Wednesday, December 12, 2007

What's the Worst That Could Happen?

Suppose you take some schmoe, give him a whiteboard, a marker, and a video camera.

What's the worst that could happen?

This. This is the worst that could happen.

Note that if you take out global climate change, and put "asteroid strike" or "killer virus" or "nuclear holocaust" or ANY OTHER doomsday scenario, his "argument" leads to the same "inescapable conclusion."

The problem with expected value is that you need probabilities. Bozo here appears to believe that we should spend an infinite amount of resources on multiple problems. If you multiply infinity by an integer, where the integer is determined by the number of "problems" that at least one bedwetter is worried about, then you get.... well, you get Al Gore winning a Nobel Prize.

And that, my children, is the worst that could happen. Good night, and sleep well.


William Polley said...

Ok, so he sets up that matrix and talks about which strategy to choose.

At this point, anyone who has read Von Neumann and Morgenstern's seminal work on game theory realizes that what this guy has done is to describe the maximin strategy (maximize the minimum payoff), which yields the solution to a two person zero sum game.

Of course, this would only be relevant if nature was actually consciously playing this zero sum game against you--which to my knowledge, it is not.


Your response is a good one.

Steve said...

It seems to me that the two squares in column A should have the same payoff. In each square, we (the world) have risked the destruction of the economy and have avoided, by choice or chance, climate change. The only good payoff in his matrix seems to be the "don't do anything and hope climate change is false". Here's hoping.

Tom said...

I agree that you could pull out Anthropogenic Global Warming and put in any other disaster -- the argument as valid as it was before.

Besides AGW, nuclear holocaust, and asteroid strike, we could consider bird flu and, worst of all, the nano-bot-gray-ooze phenomenum. That's five (so far) reason to break the economy -- if we believe this type of argument. Say we do; then, every time some bafoon suggests a new, possible disaster, we have to bread the economy all over, again.

It's clear that the greast threat looming ahead is the theory of what's-the-worst-that-could-happen! If this guy is correct, then we urgently need to shut him up.

In my experience, all uses of the Precautionary Principle lead logically and inexorably to need to prevent the Precautionary Principle.

John Fast said...

The fellow who posted the video is fair and open-minded enough that he explicitly requested people to point out errors in his reasoning. Would anyone like to do so by posting a (polite, respectful) comment on the video to explain why he's mistaken?

Mungowitz said...

Mr. Fast:

This is a blog.

In fact, it IS MY BLOG. Well, and Angus's blog. Mostly Angus's, in fact, but he let's me post stuff, even though it is mostly HIS stuff that gets all the links, and hits.

But, okay, suppose it were NOT a blog, and that polite and respectful were the argot.

The problem with his claim, as I pointed out in my post, though perhaps obscurely, is that it falls victim to an easy RAA, or "reductio ad absurdum."

He argues that there is one outcome that, if it occurs, would be so bad it should receive all our attention, even at infinite cost, regardless of how unlikely it is.

But, as the commenters note, precisely the same argument can be made, has been made in fact, about a variety of other possible catastrophes.

The RAA is this: there are many different problems that EACH should command all of our attention and resources. But our attention and resource are finite, and we really do have to worry about trade-offs. So we can't spend all our resources on 10 or 12 different crises at the same time. Not even 2, not at the same time.

My pique was piqued by his claim that "No one I have talked to can refute me!" That means he has not had a discussion with even a sophomore undergrad level training in philosopy or economics.

So, my polite, respectful request is that he get his car up to a little over 100 mph, and run into a bridge abutment.