Fooled by randomness

by Russ Roberts on May 19, 2009

in Environment, Fooled by Randomness, Trade

According to my car thermometer, It was 54 degrees this morning at 8 am here in DC on May 19. It encouraged my skepticism about global warming. Paul Krugman has none:

The scientific consensus on prospects for global warming has become
much more pessimistic over the last few years. Indeed, the latest
projections from reputable climate scientists border on the
apocalyptic. Why? Because the rate at which greenhouse gas emissions
are rising is matching or exceeding the worst-case scenarios.

One of us is being fooled by randomness. Hard to say which one. But Paul is very confident. He is willing to justify protectionism:

As the United States and other advanced countries finally move to confront climate
change, they will also be morally empowered to confront those nations
that refuse to act. Sooner than most people think, countries that
refuse to limit their greenhouse gas emissions will face sanctions,
probably in the form of taxes on their exports. They will complain
bitterly that this is protectionism, but so what? Globalization doesn’t
do much good if the globe itself becomes unlivable.

It’s time to save the planet. And like it or not, China will have to do its part.

The implications of Krugman's certainty is much more frightening than he is willing to admit. If you think China is destroying the planet, a tariff is just the beginning of what you will do.

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{ 51 comments }

Randy May 19, 2009 at 4:17 pm

So, go to war over global warming then…

I wonder if the "scientists" factored in the effects of a nuclear winter.

kebko May 19, 2009 at 4:21 pm

"Because the rate at which greenhouse gas emissions are rising is matching or exceeding the worst-case scenarios."

So, if the global temperature trend is lower than the models' worst case scenarios, then global warming advocates will adjust the models & their rhetoric downward. I can only assume, since this is science. Right?

ThomasL May 19, 2009 at 4:30 pm

I'm a full-fledged "denier" myself but I will say that weather (micro) is not climate (macro).

For my own part, my favorite climate-related blogs are:

http://www.climateaudit.org/
http://noconsensus.wordpress.com/
http://wattsupwiththat.com
http://statpad.wordpress.com

They do tend to be outside the "scientific consensus" but aren't really pro/against so much as they are conspicuous by still bothering to question.

Noob Goldberg May 19, 2009 at 4:36 pm

Is it better to be fooled by randomness or fooled by anecdotal evidence?

Greg Ransom May 19, 2009 at 4:40 pm

Russ, you're been fooled again into believing Krugman is a sincere and honest public intellectual.

He isn't.

Rafi May 19, 2009 at 4:47 pm

"The implications of Krugman's certainty is much more frightening than he is willing to admit."

Agreed. Moral empowerment is just a euphemism for excuse to control/intimidate. Has man-made global warming really been PROVEN so conclusively that we can just tell billions of Chinese they have to figure out some other fuel to increase their GDP?

Daniel Kuehn May 19, 2009 at 4:49 pm

More hyping Krugman into some crazy person… I bet it really hurts you guys that he'll be giving the Robbins lecture at LSE.

We limit trade with enemy nations during war time, right? If climate change becomes more definitively problematic, then how is using protectionism as a policy tool theoretically inappropriate? Krugman isn't saying to levy tariffs on China now – he's predicting that it may come to that.

Daniel Kuehn May 19, 2009 at 4:57 pm

Rafi -
RE: "Agreed. Moral empowerment is just a euphemism for excuse to control/intimidate."

And what about the skeptic's moral empowerment when they declare that the world just has to live with the negative externalities associated with a carbon economy?

Krugman is contemplating a moral calculus that could wreck an economy, Russ is contemplating a moral calculus that could wreck a species. Is it heady stuff? Of course it is – and no decisions should be made rashly. But the "euphemism for control" you talk about is no more promoted by Krugman than it is by Russ, who (to borrow his words) "justifies" the imposition of the costs of pollution on individuals who don't freely choose to experience those costs.

Who is right between Krugman and Russ hinges on who is right about climate change – and the fact is neither of these men are qualified to answer that question. But the morality of Krugman should be no more suspect than the morality of Russ, particularly since Krugman is at least submitting to scientific consensus (not that I have a problem with skepticism – I don't think we know enough about climate change to make any major decisions like this).

JPIrving May 19, 2009 at 4:57 pm

Wikipedia's CO_2 per capita page tells us that 2004 per capita emissions in metric tons were:

U.S.: 20.4

China: 3.84

I will bet much of China's CO_2 comes from producing goods for export, so perhaps it should "count" toward other countries tally.

Daniel Kuehn May 19, 2009 at 5:02 pm

JPIrving -
Interesting thoughts on attributing export production to importing countries. However, I don't think per capita is a very useful way of thinking about it. If we were to do anything about climate change, we would be changing productive technology, not population size. Population size is largely irrelevant (except for the correlation between population size and production).

The relevant statistic is CO2 per dollar of GDP – and it's on that that China is far worse.

Martin Brock May 19, 2009 at 5:09 pm

kebko: "So, if the global temperature trend is lower than the models' worst case scenarios, …"

The global temperature trend is lower than the models' worst case scenarios, much lower in fact. Krugman didn't refer to "temperature". He referred to "emissions". CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is easily measured, and its rise is not controversial. Actual warming is another story.

TrUmPiT May 19, 2009 at 5:17 pm

I believe the the best hope for life on planet Earth is the extinction of the human species. Another possibility is for humans to colonizes other planets such as Mars, and leave the Earth behind for other forms of life to enjoy. Dinosaurs once roamed and ruled the Earth. They went extinct supposedly due to the effects of a meteor striking the Earth. How and when will humans go the way of the dinosaur? We should be so lucky if another meteor does the job.

Joe May 19, 2009 at 5:19 pm

Two of my favorite scientists: Kary Mullis and Freeman Dyson

What do they have in common besides tremendous accomplishment?

They both think Global Warming is a scam.

Daniel Kuehn May 19, 2009 at 5:23 pm

Joe -
Do you mind clarifying that for people, please?

Freeman Dyson, at least (can't speak to Mullis) believes that anthropogenic climate change is true. What he is on the record as saying is:

1. Skeptics shouldn't be ostracized by the scientific community, and
2. There are bigger issues for policymakers to tackle right now, given what we know and what we can do about climate change.

I'd buy onto both of those points, and I'm certainly no skeptic (not because I know much about climate change, but because I'd put my money with the consensus of those who do know something about it).

Superheater May 19, 2009 at 5:28 pm

I find it very hard to believe anything the
left says about morality. Even the easy
stuff, like being charitable seems to escape them and when they want to diffuse
an opponent's argument they run to the
safety of ambivalence.

Bret May 19, 2009 at 5:29 pm

Krugman picks the wrong statistic as well. Even if you buy the CO2 link to global warming, it's based on concentration of CO2 which is less than predicted even though emission of CO2 is more than predicted.

Daniel Kuehn May 19, 2009 at 5:31 pm

Joe -
And also a skeptic of the models themselves, which is perhaps the most important point… but NOT a proponent of the idea that the anthropogenic climate change itself is a scam – just that we can't really trust the modeling.

I thought that oughta be made clear.

Daniel Kuehn May 19, 2009 at 5:32 pm

Superheater-
RE: "I find it very hard to believe anything the
left says about morality. Even the easy
stuff, like being charitable seems to escape them and when they want to diffuse
an opponent's argument they run to the
safety of ambivalence. "

Says superheater as he diffuses the argument with a completely irrelevant point about the relationship between ideology and charity.

Noob Goldberg May 19, 2009 at 5:41 pm

My limited knowledge of Freeman Dyson is not that he thinks Global Warming is a scam as much as the political response to it is disproportionate to other more pressing concerns facing humanity.

I'm personally always a little leary of "tipping point" analyses predicting the imminent demise of humanity as they detract from serious discussion. That doesn't mean I wish away the problem, just that I attempt to ignore the rhetorical fluff.

Dynamic interactions are always the most difficult to model, and always provide the most ambivalent results as they require the greatest number of assumptions. In that way, climate change analysis is an awful lot like economics: the most accurate analysis provides the muddiest results over a wide spectrum, and the most inaccurate pretenses provide data that is easily reproducible within a narrow band.

Noob Goldberg May 19, 2009 at 5:49 pm

For myself, I tend to use the former type of analysis when I'm trying to understand a subject, and the latter when I need to develop an argument to convince a decision-maker. They don't have the time or energy to understand the theoretical difference anyway; they just want to make a decision between three numbers.

Anyone who thinks this is approach is academically dishonest most likely has limited operational experience within the political realm.

TrUmPiT May 19, 2009 at 5:51 pm

What is it about the polar ice caps melting away that you find so unconvincing? If you've seen one penguin or one polar bear in a zoo, you've seen them all. If all the ice melts away, I won't have to wear three layers of clothing, so that's a great thing. Have you "skeptics" had your brains scanned lately? You may be surprise to know that melting has taking place in your heads. The ability to troll around blogs doesn't require a fully-functioning intellect, you can get by on a puddle of slush for grey matter. Once your brain is totally liquified, perhaps goldfish can be introduced to make you into a walking aquarium. That would be neat.

Noob Goldberg May 19, 2009 at 6:01 pm

"What is it about the polar ice caps melting away that you find so unconvincing?"

I can only speak for myself when I say that it's not the existence of anthropogenic climate change that I find unconvincing, it's that so many people try to use that finding as justification for all sorts of shenanigans.

Just because someone has gotten the diagnosis right (and that's still a bit of a stretch) doesn't mean their prescription is even in the right ballpark.

Chris in Austin May 19, 2009 at 6:06 pm

TrUmPit,

The Earth has seen much higher concentrations of C02 in the past along with much higher concentrations of biodiversity and evolutionary change (see information on the Cambrian Explosion). How can you explain the success of these species at higher temperatures and higher C02 concentrations?

You also state that you believe extinction of the human race would be the best thing for the planet. Contempt for an entire species, let alone your own species, reveals some sociopathic tendencies. This begs a repeat of your question: have you had your brain scanned lately?

yet another Dave May 19, 2009 at 6:11 pm

…I'd put my money with the consensus…
The climate change alarmists want lots more than your money, DK.

yet another Dave May 19, 2009 at 6:15 pm

"Krugman is contemplating a moral calculus that could wreck an economy, Russ is contemplating a moral calculus that could wreck a species."

Hyperbole much?

Kevin May 19, 2009 at 6:19 pm

Power concentrating politicians and technocrats filled with hubris and big plans to change the world that will work because only they really know what the world needs? Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

Morgan May 19, 2009 at 6:32 pm

Trumpit:

Please note here:

http://nsidc.org/data/seaice_index/images/daily_images/N_timeseries.png

that arctic sea ice extent has recovered from its record low 2007 level, and is just about normal for this time of year, and

http://nsidc.org/data/seaice_index/images/daily_images/S_timeseries.png

Antarctic sea ice is well above average for this time of year, and is in fact near record levels (going back to 1979).

It's the absolute confidence with which the "we must do something about anthropogenic global warming" crowd asserts verifiably false information that makes me more than merely skeptical. I'd be skeptical regardless, and for a host of reasons.

But I think you believe these falsehoods by design. And not by your design, but by the design of someone with an agenda quite different from yours. You're their dupe.

My suspicions fall on our political class as a whole (some more than others, of course). I think their agenda is to justify, and get democratic approval for, increased power for themselves. By that I mean increased justification to levy taxes and impose regulatory penalties.

You may not believe me, but ask yourself – why *do* you believe the ice caps are disappearing when they are not?

Rafi May 19, 2009 at 6:42 pm

To Daniel Kuehn:

Point well taken. There is a distinction between the two different moral positions. I believe one of them is inherently based on speculation and uncertainty, and rests on the belief that the entire species *will* be wiped out. Your words. The other position is based on the certain thing that protectionism will hurt hundreds of millions of poor Chinese. If you want hyperbole, that position could also say that we will all become extinct because it will start a massive trade war over resources! As long as we're in the realm of uncertainty and speculation, maybe we should bank on the fact that one of the millions of Chinese coming out of poverty will invent a clean, efficient energy! If someone can prove to me, really, that AGW is real *and* has apocalyptic consequences, I will change my mind. It is far too uncertain in my opinion to claim that you have the 'moral empowerment' to knowingly keep hundreds of millions of people from coming out of poverty.

Also just for the record – I comment on blogs not because I think I am an expert but because it is a decent way to have a discussion and see other points of view. I don't claim to have all the answers in the area of AGW but I have yet to be shown some conclusive evidence that the economic costs outweigh the potential benefits.

Rafi May 19, 2009 at 6:47 pm

One more thing – I see Krugmans' morality as aggressive and initiating force and control, whereas my morality is more patient and demands clear, physical evidence (not simply consensus)that China is harming my life through its activities. We know with more certainty what protectionism could do and will do than we know what measures to curb AGW could do and will do.

Martin Brock May 19, 2009 at 6:49 pm

… I'd put my money with the consensus of those who do know something about it).

What is the consensus?

andy May 19, 2009 at 6:52 pm

The relevant statistic is CO2 per dollar of GDP – and it's on that that China is far worse.

Why is it relevant? If I produce almost nothing (because I am unproductive or I simply don't want to) and by producing "nothing" I produce less CO2 then you, who produce "something" – why do you think CO2/GDP is relevant? Assuming CO2 is really bad, it is YOU who is danger for the environment, not me!

The problem with export is easy: My country has more industrial production then my neighbour. My country exports part of the industrial production to the neighbour, imports some less CO2 intensive products.

My CO2/GDP is twice as high as of my neighbour. Let's try to rectify the situation: we will move part of the industrial production to my neighbour…

Anyone who seriously considers CO2/GDP as a relevant indicator of anything is for me automatically untrustworthy on this topic. This statistics simply does not make any sense.

Ike May 19, 2009 at 6:54 pm

"Worse than the worst-case scenarios"???

What the HELL?

The worst case scenarios were that Miami would already be underwater by now.

The worst case scenarios were that the last bald polar bear would have died of skin cancer.

The worst case scenarios were crop failures and massive category 7 hurricanes.

What we're experiencing is BEYOND the worst case scenarios?

Krugman is guilty of ginning up hyperbole to serve his hyperbole.

Dr. T May 19, 2009 at 6:55 pm

I am very tired of the unproven claims that we are experiencing global warming and that the warming is due to burning fossil fuels. I won't give my long argument about how false these claims are. Instead, I'll give this statement: according to geologists the default climate of the world is ice age. Ice ages are far more devastating than warmings. When glaciers cover North America down to Virginia, cover 80% of Europe, cover all of Russia and half of China, that's a bit worse than rising sea levels. You can build dikes and levees, but nothing will stop glaciers. Thus, if anthropogenic warming staves off an ice age, I'm all for it.

Joe May 19, 2009 at 7:02 pm

Daniel,

Freeman thinks the models are greatly exaggerated, and from the NYTimes article "he is a great problem-solver who is not convinced that climate change is a great problem.". If interested, read the latter part of the article when he discusses An Inconvenient Truth with his wife and argues with her that he sees no clear evidence, he discusses China, etc. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/29/magazine/29Dyson-t.html?_r=1&pagewanted=8

As for Kary Mullis, here is his TED talk (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LNOtiRB3uyk&feature=channel_page), at about 19:40 in he talks about how many scientists are led astray by money/special interest/government and says how scientists often lie and specifically mentions "Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change". At about 21:50 on he is specifically talking about Global Warming and how the theory is incorrect. At 27:00 he says "this should be called The End of the Global Warming fiasco" about a study that came out and proved it wrong, "Wrong by a large factor".

Bill Stepp May 19, 2009 at 7:16 pm

Even if Krugman is right on the science, he's way off base thinking protectionism is the antidote. And by the way, he's for the cap-and-trade nostrum, so why the protectionism anyhow?

Pingry May 19, 2009 at 8:18 pm

Russ,

On the contrary, I think you were fooled by non-randomness!

Now, neither one of us is a climatologist, and I am not knowledgeable enough to tell you that you're right or wrong, but I do find it very perplexing that your skepticism about so-called "global warming" can be encouraged based on a non-randomized sample size of (1) one – (i.e. Your car's temperature this morning at 8 am in Washington, DC, not long after you read Krugman's column)

So while we can be fooled by randomness, we can also be fooled by false inferences made by non-randomness.

–Pingry

colson May 19, 2009 at 8:36 pm

Pingry – I think you missed his point and made his point at the same time ;)

vikingvista May 19, 2009 at 9:09 pm

It isn't the evidence of climate change that Krugman is certain of, so much as the desirability of a centrally planned economy.

For people on both sides of the issue, global warming just serves as a proxy.

If evidence did arise that persuaded you to change your mind about global warming, would you also change your mind about the proposed policy prescriptions? If nobody had any policy prescriptions, would you even care?

TrUmPiT May 19, 2009 at 9:23 pm

I happen to believe in the "end of days" for human life on earth. It has nothing to do with biblical prophesy but with human folly. A nuclear war will put an end to things or an unstoppable plague will wipe us out. The history of mankind is a history of wars. Add nuclear tipped missiles to the mix and a few suicidal nuclear bombers and you can imagine what our species and the planet we inhabit is in for. The preachers got the fire and brimstone part right, but it will be a nuclear fire with concomitant radiation for all to endure equally albeit briefly.

Carl Pham May 19, 2009 at 9:27 pm

Krugman is, of course, an ass. But it's worth nothing that as a rule hucksters become more confident the less factual backing their claims have. Who needs to exude confidence about "consensus" about whether the Sun will rise tomorrow? Deny it, and people will simply shrug their shoulders at you bemusedly. Audibly doubt whether their house was a good buy, and they might look worried, check it out.

But if you doubt, say, whether their kids are smart, or — which is relevant here — express doubt about their favorite religious dogma, you will hear if not feel their righteous wrath.

Basically, factual evidence and confidence are replacements for each other.

Chris O'Leary May 19, 2009 at 9:32 pm

"I believe the the best hope for life on planet Earth is the extinction of the human species."

If I were in your position, I would take the first step myself.

It's a start.

Ray Gardner May 19, 2009 at 9:40 pm

Daniel Kuehn:

You're operating on false premises and never looking back.

Protectionism is a proven loser on the historical record, but you are willing to advocate such a failed economic policy against a very possibly belligerent nation for the cause of a highly questionable scientific theory?

The premise is false of course that global warming is indeed fact, and worth the threat of military engagement at worst, or the start of a nasty economic war of higher and higher trade barriers where no one wins.

The second false premise is that Russ or any other credible voices on the side of liberty are advocating that genuinely negative externalities be ignored.

Russ Roberts is one of the most balanced, well tempered public voices in the world today as is easily proven through his posts, podcasts, etc. Whereas Krugman and most global warming advocates are the very definition of rash.

Krugman is not giving credit to consensus, he's buying in to a shallow trend that is already starting to crumble under the weight of evidence.

Moralistically speaking, where has Roberts said anything approaching the level of Krugman's smugness?

And that is a large part of what you're missing. Not the debate of global warming only, but Krugman and men like him declaring their beliefs with such arrogance on something that is, as you almost admit, is still open for debate.

Can you find any thing that Russ has said in the way of declarations about "what has to be done" that even comes close to the hubris of Krugman?

TrUmPiT May 19, 2009 at 9:47 pm

"I believe the the best hope for life on planet Earth is the extinction of the human species."

The contrapositive of what I said would be , "As long as humans are around, other species don't stand a chance." And it is a true statement.

Ray Gardner May 19, 2009 at 9:49 pm

Daniel Keuhn:
2. There are bigger issues for policymakers to tackle right now, given what we know and what we can do about climate change.

I'd buy onto both of those points, and I'm certainly no skeptic

Actually, no, you don't accept Dyson's point. Krugman and others of his public caliber are advocating measures that fly directly in the face of Dyson's statement (hence his reasoning for making the statement) and you are feverishly defending Krugman, the one Dyson's point is at odds with.

Neil West May 19, 2009 at 9:54 pm

What I find interesting about this type of debate is that it can cause smart and well thought out people to say things such as this:

"I also found useful the dialogue "The Big Heat" in the June issue of Discover magazine (not yet on-line). It's the best discussion I've seen of why the climate change skeptics clutch at a few pieces of (supposedly) favorable evidence but don't think about the issue at the very deep level or require that their scientific theories cohere as a whole or predict a wide range of climate-related data."

The above quote is from Tyler Cowen who I admire and enjoy reading. I am a skeptic in regards to global warming. I tend to respect the views of others in as much that I generally don't think that they are deluded for not agreeing with me. What I cannot understand is why smart people suggest that skeptics should be required to prove the null hypothesis.

Chris O'Leary May 19, 2009 at 10:04 pm

"The contrapositive of what I said would be , 'As long as humans are around, other species don't stand a chance.' And it is a true statement."

Last I checked, the current status of the earth was not crowds of humans huddled together on barren rock.

Many species have caused the extinction of other species.

At least humans feel bad about it and generally try to not do it.

John Papola May 19, 2009 at 10:08 pm

Krugman is a nut, obviously. But I would really like someone to explain to me why I should believe a congress who push ethanol mandates and propose "cash for clunkers" legislation about the environment. Actions speak louder than words, and based on these actions, I'd say they're not nearly as worried about climate change as they claim to be.

Nobody that truly cares about the environment would propose these policies.

TrUmPiT May 19, 2009 at 10:16 pm

"Krugman is a nut, obviously."

Please wait until the end of your bloviation to include insults and ad hominems. Otherwise it is hard to get past your first sentence. Do you want your content read or don't you?

If you insist on calling someone a nut, then do it like this:

Krugman is a nut, obviously, because …

You would be thrown out of my debate club for failing to follow basic rules of good debating.

Chris O'Leary May 19, 2009 at 11:06 pm

"You would be thrown out of my debate club…"

This explains a lot.

MnM May 19, 2009 at 11:19 pm

Chris, he's a troll don't feed him.

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