want to KNOW what is going to happen next. Being uncertain makes us stressed, ill, it is the basis of torture.
We migrate towards confident people who say that they “know”, because not having a plan for the future makes us feel like this:
We all fight for what we believe will happen. Economics, food security, immigration, terrorism, education… The politicians use these beliefs aided by expert predictions and then make the policies.
I wish we could have a Prime Minister who understood the following excerpt:
“A good decision is one that delivers positive results in a wide range of futures.
Consider climate change. For the record, I accept that anthropogenic climate change is all too real. But as the reader may guess, I am sceptical of climate models that purport to forecast changes in the climate decades and even centuries out. Climate scientists are quite blunt that there is lots about climate that science does not understand, which is precisely why scientists find the field exciting to work in. Combine that ignorance with the almost indescribably complex interactions at work in the massive, non-linear systems that make up climate and there are huge uncertainties woven into every climate prediction.
This does not mean we should shrug and walk away, however.
The models may overestimate the extent of climate change and the damage it does. But it may also underestimate it, as seems to have already happened in some cases.
Walking away would be foolhardy. We have to decide what to do.
In making that decision, we must seriously consider the possibility that we are wrong. That cuts both ways. For those who scoff at climate change, it means considering the possibility that decades from now, as ice caps melt and coasts flood and agricultural yields fall, only a stiff dose of hindsight bias will save them from the humiliation of recalling what they once believed. For those who think that climate change is real, it means imagining a future where people who look back at the hand-wringing about climate change today are as amazed and amused as we are when we look back at scary predictions from the 1970s. These are radically different futures. Is there anything we can do now that will look good in either future, on in the many possible futures that lie somewhere between those two extremes?
Some proposals definitely flunk the test. Expensive schemes for “carbon sequestration” – pumping carbon dioxide emissions back underground – would be a waste of money if climate change is a dud. But many others pay off no matter what. Capturing methane emitted from landfills not only stops a potent greenhouse gas from entering the atmosphere, it delivers a fuel that may be burned to generate electricity. That’s a winner in the future. As are improvements in energy efficiency that not only reduce carbon dioxide emissions but also save money. The same can be said of many other choices, including the big climate change proposal endorsed by most economists; a stiff carbon tax with the revenues returned to the economy in the form of cuts to other taxes.
Would it deliver benefits even if climate change turns out to be bunk? Absolutely. Carbon taxes raise the effective cost of fossil fuels, making alternative energy more competitive and spurring research and development. And reducing the use of fossil fuels while increasing the diversity of our energy sources would be wonderful for a wide host of reasons aside from climate change. It would reduce local air pollution, reduce the risk of catastrophic oil spills, buffer economies against massive shocks inflicted by oil price spikes, and lessen the world’s vulnerability to instability in the Middle East and elsewhere. It would also reduce the torrent of cash flowing from the developed world to the thuggish governments that control most major oil-producing nations, including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia. And of course there’s peak oil. If the peaksters turn out to be right, finally, how much our economy is fuelled by oil will determine how badly we suffer – so carbon taxes would steadily reduce that threat too.
For Americans, in particular, there’s some unfortunate history to keep in mind. In the 1970s, when oil prices were surging and most experts agreed oil was only going to get more expensive, huge advances were made in conservation and the development of alternative energy. But in the mid-1980s, when the price crashed, the advances slowed or stopped, at least they did in the United States. While Americans rejoiced at the return of cheap gas, most northern European countries kept the price high with stiff taxes. As a result, Europe got dramatically more energy efficient than the United States. In 2008, with oil prices soaring to previously unimaginable highs, the conservative American columnist Charles Krauthammer fumed that a quarter of a century earlier he and many others had called for an energy tax in order to curtail consumption “and keep the money at home.” It didn’t happen. And so, “instead of hiking the prices ourselves by means of a gasoline tax that could be instantly refunded to the American people in form of lower payroll taxes, we let the Saudis, Venezuelans, Russians and Iranians do the taxing for us – and pocket the money that the tax would have recycled back to the American worker.”
But the United Stated did do something in the twenty years between the fall of oil prices in the 1980s and the surge in the first decade of the twenty-first century: It massively escalated its military involvement in the Persian Gulf region, which was done primarily to protect the flow of oil that is the global economy’s life blood. Two wars and trillions of dollars later, the cost of that approach, in both treasure and blood, is staggering. Seen in this light, Jimmy Carter’s dire oil forecast of 1977 and his call for the “moral equivalent of war” look very different. The forecast was wrong, but Carter’s call for a concerted national effort to improve energy efficiency and develop alternative energy was exactly right. If the United States had kept at it in the 1980s and 19990s, it would have been far more secure in the twenty-first century.”
“What all this means, very simply, is that accurate prediction often isn’t needed in order to make good decisions.”
“…it wasn’t necessary to predict the 9/11 terrorist attacks in order to know that having reinforced cockpit doors on jets is a good idea. In the 1990s, several incidents, including the stabbing of a Japan Airlines pilot by a deranged man, convinced many safety advocates and regulators that reinforced doors were a wise investment. They weren’t in place on 9/11 because the airlines didn’t want the extra cost and they successfully lobbied politicians to block the proposal. It was politics, not unpredictability, the left planes vulnerable that fateful morning.”
When I read the newspapers I sometimes feel like doing this:
But mostly I tend towards a quiet depression.
But this book, I feel, is a very important read as it gives processes in order to examine the way we make decisions, react to experts, particularly the flocking to overconfident prophets, and how to become more aware about how our brains work.
Dan Gardner. Bit of a genius.