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I’ve got a question I’m trying to answer, and it occurs to me that someone here might be able to help me. One of the things I like most about Ricochet is the thoughtfulness and intelligence of the members. Another thing that impresses me is the diversity of this crowd. So I’m going to toss this out there and see if anyone has any thoughts to offer.
I wrote a post not too long ago about the need for a civil dialog across the political divide. A fellow in New York City, one of these young, hyper-educated computer entrepreneur types, read it and invited me to participate in a new podcast he’s launching soon. He wants his first episode to feature someone from the left and someone from the right holding a civil discussion on matters about which they disagree.
The person on the left is another hyper-educated individual — Ph.D. from MIT in machine learning, something like that — who recently left Google to found a climate change advocacy organization in D.C. I’m the person on the right. We’re going to have a civil conversation, which I am going to assume will be centered around climate change, though that hasn’t actually been stated. The conference call will take place this Wednesday afternoon.
This isn’t intended to be a debate, but rather a conversation, a discussion, a meeting of minds. That’s the hope, anyway: ideally, we’ll each come away understanding the other’s perspective a little better. I’m an old dog, and I can’t honestly say that I want or expect my own views to change. (I think that’s probably true of most people, old dogs or not.) But I intend to do my best to listen, and to take a pleasant, non-confrontational tone.
I’ll get to my question for you in a moment.
My general thinking on climate change is pretty simple, and goes as follows:
- I’m agnostic about anthropogenic climate change. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if we’re warming the planet; might surprise me a little if we aren’t.
- I’m skeptical that we can project with any significant confidence the state of the climate 80 years from now, but I’m willing to entertain the possibility that we’re getting very good at modeling the complex dynamic system we call climate.
- I am more than skeptical that we can effectively model the several other complex dynamic systems involved in making cost/benefit analyses of various climate change mitigation strategies over a similar time scale. These include patterns of land use, agricultural production, technological evolution, urbanization, global distribution of poverty, etc. Eighty years is a very long time in terms of technological and economic development. (Step back to 1940 and imagine what futurists thought 2020 would be like; how much do you think they got right?)
- Given that I believe we can’t realistically evaluate the economic consequences of climate change 80 years from now, perhaps not even the sign of those consequences, I can not begin to justify imposing large-scale controls on current energy policy. While it’s difficult to model complex systems, history is full of examples of what happens when you create concentrated authoritarian control structures — and that’s what would be required to transform our energy economy as the climate change alarmists seem to desire.
I am ignoring two things, both of which are important in the discussion but neither of which is central to my argument. One is the impracticality of actually changing the future climate in a predictable way — at least, of doing so without crippling the global economy. The other is nuclear power, which I believe all climate change alarmists should eagerly embrace — believe so strongly that I distrust the motives or the intelligence (or both) of any climate change alarmist who doesn’t support nuclear power.
So my argument revolves around the assertion that we are not capable of making reliable long-term predictions about complex systems, and that climate mitigation strategies require us to make such predictions about several independent but linked complex dynamic systems. My question is this:
What examples do we have of anyone making successful predictions of the long-term behavior of complex systems?
Say that long-term is on the order of 50 years, give or take. Complex systems are “complex” in a relatively formal way, involving multiple interacting factors that are difficult to measure, the interactions of which may be poorly understood, chaotic, and involve feedback mechanisms.
Economies, political and social movements, markets, and technology-driven change all exhibit the behavior of complex systems. They are difficult to predict because they involve a lot of independent elements (often, people) making individual contributions based on an evolving range of factors. They are difficult to precisely describe, precisely measure, and accurately predict over any but the shortest time frames. They may exhibit sudden and chaotic changes in response to relatively small inputs (the shooting of an Archduke, for example).
In contrast, sending a rocket to the moon, designing a super-computer, making the next breakthrough in material science or battery technology or solar power or advanced medical imaging — all of these things may be complicated, but they are not complex. They are achieved by solving a large number of well-defined problems, with each solution contributing to the final goal. These systems are not characterized by chaotic behavior, subtle feedback loops, or factors that are difficult to define or measure.
We are very good at making predictions about non-complex systems, even fairly complicated ones, over pretty much any time frame. But I can think of no truly complex system about which we’ve ever successfully made an accurate long-term prediction. Hence my question.
Any thoughts?Published in