Krugman’s Wager?

Both Thomas Firey at the Cato Institute blog and James Taranto at the Wall Street Journal discuss the recent New York TImes column by Paul Krugman. Both address his arguement that the possible consequences of global warming are so dire that action must be taken at any cost:

It’s true that scientists don’t know exactly how much world temperatures will rise if we persist with business as usual. But that uncertainty is actually what makes action so urgent. While there’s a chance that we’ll act against global warming only to find that the danger was overstated, there’s also a chance that we’ll fail to act only to find that the results of inaction were catastrophic. Which risk would you rather run?

Firey points out that Krugman fails to apply this argument to other areas, having dismissed similar points made about reforming social security.

In Krugman’s view, policies to address Weitzman’s 5 percent risk of ecological disaster by the early 23rd century (Weitzman’s time frame, which Krugman didn’t specify) are responsible and moral, but policies to address the economic crisis of Social Security’s insolvency in less than four decades’ time are unnecessary and overly pessimistic.

Taranto, in turn, points out the deep similarities between Krugman’s argument and Pascal’s Wager, including the same flaws of false dichotomy and using infinite (or large unknown) outcomes to sidestep any actual issue of probabilities.

Another problem with Pascal’s Wager is that it presupposes only two possibilities: Either God exists more or less as Christians conceive of him, or he doesn’t exist at all. But from a standpoint of pure logic, this is completely arbitrary. What if God exists and it is Muslims or Mormons or atheists who go to heaven?

Krugman’s thinking is similarly binary: Either global warming is true and the stakes are enormous, or it isn’t and they are trivial. But how do we know that global warming won’t turn out to be beneficial, or that efforts to avert it won’t have catastrophic consequences?

One difference between Pascal’s Wager and Krugman’s is that whereas Pascal was making a case for individuals to embrace faith, Krugman is arguing for collective action–which is to say, he wishes to use the power of government to impose his beliefs on others.

Both articles are worth a read.


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