Good Stories, Damned Good Stories, and Statistics

I dated three Michaels in highschool. The first, a really sweet boy, moved to Las Vegas on three days’ notice when his parents illegally backed out of a real estate contract. The second, whom I barely remember, went to Hong Kong for the summer and never came back. And the third, another sweet boy who may or may not have been a criminal but that’s another story, either died or went to jail or disappeared, but in any case all his contact information broke one day and I never heard from him again. From this, I reasonably concluded that I am a Michael Curse, and regardless of what happens in my personal life, there is one thing I know for sure: I will never date a Michael again.*

In which I’ve done everything I criticize climate skeptics and anti-wind activists of doing, although with drastically less negative impact: I connected a series of factual events into a plausible narrative, thus making one hell of a story, and came to a wholly ridiculous conclusion.

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Fact: 2009 was a colder-than-average year in Ontario
Fact: Some climate scientists at a well-known university don’t like each other, and discuss this on email.
Fact: In the 1970s, a minority of climatologists thought that the greenhouse effect might trigger an Ice Age–though this was never a common viewpoint, it got a whole lot of press.

Plausible Narrative: Climatologists are incompetent, bumbling idiots determined to repress The Truth, which is that global warming isn’t happening, or it would always be warmer everywhere.

Ridiculous Conclusion: Climate change isn’t happening. Or, if you prefer your Ridiculous Conclusions flavoured with a dash of Conspiracy Theory, it’s a plot of the UN to force a worldwide socialist government on us all, and it is up to all freedom-loving citizens to resist!

~~~

Fact: Wind energy generators under the new GEA may earn 13.5 c/kwh for their electricity.
Fact: Birds and bats often fatally collide with wind turbines.
Fact: Residential energy consumers in Ontario currently pay approximately 5.6 c/kwh for their electricity.

Plausible Narrative: It’s all a bunch of furriners coming into our wonderful province to jack up electricity prices so they can make a killing, while our democractically elected provincial government colludes with them by dragging our hard-earned coins directly from our pockets, and it’s all a scam because it doesn’t help the environment anyway!

Ridiculous Conclusion: Rise Up!

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It’s possible that you don’t see the problem with the above two examples. Human minds are pattern-seeking missiles, after all, and if those facts are all you know, then the obvious pattern might seem like an inescapable conclusion. So here’s a less technical example:

Fact: Many species of birds fly south from Canada to Central or South America in the late summer or early fall of every year.
Fact: At the end of October, Canadian children dress up in terrifying costumes and go door-to-door demanding candy.

Plausible Narrative: Migratory songbirds are scared of witches.

In order for your pattern-seeking missile to explode so completely at the wrong target, you have to believe that you already know everything–that there are no further facts that might explain the situation in another way. That everything to be learned is available for free on the internet. That there is no value to the expertise gained in specialized education or work experience. I’m tempted to say that you need to be dull and incurious, never asking “why” after having leapt once to the wrong conclusion, and satisfied entirely by stories that paint those who disagree with you as villains, crooks, liars, and worse.

You may be asking yourself why I’m so convinced that my pattern-seeking missile is better at finding the target than yours, and that’s an excellent question. The answer is, it’s not, except that in my areas of expertise I’ve learned enough to correct course more efficiently, and have been wrong often enough to know that before you detonate, you have to ask yourself one not-so-simple question:

If you run your Plausible Narrative through the Scientific Method, does it come out looking more like stainless steel or hamburger?

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*There may be reasons other than the Michael Curse why this is so.

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