Strategies of Communication on Climate Change

Friday, August 30, 2013

Earth's temperatures: to bet or not to bet?

 Viscount Monckton of Brenchely, has been challenged to a bet of $ 1000 by John Abraham on Monckton's own predictions of an incoming global cooling. Monckton has refused to pick up the challenge. (image: Christopher Monckton)

In 1980, Julian L. Simon and Paul Ehrlich entered in a famous bet on a mutually agreed-upon measure of resource scarcity. They chose a number of mineral commodities, with Simon betting on a price decrease and Ehrlich betting on an increase. Ten years afterwards, Simon won the bet.

Today, if you search the Web using Google, you'll find more than 250,000 pages dealing with the Simon-Erlich wager. It remains today one of the best known and most used examples put forward to discredit a vision that sees mineral resources as precious and scarce and recommends that they should be used with caution.

If you think about that, it is nearly incredible that the price trends of a few commodities over just a decade are considered so important for a complex and long-ranging question as the depletion of the Earth's mineral resources. By the way, if the bet had been for a later decade, Simon would have lost.

But these are the laws of communication: normally, it is not a question of relevance, it is a question of volume. Repeat something a sufficient number of times, and it will be perceived as true by the public. In this case, the message repeated over and over was that these pompous scientists are so silly to be always caught in the Chicken Little trap: always believing that we were to run out of mineral resources, and always being found wrong. So, the bet that Paul Ehrlich lost has done immense damage to an entire field of scientific research. It was, probably, a significant factor in the nearly complete disappearance of "world dynamics" studies in the 1980s; those which had started with "The Limits to Growth" in 1972.

Because of this story, I tend to believe that scientists working on climate change or resource depletion should never, never bet on anything. Any fluctuation in the wrong direction of temperatures or market prices can be picked up by the propaganda machine and be used against science and scientists. But even if trends do not fluctuate away from the expected direction, the problem is that the communication war is asymmetric. If a scientist bets against an amateur and wins, that's hardly news (dog bites man). But if the amateur wins, it is worldwide news (man bites dog).

So, I would say that John Abraham's bet against Christopher Monckton about Earth's temperatures is, at best, risky, probably counterproductive in any case. I agree that chances are largely in favor of Abrahams; Monckton himself seems to think the same, since he has refused the challenge. But climate is complex and always variable(*) and so why take this risk? Besides, as I said, if Abraham wins, (as it is very likely) nobody will take much notice. So, why give to Monckton an importance that he doesn't deserve?

(*) Abraham has been correctly cautious in mentioning that the bet would be rendered invalid in case of a "major volcanic eruption", but it is hard to define what we mean exactly a "major" volcanic eruption.


  1. Interesting to know that the challenge of Simon against Ehrlich has created serious damage exponentially on science communication (because, as pointed out by Professor Bardi, ten years later, the result was the opposite) to the point to delay research on the "world dynamics".

  2. While on the subject of "asymmetric communication wars" does the above mean that if (just as an innocuous for instance) the mainstream press repeats one hundred thousand times that "Assad did it"....(of course without any proof whatsoever) does this mean that we should or should not bet that Obama will attack Syria anyway even without his friend Mr. Cameron? Or would that be too risky of a bet to make? (since one probably would somehow end up being damned if he does and damned if he doesn't?)....(or in Assad's case bombed if he did and bombed if he didn't)....but it is probably "a fairly safe bet" to place a few million dollars (at the very least) on the laws of physics horse instead of on the mainstream media horse...(at least in the long term)....though of course in the short term "all bets are off" and one should not even go near the race track....(since it easily could be flooded or get caught up in a forest fire) And I do hope this comment will be considered very relevant !

    1. Dear Max 12345, please allow me to reply to your outrageous allegation above. The mainstream media would NEVER repeat one hundred thousand times that Assad DID IT, if it wasn't true and backed up by tons of evidence. Since if it lied a whole lot of people could end up getting killed and all based only on a lying frenzy. And certainly never a reputable media outlet such as the BBC. And just to prove it to you so that you don't place any risky bets in the coming days, I am attaching a link for you to read....

      best wishes and lots of luck,

      your friendly alter ego who is definitely NOT a betting man....

      Max123456789 and 10 !

      (and BTW it's quite safe to bet that the planet will be at least 3 degrees hotter in fifty years) (or maybe even just in 25)...(though probably betting that it will be six degrees hotter in ten years is NOT safe and a bit too risky to take any chances on) (and I don't have handy the link to Guy Mc Pherson's latest update but I am sure you easily can google it and find it) your bets gentlemen and rien ne va plus...)

  3. I don't think Abraham really had any thought that Monckton would accept the wager.
    The intent was - as is often the case in situations like this - to make the other person climb down from their extravagent position and look foolish because of it.
    And in that regard, Abraham succeeded.

    1. Hmmmmm..... are you sure? Do you really think you can predict the actions of a total madman? If you look at the history of the Simon-Erlich bet, you can see that Ehrlich thought that Simon was being totally foolish in accepting to bet