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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Pascal's Wager and Climate Change -- Do We Feel Lucky?

By Keith Schmitz

One of my favorite professors when I was chasing an MA in History at the graduate school at UWM was David Hoeveler.

Though he is known as a conservative, he opened me up to a number of the great American philosophers.

One topic was tossed around during one of his excellent seminars was what is known as Pascal's wager.

Here is how it is defined in today's New York Times in a column about economics:
Blaise Pascal, a French mathematical genius in the 17th century who spelled out the laws of probability more clearly than anyone before him. This was a thunderclap of an insight that, for the first time, gave humanity a systematic way of thinking about the future.

Pascal was both a gambler and a religious zealot. One day he asked himself how he would handle a bet on whether “God is or God is not.” Reason could not answer. But, he said, we can choose between acting as though God is or acting as though God is not.

Suppose we bet that God is, and we lead a life of virtue and abstinence, and then the day of reckoning comes and we discover that there is no God. Well, life was still tolerable even if less fun than we might have liked. Here, the consequences of being wrong would be acceptable to most people.

Suppose, however, we bet that God is not, and lead a life of lust and sin, and then it turns out that God is. Now being wrong has put us into big trouble.
Let's apply this concept to what to do about climate change.

Supposed we bet that man-made climate change is a real threat. The economies of the world re-gear themselves to make needed corrections -- support for alternative energy policies, taxes on traditional energy consumption, promotion of alternative energy industries, etc. Some countries are already heading in that direction.

Suppose then that we are wrong about global climate change. In the process and in the case of our country we have weaned ourselves off of dealing with touchy third world countries that are our current sources for energy, we will be spending much less on a defense program that is designed to defend these sources of energy, we have created industries within our borders which led to the growth of a new economic sector that could lead to higher paying jobs for many Americans, revitilizing our economy.

On the other hand we can suppose that the crisis does not exist and we continue to behave accordingly, yet it turns out that assertion is wrong. Then our country, and our world, goes to hell.

Then again there is one big difference between Blaise's bet on the existence of God and our current energy situation. Many of us believe that there is this entity in charge of the universe, but no scientist can actually prove it. That is what we call faith and that is all we have to go on. Isn't life fun?

As for climate change, there are legions of scientists who are proving that it exists and something like 95% of them have lined up on that side. Oddly the critics like to label these perceptions based on research as a "cult" or a "religion." But here the big difference is that faith is not at work here, research dealing with physical realities is.

All the results, as has been said, are not in leaving some among the minority of climate experts to claim the man-made climate change has not been proven. But like the watchman in the crow's nest of the Titanic spotting the tip of the ice dead ahead, those in the majority of the scientific community have a pretty good idea of what lies beneath the surface.

So the question is, how do we want to bet on our future?

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