02/22/2013 04:31 pm ET Updated Apr 24, 2013

All or Nothing at All

Statistics are all too often used as a cop-out in dealing with climate change instead of serving to sound the alarm and encourage the public to become more engaged.

That is the hypothesis of Ohio State University statistician Mark Berliner, and he makes a lot of sense. Berliner notes that climate change involves a wide range of prospective events with varying degrees of probability. The uncertainty created by the differing likelihoods of unpleasant climatic consequences has provided a tempting rationale for people to dismiss the complex global warming threat as either overblown or too unpredictable for any corrective action to be taken.

Let's face it. It is only human nature that when confronting a threat requiring difficult choices, any uncertainty is an open invitation to sweep the entire matter under the rug.

Berliner says it is a big mistake to surrender to ambiguity in the case of climate change because statistical analysis can quantify the likelihood of the full range of probabilities. This can provide guidance for how best to mitigate, and in many instances prevent, the nastiest effects of climate change.

If the extent of the threat is unclear, that is no reason to ignore the threat, since it is still here. Using uncertainty as a justification for inaction against a vexing problem is to succumb to an all or nothing response. It is a specious and damaging way of thinking, yet we see it frequently in American politics. The cop-out can take the form of making the perfect the enemy of the good. If you cannot solve a problem in its totality, the conclusion that it is pointless to do anything can be an appealing argument for obstructionists.

You see this strategy being employed not just by those dismissive of global warming. Foes of tougher gun laws have resorted to the same reasoning by maintaining there are already too may guns in circulation for additional restrictions to make a practical difference. The idea that solutions could occur in gradual, small increments receives no consideration.

Another cop-out technique is to dispense with a complex problem through oversimplification. It is a tool often used to obscure the statistical risks and probabilities inimical to an ideological stance. A frequent exponent of this technique is Right Wing talk show host Sean Hannity. Not a day passes without him denouncing President Obama for accusing Republicans of "wanting dirty air and dirty water."

Of course, Obama and other critics of the GOP's environmental bona fides never said any such thing. What they did assert was that when confronted with a choice between tougher environmental regulations or less restrictions on corporate polluters, Republican lawmakers tended to opt for the latter. It was GOP officials' statistical priorities that were under attack, not their affinity for clean air and water.