Dagger in hand

A man of prodigious fortune, coming to add his opinion to some light discussion that was going on casually at his table, began precisely thus: "It can only be a liar or an ignoramus who will say otherwise than," and so on. Pursue that philosophical point, dagger in hand.

--Michel de Montaigne, Of the art of discussion.

Stab back: cmnewman99-at-yahoo.com


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Tuesday, March 04, 2003
A random thought on standards of evidence. Lots of Europeans are upset with us now because we rejected Kyoto. And because we think we need to remove Saddam. Apparently, there's not sufficient evidence that Saddam will develop and use WMD if left in power, or that removing him from power is the only sure way to prevent this. But the same people who say so apparently believe there is sufficient certainty that the greenhouse effect will cause global catastrophe, and that drastically cutting CO2 emissions is the only sure way to prevent this. Many in this country would rate the accuracy of these two predictions the other way around. I wonder what's behind that.

There are similar dynamics at play in each judgment. By that I mean that one can ascribe ulterior motives to those who come down on both sides of each question. With regard to the Europeans about whom I'm generalizing, the suspected ulterior motives would be the same in each case: desire to bureaucratize and socialize the world, and specifically to subordinate both American military and economic power to global regulation. On the American side, the posited motives would also be consistent: desire to control and consume the world's natural resources without constraint. It's also true in each case that the cost of the proposed remedy to the predicted threat is evaluated differently by each side. The antiwar position expects as many as 100,000 people will be killed in Iraq, and finds even one death unjustifiable. The pro-war side doesn't think anywhere near that many will actually die, and views those deaths as outweighed by those likely to occur if Saddam is left in power. The anti-Kyoto side sees it as leading to catastrophic economic consequences for no purpose, while the pro-Kyoto side tends to regard shrinking the economy as a good thing anyway. These factors are obviously part of what causes the differences in judgment. The greater the cost you ascribe to the remedy, and the more you distrust the side claiming there's a threat, the higher you set the standard of proof.

But let's try to abstract from these factors and imagine that these risks are being evaluated purely on the basis of objective, rational judgment applied to the available evidence. Which of these two predictions about future risks has greater claim to be regarded as reliable? I can imagine the arguments for and against either side. To some extent it would be the old question of qualitative versus quantitative judgment. The Kyoto forces will point to their crunchy numbers and computer models, and disparage the psychological judgment calls being made about Saddam. Their opponents will argue that the models are inaccurate, and point to the information we have about Saddam's mentality, past actions, and stated aspirations. Which side would win? Is there any meaningful way to render the two judgments commensurable so as to compare them?

If you think I'm going to try to answer this one, you're crazy. But I wish somebody would. Tell me, what's more certain: the behavior of a tyrant, or the state of the weather in fifty years?

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