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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 10-Sep-17


Sunday 10-September-17

Climate change, Pascal and belief

I went to an interesting local talk recently about climate change. It was not so much interesting because it presented a convincing argument. The more interesting aspect was the use of fallacy and the way that the audience reacted.

The presenter took the controversial position of denying climate change, showing some graphs that suggested that carbon dioxide is a tiny aspect of atmosphere and the human contribution to it as miniscule. He also suggested that evidence for climate change was shaky at best. For example noting that, in the Communist era, Siberian meteorologists got a greater fuel allowance if they reported that it was cold, which was removed after communism faded -- as a result the early falsified readings contrasted with the truer later readings made it seem as if the temperature had increased. Stories such as this are beautifully convincing, but are full of holes. For example we do not know the number and duration of reports, nor can we see isolated data to prove the implied hypothesis.

In the ensuing heated argument, I interjected with the comment that this was much like Pascal's dilemma. This created a pause, as intended, which gave me space to explain my odd comment. Pascal was a 17th century French philosopher whose famous dilemma was about the puzzle whether he should believe in God. If he believed in God there would be a cost over his lifetime in going to church, and if God didn?t exist he would have wasted his time. Yet if he did not believe in God, he would spend an eternity in damnation. Overall, it seemed, it was safer to believe in God (or at least act as if he did).

The same argument applies to believing in climate change. If I choose to not believe then I will not act to reduce my carbon dioxide footprint and otherwise try to save the planet. If climate change is not happening or is not caused by human activity, then this is not a problem. But if it is, then the result of my denial could be calamitous. More to the point, if many people act this way, and especially those in power, then their negative belief could kill us all. So, like Pascal, it seems a better bet to accept that we should act to reduce our energy consumption and general carbon production.

So how do we decide what to believe? The first step is about sense. We gather data and listen to argument and decide whether it seems to make sense, at least on the face of it. The other factor in deciding whether to believe or not is in our assessment of those who already believe. On one side of the climate debate we have a few scientists, a number of politicians and even more business people who have something to lose if we cracked down on carbon creators. On the other side are many, many scientists including high-visibility people with a lot to lose if they are proven wrong.

Hmm. I think I'll side with the 'believe in climate change' people.

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