A Philosopher's Blog

Reasoning & Natural Disasters II: Inductive Reasoning

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on September 15, 2017

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. TJB said, on September 16, 2017 at 9:45 am

    Mike, if you adopt a son, you don’t introduce him as “my adopted son,” so why would you introduce your state as “my adopted state?”

    I suspect you have lived longer in Florida than in Maine in any case. Florida is your home state.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 17, 2017 at 1:11 pm

      Maine is, and always shall be, my home state.

      If I had an adopted son like Florida…I might introduce him as my adopted son. You know, because bath salts.

  2. Anonymous said, on September 17, 2017 at 9:44 am

    There’s another factor to all of this, which is the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” effect that results from over-sensationalizing news and weather reports for the purpose of getting ratings.

    Speaking for myself, I tend to scale back my reaction to weather predictions not because I think I’m invincible or because of wishful thinking, but because I’m very cynical about broadcast news. In many markets the weatherperson is the most highly paid member of the team, as they are the reason so many people tune in. If they have something sensational to report, well, more viewers, more ratings, more revenue.

    It’s the meterolological equivalent of “If it bleeds, it leads”. Whether it’s a Cat-5 hurricane or a bombing in some European city, we still watch while munching our Cheerios behind our wall of righteous skepticism.

    Honest predictions can be wrong; computer models are flawed and storms do what they will do – if the honest predictions lead to “hurricane fatigue”, that fatigue can turn into a coma when the predictions are exaggerated by dishonest, self-interested program directors.

    I suppose that when local governments get involved, and when states of emergency are called it’s a different story – hopefully even cynics like me will sit up and take notice – but frequently that’s too little too late.

    “rather than going through mad bursts of last second preparation, always be prepared at the recommended minimum level.”

    Very sage advice. I can understand not buying a generator on sale if you’ve never been without power, but once it happens and you lose hundreds of dollars worth of food and have to pay thousands to pump water out of your basement and treat for mold …(ask me how I know this), it seems like a small investment. Waiting until the storm is on the way means that the delivery trucks at the Home Depot are selling out in the parking lot, before the units cross the threshold – and only one in about ten will ever get one.

    All of this falls into the category of “asking for trouble”. There are many levels of this – having extra water, extra canned goods, a generator, plywood for the windows, or just getting out of Dodge when the authorities tell you to. As is the case in so many of these discussions, I ask, “What is the responsibility of the individual? What is the individual’s moral and ethical obligation not only to himself and his family, but to those upon whom he would lean should his cynicism leave him open to disaster? And, as I asked in response to your earlier post, what is the responsibility of the taxpayers?

    • dh said, on September 17, 2017 at 9:45 am

      If you couldn’t tell by my long-windedness, the above comment was mine; I cleared my cache (in preparation for rain later today) and was not logged in to Chrome.

    • WTP said, on September 18, 2017 at 12:43 pm

      ask me how I know this

      Asking…I’m in central FL, have also lived in costal cities but inland from the ocean. For those on barrier islands and such the warnings, especially for a cat-3 and above or anything reasonably threatening to be a cat-3 by landfall, this is something to definitely take seriously. Board up, tank up (cars and propane), get cash, make plans to get out, etc. For others further inland, get plenty of water (pro tip that most people apparently are unaware of is it comes right out of the tap over your sink…and bonus is it’s perfectly safe to drink), put containers (tupperware, etc) filled with water to take up any extra space in your freezer. This should keep your food safe for 3-4 days. I used to go on weekend camp trips in boy scouts. We kept our food in coolers on ice and it was still safe by the last day, and that’s with ill-disciplined youngsters constantly open/closing them. Eat the least dense meat (i.e. fish) first. In the vast majority of cases, areas nearby will be up and running with power and such within a couple days. If you have to relocate, you can do so.

      The people I really feel for are the ones in the Caribbean, on islands with no evacuation route except by air/sea. They’re the ones that need to take extreme precautions, to be ready for 2-3 weeks.

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