From our overstocked archives
Sam Smith, 2009 – One thing is clear as the climate change debate chugs along: we need to teach math better in our schools. And it wouldn’t hurt if journalism schools taught some math as well.
For example, it is apparent that those who argue that one good snow storm destroys the case for climate change never got a good introduction to odds and averages.
An exception seems to be baseball. I have never heard a critic of ecological theory argue that a good hitter’s failure to get to base in a particular game indicates that he should be immediately traded. Sometimes it’s because he swings badly and sometimes because the pitch is low and outside, but nobody says that’s proof he’s a bad hitter.
Yet, have one cold winter and they want to dump climate change.
I’m mystified by this. My only explanation is that sports writers have done a far better job getting people to understand (or just accept) things like odds and averages than scientists or journalists. The unfortunate thing is that too many seem to think they only apply to sports.
Maybe we should have a Monday Night Climate Countdown on TV.
There are some other people good at figuring out odds and averages, such as poker players.
In 1997, I offered a poker player’s guide to environmental risk assessment. Key points included:
1. Figure the stakes as well as the odds.
2. The odds of something happening at any moment are not the same as the odds of something ever happening. In ecological calculations – especially ones in which the downside could ruin your whole millennium – it is the latter odds that are important.
3. When confronted with conflicting odds, ask what happens if each projection is wrong. Temporary job loss because of environmental restrictions may come and go, but the loss of the ozone layer is something you can have forever.
4. When confronted with conflicting odds, remember that you don’t have to play the game. There are other things to do with your time – or with the economy or with the environment – that may produce better results. Thus, instead of playing poker you could be making love. Or instead of getting jobs from some air or water degrading activity, the same jobs could come from more benign industry such as retrofitting a whole city for solar energy.
5. Don’t let anyone – in industry, government, or the media – define an “acceptable level of risk” for your own death or disease. They may not have the same vested interest in the right answer as you do.
6. If the stakes are too high, the game is not worth it. If you can’t stand the pain, don’t attempt the gain.
So if someone tells you that the snow outside proves there’s no global warming, remind them that this year, Albert Pujols – six-time Silver Slugger who has led the National League in home runs, batting average, doubles and RBI – only got a hit 33% of the time.