Bryan Caplan  

What, Me Worry?

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I'm skeptical about all predictions of disaster. I'm predictably skeptical about doom-and-gloom predictions used to rationalize big expansions of government power: global warming, overpopulation, avian flu, resource depletion, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, "Mexifornia," etc. But I've also long raised my eyebrow when libertarians predicted a Clintonian coup, hyper-inflation, or an American re-run of the Weimar republic.

There's not enough time in the day for me to know enough about all of these disasters to doubt them on their specific merits. But I do it anyway. How do I justify it?

The superficial reason is that people are trying to get attention, which leads to a "race to the scariest story." That's true, but it hardly seems strong enough to justify my blanket skepticism. The fact that people exaggerate hardly proves that the end is not nigh.

My deep reason is simpler: The fact that we've gotten as far as we have shows that true disaster must be extremely rare. Unless fears almost always failed to materialize, we'd already be back in the Stone Age, or plain extinct. It's overwhelmingly unlikely that we've gotten lucky a million times in a row. Thus, unlike my co-blogger, I think there is a good reason to expect global warming to be milder than models predict. Namely: As a rule, disasters are milder than predicted.

Now you could say: "That was then, this is now." Maybe modern conditions are so different that you can't generalize from the past. All I can say here is that social conditions have radically changed many, many times, and we're still here. We've gone from hunting and gathering to agriculture to industrialism to the information age. We've gone from tribalism to city-states to monarchy to democracy. Each step of the way, someone could have semi-plausibly denied that the past remained a useful guide to the future. And each step of the way, they've been wrong.

Dickens wrote wisely: The more things change, the more they remain the same. Problems come and go, but smart money says that things are going to work out.


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The author at Caveat Bettor in a related article titled Another note of doubt for Da Bears to heed writes:
    Two Bryan Caplan posts in one TS day! [Tracked on August 9, 2006 1:14 PM]
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    Members of the true reality-based community understand that atmospheric science does not give the final answer about what, if anything, governments should do to combat global warming. Global temperatures might well be rising, and human commerce and ind... [Tracked on August 13, 2006 10:06 AM]
COMMENTS (18 to date)
Matthew Cromer writes:
Now you could say: "That was then, this is now." Maybe modern conditions are so different that you can't generalize from the past. All I can say here is that social conditions have radically changed many, many times, and we're still here. We've gone from hunting and gathering to agriculture to industrialism to the information age. We've gone from tribalism to city-states to monarchy to democracy. Each step of the way, someone could have semi-plausibly denied that the past remained a useful guide to the future. And each step of the way, they've been wrong.

If you go further back into the past, the universe went from a single point of time/space/energy, formed atoms, gas clouds, stars and galaxies, merged hydrogen into helium into the heavier elements, and on earth at least yet more complexities arose - thousands of mineral species in rock types, plate tectonics, the weather cycle, living organisms from single-celled prokaryotes to colonies forming the first eukaryotes, on to multicellular life and its increasing complexities until the invention of culture. Holons built up from holons built up from holons, and yet more holons emerging through every phase of evolution: cosmological, biological, and now cultural.

Almost makes you wanna think there's a dynamic imperative going on. . .

Dan Landau writes:

People like to scare themselves, I think half the predictions of doom come from that. Most ex-communists are environmentalists, if the evil market economy wasn’t destroyed by socialism, at least it will be destroyed by the environment.

On the other hand, if any past predicted dooms had happened, we wouldn’t be discussing the issue. Furthermore, as Fermi asked, “Where are they?” If progress from primitive beasts to intelligent civilization has a reasonable probability, why haven’t the Galactic neighbors stopped in to say hello? Maybe we have been incredibly lucky to make it to the Internet Age on the 3rd rock from Sol.

RogerM writes:

An old econ professor told our class once that the most common mistake people make is to assume the good times will last forever. The second is that they believe the bad times will last forever.

Ronnie Horesh writes:
Unless fears almost always failed to materialize, we'd already be back in the Stone Age, or plain extinct.

'We'? Quite a few disasters did materialise, especially for those people who didn't make it. Your optimism is for the survival of the species: we could assure that by sending a fertile human couple off into outer space, and then letting climate change or nuclear weaponry do their worst to the rest of us. While you might be happy with that, I wouldn't....

Tyler Cowen writes:

What about the Anthropic Principle? I doubt if how you would approach "The Argument from Design" is consistent with this blog post. Not to mention the Bayesian literature which tries to draw inferences from how long we have been around already...Nick Bostrom criticizes this approach for not specifying the appropriate "reference class." He is right, but surely the proper response is not the simple view that catastrophe is unlikely. Then there is the Fermi paradox...

ed writes:

Jared Diamond's book "Collapse" was meant to show us that disasters actually do happen to societies. The main examples he come up with, though, are Greenland and Easter Island. The fact that these societies are so small, unusual and tennuous to begin with only undermines his main point.

GSL writes:

If people have always been worrying (too much) about potential disasters, then they may also have been acting on those fears. Perhaps those actions are what is responsible for our still being here...

TGGP writes:

GSL, if other people will always worry for me, why should I worry?

Rick Stewart writes:

Let me be blunt - I only worry about myself. I want a reasonable amount of additional time to enjoy my life on earth, at a minimum I'd like to beat the actuarial odds. But even if I were to consistently beat them and become the oldest human on earth, I will still die, therefore it is nothing to worry about, especially since after it happens I won't really be bothered by it any more.

The reason I don't worry about all the people in the world who are 'dying early,' for whatever reasons, is that, on a personal level, I cannot really help them. On a group level I do my best, but I recognize that in my attempts I am not only a single voice but there are other people out there who, with good intentions, are actually working against me. Thus my chances of success are ridiculously low, therefore worrying about it would serve no one, certainly not myself.

I do not worry about my (4) children or my (3) grandchildren in a future sense, that is after I am gone. Why should I? They will be faced with more or less the same challenges as I am, they have more or less the same chances of being successful, and since there are more of them than there are of me there is a far greater chance that some of them will be unsuccessful. It's just math, so there is no reason to worry about it.

I don't worry about the future of the human species, or societal collapse, because at worst it will shorten my life, which could also be shortened considerably by other more likely events such as an auto accident or a fall down my steps. Worrying about those two possibilities seems futile, better to drive prudently and use the handrails.

Disaster is defined by the individual, not the group. I can let all the other members of my group (humans) do the worrying for me, at no cost to myself unless they start forcing me to waste my remaining time on earth reading their predictions. And I'm not going to worry about that.

Bruce Cleaver writes:

Bryan -

You may want to chew on the following two events:

Toba
Geminga Supernova

Randy writes:

Rick - Exactly!

David Youngberg writes:

Ed:

Jared Diamond's book was actually brought up at an IHS seminar I was in a couple of weeks ago, the Easter Island example in particular. For those that don't know the story, the way those Islanders moved the stones for those big heads is on tree logs, a strange thing because the island has no trees. Eventually archeologists figured out that the people just cut them all down, not surprising since nobody owned them.

This was surprising to Diamond, though, who asked "What was that lumberjack thinking when he cut down that last, lone tree?" The answer is, of course, "I gotta get this tree before someone else does." The lesson of the story is that institutions make all the difference.

I don't quite agree with Bryan that "Oh we haven't been wiped out yet thus it probably won't happen." It only takes a single large meteor heading in the wrong direction to disprove that. What I think we SHOULD remember is given our great institutions in the West (private property, rule of law), we can be sure to adapt nicely to virtually any of these overwhelming disasters people like to try to scare everyone with.

I personally am looking forward to going scuba diving in Manhattan if it goes under sea level.

Carl Shulman writes:

Bryan, why should survival through repeated changes in *social* conditions convince us that there is little existential risk from new *technological* conditions that have never before existed (nuclear weapons, engineered plagues, self-replicating robotic weapons, AI, etc)?

Also, other smaller disasters are not so uncommon historically: fears about avian flu, in addition to being rooted in the biology of H5N1, are supported by numerous previous pandemics (including 5% worldwide fatalities in the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, smaller pandemics in the 20th century, large flu pandemics in previous centuries, the Black Death, etc). Losing as much as a third of the population to the Black Death didn't destroy Europe, but it was certainly a disaster for the people of the time!

Of course, the probability of such a pandemic is less than 1, but a 5% chance of a 1918-1919-style disaster still makes existing measures very reasonable on an expected-value basis. This is particularly true because improvements in vaccine production and the like are generally applicable to other viral disease.

Also, observer selection effects are worth thinking about:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doomsday_argument
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermi_paradox

A. PERLA writes:

Caplan : I think there is a good reason to expect global warming models to be milder than models predict.

I admire your stoicism, even if I think it is exaggerated.

The “can you top this” tendency, particularly in the blogosphere, is a modern day phenomenon, inspired by Hollywood scare movies and furthered by the ability of just about anyone (including me) to post an opinion.

Nations do not blunder into catastrophe. They slide into it. (No attribution necessary to that simple remark.) It took America, for instance, ten long years to prepare for the dot.com bust that began in January of 2001. Clintonomics juiced by loose Fed policy prompted a wild expansion of the economy, and hi-tech magnates made fortunes manipulating IPO’s. Some people made a lot of money, but many lost their shirts.

The recovery has been slow, and frankly I wonder if I, personally, will ever fully recuperate the financial loss. A catastrophe? Yes, for me.

Was it foreseeable? Entirely. The Economist has abundantly reported upon the possibility, citing the Tulip Bubble in Holland of the 19th century.

Who was taking note? Certainly not me. I blundered blissfully into a financial catastrophe.

C'est la vie.

Caplan: I think there is a good reason to expect global warming models to be milder than models predict.

You are quite possibly right. It is difficult to distinguish whether global warming is due to a natural cycle in the earth’s temperatures or to high C02 emissions. Does that mean I should NOT by my home by the sea? Probably not.

Or, how about that massive explosion of a volcano on the east coast of Africa that is preparing to jump-start a giant tsunami that will wash away life-as-we-know-it on the entire eastern seaboard of America? (Reported on the National Geographic channel to boot.) Should I think twice about that home overlooking the Atlantic? Hmmmnnn. Makes one think, I’d say.

Our lack of understanding clearly of these threats … is that really a bona fide justification for America to ignore the Kyoto Agreement and pollute the earth (per capita) more than any other developed nation on this planet? Methinks not.

It seems apparent, to me, that the sooner we get away from the carbon-molecule source of energy, the better. Then why aren’t governments colluding on a crash-program to develop economic fuel cells or other sources?

Because we are spending billions in a far off war … and that is REALLY important? Wow, the mind boggles.

As I said, a nation doesn’t trip into catastrophe, it meanders into it. Quite lackadaisically, and the trap shuts tight. And, then, the finger pointing starts … a bit too late, I’d say.

Throughout the history of mankind catastrophes, both political and natural, have occurred and yes life goes on - for those who remained. The indomitable spirit of human beings is why we survive. Most of us, but not all.

matt writes:

"The fact that we've gotten as far as we have shows that true disaster must be extremely rare."

How "far" have we gotten? And who's "we"? Call me when "we" have been around as long as the dinosaurs. Or better yet... ferns. Seeing how we can predate human civilization going back a whole three generations of some trees I don't know what you're talking about. Speaking of human civilization (we), say life popped up on this here planet 500 million years ago (actually longer but who's counting). "We" account for a whopping .004% of that time period even if I give "us" 20,000 years in that calculation. Yay! Go humans!

Penalty on Caplan. Ten yards. Repeat fourth down.

Lord writes:

Jefferson couldn't believe a species could become extinct, but they have, many times. Smith couldn't believe the Titanic would sink, but it did. Who would have believed the towers would fall, but they did. There is confidence, and then there is ignorance.

Matthew Cromer writes:
Of course, the probability of such a pandemic is less than 1, but a 5% chance of a 1918-1919-style disaster still makes existing measures very reasonable on an expected-value basis. This is particularly true because improvements in vaccine production and the like are generally applicable to other viral disease.

The truth of the matter is, we seem to be remarkably healthier and longer lived than the people who lived 80 - 100 years ago. We do not really know why, some suspect it is much lower rates of chronic infection today. But the morbidity and mortality rates from virtually every cause are far reduced at every age.

I suspect the risks of terrible natural lethal disease epidemics among healthy first-world populations are vastly overblown. I'm much more concerned about anthrax-style bioterrorism, frankly.

Paul N writes:

Some disasters you can see happening years in advance: Mugabe in Zimbabwe

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