Without a compass, we walk in circles

Responding to Climate and Bias.

The world continually gives us information that we can use to compensate for our various biases - so that we can go through life without those biases ever manifesting themselves visibly. One reads about the tendency of people to walk in circles (consistently veering off course to the left, or consistently to the right) if they don't have any clues to tell them which way they're going. This tendency does not manifest itself in daily life on familiar ground and might never manifest itself, since few people walk deep into forests without preparation.

And I think that a similar situation exists with claims about the weather and the economy. The difficulty of really testing certain ideas about the weather and the economy is analogous to being lost in a forest without any directional cues. In that situation our biases shape our view much as a left/right bias shapes our walk. And it's not as though we could decide, "okay, now I will be unbiased." We need cues not only in order to correct for our biases, but even in order to tell whether and how much and in what way we are biased. If we're in a forest and we find ourselves walking in circles, we can at least calculate roughly how large the circle is if we happen to recognize a spot that we passed before. But in the case of many ideas about the economy and the weather we may not even have that much to go on.

The "global warming debate" is in any case less about competing specific claims than about the level of certainty that we can rightly claim to have about the world's climate.

Consider two kinds of disagreement. One disagreement is between specific predictions:

a) X will happen.

b) X will not happen.

Another kind of disagreement is about the level of certainty:

c) We can be pretty sure that X will happen.

d) We really don't know whether X will happen (a skeptical position, e.g. global warming skepticism).

When the subject is something like economics or the weather, my view is that the best answer between (c) and (d) is usually (d), with few exceptions. But the answer that is usually given, or at least implied, is (c).

And since (I think) (d) is the correct answer, then the disagreement between (a) and (b) cannot really be resolved. Both (a) and (b) are tenable - but they are not tenable with any certainty.

However, we can step back one level and consider the following two competing claims:

e) We can be pretty sure whether (c) or (d) is correct.

f) We really don't know whether (c) or (d) is correct.

That is, it may (e.g. to the satisfaction of all reasonable onlookers) be hard to decide whether it is hard to decide whether (a) or (b) is correct. The global warming debate is between statements like (c) and (d); the various parties are in agreement about (e), though they disagree about whether it is (c) or (d) which is clearly correct. Someone observing the global warming debate can step back and observe that, evidently, people are disagreeing about (c) and (d), which suggests that (f) may be true.

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A bit of topic, but it gave

A bit of topic, but it gave me an idea. If you ever get lost in the woods with someone else, pick a leader and a follower and alternate every 15 minutes. This will average your biases and get you out of the woods faster. The more people, the better this works.