Proving a negative

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.

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14 Responses to Proving a negative

  1. snowcalla says:

    I think for some, concerning the environment, it isn’t that we think it’s too much of a pain or too costly or we disagree with composting – what we want is for scientists to be scientists and just tell us what they have, honestly.

    The concern, for me anyway, is that we will be led by politics and not science and will put our efforts towards things that don’t help one bit and then will not have the resources to put behind an effort that could help in some way.

    Or it may be that we can’t do a damn thing about climate change and those resources would be best used calculating what the change will do and then doing some planning to minimize the impact and get ready for disaster plans and be able to execute them.

  2. I’ve heard the H1N1 epidemic compared to the Y2K computer bug. All that work and excitement to get everyone on board, getting vaccinations or fixes for the computers, and then in the end nothing exciting and dramatic happened. Computers still worked in 2000, and hospitals were not filled with people dying of H1N1.

    And there is no way to prove whether the fact there was no drama was because of the work people went to in order to prevent it, or if there was no drama to be prevented.

    It’s interesting for me to see the three examples you placed side by side for comparison. Pascal’s Wager, hmm.

    I don’t think that wager is a good basis for decision making, personally. It didn’t convince me to become Christian and it doesn’t convince me to invade any country starting with a vowel (or a K).
    I think that the decision should be made by looking at what evidence there is.

    Environment? Even if we aren’t going to get global flooding of all coastal cities, it makes sense not to pollute faster than nature can clean it up.
    War? “Regime change” doesn’t make the world more secure. What makes people feel secure and content to live their own life without hatred for other groups of people? Let’s do more of that. What makes people want to kill other people? Let’s do less of that.
    Contagious diseases? What makes diseases spread? Let’s do less of that. What annoyed people about the vaccination campaign? Additives in the vaccines they weren’t quite sure about (thimerosal, adjuvants), the monopoly and delays that the one vaccine manufacturer had, the amount of public money spent on vaccines that weren’t available when people were excited about lining up for them and then were available when people didn’t care any more. Let’s do less of that.

    Regarding Iran, I would like to find out why Iran might want to set off a nuclear bomb anywhere, and focus on making that reason less likely to happen. I’m a lot less worried about a country having access to nuclear weaponry than wondering where all the Soviet bombs ended up. A head of a country is going to be a lot more reasonable and open to persuasion than some anonymous nutcase.

  3. I live in Kuwait and the people here are TERRIFIED of what is going on between Iran and the US. It takes only 2 hours (or there abouts) to get to Iran in a car. We are also afraid of the political fall out, Iran can be pretty sneaky (as it was in the 1980s when it nearly blew the Amir to bits using Kuwaiti nationals protesting the help Kuwait was giving Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, which ironically came back to bite them in the you know what in the 1990s) Already there is problems with them and the press here (which is very free here by the way) I guess what I am saying is it might just also depend on how close you are to ground zero…if I’m not making sense please excuse me lol, I’m half asleep, I’ve been up since the crack of dawn.

    • snowcalla says:

      When you wake up I would LOVE to hear more.

      • I’m still awake, but I don’t know if I am making sense. Here is the situation here. We are afraid of the fact that Iran might have or trying to have a nuclear bomb. At the same time we are afraid of appearing too much for opposing Iran but in doing that we are also afraid of offending the US, which right now has two (or three camps) here in Kuwait. Basically damned if we do and damned if we don’t either way you look at it…

  4. skiegazer says:

    Though I see what you’re saying, Bren, I think the flaw in your analogy is that the question of God’s existence is something that cannot be known definitively, whereas the three other questions you raise can be examined and explored for evidence (if not absolute “proof”) as to which possibility is likely to be true.

    For instance, regarding the Iraq War, it was relatively widely known that there were no WMDs before the invasion, and in fact some political theorists suggest that the US only invaded precisely because they knew that the country was by and large defenseless (one reason we have not yet invaded Iran, because this time we are sincerely uncertain). Furthermore, there were options other than war that would have allowed us to find out definitively whether or not there were weapons. Likewise, the H1N1 epidemic that never happened might not have happened because of vaccinations… except that the scientific evidence that might have given credence to this view was not only never gathered but explicitly prevented from being gathered by government organizations who told doctors it was a “waste of time and resources” to actually test for the virus. So our inability to know for sure whether the vaccines worked or whether the virus was hyped beyond reason is not something inherently beyond our knowledge: rather, our ignorance on the matter is our own fault. We could have easily continued to do the research, even while taking precautionary measures; we did not do this precisely because, were it discovered later that the vaccines weren’t necessary after all, this would have been another blow against government credibility and fodder for those complaining about wasteful spending.

    Instead, we choose easy ignorance in both cases, hoping that the average citizen will feel themselves to be in a Pascal’s Wager scenario (because, obviously, an individual cannot sponsor full investigations)… The result is that the population feels themselves at the mercy of “experts” and willingly goes along with whatever decisions those in power declare to be necessary, merely shrugging their shoulders if those disastrous decisions prove to have been unnecessary after the fact (the reason G.W. Bush isn’t being prosecuted for war crimes). The government isn’t God, and some things can be known.

    As far as global warming, well, climate science is admittedly incredibly complex and there is a possibility (though I find it unlikely) that global warming isn’t happening or isn’t man-made despite much evidence to the contrary. On the other hand, my respect for the environment has never been based merely on fear, but on a deep love for the Earth that reacts with visceral disgust and anguish at the harm we do (just as my belief in Spirit is not founded on a fear of hell, and I would argue anyone who believes in God merely so they won’t burn is insincere at best, and a hypocrite at worst). Again, I believe that our ability to abuse the environment and trash our planet is based largely on our willful ignorance, and that most people, if they were truly exposed to the ugly abuses their lifestyles require but which often occur out of sight in someone else’s backyard, would respond by living a more ecologically-minded, sustainable lifestyle (even if the temperature weren’t a single degree higher). So once again, by claiming that this is a Pascal’s Wager scenario, you elevate our basic ignorance to the level of inevitability, instead of recognizing that there certainly are things we can know for sure and we are definitely capable of responding ethically and virtuously to that knowledge.

  5. misslynx says:

    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.

    I think you have the logic of this one reversed compared to the other two.

    Apart from that, interesting and thought-provoking post.

    I think the variables that affect how people react to each of the three (or more) scenarios would also include how likely they think the negative consequence is – for instance, many people might be in favour of taking precautions against some or all of these three things, but against stockpiling chainsaws in case of a zombie apocalypse, because they don’t see that as being quite so possible a future.

    Another factor might be whether they perceive anyone in particular as benefiting from the preparations. You mentioned people who were concerned about corporations profiting from the vaccination campaign – similarly, some people on the political right seem to think that environmental policies put too much power in the government’s hands, and many on the left similarly see either right-wing governments and/or arms manufacturers as the major beneficiaries of war. So how cynical a view someone takes of the question of whether or not to prepare for some potential threat may depend a lot on whether they can see (or think they can see) other motivations behind the call to prepare.

  6. hel_ana says:

    For what it’s worth, Bren, the whole climate change email hacking thing doesn’t really demonstrate what the talking heads think it does. There’s a really good video outlining why not here. As well, there’s a very good explanation of the tree ring data they’re talking about in the “hide the decline” email here.

    However, I don’t think the climate change thing can be classified as a Pascal’s Wager, in that the benefits of acting accrue whether anthropogenic climate change is real or not. The real argument is succinctly put by this cartoon:

  7. kallisti says:

    H1N1 was, and still is a Pandemic*…I think that you have the wrong definition of exactly what Pandemic is. I am guessing what you definition is something like the “Spanish flu” Pandemic of 1918–1919 which caused millions of deaths. But an epidemic don’t need to be deadly to a Pandemic. It simply needs to be over a large area, usually a country or continental in size.

    Pandemic –adjective
    1. (of a disease) prevalent throughout an entire country, continent, or the whole world; epidemic over a large area.

  8. alfrecht says:

    Ah, Prisoner’s Dilemma…That’s fun!

    How about Newcomb’s Problem? How do you fare on that?

  9. Anonymous says:

    The girlfriend chimes in

    I agree with the cartoon. I’d rather create a better and greener world, climate change or no climate change, for the sake of creating a better world.

    I never got a H1N1 shot as I was living out in rural BC when they started up the campaign. Something most city folks may not know: Poeple out in the boonies never gets these shots, the government doesn’t even bother bringing them to us. If and when they do, then I will worry its something serious. If they are only doing major cities and not even smaller towns and rural areas I’m not inclined to panic.

    I have weapons of mass desctruction laying at my feet. Her names is Crash and when she farts its deadly!

  10. Anonymous says:

    What I see as truly disturbing – and at times utterly terrifying in its implications – is that what we are seeing played out here is “Prisoner’s Dilemma” on a global scale.
    From the Wiki page:
    “Thus each player has an opportunity to punish the other player for previous non-cooperative play. If the number of steps is known by both players in advance, economic theory says that the two players should defect again and again, no matter how many times the game is played. However, this analysis fails to predict the behavior of human players in a real iterated prisoners dilemma situation … .”

    Hmm … seems familiar to me: The US supported the Taliban at one time. If I’m not mistaken, they supported Saddam at one time too. But these are only two examples of this same process the world over, and it is by no means exclusive to the US! This little game has certainly been played in earnest on the world stage in all its glorious horror since the first truly “modern” war – WWI.
    This reiterative process – the politics of betrayal – has happened and continues to happen in global politics as jockeying for power and influence continues. Problem is, the ‘players’ get to walk away from the table at the end of the day, and the real consequences of those decisions are manifest in the lives of millions of people who had no choice in the matter, and would prefer (or at least it seems to me they would) to be able to feed themselves, raise their children, and not worry about being shot/blown up/raped/kidnapped/starving to death because of this ‘game.’
    The vested interest of those in power to remain in power, and the vested interest of those that benefit from the maintenance of that power structure, has the potential to create some utterly destructive results for the planet and all the living things on it.
    Climate change? government is ready to support ‘green technologies’ … as long as it’s politically expedient to do so. The economic imbalances between developing nations and developed nations both reinforces practices that are ecologial suicide, and makes it equally suicidal not to continue those practices in order to maintain exports from developing nations and keep people from starving completely. These structures also ensure that developing nations are financially unable to protect their populations from the potential effects of climate change; they are reliant on the developed nations to “fix” things so they can survive.
    Ditto vaccinations – good to be seen as caring for the population and “doing something.” The economics around the benefit to drug companies, coupled with the implications for credibility on the world stage for WHO, the United Nations, and national governments vis a vis the popular press and the voting public effectively provided the pressure necessary to ensure that governments rolled out the drugs.
    And as you’ve pointed out Bren, we seem to be moving in the direction of an ‘intervention’ in Iraq as well … and that might be the move in the game that finally destabilizes the area so completely that there’s no turning away from carnage on a massive scale.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Hi Brendan,

    I think you make an excellent point here about political leanings guiding us when we are attempting to stave off a perceived imminent disaster. The paranoia factor is a big motivator (30+ years of “cold war” stands as testament to that). I think the biggest difference in the examples you provided comes from a different angle. In both the climate change and H1N1 examples, the panicked preventative measures are designed to preserve human lives without intentionally putting anyone in harm’s way to do so. The Iran example, however, definitely would require the willful destruction of human life to achieve a “safer” future. I’m not saying I think that makes it a null-and-void argument, particularly, but it does seem to be a significant difference worthy of consideration.

    In the end, I really like the point made by several others here (and most humorously and succinctly by the political cartoon): if it makes the world a better place and helps people (and animals, plants, etc.) generally live better lives, it’s probably worth doing, logical paradox or not. But that’s just my opinion, and sadly, I don’t run the world…yet. :-D

    Be Well!

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