Pascal’s wager as a risk management heuristic

I have a friend who has grown interested in climate science — particularly the statistics and policies used to support or disregard it. Emailing with him has gotten me thinking about my own reasons for believing in the changes that human industry has effected in the environment over the 150 years, or so.

Like many good problems and arguments, I find the problem of climate change to be nearly intractable. It seems obvious that we can observe changes in the Earth’s soil, air, water, and other material, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into direct action we can take to reverse or repair the changes we observe. Moreover, climate change is a global problem that took us many decades to create: it will likely take many decades to halt, and then begin repairing any possible effects we’ve created. However, this doesn’t mean that climate change is a problem we should relinquish: it’s too important for that.

At the time of this writing, the most intractable issue surrounding climate change seems to be convincing other people that climate change is happening, that it exists, and that it is a problem. Many smart people have tried creating arguments for it and against it, yet, one side fails to convince the other. I find this puzzling.

Perhaps I’m naïve, but if someone told me, “The world is ending, and you’re helping it along,” I would first figure out if that someone were crazy; once I’d confirmed their wits were sound, I’d figure out what’s going on, and work on a course of action. This is a fairly accurate synopsis of my relationship with the issue of climate change. However, I’m young enough to have grown up with images of burning rainforests, crying manatees, and no wolves in the Colorado Rockies (the Mountains, not the baseball team). Incidentally, I think baseball would be much more fun if wolves were admitted into the dugouts of each team and on the field — but that’s for another post.

If someone’s not naïve like me, and they need more convincing, I think we need to leverage the great Renaissance polymath, Blaise Pascal. He codified one of the best arguments for all intractable issues. It’s even named after the guy; you probably already know it, but since I brought it up, I need to keep going. For those of you who haven’t already Googled Blaise Pascal, and found his Wager, grab a drink and sit down.

Pascal’s wager is the best argument for all intractable issues because it assumes the conclusion and lets you move on to practical solutions to the intractable problem — Voila! No more nitpicking about whether climate change exists. Instead, let’s talk about whether we need V-8 engines to drive down to the market for a gallon of milk. As far as arguments go, this is a horrible way to argue — never ever do this; it will cause your lover to leave you, your parents to stop calling, and your goldfish to die. But my inner Pragmatist has little patience for good argumentation, and I love a convenient way to move on to the more pressing matters of the day. Hence, Pascal’s Wager is obnoxious but useful. Keep it in your back pocket: you’ll need it sometime when you’re busy arguing at a bar. But, what is Pascal’s wager?

Pascal wrote his wager during the Renaissance in response to the philosophical debate surrounding God’s existence. All of this took place in Europe, before the West bothered to acknowledge the validity of religions other than Catholicism — I mean, the ink regarding the Reformation was barely dry! So, the Wager is firmly centered in a Christian ethos. But we’ll forgive those trespasses for now. Essentially, Pascal’s wager states:

a) If God exists, then we ought to do all the things He demands of His Christian followers, and we gain the benefits accruing to His Christian followers. (Importantly, we don’t go to Hell.)

b) If God doesn’t exist, then we lose nothing from doing the things required of a Christian follower. (Again, you’ll notice, we don’t go to Hell — woohoo!)

c) Therefore, if we don’t want to go to hell, then we ought to do the things demanded of a Christian. (Satan throws crappy barbeques, apparently.)

More or less, Pascal’s wager is a conservative risk management tool. It allows us to mitigate losses in a situation where we don’t know all of the variables and outcomes of a situation. Whether that situation is the massively complex global ecosystem as it’s affected by human industry, or the possible — yet mysterious — existence of a higher power, is immaterial. The take-away here is that we have a way to move forward on these big issues: if you assume the Thing exists, you can then figure out the best course of action by shaping a response that survives both situations, where the Thing exists and where it doesn’t. Doing this ensures that our position is robust to failures where more optimized approaches would be unbalanced and toppled in a disruption.

Notes:

– My glib gloss of Pascal’s Wager isn’t what a 450-year-old argument deserves, so for those willing to put in the time to read a better description of it, you can find it here: http://www.iep.utm.edu/pasc-wag/.

 

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