Natural Disasters & Reasoning II: Inductive Reasoning

Fortunately for my adopted state of Florida, Irma weakened considerably as it moved northward. When it reached my adopted city of Tallahassee, it was barely a tropical storm. While it did some damage, it was nothing compared to last year’s storm. While this was a good thing, there can be a very minor downside when dire predictions turn out to be not so dire.

The problem is, of course, that people might take such dire predictions less seriously in the future. There is even a term for this: hurricane fatigue.  When people are warned numerous times about storms and they do not prove as bad as predicted, people tend to get tired of going through the process of preparation. Hence, they tend to slack off in their preparations—especially if they took the last prediction very seriously and engaged in extensive preparations. Such as buying absurd amounts of bottled water. The problem is, of course, that the storm a person does not prepare for properly might turn out to be as bad or worse than predicted. Interestingly enough, inductive reasoning is the heart of this matter in two ways.

Inductive reasoning is, of course, logic in which the premises provide some degree of support (but always less than complete) for the conclusion. Inductive arguments deal in probability and this places them in contrast with deductive arguments—they are supposed to deal in certainty. That is, having all true premises in a deductive argument is supposed to guarantee a true conclusion. While there are philosophers who believe that predictions about such things as the weather can be made deductively, the best current reasoning only allows inductive reasoning regarding weather prediction. To use a simple illustration, when a forecast says there is a 50% chance of rain, what is meant is that on 50% of the days like this one it rained. This is, in fact, an argument by analogy. With such a prediction, it should be no more surprising that it rains than it does not.

While the computer modeling of hurricanes is rather complex, the predictions are still inductive in nature: all the evidence used in the reasoning can be true while the conclusion can still be false. This is because of the famous problem of induction—the gap between the premises and the conclusion means that no matter how strong the reasoning of an inductive argument, the conclusion can still be false. As such, any weather prediction can turn out to be false—even if the prediction is 99.99% likely to be accurate.  As such, it should be expected that weather predictions will often be wrong—especially since the models do not have complete information and are limited by the available processing power. That is, there is also a gap between reality and the models. There is also the philosophical question of whether the world is deterministic or not—in a deterministic world, weather would be fully predictable if there was enough information and processing power available to create a perfect model of reality. In a non-deterministic world, even a perfect model could still fail to predict what will happen in the real world. As such, there is both a problem in epistemology (what do we know) and metaphysics (what is the nature of reality).

Interestingly enough, when people start to distrust predictions after past predictions turn out to be wrong, they are also engaging in inductive reasoning. To be specific, if many predictions have turned out to be wrong, then it can be reasonable to infer that the next prediction could be wrong. That is certainly reasonable and thinking that an inductive argument could have a false conclusion is no error.

Where people go wrong is when they place to much confidence in the conclusion that the prediction will be wrong. One way this can happen is through a variation in the gambler’s fallacy. In the classic gambler’s fallacy, a person assumes that a departure from what occurs on average or in the long term will be corrected in the short term. For example, if a person concludes that tails is due because they have gotten heads six times in a row, then they have committed this fallacy. In the case of the “hurricane fallacy” a person overconfidently infers that the streak of failed predictions must continue. The person could, of course, turn out to be right. The error lies in the overconfidence in the conclusion that the prediction will be wrong. Sorting out the confidence one should have in their doubt is a rather challenging matter because it requires understanding the accuracy of the predictions.

As a practical matter, one way to address hurricane fatigue is to follow some excellent advice: rather than going through mad bursts of last second preparation, always be prepared at the recommended minimum level. That is, have enough food and water on hand for three days and make basic preparations for being without power or evacuating. Much of this can easily be integrated into one’s normal life. For example, consuming and replacing canned and dried goods throughout the year means that one will have suitable food on hand. There are also one-time preparations, such as acquiring some crank-powered lights, a small solar panel for charging smart phones, and getting a basic camp stove and a few propane canisters to store.

This does lead to a final closing point, namely the cost of preparation. Since I have a decent income, I can afford to take the extra steps of being always ready for a disaster. That is, I can buy the lights, stove, propane, and such and store them. However, this is not true of everyone. When I was at Publix before the storm, I spoke to some people who said that it was hard for them to get ready for storms—they needed their money for other things and could not afford to have a stockpile of unused supplies let alone things like solar panels or generators. The upfront cost of stockpiling in preparation for the storm was also a challenge—there are, as far as I know, no emergency “storm loans” or rapid aid to help people gear up for impending storms. No doubt some folks would be terrified that storm moochers would be living fat on the public’s money during storms. However, storm aid does sound like decent idea and could even be cost saver for the state. After all, the better prepared people are before the storm, the less the state and others must do during and after the storm.



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  1. Something I have given a lot of thought to on a longer timescale. We stopped being prepared to be attacked by a tiger or marauders. Darwinian on longer timescale creating genetic deformities leading to our current physical format, no longer is the alpha male the physically perfect defender, but the best provider. Mental preferences move from physical to mental attributes amending the genetic balance.
    Those vaguely understood vagaries of the subconscious mind would appear to be responsible for our physical format, adapting our physicality to better suit our environment. Growing accustomed to anything seems to be by design.

  2. Re Andrew Mitchell Sept 15th
    “Growing accustomed to anything seems to be by design.”
    Yes survival of the fittest I guess. One of the mainstays in the argument for evolution.

  3. Getting less alarmed when disaster does not strike is a well known feature of animal behaviour: habituation.

    Being smarter than the average animal means we can avoid that but it does take some effort. The type of issue discussed here was partly responsible for the way in which the people of Darwin (Australia) failed to adequately prepare for Cyclone Tracy in December 1974, resulting in the almost complete destruction of the city. It was only “partly” because Tracy was unusually intense and, at the time, few buildings anywhere in the country would have survived.

    But many people in the city now do have a cyclone kit ready year round, which only needs to be topped up when the season arrives. One reason for this is that there have been several near misses in the last ten years, with cyclones that have been heading directly for the city only veering away in the last several hours or day (before landfall).

  4. This is really a good post. Thank you! definitely this tips is very important for human’s life style 🙂

  5. Inductive reasoning is really just data compression. We build a simplified model of experience and if our model has rules and makes predictions, and these predictions seem to come true, we have an inductive model that is simpler than our experience, and yet still useful.

    Deduction is merely the process of explicating implicit statements in an axiom set. Deduction adds nothing new. It merely restates axioms in more convenient ways. I.e. the whole of plane geometry and trigonometry is expressed in the implicit statements about what a straight line, and angle and a plane surface is.

    Deductive logic is always of the form :-

    IF (axiom set)
    THEN True Statement (with respect to that axiom set).

    Deduction can be used to form explicit statements from an inductive premise that is in itself a hypothesis.

    IF (unicorns have big horns and like to put their heads in the lap of virgins)

    THEN Girls schools would be littered with them.

    (unless you are a climate scientist, when of course the lack of unicorns is because they aren’t virgins, or the unicorns are hiding in the sea, or they are invisible unicorns only visible to climate scientists).

    Science is supposed to be different, having settled on a metaphysics that allows a physical world in space-time to exist, governed by causality expressed as natural laws that are presumed to be discoverable, if reality fails to match the proposed causal model, you are supposed to discard the causal model. Eventually, in a Kuhnian-like paradigm shift, anyway.

    There are no scientific truths. Only models that work, so far.

    Occam doesn’t lead to the truth, He merely acknowledges the complete lack of truth content in a model, and suggests that in that case, pick the simplest model that will do the job.

    The Wherethefukarwi tribe who live in the tall grass have their own climate scientists. Every evening they jump up and down yelling ‘Wherethefukarwi?’ to make sure the sun will come up the next day. And it always has, so its absolutely clear to 97% of their climate scientists, that if they didn’t, it wouldn’t. Or at least they have this thing called ‘the precautionary principle’ that says ok, it might not happen, but do you want to take the risk?.

    A missionary once tried teaching them some basic philosophy of science and metaphysics, but they just looked puzzled.

    You don’t need facts or logic when you have a nice belief system that works for you. And is a nice little earner for the priests climate scientists and allows them to impose a morality on the people that benefits the climate scientists.

    How can this happen?

    In primitive societies people are not smart enough to understand that the world they live in is just a model of the real world. Just because a black furry smelly sensation with sharp bits appears regularly in their experience, they actually think that ‘cats’ ‘exist’!

    And it is the belief in the reality of their own internal mental narratives that renders them so primitive, tribal and so unsophisticated.

    They can be induced to believe almost anything to be ‘true’ .

    Any amount of untested or untestable propositions can be announced as ‘fact’ and they will believe them.

    Until something goes wrong. The Wherethefukarwi tribe didn’t survive as a culture after a solar eclipse.

    A new leader arose who denounced the false scientists and led them to a distant land where now mostly they just become alcoholics.

    Having welfare, and the sun rising and setting all by itself doesn’t leave them much to do.

    They play a game called ‘think of a number’

    In it they ask someone to think of a number, multiply it by, say three, add nine, divide it by three, and take way the number they first thought of, and they always know what the answer is!

    Telepathy and magic!

    A social worker who visited thought they would make excellent philosophers of climate change, with a trick like that, or they could go into politics, marketing or become climate scientists themselves.

    But they already have the t-shirt. They prefer to live in low lying coastal areas and get welfare, and are working on a scheme to become ‘climate refugees’ and get compensation so they can be rich alcoholics instead of poor ones.

    It’s all about “soshul ‘just-is'”.

    Whatever that means.

    Aren’t you glad the world is mostly past such primitive behavior?

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  9. Thank you for the post, its really work for me in my course on Sociology of Environment…

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