Greg Craven - What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

September 18, 2009

Greg Craven is a high school science teacher and climate change activist from Oregon. His new book is What's the Worst That Could Happen? A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Greg Craven discusses the youtube video on global warming he created that now has nearly 8 million views. He talks about applying game theory to the "decision paralysis" people have surrounding the global warming debate, using a "decision grid." He explores misunderstandings most people have about the nature of science, and whether or not science can provide certainty about important questions facing society. He emphasizes as a starting point the acknowledgement, whether one is a skeptic of global warming or a "panicked activist," that one could be wrong about global warming. He argues that the evidence is not what is most important in the climate change debate, because each side has "evidence" to support its conclusions. He talks about "confirmation bias," and how it makes it difficult to find out the truth about global warming. He explains why it is less important to personally live "green," and why others kinds of social environmentalist activism is more important. He details why America's mobilization in World War II and also modern social networking on the internet are the only two things that give him hope regarding responsibly responding to climate change.

Books Mentioned in This Episode:


Links Mentioned in This Episode:

Greg Craven - A different take on Global Warming
The Most Terrifying Video You'll Ever See
CFI Michigan: Science, Magic & Skepticism Workshop

Related Episodes

Chris Mooney - Storm World
August 17, 2007

Comments from the CFI Forums

If you would like to leave a comment about this episode of Point of Inquiry please visit the related thread on the CFI discussion forums

The argument (as expressed in the seat belt analogy) sounds like “just-in-case” Christianity. Science can’t disprove the existence of god, so you’re better off believing just in case. You can’t prove impending doom from anthropogenic climate change, but you’re better off behaving as though it’s real—just in case.

Posted on Nov 06, 2009 at 10:00am by thecardiffgiant Comment #1

One could make Greg Craven’s argument when discussing almost any serious dilemma. It would inevitably lead to comparing two worst cases and acting to prevent the worst of the worst. How is that not a fallacious approach?

Dick Cheney infamously used this logic in his “1% Doctrine.” Here’s the Cheney quote from Ron Suskind’s book: “If there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It’s not about our analysis ... It’s about our response.”

Let’s look at the possibility of nukes in Iran. Draw the Craven decision matrix. Inevitable conclusion (cue John McCain singing): bomb, bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.

Posted on Nov 06, 2009 at 2:49pm by eatapc Comment #2

I don’t think it’s accurate or fair to compare Craven’s risk strategy with Pascal’s wager.  Craven, as outlined in the PoI episode and in detail on his various You Tube presentations, uses the considerable amount of evidence amassed as a weighting factor.  Pascal’s wager doesn’t have the benefit of evidence to back it up, and falls back on philosophical footwork.

Posted on Nov 08, 2009 at 2:27pm by brian paget Comment #3

I don’t think it’s accurate or fair to compare Craven’s risk strategy with Pascal’s wager.  Craven, as outlined in the PoI episode and in detail on his various You Tube presentations, uses the considerable amount of evidence amassed as a weighting factor.  Pascal’s wager doesn’t have the benefit of evidence to back it up, and falls back on philosophical footwork.

I agree: “There might be a really pissed off deity out there so we better believe in him” is a whole different line of logic than looking at historical data points to identify trends and making predictions of what the rise in CO2 will do to acidify our oceans and heat the atmosphere, especially when it seems to be worrying the majority of our best and brightest who study climate for a living.

Posted on Nov 10, 2009 at 10:48am by fausinator Comment #4

Pascal’s Wager is an argument from ignorance: “Even if we didn’t know anything about God, we should still believe he exists, because not believing would be so dire.” The problem is that it makes the unjustified assumption that one particular sort of Christian deity is the only possible God.

However, there are an infinite number of possible sorts of God, so the wager (“better to believe in [this] God than not to”) falls apart. Which God are you supposed to believe in? Any of them could be jealous Gods. Or, indeed, any of them could be a rationalist God who doesn’t like people who kowtow to jealous Gods ...

The question is whether Craven’s strategy falls afoul of the same sort of counterargument.

Sure, it’s possible that future climate could be very different from that which the global warming proponents theorize. But this isn’t simply an argument from ignorance. It’s not, “We don’t know anything about the climate, so let’s pretend that it will be warming in the future.” That would be clearly fallacious. It’s rather, “The best evidence we have now is that the climate will be warming in the future. That evidence isn’t perfect, so we’re going on limited information, but the costs of neglecting the evidence could be very dire indeed, so it is in our interest to make some steps towards decreasing our output of greenhouse gases.”

So I don’t think this is the same as Pascal’s Wager.

Posted on Nov 10, 2009 at 11:17am by dougsmith Comment #5

The worst that could happen is that Global warming isn’t as inevitable as it is touted to be. But in the meantime the amounts of poisons that are leaching into the groundwater, and the particulates, and toxic vapors that are permeating the air finally reach such a critical mass that Cancer and other diseases are finally accepted officially as the number one side-effect of Pollution.
NPR had a little bit on the other nite about this River in Michigan. During the 80’s it made National News(like lots of other sites) for being contaminated with Dioxin. Now nobody remembers that River. And it was disclosed that the EPA let the Big Chemical Company take part in the final official draft for the Analytical Findings of the EPA Study. Ha Ha Ha.
You….me….we are Bought and Paid for! Remember that the next time you have to visit your loved one in the Cancer Ward.
It isn’t Global Warming that is going to kill us….it’s Toxins. They already are.
The man who was in charge of the Branch of the EPA was highly critical of the system. I can’t remember his name…he went on to serve 2 terms as Lithuania’s President. He said the problem with the EPA was endemic. I can’t remember if he resigned in disgust or just left to go back to Lithuania….Reagan gave Him the highest Civil Service Decoration for integrity.
It’s Toxins….that’s the worst that could happen! I hope Global Warming isn’t misdirecting the focus.

Posted on Nov 10, 2009 at 7:24pm by VYAZMA Comment #6

As I listened to this episode of PoI, my immediate response was that Craven’s argument is a variation on Pascal’s Wager, just like earlier posters, and I still feel that way after thinking about it for a bit.  His position as articulated during the interview was based on the idea that each side has their evidence, and that his risk assessment approach allows one to determine a course of action without a detailed understanding or evaluation of it.  Risk assessment certainly has it place in determining how to approach this (or any) problem, but it cannot be divorced from consideration of the evidence.  I applaud his efforts here, and he certainly brings a fresh angle to the public discourse on this subject, but the evidence must be considered when assessing the likelihood of the various outcomes against their consequences.  Otherwise, this argument is functionally equivalent to Pascal’s Wager.

Has anyone out there read his book?  Craven mentioned during the interview that he has refined his arguments and addressed weaknesses (again, very commendable), but he didn’t go into the details with DJ.  I’ve got to believe that this was one of the first objections he heard.

Having said that, I was very impressed with Craven’s communication skills, and his emphasis on confirmation bias and admitting to one’s self the possibility that one might be wrong on this (or any other) topic.  These concepts are the best inoculation against fundamentalism of all stripes.

Posted on Nov 11, 2009 at 9:22am by 19Winston67 Comment #7

Pascal’s Wager is an argument from ignorance: “Even if we didn’t know anything about God, we should still believe he exists, because not believing would be so dire.”

Technically, Pascal’s Wager is a Prudential argument, not an argument from ignorance.  Prudential arguments are not necessarily fallacious.  However, you’re correct to say that Pascal’s Wager “falls apart,” and for some of the reasons you cite, and primarily because there is no evidence for the existence god.  It wouldn’t be prudent to believe in something for which there is no evidence.  There is, however, a good deal of evidence that global warming is indeed happening and that the activities of human beings can have an impact on it.  Thus, Craven’s prudential argument is a good argument whereas Pascal’s is not.  Of course, you seem to suggest the same in the latter part of your post, so I guess I’m just nit-picking. 

Here’s a quote from DJ paraphrasing Craven: “You don’t need certain knowledge in order to have reliable enough knowledge to act.”

A fallacious argument from ignorance is: “You cannot prove that god does not exist, therefore god exists.”  We’ve all heard that one before!?!  :-/

Posted on Nov 11, 2009 at 3:39pm by Pragmatic Naturalist Comment #8

Craven mentioned during the interview that he has refined his arguments and addressed weaknesses (again, very commendable), but he didn’t go into the details with DJ.  I’ve got to believe that this was one of the first objections he heard..

Winston was right.  Pascal’s Wager was the very first (and most fatal) hole in my original video that was pointed out, and it’s what turned a simple project (a ten-minute video) into two years of sprinting hell, leading through 8 hours of videos to the damn book.

I encourage you all to read it.  Obviously, the response to all the concerns here is too detailed to give here (that’s why it’s a book—and only about half of what I wrote made it into the final book).

In short, while I thought I was writing a book about climate change, it turned out that I wrote a book about how a lay person can go about making the best decision they can with the time they have regarding a complex, urgent issue that contains uncertainty.  It details a fairly simple system, including the cheesy (but sincere) device of blank templates for the reader to fill out, and the final chapter “Reader’s Conclusion:  Some Assembly Required.”

If you read it and have suggestions on deficiencies, fallacies, or suggestions for improvements (these are the most helpful of criticisms), please share them in the discussion forums at manpollo.org.  It was this dialectical process that led to a book that I’m pretty damn proud of, and fairly confident that it’s well-refined.  My conversations with Richard Lindzen of MIT (the chief skeptical scientist) about my ideas early in the writing process even led him (in my opinion) to write a non-peer-reviewed article as a pre-emptive strike on one of my central ideas:  http://arxiv.org/abs/0809.3762

Please do take the time to pursue this issue.  I’ll buy you a drink if you do, but end up thinking it wasn’t worth your time and your ten bucks (on Amazon).

Thanks,
Greg Craven

Posted on Nov 12, 2009 at 10:48am by Greg Craven Comment #9

The argument (as expressed in the seat belt analogy) sounds like “just-in-case” Christianity. Science can’t disprove the existence of god, so you’re better off believing just in case. You can’t prove impending doom from anthropogenic climate change, but you’re better off behaving as though it’s real—just in case.

I was thinking of Pascal’s Thermal Wager myself…


http://www.skeptic.com/the_magazine/featured_articles/v14n01_climate_of_belief.html

Posted on Nov 12, 2009 at 5:45pm by Jackson Comment #10

Before deciding between the two columns, I would like to know what the possible worst outcome would be if trying to prevent global warming. Would something like “a really bad depression” be the end of it? Could this lead to a really bad war for example? Maybe acting to prevent global warming (even though the danger was not there) would result in outcomes as bad as not acting and suffering from the disastrous future shaped by global warming; in which case we are almost better off not doing anything so that we get to enjoy “life as we know it” for a little longer.

Posted on Nov 13, 2009 at 9:30am by George Comment #11

No, I am wrong: If acting to prevent GW would end up in a global disaster then we are better off not doing anything simply because there still is a chance that GW won’t be as bad as we think.

Posted on Nov 13, 2009 at 9:38am by George Comment #12

George, how would action to prevent climate change present the scenario you suggest?  Wouldn’t climate change increase the chances of conflict due to resource depletion and population movement?

Posted on Nov 13, 2009 at 4:55pm by brian paget Comment #13

Hi Brian,

My answer is: I don’t know. All I was trying to say is that I don’t see the problem as black and white as does Greg Craven. As far as I know (and let’s be honest, I don’t much at all :-)), in order to slow down global warming (assuming it is caused by us—which I do believe is the case), the economy would either have to come to a complete stagnation, or we would have to “eliminate” the number of people on our planet. How would our society react to “a really bad depression”? Until we have at least some idea how we may respond to such a scenario, I just don’t see the column A solution to be as clear as Greg Craven may suggest.

Posted on Nov 13, 2009 at 8:30pm by George Comment #14

Mr. Craven,
I very much appreciate your efforts, and to a large degree your basic argument for critical thinking as made on the podcast.
Further, I fervently wish all high school science teachers - and parents - were as thoughtful, intelligent, and dedicated as you appear to be.
But contra what you (I think) asserted, it seems logical to me to do both as much as possible of the sort of energy conserving activities suggested by folks like Al Gore and to act to increase critical thinking and political will among the populace, rather than to ignore one at the expense of the other.

In any event, I came to this thread hoping to find a link to your original youtube video, which I believe was promised in the podcast.
I’m sure a simple search on youtube will bring it up.
My plan is to avoid offering any further analysis or criticism of your efforts and arguments until I at least see and possibly read more of them.

Also, regarding youtube, I noticed that Ben Radford and DJ also discussed how useful youtube has become in spreading knowledge and ideas.  It is a great new tool!

Posted on Nov 23, 2009 at 11:05am by Trail Rider Comment #15

Have now watched both Mr. Craven’s original video and an improved version, “How it all ends.”

The second version is very much improved, dispensing as it does with the Pascal’s Wager issue, which is to say that evidence/rational probability is presented as an indispensable factor, instead of reliance only on Pascalian worst case scenarios.

However, I think the “How it all ends” video still suffers from two severe problems, not for me, but for hope of broader public acceptance.  As that video stands, I suspect its primary use will be as a sort of a pitch pipe for the already persuaded choir.

Chances are my concerns have already been addressed in some subsequent video or in Mr. Craven’s book.  If so, which video is now the best one to forward per Mr. Craven’s suggestion?

Here are those concerns:

1 - Few people who have not already grasped the importance and relevance of the overwhelming consensus on this issue will be persuaded by any scientific organization, no matter how august.  So holding up signs for the NAS and NAAS, even when accompanied by the names of lots of self-promoting, amoral, PR oriented, corporations seems a real weak point.  At root, it seems that by now,  individual citizens can either understand and pay attention to the weight of evidence and expert consensus or they can or will not.

2- Sadly, I think the likelihood that the U.S. public, not to mention the broader world (um, China?), will respond with an intensity such as occurred the day after Pearl Harbor is right around nil, because the “enemy” is not a different looking or at least different language speaking bunch of “aliens” who are killing us with known weapons and who live in a specific far away place.  In the case of the climate, the enemy is us - every human in every developed country, doing all kinds of things that we ALL do, every single day.  Can humanity really focus on such a nebulous “enemy” with the requisite energy?  I’m not putting my money on that wager, for my part.

So as not to end in an utterly depressing manner, I really liked Mr. Craven’s point in his videos that the terms “warming” and “climate change” are misleading and unhelpful, and the the really obvious chain effects will and are the result of destabilization, that is change in climate PATTERNS which occur TOO RAPIDLY.
I think it may have been Thomas Friedman who suggested that teachers, formal and otherwise, start explaining the situation as “global weirding.”  That seems to me an effective and memorable term.

Posted on Nov 24, 2009 at 10:08pm by Trail Rider Comment #16

Have now watched both Mr. Craven’s original video and an improved version, “How it all ends.”

Chances are my concerns have already been addressed in some subsequent video or in Mr. Craven’s book.  If so, which video is now the best one to forward per Mr. Craven’s suggestion?

Ditto.

I heard the podcast on Thursday, saw the youtube on Friday and made this (pdf below) today. I think I reached the same conclusion as the first round of critics on my own.

http://jukebox-review.com/skeptic/GregCravenSquareApplied2God.pdf

Posted on Nov 29, 2009 at 3:34am by afd Comment #17

This editorial by Thomas Friedman, entitled Going Cheney on Climate, relates both to the logic and substance of Mr. Craven’s argument.

Posted on Dec 09, 2009 at 7:18am by Trail Rider Comment #18