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This Week In Denial: a response from my pet conservative re the Taleb+3 statement (emphasis mine):


I guess this is the key para: “Without any precise models, we can still reason that polluting or altering our environment significantly could put us in uncharted territory, with no statistical track record and potentially large consequences. It is at the core of both scientific decision making and ancestral wisdom to take seriously absence of evidence when the consequences of an action can be large. And it is standard textbook decision theory that a policy should depend at least as much on uncertainty concerning the adverse consequences as it does on the known effects.”[1]

Yes, of course one must balance the cost of precautions against the cost of doing nothing. Here, I think is one difference between the activists and the pacifists (me). To them, there is essentially no cost to the precautions, because they are basically opposed to industrial capitalism and are happy with any measures to diminish it. I’m not crazy about many aspects of industrialism myself, but I do rate the precautionary costs as greater than zero.

And there are other, and unknown, costs to altering the path of cultural and industrial development. Will science thrive or die? Will we be better or worse off, or here at all, in 1000 years if ‘green’ changes are implemented? Not implemented? Beats me.

The same argument applies to the planet as to an individual. Both will die; no matter what we do, the planet is toast in a few billion years. So is a short but happy and productive life better than a long and miserable one? How important is sheer persistence, really?

Then there are the potential costs of inactivity. If we stipulate that we have no models (as he does), then we have no way to estimate the probability of catastrophe hence no way to assess the cost of inaction, unless the cost of catastrophe really is infinite. In which case we are in the realm of Pascal's wager:

Pascal's Wager is an argument in apologetic philosophy devised by the seventeenth century French philosopher, mathematician and physicist Blaise Pascal (1623–62).[1] It posits that humans all bet with their lives either that God exists or not. Given the possibility that God actually does exist and assuming an infinite gain or loss associated with belief or unbelief in said God (as represented by an eternity inheaven or hell), a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God.

One argument against this is that one can come up with an indefinite number of infinite-cost infinitesimal-probability scenarios. Which ones should you take precautions against?

So I don’t think the ‘precautionary principle’ is as riskless or rational as advertised.


Should I even bother responding to this? I find it difficult to think about it rationally.

Are we "opposed to industrial capitalism"? (On further thought: to the extent that we are, isn't this kind of a way of saying "you believe X, therefore you must be wrong" combined with the mind-reading emotional appeal of "they only want to do this because they want to destroy Y"?)

Did Taleb+3 concede that there are "no models"? (I thought* they just conceded that there are no certain models.)

(*I could go back and check on this, but I'm thinking it may be important to document my understanding before determining whether that understanding is correct or not -- so I'll have some idea of whether I'm mentally distorting such things in general. ...and at the moment I'm not sure what I did with the link, though I know it will turn up again.)

I think this does at least confirm some of the delusionary-dot-connecting I did in one of my comments on this post:

I'll be having #lunchWithAConservative in about an hour, and this topic may well come up...


  1. Full sources: [1] (PDF) and [2]