Making Beliefs Pay Rent

Belief

“Every guess of belief should begin by flowing to a specific guess of anticipation, and should continue to pay rent in future anticipations.” This is probably my favourite quote from Eliezer Yudkowsky, writing at Less Wrong. His point (which is also central to the Scientific Method) is that a belief has no meaning if it does not allow us to predict the future, and that if it fails to do so it must be discarded or improved.

The inverse is equally true, that if we fail to act according to the predictions of the beliefs we claim to hold, we do not really believe them. If I say I can fly, but then get nervous near the edge of a cliff, you can be certain that I am uncertain whether I can really fly.

Now, let’s have a quick scan through some quotes from the last few years, shall we?

“This time [Rio Earth summit] it really is the last chance.” – Fred Pearce, New Scientist 1992

“Poznan [climate change conference] provides last chance to curb climate change.” – WWF, 2008

“This makes Copenhagen [climate change conference] the world’s last chance to stop climate change before it passes the point of no return.” – European Union Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas, 2009

“Durban [climate change conference] is the last real opportunity for countries to provide certainty on a future climate regime.” – Global Campaign for Climate Action, 2011

Oh dear.

You see, if the alarmist bureaucrats, politicians, activists and scientists at these gravy train jamborees really meant what they said, the day after the end of each one they would have abandoned their demands for actions based around the prevention of anthropogenic global warming. Their calls for increased subsidies for wind farms, their demands that coal-fired power stations be decommissioned, the guilt-trip they lay upon anyone who drives a car or flies in an aeroplane (except themselves en route to gravy train jamborees): all these would have been dropped. Instead, they would have turned their attentions to mitigation of the effects of global warming: flood defences, improved irrigation, population relocation plans, etc. They would have acted on the predictions of their beliefs.

But as the number of last-chance-to-save-the-world events stretches on endlessly into the future, it is clear that it is the self-satisfying, politically empowering journey that they believe in, not the claimed destination. The goalposts are moved every time. The closer they claim they are to the cliff edge, the less they feel like flying.

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