Sunday, January 27, 2008

Pascal's Wager

When the philosopher Blaise Pascal was asked why he believed in God in spite of the evidence, Pascal gave what has since been referred to as Pascal's Wager. Pascal argued that in spite of the lack of evidence for the existence of God, the potential negative effects of the decision, eternal damnation, caused him to be a Christian. He argued that since living as a believer was a pretty good way to live even if there really were no God. Modern philosophers have restated Pascal's wager into what they call the precautionary principle. “…if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action.”
This is just a way of shifting the burden of proof from one side of the issue to the other. Suppose my family is stuck on a two lane road behind a car going 10 miles below the speed limit. If my son tells me I should pass the car in front of us because there hasn't been a car in the other lane for 10 minute. He may indeed be correct. However, lacking more solid evidence to support his claim that the lane is clear the safest choice is to remain in my lane.
Whenever I hear naysayers criticize the scientific consensus as it pertains to global warming I think about Pascal's wager and this example that I gave. These so called Global Warming "skeptics" cling to a few fringe pieces of evidence and claim that global warming is not happening and that it's perfectly okay to drive in the other lane for a while. And the truth is they may be correct. But considering the dire consequences of this decision Pascal and the precautionary principle dictate that we should consider the potential effects of each decision and give these effects due consideration when making our choice.
I realize that taken to extremes this line of thinking is somewhat fallacious. I'm not condoning this thinking in every situation. If I did I'd end up wearing a tin-foil hat just in case Art Bell is right about aliens controlling our brain waves. Specifically in the case of global warming I just don't think that a few outlying studies support the idea that we chuck the rest of the evidence.

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