The 50% Rule or Why Emails and Statistics Don't Matter

We have heard a chorus of voices over the past few days raising the moribund concept that climate change is not happening, and is some global liberal conspiracy to devalue oceanfront property in Palm Beach. 

At the center of raising the hydrahead of the Palm Beach Conspiracy was the discovery of  some emails from the University of East Anglia where climate change scientists were engaging in the age-old academic practice of arguing with one another.  For a "pro" climate change perspective, Gawker explains the situation here, for an "anti" climate change perspective, the Weekly Standard provides this analysis.

I was guest lecturing at Princeton a few weeks ago, and I used the opportunity to propogate one of my favorite ideas--I call it the 50% Rule. It can be used to explain the Palm Beach Conspiracy, statistics about climate change, and as a means of deflating your brother-in-law's wild stories about catching a 45 foot trout during holiday meals. Here it goes--when you hear a statistic or a scandal or a wild trout fishing tale, assume the information is off by 50%.  One-half.  Then determine whether the information still matters.  If your brother's trout was only 22.5 feet, not 45, that's still a mighty large fish.  Similarly, with climate change, if scientists' statistics about sea level rise or drought are off by 50%, we are still looking at a serious problem.  The result? We still need to do something about it.  

With respect to the Palm Beach Scandal, Micheal Oppenheimer from Princeton on NPR explained it beautifully. The consensus of hundreds of scientists, using many different methodologies, all in competition with one another have reached a consensus that climate change is real and caused largely by man's actions.  Even if 50% of the data is wrong or subject to bias or manipulation,  that is still hundreds of the world's best scientists coming to a consensus (which if you have ever had two scientists in a room is a feat in and of itself) coming to the same conclusion.

Finally--here are the choices. Assume climate change is not real, and roll the dice on droughts, wars, starvation, dependence on foreign oil, continued economic stagnation and incalculable human suffering.  Assume climate change is real, take action, create new jobs, industry, reduce pollution and human health risks from carbon emissions in general, reduce dependence on foreign fuel regimes and potentially keep polar bears from extinction.  Strikes me as not much of a choice.

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Comments (4) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Timothy R. Hughes - December 9, 2009 8:41 AM

I lean towards your analysis in the final review ... but there is no question this is a serious credibility blow on some levels. Politicizing science rather than letting the scientific method play out in all its ugly competing and inconsistent theories and proof glory carries with it serious blowback as we are seeing now.

That being said, it seems pretty self-evident to me that we are causing some huge impacts to the environment - whether it is global warming, overfishing our oceans, pfisteria and algae bloom outbreaks in the Chesapeake Bay, the North Pacific Gyre, epoch level extinction rates ... seems like reducing our footprint is a real good idea and that doing so is truly an inherently conservative position.

Dean Krause - December 12, 2009 12:32 PM

This 50% rule is very helpful.
I've never heard this asked in a public forum, with regards to "Climate Change Naysayers", so here goes:
Pretending for a moment that climate change isn't caused by the actions of humans; what is so horrible about capping emissions, of being independent of foreign oil, of using renewable energy, of polluting less or not at all, or creating new employment opportunities for thousands or millions of people in a "green" economy?
The answer is it is horrible for those who resist change, that have a vested interest in oil, that pollute without regard, that enjoy a captive labor pool.

Joshua Lehrer - December 17, 2009 2:16 PM

Your last paragraph reminds me of an argument for why one should believe in god. If there is no god, it doesn't matter which you believe. If there is a god, then you'd better believe. There is no harm in believing, and potentially much harm in not believing, so why not believe?

The obvious answer to both your argument and my parallel argument is that there is a cost in believing, whether or not it is not true. Without arguing the merrits of either argument, and what the cost is, one must admit that there is a cost.

There may also be a benefit, e.g. what are the odds that god exists? One most do their own cost-benefit analysis on the cost of believing (reducing emmissions, praying), the probability of the underlying belief being true (in man made global warming, or in god), and the value/risk in being right or wrong.

Leonard Townsend, Esq.; AIA; LEED AP - January 27, 2010 6:01 PM

I like it.

Global warming or not, the earth has finite resources of petroleum. Notwithstanding this fact, some sidestep this critical concern by stating we still have 50% left. Unfortunately, this statement deliberately misinterprets the fact that we are rapidly approaching the point where it costs more to extract one barrel of oil than the open market will pay for that barrel.

Sustainability is more than environmental - it's a combination of thoughtful and respectful social, economic, and environmental approaches (in design, construction, operation, and maintenance) that creates places where people want to be and feel they belong in. Accordingly, they are willing to sacrifice (to some degree) to maintain their membership in the community. Read Jane Jacobs' 1961 classic "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" for initial observations that would become the foundation of one aspect of sustainability.

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