Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
Justin M. StoddardSPOT ALL THE FALLACIES!1!!11
Posted at 9:06 am on October 18, 2013, by Justin M. Stoddard

I was sent this video this morning and asked to comment on it. It was described as, “One guy with a marker just made the global warming debate completely obsolete,” on upworthy.com.

The person making the argument starts out with this challenge: “Nobody I’ve shown this argument to has been able to poke a hole in it.”

Challenge accepted.

Before we start, keep in mind that this video was made in 2007. I don’t know if this gentleman has changed his views on the matter or not, so I’m not going to assume either way. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and grant that he may not understand the economics behind what he is proposing. But, economics or no, there are some serious problems with his line of thinking.

To begin with, this is nothing more than an obfuscated attempt at Pascal’s Wager.

In 1669, Blaise Pascal invited humanity to consider the following:

Either God exists or he doesn’t exist.
If He exists, and you don’t believe in Him, it will be infinitely bad for you.
If He doesn’t exist, and you don’t believe in Him, then no harm, no foul.
If He exists, and you do believe in Him, it will be infinitely good for you.
If He doesn’t exist, and you do believe in Him, you’ve lived a good life regardless.

The wager set in motion a new field of probability theory, which still exists today. At the time, it was considered a groundbreaking argument, made on wholly pragmatic grounds.

Now, I contend that when atheists call this wager a “fallacy,” they are over-reaching a bit. Given the strict definitions of the argument, Pascal is basically right. If there is a God, and you don’t believe in Him, you’re going to burn (working within the parameters of 17th Century Christian scholarship).

Pascal was working in a world where the boundaries are clearly delineated. Do X, and Y will happen. Don’t do X, and Z will happen.

The fallacy lies in in the “if God doesn’t exist,” statements. Who is Blaise Pascal to say that anyone’s life was lived well according to his definitions? How many wasted hours were spent worshiping a deity that didn’t exist? What could have been accomplished otherwise?

It’s the ultimate Broken Window Fallacy. All Blaise Pascal sees is a person who lived a life in alignment with his preferences, regardless if those preferences are based on truth or not. What he doesn’t see are the infinite possibilities lost. In short, Blaise Pascal lacks imagination. He dismisses the unseen.

Pascal also fails to understand that the person who doesn’t believe in a God that doesn’t exist still must deal with being a heretic in a world of believers. That could be very, very bad for you, indeed.

A more honest version of Pascal’s argument would look like this:

If He exists, and you don’t believe in Him, it will be infinitely bad for you.
If He doesn’t exist, and you don’t believe in Him: UNKNOWN.
If He exists, and you do believe in Him, it will be infinitely good for you.
If He doesn’t exist, and you do believe in Him: UNKNOWN.

Okay, enough with the background…you see where I’m going with this. Let’s spot the fallacies within the fallacy:

If global warming is not happening, and we take significant action, the results are global depression and wasted money.
If global warming is not happening, and we don’t take action, then no harm, no foul.
If global warming is happening, and we do take action, it’s all good.
If global warming is happening, and we don’t take action, it will be infinitely bad for you.

Unlike Pascal’s theoretical world, this world is much more uncertain. We’re not dealing with the clearly delineated choices between heaven and hell (infinite good vs. infinite bad). Instead, we’re dealing with speculation based on uncertainty.

How does this gentleman propose that we deal with speculation based on uncertainty? By taking significant, clearly defined action, of course. What action might that be? He let’s you know right at the 2:38 mark: Taxation, regulation, and government control.

Why is this the action that needs to be taken? No answer. It’s just an a priori axiom we are supposed to accept.

Why is it assumed that the action proposed will result in the conclusions proposed? No answer. It’s just something you’re supposed to know, for some reason.

In fact, the conclusions could be infinitely worse than what he proposes. It could result in mass starvation, continued abject poverty for the majority of the world, and outbreaks of war leading to the deaths of tens of thousands. The “what is the worst that can happen” conclusion could be every bit as bad as the worst that can happen if global warming is happening, and we don’t take action. Both are infinitely bad.

Now, what if the assumptions were switched?

If global warming is not happening, and we take significant action, the results could be infinitely bad.
If global warming is not happening, and we allow the free market to continue doing what it does, the results could be infinitely good.

If global warming is not happening, and we don’t take action: UNKNOWN. (The unbeliever still has to live in a world full of believers, after all).
If global warming is not happening, and we deregulate the free market to continue doing what it does, the results could be infinitely good.

If global warming is happening, and we do take significant action, the results could be infinitely bad times infinity.**
If global warming is happening, and we allow the free market to work on it, the results could be infinitely good.

If global warming is happening, and we don’t take action, the results could be infinitely bad.
If global warming is happening, and we allow the free market to continue doing what it does: UNKNOWN.

Why is the last conclusion unknown? Because, nobody is talking about the benefits global warming could have on the world. I mean that seriously. Allow yourself to think of the kinds of benefits a rise of a few degrees in temperature over the span of a hundred years would have.

And, that’s the crux of the whole problem. We are being asked to imagine a future world free of all possibilities except two, both infinitely bad.

We are crippling ourselves by thinking this way. We are ignoring infinite possibilities, the stunning complexity of randomness, the laws of economics, spontaneous order, marginal utility, and we are assuming that we know what the best solution is for all of humanity based on speculation and uncertainty squeezed into a wager that was made 350 years ago.

This isn’t an argument. This isn’t proof. This tiny little exercise did not “just make the global warming debate completely obsolete.” This is simply another attempt at justifying controlling the entire global economy by the enlightened because the benighted just won’t pray hard enough.

**Pay attention to this particular point. The person in the video readily admits that to take significant action in a world where global warming isn’t happening will cause harm. But, he understates his case by many factors. Not only will it cause harm, it is very likely that it will be catastrophic harm, unimaginable to us. A few minutes later, he invites us to assume that these actions will be beneficial if global warming is really happening, because…in his estimation, these actions will stop something which will cause catastrophic harm, unimaginable to us.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

And, he’s not even considering that the drastic action he proposes may well have zero effect on global warming. Worse, he doesn’t consider that these drastic actions may make global warming worse, instead of solving it.

What happens when you apply a solution that may well have catastrophic consequences on a world where global warming is not happening to a world where global warming is happening? What happens if that “solution” has zero effect on global warming, or makes it worse, because it’s the very opposite of a solution?

The ultimate fallacy here is, the proposal this gentleman is urging us all to wager on has the possibility of being the absolute worst thing that has ever happened to humanity. It’s infinite bad (2)^infinity.


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  1. [...] I critiqued a video that used Pascal’s Wager to implore us to take drastic action in order to fight the threat of [...]

    Pingback by The Lesson Applied » Spot all the Fallacies, Part II — October 19, 2013 @ 4:47 pm

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Henry Hazlitt"[T]he whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."
Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson
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