Ukraine’s crisis, which went from a simple protest to the weekend’s regime change and perhaps a full-blown civil war in months to come, once again highlights humans’ inability to assess the potential evolution of events from the ordinary to revolutionary sea-changes.
No one would have predicted that a fruit-seller’s self-immolation in Tunisia would eventually send Egypt to the brink of economic and political disaster, but that is exactly what happened.
In an article for Asia Times Online a few years ago, I examined the gullibility of people in the face of extreme events, driven by faulty statistical or empirical tests whose results suppress innate survival instincts. (See Murdoch, Moody’s and Mandelbrot, Asia Times Online, July 20, 2011.) Whilst that article examined the perils faced by Rupert Murdoch and Muammar Gaddafi, various events since then have clearly exposed the continued prevalence of false thinking.
The most recent example is Ukraine, where what became a full political crisis started as a student protest against the rejection of a free-trade pact with the European Union in favor of an opaque and vague agreement with Russia. When the government treated students savagely, a broader protest ensued – albeit still a peaceful one. Perhaps the biggest mistake made by the protesters was to copy the Egyptian example of Tahrir Square, by occupying the main square in Kiev, the Independence Square.
Failing to remove the protesters from the square and deeply aware of the most recent history of events leading up to the dismissal of the Mubarak government in Egypt, the government of Ukraine then went on an offensive with changes of laws and a refusal to negotiate. These excuses in hand, the government was then able to use the army to brutally quell dissent, leading to the deaths of scores of people. This was, in effect, a recurrence of the 1989 June 4 “incident” in Beijing.
The two sides thus both had history on their side – the protesters dreaming of the Tahrir Square revolt that brought a regime change in Egypt and the government imagining the events of 25 years ago in Beijing as a guide to survival. Both sides basically failed – many protesters lost lives unexpectedly as instead of an army refusing to shoot civilians they confronted something different; and the government after having murdered its own citizens ended up failing anyway.
Thus it wasn’t so much history as Karl Popper’s empirical falsification – every event that seems to echo another one in history actually ends up disproving the supposed lessons learned from the previous event. Put differently, you cannot reliably learn from history except to expect that it will not repeat itself quite so smoothly as the human mind could envisage.
Climate change debates
Away from the political sphere – correction, still within the political sphere but ostensibly looking at matters of science – Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer wrote in the Washington Post this week in an article titled “The myth of Settled Science”:
“The debate is settled,” asserted propagandist in chief Barack Obama in his latest State of the Union address. “Climate change is a fact.” Really? There is nothing more anti-scientific than the very idea that science is settled, static, impervious to challenge. 
Surely then, an article going to the exact heart of the arguments I have made on these pages in the past, focusing on the “Black Swan” example of Nassim Taleb and reflexivity in finance proposed by George Soros; all of which were previously encompassed in the study of Chaos (evolution of the science) by James Gleick. That is to say, philosophically I have much to agree with Mr. Krauthammer.
And yet, in this case I don’t.
The first part of the reason is simple: what is the relative cost of being wrong versus the potential benefits of being right. Assuming that climate change theories propounded by alarmists (who call themselves scientists) are completely wrong, the benefit of being right is limited to reversals of some taxes – example, Australia’s mining taxes and potential greenhouse taxes levied by European and other countries. (Note: most of these countries excluding Australia have extremely fragile finances, so if they dropped a tax due to a lack of scientific support, you can be sure another tax would take its place. That’s reflexivity for you).
The point though is that the cost of being wrong is too high, involving as it does (potentially) the lives of hundreds of millions of people across coastal areas all over the world. Rising temperatures in some parts of the world are enough to send tidal waves across many of the world’s oceans, create adverse pressure systems that wreak havoc with seasonal rainfall patters, and perhaps even interrupt the Gulf Stream permanently (sending all of northern Europe back to the Ice Age – to be sure, not quite a fate that I would mourn on all but humanitarian grounds).
The second reason is that I actually think the debate between the climate change proponents and those of deniers is not one of trend, but of the time it takes as long as the trend isn’t reversed. This is the perception fallibility discussed below.
Human perception fallibility
Why and how do such events like Ukraine recur with such an alarming frequency and what does that tell us about our ability to understand or predict globally challenging extreme events? One possible explanation is that human beings have innate cognitive biases that cloud judgment. Recognizing this basic fault in thinking is central to constructing risk-management techniques, be it for governments or the environment.
Specifically, it has been amply demonstrated before that human perceptions are faulty when it comes to estimating long-term trends, especially when confronted with exponential functions.
A simple example can be used here by looking at the growth of different bacteria inside a test capsule. “T” is defined as the containment breach of the capsule because the bacteria continue to grow beyond the capacity of the capsule; every serial number below is the moment of time (let’s say in minutes) before the breach. To make calculations easier, let’s assume in all cases that T-1 is the 100%, ie the bacteria reach capacity of the capsule; then “10” signifies the time that is 10 minutes before, ie T-10 (also the title of this article for reasons that will be explained here).
But different bacteria grow at different rates, ranging from those whose population doubles every minute (100%) down to those whose population goes up by a mere quarter (25%) every minute. In a table, this would be simply represented below:
The reason the first column has a hard box next to 10 is that the observation of 0.2% happens to be the current state of the bacteria, ie T-10, the bacteria is at 0.2% of the capsule.
In that context, the debate between deniers like Krauthammer and proponents like Dr. Pachauri (a Pulitzer prize winner against a Nobel prize winner, no less) is one where neither side debates the current state, ie 0.2%; only whether the column to be used is the 100% function or the 25% one (or something in between). In other words, Dr. Pachauri wants us to think we are at T-10, and Krauthammer wants to reassure us by saying we are actually at T-30.
Perhaps I am too old for this, but neither side is actually reassuring (okay, one of them is actually trying to panic me whilst the other is trying to calm me down). It doesn’t matter when it comes to climate change whether we are at T-10 or at T-30; the point is that we are heading towards T at speed.
The two sides of the climate change debate simply have very little understanding of both the growth rate and key factors. When you consider the matter objectively, changes in global levels of greenhouse emissions isn’t contradicted by anyone; increased frequency of adverse weather (‘freak’) events, broader incidences of such weather patterns, often in contra directions (eg freak droughts in one place against freak floods in another).
Some of these “freak” events have been put firmly at the feet of poor government actions. For example, the floods ravaging parts of the UK have been found by some to have been caused primarily by the absence of regular dredging by the country’s much-hated Environment Agency; the agency in turn blames cuts in government budgets and new European Union rules on preserving bio-diversity. Eased regulations on farmland use and therefore ease of water run-off is seen as another factor. Thus, the disaster was man-made acceleration of a potentially “normal” deviation in seasonal rainfall over the UK.
But other events are clearly outside these explanations, including the freak weather seen over North America and Asia over the past few years. As both sides have become political in their chanting, true science stands a bit behind. If events in Ukraine are any indication, we will not know when the spark is actually lit; let alone how to stop the conflagration thereafter.
1. The title of this article is lifted with permission from a post made by a friend on Facebook; he wishes to remain anonymous. I don’t know if he had another source for his example, and do not have any IP claim on this tabulation.
2. The myth of ‘settled science’, Washington Post, February 21, 2014.