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Global Warming and the Backgammon Effect

In the many thoughtful, and enlightening comments to my previous post there is much discussion about whether there is a consensus among climate scientists as to the existence of, and threat posed by, global warming.

It seems to me that the evidence that the world has gotten warmer in the last two centuries is pretty solid. But how much of that warming is due to the natural causes that ended the “Little Ice Age,” which began about 1300 and ended in the mid-19th century? And how much is anthropogenic, due to recent industrialization? The Little Ice Age was itself preceded by the Medieval Warm Period, which lasted from around 1000 to 1300 and was certainly not anthropogenic in origin.

In his column this morning, Paul Krugman is at great pains to keep the lid on this debate, accusing global warming “deniers” of treason against the planet–as though they give their true allegiance to some other planet and can always slip away to it when things get too hot here. There is, of course, no dispassionate discussion of the actual science in Krugman’s column. He simply declares, ex cathedra, that the threat is real and embodies the opposition in an obscure Georgia Congressman shouting “Hoax!” on the House floor. Even by Krugman standards,  this morning’s column is a pretty shoddy piece of work.

But why is the Nobel-Prize-winning economist so exercised about global warming as to be reduced to name calling instead of examining the data? Why are so many climate scientists and liberal politicians so certain of the data on global warming that they think the debate is over?

I think it is a case of the “backgammon effect.” In backgammon, the players move their pieces according to the dictates of a pair of dice. A single bad throw of the dice can convert a near-certain winner into a near-certain loser. Being human, players sometimes misread the dice and misplay accordingly. They get a six-four, for instance, but play a six-three. The opponent, if he is paying attention, points out the error,  it’s corrected, and the game goes on.

Interestingly, the player who misreads the dice and thus misplays almost always does so to his own advantage. Is he cheating? Not at all. He is simply misperceiving the real world because his self-interest leads him to do so. He wants a six-three and so he sees one in a six-four. It’s as simple as that.

Do climate scientists in general and liberal politicians to a man want global warming to be both real and anthropogenic in origin? You bet, because it’s in their self-interest for it to be so. After all, if it is, then both groups are greatly empowered by the necessity to do something about it. Only government–guided by experts–would be able to reverse a gathering climate catastrophe. The government would need vast new powers to do so. And as James Madison explained two centuries ago, “Men love power.”

Consider an earlier example. In 1936, John Maynard Keynes published his seminal work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. It provided both a theory justifying active government intervention in the economy and the means by which to do so. Keynsianism empowered both politicians and economists. So both politicians and economists quickly declared it to be true beyond any doubt. Keynsianism swept the economics profession almost overnight (Paul Samuelson’s thoroughly Keynsian and deeply influential text book first came out in 1946). Within a generation, Richard Nixon was able to say without fear of contradiction, “We are all Keynsians now.”  Thus was another “consensus” born, just as “stagflation,” impossible  in Keynsian theory, began to blight the economy of the 1970′s.

It is a basic axiom in police work to “follow the money.” In politics it is an equally good idea to “follow the power” if you want to understand what’s really going on.



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