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Cautions against the Precautionary Principle

Posted by softestpawn on December 23, 2008

The main thrust of the Precautionary Principle is that we should not do things with uncertain outcomes just in case it goes wrong. This ‘analysis’ is based on the worst case possible imagined outcome, and the burden of proof for complete safety lies with the do-er. It includes attempts to make “look before you leap” a legal requirement, where the look has to be thorough and complete with no counter evaluation of what the consequences are of not leaping.

The Wingspread Definition. PPrinciple.net

Essentially, we set up a question where we’re not sure about the outcome (and we’re rarely sure about the outcome of most things) such as “Should we release dihydrogen monoxide?” and build a little table like this:

It does nothing It’ll destroy the planet
Stop releasing it Nothing happens We’re saved
Release it Fine We all die

Then we add up the consequences of releasing it or not. And every time obviously the ‘doing it’ is dangerous (we might all die) and the ‘stopping it’ is safer. Right now. Just in case. And so we get The Most Terrifying Video Ever and the like.

Which might sound fairly reasonable, as long as you don’t try thinking any further. It’s based around avoiding bad consequences and so, surely, makes the world a better place.

It’s a very ‘powerful’ idea amongst environmentalists (such as SEHN, JNCC and of course Greenpeace) because it requires taking action now, immediately (“we cannot wait until the evidence is in…”), to stop any unwanted activity, which gives crusaders a cause. It’s about imagining the worst, which is thrilling. It’s about applying fantasy rather than evidence, about emotion rather than evaluation.

Mostly, it’s about stopping people from doing things which might be bad; it makes you righteous and valuable. It’s an excuse to interfere from a hastily built moral high ground without any of the support that science would normally bring. And if no one looks too closely at the thin air it’s built on, the moral high ground is a good place to put your artillery:

Caroline Raffensperger, Andrew Kimbrell, SourceCode, UN rejects scientific evidence for decisions and the ever popular use the PP as a ‘reason’ to reject GM foods

Risk Analysis? No thankyou, it’s too hard.

But it’s just an oversimplified risk register, with the question carefully phrased and the outcomes carefully selected to get the required outcome, and it’s very very broken.

It’s far too simplistic. Not doing things is rarely free; not using pesticides makes food more expensive. Banning genetically modified crops denies farmers – including poor subsistance farmers – more productive yields. Not burning coal makes energy more expensive for all, with quite unpleasant knock-on effects through any economy. Locking up people because they might harm others is, I hope, fairly obviously bad. And demanding total safety – where there are no possible unpleasant effects – is impractical.

There are dangerous consequences to many of the things we do, and we have to deal with that. We have tools to analyse them – environmental impact assessments being a broad term for some of them. But these are complicated and tiresome, and the Precautionary Principle is very attractive to those who need a cause to fight without the hassle of working through detail or complexity.

It’s Broken. Obviously so.

Consider phrasing the question the opposite way around. Remember we’re not sure what the outcome is; so what if not releasing dihydrogen monoxide into the atmosphere has a bad effect? After all, it may be preventing something else:

It does nothing It’s preventing disaster
Stopping Nothing happens We all die
Release it Fine We’re saved

The burden of proof also lies with those who would stop an activity, if doing so has bad consequences.

“We cannot wait for all the evidence”; indeed, all the evidence is rarely available. But we may need to gather sufficient evidence before we make things worse.

Try applying it to whether you should get out of bed tomorrow morning: you shouldn’t, because all manner of bad things might happen if you do. It’s not clear what the risks are. But then apply it to whether you should stay in bed all day tomorrow: you shouldn’t, because all manner of bad things might happen if you do. It’s not clear what those risks are.

In fact, it’s so broken that if you apply it to itself it can, if phrased correctly, tell you not to:

PP is useless PP will give you the wrong answer
Use the PP Nothing Wrong answer!
Don’t use it Fine, time saved Nothing

The burden of proof that using the Precautionary Principle is safe, or even useful, has yet to be established, so you shouldn’t. Which is impressive irony.

It’s broken for every do/don’t decision for wifi, MMR jabs, mobile phone masts. It’s broken for everyday activities like getting out of bed or going to work or sitting in the pub or eating food or staying in bed. It’s broken for thought experiments like whether aliens in clouds. It’s broken for real but low risks like asteroid strikes. It’s broken for itself.

It only ‘works’ if you apply it to something you already believe is true. And it’s only ‘useful’ when you don’t have any real evidence, or you wouldn’t be able to phrase it that simply.

Risks are part of our everyday lives; we need to understand them, how to mitigate them, how to plan for them. Applying the Precautionary Principle to eliminate them entirely means you have to spend the rest of your life in bed. Or not.

(See also Risky Business, Adam Curtis on the Precautionary Principle, SIRC on Beware The Precautionary Principle, Old BadScience Discussion)

Discussion here

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Posted in Environmentalism, Metadebates, Politics | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

I’m a skeptic, you’re a denier

Posted by softestpawn on December 21, 2008

The mechanisms of debate overcome the subject at times, offering a whole new rabbit hole to disappear down. So when you’re discussing the pros and cons of hedge funds in modern global commerce, and your ‘opposition’* quotes an expert, you can accuse him of ‘arguing from authority’. This handily undermines his reputation as he must only be quoting an authority because he has no expertise of his own. And so you can continue on that vein rather than consider the words the ‘expert’ used.

Similarly, if anyone is not convinced by your belief – of evolution, creationism, man-made global warming, natural climate change, aromatherapy, capitalism, communism, jainism, USA-sponsored terrorism, Luxembourg-sponsored terrorism – you can call them a ‘denier’, which is a shortcut way of saying that you have lots of evidence and they’re ignoring it. This handily bypasses actually presenting any evidence or the reasoning that goes with it.

These distractions from reason – both in presenting and arguing – is all part of the rich tapestry of the general playground that is t’interweb. There’s more at Dr T’s Five As of Empty Arguments, and the perhaps too comprehensive set at Don Lindsay’s.

The next step is not to just accuse your opponent* of using one of these at some point, but to accuse anyone on the opposing side* to generally use many of these most of the time. So there’s the denialistators who lump together anyone who won’t conform to nicely simplified views, or Martin Robbin’s article on extreme skepticism, or mine on Evidence-Free Evangelising.

The problem with that kind of aggregation is that those involved invariably step afoul of their own rules. So here’s a guide to help you correctly label the behaviour of you and your stupid opponents*:

1. It’s rarely possible to provide solid evidence or proof for most modern subjects because of their breadth and complexity. But you’ll find when they can’t provide any decent proof for their crazy ideas, they’ll try and wriggle out of it with some meaningless excuses about there never being solid proof.

2. When you list a set of reasons, they divert the argument by concentrating on tiny aspects as if they were important. They, however, produce reams of meaningless irrelevent twaddle extrapolated from some tiny detail that you have to ferret out to show why they’re wrong.

3. If these idiots can’t produce any peer reviewed evidence for each of their claims, how can they expect to be taken seriously? It’s not as if they’re talking about obvious facts, like yours.

4. You raise important controversial subjects that are interesting to debate. They troll.

5. They cherry pick. You provide examples.

6. You provide expert and experienced knowledge. They argue from authority.

7. They keep moving the goal posts. You simply demand sufficient evidence for the whole chain of reasoning.

8. You are a rational scientist, presenting a controversial but well supported argument. They are crackpot crusadors.

9. You are checking the supporting evidence. They are hiding their ignorant refusal to believe by ‘just asking questions’.

10. They are rightly scorned. You are unfairly persecuted.

11. You are a skeptic on this issue and they are blind evangelists. But when you rationally present an important issue with its roots in solid data, they just deny it all.

12. You have widespread consensus support; they are one of the fooled masses.

13. They are ‘manufacturing uncertainty’ where there isn’t really any. You are showing great gaping holes in their arguments.

14. You are blunt. They are rude.

15. You continue to raise arguments that they fail to rebut. They just keep re-animating “Zombie Arguments” that have been killed.

16. Occasionally you might get something wrong, but there are plenty of other facts that back up your position. Their rubbish opinions are baseless, as typified by that obvious fault you’ve just pointed out.

* Because in any debate you must have opponents and supporters and some people win and some people lose. We won’t have any of your free discussions and partial consensus around here thank you very much.

Posted in Metadebates | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Evidence-Free Evangelism – A Guide

Posted by softestpawn on December 20, 2008

Following Martin Robbins’ article about the fanatic fringes of skepticism, here is a guide for evangelists – perhaps the opposite of skeptics – with global warming deluders and homeopaths as examples.

Homeopaths believe that water ‘remembers’ what was in it, but only the things that the homeopath put in it (rather than all the other things that have been in it once upon a time) and that this pure water can be used to treat medical conditions.

Global Warming Deluders are those who insist we know the climate so well that we know we must reduce CO2 emissions immediately to avoid wrecking the planet, according to a strained chain of reasoning.

Both are believed because the world is a very complicated place, we see patterns in things, we mis-associate events, but mostly just because we want to. To help this along, we can:

Select: The world and the human body are complicated. There’s plenty of data sets to select from to prove your point.

At any one moment the human body is adjusting; recovering from lunch, getting hungry for dinner, climbing down from that coffee high, pain and stiffness comes and go, you feel more exuberant or less so. We are never static in every possible measurement until we are dead. So we can pick and choose; did you feel better after the treatment? How about your foot, is that feeling alright? Better? Good. Don’t worry about the headache that’s just come on, we’ll deal with that.

Similarly the environment consists of many many major measurables and an awesomly large number of smaller ones. These too are all always changing; nature is not static, there is no ‘balance’. So we can pick any change and associate that with our cause; cloudiness, lemming populations, rainfall, snowfall, temperature, particulates, saltiness, pirates, blueness, transparency, sunspots, etc. 

Change: If the evidence you were using suddenly stops cooperating, change your evidence set. Until it starts cooperating again, it really wasn’t appropriate to use it anyway.

So your foot has started hurting again? Shame, we’ll try something else. But your headache has gone? Excellent, see? It worked! And everyone knows that randomized controlled trials can’t be used on homeopathy. Unless it shows it works.

So global temperatures are no longer rising? But the ice caps are melting! Not quite as much as we would like? They must be, polar bear populations are falling terribly! They’re not really? Well that ice over there is melting. There, that showed you.

Say it loud and often and in public: And people will start to believe you. Eventually. You don’t even need to back it up with anything, although putting in numbers is more convincing. Any numbers.

Pick your Priests: It’s important to keep support in your evangelising community or you may get disheartened. You will need to pick representatives that have authority; some kind of appropriate qualification or title, and who present well, and have time and resources to commit.

Then in moments of doubt you can revisit their blogs and regain your faith.

Similarly, as you don’t care about the wiffly waffly ‘science’, you can defer to them when anyone asks you about it, because they are important, and they’re qualified, and they use the same words as your dastardly opponents.

Personalise it: If you can’t do the science, make it an argument on principles and people. Whatever, make it an argument rather than a discussion about a hypothesis.  As soon as you make it an issue with winners and losers then people invest pride in their position, and you’ll have some supporters for life.

Demand an alternative:  If you’re having difficulty supporting your faith, demand your opponents support theirs. This is great,  as for a start it demands they dream up a new faith to support, and lots of people will get caught by this. It diverts attention from your faith – which is after all what is under discussion – and you can now happily destroy their even more vacuous attempts.

After all, how else did your foot suddenly get better if not by the homeopathic treatment?  Why else would the world change if not by evil, selfish human industrialisation?

Establish a presence in the establishment: Nothing provides an air of respectability like getting The System to support you. Obviously you need to avoid any real experts, so if you can persuade some bureaucrats to include homeopathy in the NHS, or even just a page on a respectable health website, then you’re in. Similarly if you can get non-expert scientists to sign up to your cause, then everyone will hear the words ‘scientists say…’ and you’re in. Or any group of celebrity politicians.

Veneer: It’s important to look and sound as if you’re scientific. This means using scientific words and even, perhaps, sometimes, doing real science (as long as it’s only to look for supporting evidence). But importantly it means having your own journal, reviewed by your own people, and/or your own committees staffed by people with an interest in the faith.

Complain to mum: Don’t let your opponents speak! It is clear that you are right, so they are just confusing people. In fact, if people don’t believe you, it is because they are being misled by these deliberate liars. This might be done by:

Threats: with law, ideally. This tends to persuade the timid to go elsewhere and consider other things, no matter what useful things they may say or do. You can do this directly by threatening litigation, especially to ISPs who are hosting the little twerps, or indirectly by promising dire punishment for high crimes

Assigning Dodgy Motives: It doesn’t actually matter if someone benefits from their opposition. Doctors who pan homeopathy are obviously in the pay of the big drugs companies. Energy experts are obviously being funded by big oil companies. Occasionally you will find someone for whom this is even a little bit true, which obviously proves they all are, and therefore they are lying to line their own pockets, and therefore you are right.

Claim Persecution: Everyone likes the plucky underdog, especially mum. If you say your opposition are getting more publicity than you, or stopping you from getting what you deserve, then some people will believe you. And if mum does, she’ll get you on your pedestal where you deserve to be.

Have Secret Proof: Only let other people in your industry check your data. It’s not appropriate that anyone else have ready access to it; they would not understand it – they’ve not been trained – and they’d only pick what appear to be holes in it but aren’t really.

Stick to your faith: No matter what. With you standing there declaiming your faith with a completely straight face, some people will continue to believe you. Some of them will be important.

Use the Precautionary Principle: A great favourite for the lazy of head, this will persuade anyone who doesn’t like to think things through. Use homeopathy because it might just work, and save your life. Reduce CO2 as if you don’t, it might just kill us all.

Ensure Tradition: No one really trusts new stuff, as it means there hasn’t been time for it to have been proven. Homeopathy has been around for two hundred years or more, and global warming was predicted by Arrhenius in 1896, so they must be true.

He’s your idiot: This is an excellent argument and can be used by anybody. All you do is point to some obvious twonk(s)* who believes the same things as your opponent, and this demonstrates how stupid your opponents are to believe the same thing. Coincidentally it also proves that your faith is true. And, because we’re all still children at heart, it’s great to laugh at twonks and the things they say.

* The twonk need not be stupid; if you’re a capitalist then a hippy will do, and vice versa.

He’s your kind of idiot: That’s this article obviously, as well as Martin Robbins’ and this one. Showing similarities between a particularly stupid group and a careful selection of your opponents means all your opponents must be particularly stupid, and therefore of course you are exceptionally bright. This is well known.

Move on: As time goes on and more research is done it will become harder and harder for the clear voice of hysterial passion to ring out. It’s important to find a new cause before the current one gets bogged down in the complications of real life.

If you’re still touting Global Warming for example, you might want to consider “Climate Change”, as this handily means you can preach your cause no matter how the climate changes.

Similarly, if your homeopathy becomes unpopular then aromatherapy is very successful, cures cancer and baldness, and smells nice.

(While this kind of exercise can be fun, it has of course no value to any serious debate)

Posted in Environmentalism, Global Warming, Metadebates, Politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »