Texas A&M’s Andy Dessler on ‘Decision Making Under Uncertainty’

A convenient YouTube six-minute video by a Texas A&M atmospheric scientist offers a useful resource for considering — and for teaching — decision making in the context of uncertainties.

“Decisions under uncertainty are one of the most vexing parts of the climate change debate,” says Texas A&M University atmospheric scientist Andrew Dessler in a YouTube video he recently posted.

“Should we listen to the 97% of scientists representing the mainstream view of climate science, or the 3% of scientific outliers? After all, the outliers may be right.”

In his six-minute video, Dessler briefly examines “decision making under uncertainty” with some examples of how the U.S. addresses uncertainty in various contexts. He contrasts the extremes of what may be considered acceptable versus unacceptable, and then circles back to questions of uncertainty in climate change science.

“It should be obvious. If 97 percent of the experts agree on something,” Dessler says, “that’s probably correct …. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean those statements ARE correct.”

He first offers as an example jury trials under the U.S. criminal trial system: “What’s the standard for convicting someone of a crime and sending them to prison?” It’s “Guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” as we all know, Dessler says. Not always is there 100 percent “absolute” certainty, but it should be fairly close, he says, to reduce risks of wrongful imprisonment. We chose this standard to be able to convict someone, he says, because of “the potential errors we could make.”

Dessler next presents a concept from the book, The One Percent Doctrine, referring to what’s known as the “Cheney Doctrine” for U.S. policy to combat terrorism: “If there’s a 1 percent chance of terrorists getting a weapon of mass destruction … the United States must act as if it were a certainty.”

The third example involves a posting Dessler saw on Twitter: “You’re about to get on a plane: 97 percent of the mechanics, or experts, say the plane will make it; 3 percent say the plane will crash. I’m not getting on the plane.” [Dessler's emphasis.]

“So let’s look at climate change,” he continues, as he proceeds with the certainty and uncertainty contrasts.

Let’s not give away the punch line here, ┬ábut rather let him speak for himself: Watch Dessler’s video to see how he brings it all together.

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