Thursday, September 18, 2008

Benefit, Blame, Causation and Other Irrelevancies

Driving home, I caught a bit of a McCain speech on the radio. He was asserting, for all I know correctly, that Obama's advisors had told him that he would benefit politically from the current financial problems. The clear implication was that that made Obama a bad person and so was a reason to vote for McCain.

The underlying theory has its own latin tag--Cui Bono. When something goes wrong, see who benefits by it and blame him. As a rule of thumb, a first place to look, it makes some sense. But it makes no logical sense here, since McCain is not arguing—could not plausibly argue—that Obama caused the crisis in order to benefit by it. Yet, however illogical, it works as rhetoric. Bad things are happening, Obama is benefitting by them, Obama must be a bad person.

An older and bigger example of the same error was the attack on "malefactors of great wealth," war profiteers, after WWI. There was no real evidence linking firms that manufactured munitions to the war happening. But terrible things had happened, people wanted someone to blame, and those—actual or imaginary—who had benefitted by those terrible things were the obvious targets.

The illogic in both of these cases is in some ways similar to one of the oddities in arguments about global warming. Both sides of that debate seem to take it for granted that if the cause of global warming is human activity, that's an argument for our doing something about it, while if it is something else, such as changes in the behavior of the sun, that is an argument against.

There is a crumb of logic to the argument. If global warming is caused by human activities, then by stopping those activities we could presumably stop it. The behavior of the sun is not something we have any control over.

But it is only a crumb. To begin with, "human" is a species, not a person. "We" don't make decisions. Whether or not humans are causing global warming, my contribution to it, which is what I control, is close to zero. I have little more control over other people living on the other side of the globe than I do over the sun. So even if is true that humans are causing the problem, it does not follow that there is a human solution to it in any useful sense.

Seen from the other side, even if humans are not responsible, even if the cause is the sun, if global warming is a bad thing it might be worth doing something to stop it. Humans are not responsible for the existence of polio, but that is no argument against developing polio vaccines. Various suggestions have been made for things humans could do that would reduce global tempratures. Whether they are worth doing does not depend on whether whatever increase is happening is our fault.

Which gets us, I think, to the emotional core of the argument. It isn't that whether we caused it determines whether we can cure it. It is that if we caused it then it is our fault, and if it is our fault we should cure it. "Clean up your own mess."

That makes no sense that I can see in such a context, since it is extending to the human species an argument applicable only to individual humans. Yet it is emotionally powerful, which is why one side of the argument wants to argue that global warming is caused by humans, the other that it is not.

[Interested readers may want to look at some of my past posts for a more detailed discussion of the global warming controversy.]

[A commenter points out that I was mistaken in associating the term "malefactors of great wealth" with the post WWI attempt to assign blame for the war. The term was used by Teddy Roosevelt at least as early as 1907.]


Anonymous said...

Don't most of the suggestions to stop or mitigate global climate change involve limiting the amount of certain substances released into the atmosphere?

If so, the question of whether human agency is causing climate change is a serious one: If human-caused emissions are not causing a significant impact on the climate, then reducing those emissions is unlikely to be of benefit.

Anonymous said...

Given the actual drama in the economic world, I'm beginning to wonder if you're ever going to coment on it.

Michael Kolczynski said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Kolczynski said...

Slightly tangential to the points made, there are some people who do not even require evidence that something is wrong in order to conclude something should be "done" to fix it.

An article I just read on the discovery of over a hundred new species of animal off the coast of Australia:

To quote: "People have been working at these places for a long time and still there are literally hundreds and hundreds of new species that no one has ever collected or described," said Julian Caley, a scientist from the Australian Institute of Marine Science who is helping to lead the research.

"So in that sense, it's very significant in that if we don't understand what biodiversity is out there, we don't have much of a chance of protecting it," he said.

So, yesterday it was unknown that these creatures existed. Today, their mere existence is apparently enough to make a logical conclusion that they are in danger and need protecting.

Anonymous said...

The logic goes something like this:

If you benefit from something bad, then you must delight in it, or at least not dislike it as much as other people.

Delighting in bad things, or not disliking them as much as other people, is bad.

Therefore, if you benefit from something bad, you must be a bad person. Q.E.D.

Anonymous said...

I would add to the logic in this post something that seems to be frequently missed (including by the first comment):

If humans are contributing to global warming, while stopping what we are doing now may be the right way to go, it's quite possible some other action is the best way to reduce warming.

If we are contributing to warming, the way we do so is of interest, of course, but only as one possible way to make a change, if it's worth making a change.

However, you don't cure cancer by un-smoking or un-"working around asbestos" or whatever, and we might not "cure" global warming by un-something.

Also, there's not just one thing we do to contribute to warming. It's possible we contribute to warming just by existing in the modern sense, and existing in the modern sense has been quite good for humanity overall and has given us more options to make change than we would have had in the past.

Finally, it's possible that the impact of warming is not enough for us to undergo major disruptive changes, or it may be that in a few decades we'll have technology and insight that allow us to solve this in a much better manner.

Some -- like Charles Gibson expressed in his Palin interview -- seem to believe that if we don't think it's our fault, there's nothing we can or will do to stop it, so they believe we must believe (perhaps even if it's not true...)

Anonymous said...

I recently came to a similar conclusion about the prevalent sentiment concerning the significance of whether global warming is man made:

Raphfrk said...

"Given the actual drama in the economic world, I'm beginning to wonder if you're ever going to coment on it."

Yeah :).

In fact, when reading the last 2 titles, I thought that he was going to do it.

"Making a Mistake and Not Admitting it" could relate to those running financial institutions refusing to admit mistakes. See the new ban on short selling bank shares.

That is pure refusal to allow the market find its price and basically, directing blame on those horrible speculators.

"Benefit, Blame, Causation and Other Irrelevancies" could relate to the same kind of thing. Again focusing blame on those who aren't actually responsibility.

Anonymous said...

I think the more interesting claim against Obama is the one about his ties to people in the financial industry before the collapse when he (and most of the rest of Congress) did nothing. Given that Obama is complaining about "8 years of mismanagement" it's interesting to see that he and many others fiddled while Rome burnt despite the mismanagement allegedly being obvious.

Milhouse said...

On the cui bono "fallacy", see "Halliburton".

On global warming, in the abstract you're right — if the warming is happening, and if it's a bad thing, then we ought to do something to stop it no matter what's causing it. But in the specific your argument breaks down because of some unstated assumptions in the premises. The question isn't really whether humans are causing the alleged warming, it's whether they're causing it through one particular mechanism — that of adding CO<sub>2</sub> to the atmosphere. And the question isn't whether humans are actually doing so, since they clearly are, but whether doing so has the alleged effect.

The anti-anthropogenic-global-warming argument is that the CO2 we're undoubtedly adding to the atmosphere does not significantly (or at all) increase global temperature, and therefore that stopping won't significantly (or at all) decrease it. If this argument is true, then even if the warming is actually happening, and even if it's a terrible thing which ought to be stopped at all costs — and even if it is being somehow caused by some unknown human action — cutting CO2 is not the way to do it, and is not only a distraction from finding some effective way to stop the warming, but also a tremendous waste of resources that may be needed if and when we do find such a way.

BTW, blogger isn't allowing the <sub> tag.

Anonymous said...

In short, whom should you blame for a problem -- the entit(y/ies) whose (in)actions caused it, or the entit(y/ies) who gain from it?

A related question is who "should" fix a problem -- the entit(y/ies) whose (in)actions caused it, or the entit(y/ies) who stand to gain the most from it being fixed? Or a third entity, who is most capable of fixing it properly?

If all three are the same person (or corporation, or whatever), there's nothing to worry about: the problem will be fixed promptly and well. But in real life they are often three different people. See this post for some thoughts on how to resolve this.

But seriously, as you point out, McCain's statement works better as rhetoric than as logic.

On the global-warming analogy: I've never thought of the anthropogenicity argument as about where to place the blame (although now that you mention it I'm sure there is some of that), but rather as suggesting the likelihood that different human activities will work to halt or reverse the trend.

And it's certainly true that "the human species" doesn't make decisions... but governments and international treaty organizations do make decisions, and they allegedly represent substantial fractions of the human species. Furthermore, a technological or economic action by one person may facilitate millions of people on the other side of the world changing their own day-to-day actions in a way that significantly addresses the problem (whether anthropogenic or not).

Mike Huben said...

I'm sure David is incapable of fixing the ozone hole, yet concrete actions have been taken to change the human behaviors which produced it.

Compare ozone hole action to David's arguments about the futility of global warming activism. David sure comes off as a denialist.

So does David benefit from this somehow?

Anonymous said...

Michael writes:
"So in that sense, it's very significant in that if we don't understand what biodiversity is out there, we don't have much of a chance of protecting it," he said.

So, yesterday it was unknown that these creatures existed. Today, their mere existence is apparently enough to make a logical conclusion that they are in danger and need protecting.

I don't read it as "We just discovered these organisms; they must need protection" but rather as "We already know/assume that biodiversity needs protection. We just discovered a lot of previously-unknown organisms; that demonstrates that there's more biodiversity out there than we know about, and other species may well have disappeared without our ever knowing about them at all." Whether you buy that logic is up to you....

Steve_Roberts said...

There is the assumption that global warming is bad. During the medieval warm period (and I believe the Roman warm period) temperatures in Europe were higher than they are today. There was more land where wheat was a viable crop, rather than rye, or sheep, and more land where rye or sheep were more viable than forestry, which obviously was a good thing. Why does everyone assume a rise in temperature must be a bad thing ?

Anonymous said...

"Malefactors of great wealth" is not a post-WWI phrase for arms dealers. It is a quotation from Theodore Roosevelt that has nothing to do with them.