Paul Sabin, a Yale historian, has just written a book about a famous wager between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon. Ehrlich, a biologist, predicted a looming environmental crisis, while Simon, an economist, believed that human ingenuity would compensate for the drain on natural resources. They put their views to the test with a bet on how the prices of various natural resources would change over ten years. Simon won the bet, causing Ehrlich to completely change his mind and renounce his lifelong advocacy for environmental protection.
No, wait, that second part didn’t happen. Like the guys who “decode” the Bible and predict an apocalypse, Ehrlich didn’t let the unabated existence of the world slow him down. In his support other scientists figured out that he would have won the bet in the majority of decades in the 20th century, so it could be he was right about the general trend and just got unlucky (or lucky, depending on how you look at it).
When it comes to environmental catastrophes, I wonder if a gradual trend is what we should really be looking for, anyway. In gambling we have a term, “fading,” that means avoiding a disaster. If you get all-in with top pair against a flush draw, you’re fading the flush. The fact that we’ve faded an environmental disaster so far doesn’t tell us how lucky we had to get to do so. According to some accounts JFK estimated the chance of nuclear war with the Soviet Union to be at least 50% during his presidency. Certainly, we’ve come close to destroying our whole world in one fell swoop. Every time I turn on public radio I learn about another facet of the environment that’s out of whack – ocean acidity, coral reefs, probably a hundred more I don’t know about. It’s kind of amazing the planet still works as well as it does.
But back to bets. It’s quite unusual for two public figures to bet on something important. During the last presidential election Nate Silver wanted to bet Joe Scarborough that Obama would win. Silver had predicted a comfortable advantage for Obama, while Scarborough opined, “Anybody that thinks that this race is anything but a tossup right now is such an ideologue, they should be kept away from typewriters, computers, laptops and microphones for the next 10 days, because they’re jokes.” Scarborough was apparently operating on the principle that any time there are two possible outcomes, they are equally likely, which works pretty well in PLO, but not so much elsewhere. When Obama won, a parade was thrown for Silver and Scarborough was stoned in the public square.
Oops, that also didn’t happen. Scarborough went right on hosting his political commentary show and no one thought anything of it. What Silver didn’t understand is that Joe Scarborough isn’t in the business of being right. His actual business is harder to pin down. Looking a certain way…sounding a certain way…a bit of trolling now and then. That’s all part of it. But making accurate predictions doesn’t seem to have anything to do with it.
When habitual bettors offer a wager to non-bettors and are refused, they think they’ve proven their point: I put my money where my mouth is and he doesn’t. More likely, they’ve just bullied someone who’s not comfortable throwing money around. But more fundamentally, offering a bet implies that what counts is who’s right, and for most people most of the time, it’s not.