Covid To Climate Change: Bayesian Updating
My media diet is regrettably monochromatic in its leftwing bias, so I find myself growing irrationally optimistic about how seriously we will take climate change when Covid is finally out of our collective consciousness, or at least less overwhelmingly part of it. I tend to believe optimism in general is naive, and optimism when it comes to such a complicated, high-stakes low-probability, negative-presence event (we’ll never know it’s real except if it happens) is specifically impossible to justify. So this is a post to meet my cynical half halfway and at least half-justify a case for half-optimism. First, I gain the trust of cyn-me saying the binary choices of ‘climate change awareness will be a winner/loser’ is inadequate. None of the cognitive biases that caused us to take it less seriously have gone away with Covid, many of them are strengthened, some new ones have entered the game. A Bayesian view of this gets a little closer to understanding shifts in attitude. Given a certain attitude towards climate change, how has the evidence we’ve got from Covid updated our beliefs?
Things the 4 quadrants each learned from Covid
Q1: Used to believe, still do: Humans are fragile, in the long run nature always wins, unless we actively protect against it. Our belief is confirmed that small butterfly wing flaps (someone ate a bat, no biggie) can snowball into a global catastrophe unfurling at a terrifying speed that puts us permanently on catch-up mode, unless we prepare. We can’t wait and see and react. Scientists are infallible, we should all shutup and do what they say. Politicians and the public are bumbling incompetent oafs at best, moronic selfish psychopaths at worst, we should all just ignore them entirely or better yet actively insult them into shutting up. Our protection against civilizational collapse is laughably inadequate, susceptible to the tiniest of shocks. Scientists have been warning us about this for decades, and we just ignored them because it was more important to build a temple on a mosque, a mosque on a church, and a church on the moon. Politicians have somehow found a way to make us do everything we laugh at stupid children for, burying heads in the sand, being easily distracted by candy, never failing to fall for the ‘look there’ trick, and being proud of our displayed agency when we are given a choice between eating poop or broccoli we eat the broccoli then convincing ourselves broccoli must be awesome otherwise we wouldn’t have chosen it. The poop, the candy, the lion, and the lack of ‘anything there’ have all been exposed now. Time to listen to the scientists.
Q2: Didn’t used to believe, now I do: I thought climate change was a low probability event not worth sacrificing for, but then a global pandemic was a low probability event too. Now it’s here, and everybody’s shocked except the scientists. When shit hits the fan, only one thing matters, how human reason can triumph over a dangerous world. Nobody knew what they were talking about except the scientists. While everybody guessed, hemmed/hawed, virtue-signalled, projected personal biases and generally played stupid political games winning stupid physical prizes, only the scientists quietly stuck to the task of figuring out what to do. When data was nebulous, news was misleading, and people were all unanimously wrong, they tried churning out our best estimates from impoverished ambiguous information. When data got better, they actively tried to prove themselves wrong while politicians saved face and doubled down and pandered to plausible deniability. The scientists mercilessly tried to poke holes in one another in an attempt to get one step closer to an objective truth, even while the non-scientific community mercilessly poked holes in the very institution of science since their theories had demonstrated holes. If truth is what I’m after, I have more confidence that the scientific community will be unable to quietly sit atop a bucket of flaming lies pretending everything is fine and blaming the smoke on our imagination, political bias and cooking skills. I have zero confidence that I can put any faith in the media or the politicians to keep me well-informed, they’re more interested in how I should feel about the information than the information itself, whether it suits their needs. The quintessential tragic character isn’t Achilles, Oedipus, Dent, or Vader, it’s Cassandra. Models don’t have to be perfect, they just need to constantly improving with an accuracy that continuously diverges positively from random guesses and Ouija board answers cross referenced with the Old Testament.
Q3: Didn’t used to believe, still don’t: It’s all a wolf-crying conspiracy. I didn’t read the end of that story because it was so obvious from the start that wolves are an imaginary creation of the social elites scaring us into submission, I don’t really need to read the ending to know the ending. Big dogs with teeth, give me a break cityslickers. They make a big deal out of everything, and then expect me to believe what they want. This was just a bad flu, sure it was worse because it was novel, but people die all the time, more people die of heart disease, malaria, diarrhoea and diabetes, we don’t close the entire country down and give the police rights to shoot fat people who aren’t seen running enough laps around the park. They fabricate the lies they need to pretend they’re relieving us of our rights, money, and future opportunities for our own good as if we won’t notice that all those rights, money and opportunities seem to be getting mysteriously added to theirs. Tyranny prospers in fear and uncertainty, it’s always politically propitious to be a calamity Jane, prepare for the worst and then take credit for things being better than projected. #RedPill
Q4: Used to believe, don’t any more: There aren’t 4 estates of clergy, nobility, media, and public, restated as state, science/business, media, and public. There’s merely powerless public and powerful agenda-driven nexus of state, science and media with the single agenda of holding onto that power. The state wants to enforce a lockdown, they get the media to hype up the danger, and the scientists to make bogus chicken-little Imperial models knowing we’ll think they can’t all be wrong. Then when they want to justify their incompetence, they’ll get the media to say we’ve been successful, and the scientists to make bogus models about herd immunity and false positives. We can’t trust any of them, but at least we get to vote in or out our politicians, what control do we have over the scientists? We owe them nothing. They clearly think we’re idiots. They’re idiots too. They use faulty models, don’t realize the statistical significance of even a small false positive in a population with low incidence making any positive basically a coin-flip. Their Imperial ‘stochastic’ model could have been improved by a kid playing Minecraft in a few hours. Not only do their models not replicate with others, they don’t even replicate with a second run of the data through the same model!
Given these are the shifts in attitude, the biases at play with each quadrant, and the relative populations inhabiting each quadrant, what exactly does a case for optimism rest on?
- Q1+Q2 is the majority: Doesn’t matter what changed, as long as believers are now the majority, we can be optimistic about climate change.
- Q2 is large: Doesn’t matter if believers outnumber the rest, what’s important is that people rationally change their mind when given compelling information. If Q2 is large, it means we have an engaged, informed, and thinking public that ensures society is learning from its mistakes and being better because of it.
- Ratio of Q2/(Q2+Q3) is large: Doesn’t matter if Q2 is large, as long as the % of non-believers who are converted because of Covid is large. Status-quo bias is very strong, like surface tension or a phalax, penetrating that first layer is the difficult part, needing a shock-event like Covid. After that mask is taken off, climate change acceptance will steadily grow.
- Q4 is very small: Doesn’t matter what goes on in Q1–2–3, as long as Q4 is kept small. Science is fighting an uphill battle against politics and religion. Conversion was hard-fought but well worth the trouble because converts are high-value customers. They’re worth more to us than new converts who were anyway less inclined towards science otherwise the would’ve converted already. Remission is a dangerous period, and the comfort of religion and petty politics is a tempting mistress. Minimizing Q4 is the top priority. If this has been small despite the many highly publicized attempts to malign science during Covid, then that is also an indication of an engaged, informed, thinking public.
If I accept that the case for optimism lies in a weighted average of these 4 variables, cyn-me will need to concede one important result of Covid. Conversation. Everybody is talking about science. That’s already a huge victory and arguably a leading indicator for the impending rise of Q2. Saying the model is wrong is still a whole lot better than not knowing such things as models exist, or that the concept of a model is heresy or entertainment. The seriousness of Covid can be denied, the accuracy and motives of science can be questioned, and the moral and practical lessons to be derived from the crisis can be argued, but what can’t be debated is the fact that a little bat spread a single RNA strand that conquered the world simultaneously in the blink of an eye. That was never part of the plan. It is now. Update that first.
“The world will never know you existed at all.”
“The world will know.. that free men stood against a tyrant, that few stood against many.. and before this battle was over, that even a God King can bleed.”