A friend who is very concerned about over-population and considers it to be the chief threat to human existence, sent me this article: Climate Change: Skeptics Step Aside.

Right off the bat, my feathers are ruffled: is the clause after the colon an imperative, or merely a neutral description?

“Many of us…” Who’s ‘us’? I haven’t read the first sentence yet and I’m already feeling left out: this is an in-group conversation I’m listening to.

“Scientific scepticism and denial”: OK, scepticism can be scientific or not, but can there be scientific denial? The way the word is used nowadays is to refer to someone who is “in denial”, i.e. who refuses to recognize the plain truth. It is wilfulness and quite illogical. To accuse scientists of such behaviour is major. Is the author prepared to back it up with evidence? I have the feeling that he is preaching to the converted.

“Many of us have prior experience of scientific skepticism and denial about the health consequences of HIV infection and tobacco use.” Did scientists deny the health consequences of tobbaco use? My knowledge of this is limited to the movie “The Insider”: all I recall is company directors denying it to Congress. Any “scientists” who denied it were in the employment or pay of the tobacco companies.

And if scientists are sceptical about something, then surely the general public should pay attention? I claim the right to remain sceptical about global warming and anything else, especially when people say “the debate is over”, or talk about the consensus. Or is science now conducted by polling?  (Just Google “HIV/AIDS fraud” to see that the debate is not over.)

“The link between tobacco and lung cancer was denied for nearly 50 years by tobacco companies and apologists, despite huge loss of life.” I thought you said it was scientists who denied the link?

“The media had a bonanza with the e-mails leaked from the UK University of East Anglia climate research group.” The media have a bonanza with anything: that’s their job. However, as I recall, it was not the media who were the first to pick on the significance of the leaked e-mails, but other researchers and scientists. This fact is glossed over by Anthony Costello, the article’s author. Why? Why does he avoid discussing the science? Why does he seem so concerned that the reader should not pay attention but just move along?

“Skeptics and contrarians in the scientific community are a tiny minority”. Science by poll, once again. Because they are in the minority, they must be wrong?

“So we should spend little time debating climate change denial.” Clearly the author does not wish me to make up my own mind, but simply follow his guidance. Are you feeling patronized yet?

“The science, in truth, is fairly simple.” Really? Then why the fuss? You can hear one dissenting scientist’s views on YouTube: Dr. Arthur Robinson. I don’t know if he’s right, but he’s a rational man and shows that the debate is not over. So why do people like Anthony Costello say that it is? That there is no debate? That the case is closed? I’ve heard that before.

My friend’s argument is basically this: overpopulation is the biggest threat to human survival. Something must be done immediately. Does this sound like a scare tactic to you? It did to me. Then yesterday, I read this article: Must We Do Something, Anything, About Global Warming? (OK, the issue is slightly different, but the logic is the same.) The article describes an argument made by an American high-school teacher named Craven who claims

to have found an argument that does not depend on the resolution of the scientific controversy — a “silver bullet argument,” an argument that leads to an “inescapable conclusion,” one “that even the most hardened skeptic and the most panicked activist can agree on.”

The article’s author does not agree with the high-school teacher and neither do I. My friend’s argument is that of Pascal’s Wager: that it is safer to do something than to do nothing. However, my objection is, that that is not how people make decisions or choices, realistically, most of the time. In addition, everything has a price: there is a cost to doing nothing. The cost or risk is that by doing nothing, you may be making things worse, or allowing them to become worse. That is a risk and part of the cost.

Let’s use a real example. A friend of mine damaged his knee while skiing. He was taken to hospital and told that he needed a major operation, and that, even with the operation, he would have trouble walking for the rest of his life. He waited and pondered. He did not like the doctor’s prescription: the cost to him was extremely high. It happened that a friend visited his house, and this friend was an osteopath of some sort. When he heard what had happened, he offered his services, which were gratefully accepted. Click, crick. A couple of twists and the damaged knee was fixed. It may not have been quite that simple, but the fact is my friend now walks just fine and he never had the operation.

Of course, it might not have worked out like this. What if my friend’s condition was exacerbated by waiting? The decision he faced would have been the same. Without knowing the future, we have to make choices based on our estimates of the risks and costs and benefits.

My friend is vague on the proposed solutions (he suggests I read “Plan B”). But without knowing what the proposed solutions are, how can I weigh the costs of acting or not acting?

Craven’s argument proves nothing at all. His objective is to show that we should do something to avoid the worst case. But to prove that we must “do something” is to prove nothing. He organizes the problem around a set of abstract choices. But in life, we face only concrete choices, not abstract ones. While deciding to “do something” about an issue in your life that you have been ignoring might be an important psychological step, it is still not an actionable decision. What to do is the real decision and cannot be separated from the decision to “do something.”

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