Tu Quoque

My posting on the Copenhagen conference, and its downgrading of global warming, provoked a neat hostile comment: you (Posner) criticize these economists for opining outside their fields, but isn’t that what you do all the time? Well, yes, but here’s my defense: you don’t have to be an expert in a field to criticize the experts, provided you know enough about the field to understand what the experts are saying and writing, to be able to spot internal contradictions and other logical lapses, sources of bias, arguments obviously not based on knowledge, carelessness in the use of evidence, lack of common sense, and mistaken predictions. These are the analytical tools that judges, who in our system are generalists rather than specialists, bring to the task of adjudicating cases in specialized fields of law.

I don’t have to be a climate scientist to realize that assembling a group of economists none of whom is a specialist in the science, politics, or economics of global warming, and asking them to reach a consensus on where to rank global warming among the world’s worst ills without conducting any research of their own, but instead by discussing a position paper commissioned from another economist by the organizer of the conference, is not a rational procedure. And there is more (see the Copenhagen Consensus website). The organizer, Bjorn Lomborg, a statistician and controversialist, not an economist, gave the conference participants a week to discuss 17 projects (three involving climate, the others involving health issues, malnutrition, water purity, and other disparate topics) and rank them. The results were publicized before any analytical or evidentiary backup was, and the very idea of pressing for consensus (unanimity) suggests, as in the case of the 9/11 Commission’s similar consensus drive, a basic lack of intellectual seriousness.

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11 Responses to Tu Quoque

  1. Palooka says:

    Judge Posner,

    I realize you can’t do a subject like global warming justice with the limited time you have here, and have only offered us a sampling of the depth I am certain you possess on this issue, but I can’t help to point out you have not made your case here–not even close.

    As I have mentioned before in my comments, there is a long list of cataclysmic events which may (and many are certain given enough time) destroy or fundamentally alter our planet some day. Why is it that global warming has risen to the top of your list? Are there other potential cataclysms which you believe we should prepare for or attempt to prevent?

    Let’s examine the two salient points you have made: 1) Global warming could be at least partially caused by mankind and 2) Abrupt global warming has the theoretical possibility of destroying civiliation as we know it.

    The problem is, Mr. Posner, I think these two points apply to any number of potential cataclysms (uncertainty of probability and potential cataclysm). I am assuming that you are deferring to the scientific community on the probablity of the doomsday global warming scenario is high enough to warrant concern. What are the estimates of the probablity of global warming cataclysms? Are there any reliable estimates?

    I think you have put too much faith into our understanding of climate and weather (as you alluded to, chaos theory seems to suggest prediction and modeling after a point is impossible).

    If you concede that our best scientists are pretty much in the dark about the probabilities of global warming catastrophe (or to what degree mankind effects global warming), then how do justify your attention to global warming in particular? As an economist, Mr. Posner, you are certainly aware of the cardinal rule–scarce resources must be allocated efficiently.

    In short, how do you propose we are supposed to deal with the uncertainties which plague this issue and how do you justify your particular concern with global warming (and not other potential civilization-destroying cataclysms)?

    If I buy your argument, then I am only left with the unanswerable question–why global warming? Can we prepare for every possible cataclysm? No. So why global warming, Mr. Posner? Again, where is the skeptic found in so much of your work? Where is the pragmatism, Judge?


  2. Guan Yang says:

    Bj�rn Lomborg is not really a statistician. His background is in political science.

  3. Ian Gregory says:

    There is a Copenhagen Consensus entry at disinfopedia but it has not been updated since 2004-06-03. Perhaps anyone with any useful information would care to contribute?

  4. Who would you propose to determine the relative merits of different aid packages if not economists? Economic cost benefit analysis at least has well thought out methods for dealing with uncertainty, measurement of non-monetary costs, and future benefits and costs. Secondly, they did not rank global warming last, they ranked 3 proposals for dealing with global warming last (i.e., there are probably proposals that economists would rank higher, they just weren’t submitted).

  5. sPh says:

    Speaking as an engineer, it always amuses me to watch the two groups who have self-selected themselves to be “expert generalists” in all fields, able to tell even the experts what to do: lawyers and economists.

    So I have to say a clash between a lawyer and a bunch of economists over who is more expert than the experts is even funnier than usual.

    Of course, lawyers and economists are in agreement about one thing: no one outside their own field is competent to level even the mildest criticism or suggestion concerning law or economics.


  6. Peter says:

    Judge Posner, you are of course right that serious generalists can critique in whichever field they want providing they meet certain conditions – my point was rather that one generalist ought not criticise other generalists on these grounds. It seems a circular approach. They ought to concentrate on the substantive issues which of course you do.
    However I think sPh has a good point – economics is one of the true generalist subjects, so any economist has grounds to comment on how scarce resources are allocated.
    On these substantive issues – if you have time I would be interested in a response to my second point from earlier: what type of international institutions would you like to see based on your implication that allowing poor populations to medicate themselves will be self-defeating. On climate, I presume you want to operate through Kyoto or some such institution – how would you deal with malaria…given your earlier comments?

  7. A question: how come insurance companies aren’t leading the fight against global warming? It seems like they would have the biggest incentives to prevent coastal flooding. It also seems like they would have enough money, for what it is worth, to hire some “experts.” Maybe insurance companies are out there fighting global warming and I just haven’t heard about it?

  8. David – a few possibilities:
    1. There is a public good element to political lobbying, so that a company that chooses to lobby bears all the costs while the benefits are enjoyed by all insurance companies (in that particular insurance market).
    2. Insurance companies know that there is implicit government re-insurance against huge disaster. Just as the airlines can expect periodic bailouts, so too can the insurance companies if something catastrophic happens.
    3. If people anticipate disaster, premiums go up. In a sense, the riskier the world is, the more profitable the insurance business is. If this is true, insurance companies might not have any particular interest in warding off future disasters.
    4. The insurance companies ARE lobbying to stop global warming, and you just haven’t heard about it (this is merely a possibility, I don’t know of any such lobbying). My friend worked for an insurance company, and he said they were very active in lobbying for environmental and workplace safety issues.

  9. As far as #4, things like the info at the following link really make me wonder:


  10. It seems to me that there is a critical factor being left out of the global warming debate. Certainly, the there is some room for debate regarding how much influence human beings have over long-term climate change (although I think the room for debate is a bit less than the most vocal critics want to promote.) However, there is not much room for debate regarding the impact of increasing consumption vs. increasing difficulty extracting usable fossil fuels.

    Automakers and energy companies are making non-trivial R&D developments into alternative fuels, energy sources and mass transportation. I don’t think this is done out of any guilty nacient environmentalism, but out of a view to a probable future market where the costs of oil become prohibitive. Likewise funding by European countries into nuclear, ocean and wind energy appears to be driven as much by a desire to retain status as an economic power as environmentalism. The view seems to be that it is better to start weaning away from oil dependence now, than to wait for oil prices to skyrocket. When I read British periodicals about the issue I’m struck by the sense that global warming is treated as one facet of a debate about creating a competitive energy policy for the next 50 years.

    Frequently, economic opportunities are made possible by transitions between energy sources. The Industrial Revolution took off with the invention of seam-powered water pumps made necessary because charcoal became prohibitively expensive in England. Petrolium took off with the decline of the whaling industry. As we saw with areospace in the 50s and microcomputers in the 70s, a small amount of government funding early can turn into hugely profitable industries a few decades down the road.

  11. N. WILHELM says:

    “…a basic lack of intellectual seriousness.”

    Thank you for bringing to attention (again) a problem that handicaps a lot of decisions made in respect to our wellbeing as a species in the future.
    Some, if not the majority of decision makers rather cater to the “public opinion” than to the realities of the issue at hand.

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