The H1N1 Influenza pandemic has been off the news for a while. The last report I remember reading about it was pointed out to me by a friend of mine: it seems that Canada donated five million doses of vaccine that it didn’t need to the World Health Organization. And as for the flu pandemic that was predicted so widely, it hasn’t seemed to happen. Was that because our health system and the inoculation program successfully prevented it? Or was it because the pandemic would not have happened anyway? It can be very hard to know; perhaps even impossible to know.
What other great disaster is no longer in the news quite so much anymore? Here’s one that has been of great interest to me for many years: global warming and climate change. Well, this one is still in the news, and it’s taken some interesting turns lately. An IPCC report about the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers turned out to be wrong. Computer hackers broke into IPCC computers and stole some emails that contained evidence suggesting that the scientists are not so impartial and objective as we all might like. The big summit in Copenhagen didn’t appear to accomplish anything. And some evidence suggests that global warming has actually paused for a while. Is climate change still happening? Maybe it’s all part of normal and natural cycles. Maybe all those greenhouse gases are not as bad as we thought. Maybe those huge storms are mere flukes of nature. Perhaps we didn’t need to spend all that money on conservation and recycling, and we don’t need laws regulating emissions from cars and factories after all.
Here’s a third piece of news that I haven’t seen in a long while: weapons of mass destruction. Aside from the piece about Tony Blair’s appearance at the Chilcot Inquiry, I haven’t seen the letters WMD in the headlines for so long that I barely remember the days when they spelled out the greatest threat to peace and life the world had ever known. Remember that war – and how the British and the Americans invaded Iraq because they believed that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD’s, despite that they had no evidence to support those beliefs? But a lot of people went along with it anyway: they gambled that it would be better to invade and find that Hussein did not have any WMD’s, than to not invade and find that Hussein did have them.
What do these three things have in common? They follow the logic of Pascal’s Wager. To explain it quickly: Pascal’s Wager is an argument designed to show the rationality of believing in things for which you have no evidence, or very little evidence. It is the claim that it is better to believe in God, because the consequences of not believing in God, and later learning that God does exist, are far worse than the consequences of believing in God and later learning that God does not exist. For if you believe in God but God doesn’t exist, you will have missed out on a few corporeal pleasures but otherwise you will have had a good life. If, on the other hand, you deny God’s existence and yet God does exist, then you will have gained a few corporeal pleasures but you pay for it with an eternity of suffering in Hell.
This should sound familiar. Insert some other situation into the logical place for God, such as:
- H1N1 Flu. It is better to inoculate the population against H1N1 Influenza, because the consequences of inoculating the people and later learning that there would be no pandemic, would be worse than the consequences of not inoculating the population and later learning that there is a pandemic.
- Climate change. It is better to protect the environment, because the consequences of doing so and then later learning that global warming is not happening, would be worse than not doing so and later learning that global warming is happening.
- WMD’s. It is better to launch a pre-emptive strike or invasion on a foreign country that appears threatening, because the consequences of invading and later learning that country did not possess WMDs, would be worse than not invading and later learning that it did possess WMD’s.
Notice how the logic of the argument is exactly the same in every case. But, according to people’s differing political views and other views, someone can accept one or two of these arguments and reject the others. I suppose a lot rests upon how burdened people feel by the actions asked of us to prevent global warming, a disease pandemic, a foreign attack, or an eternity in hell after we die. For instance: a few people I know objected to the national influenza inoculation program because they saw it as merely a way to put a lot of taxpayer money into the hands of private corporations. Concerning environmentalism: a lot of people resent the extra work they have to do to recycle, or to compost their food waste, or to reduce the volume of consumer goods they buy. Opponents to the environmentalist movement, such as Bjorn Lomborg, believes that global warming is a “problem” but “not a catastrophe”, and that all those economic efforts to prevent global warming would be too costly to the world economy in the long run.
So, as it appears that the western world is moving closer to some kind of military action against Iran, we might want to think about whether the nuclear bomb that Iran is supposedly building is just another case of Pascal’s Wager. We (the public in the western world, that is) really have no way of knowing whether Iran really does possess enough nuclear material to build a nuclear weapon. So we have to decide whether it is better to believe that they do have a bomb, and later be proven wrong about that, then to believe that they don’t have the bomb, and be proven wrong about that.
Personally, I’d rather play a game of Prisoner’s Dilemma, but that might be almost as complicated.