February 23, 2004

A Fisking Too Vigorous

Greyhawk over at the Mudville Gazette is fisking the daylights out of one of my favorite organizations, the Global Business Network. His point, which is true as far as it goes, is that the scenarios developed by GBN shouldn't be taken as accurate predictions of the future. The truth is that GBN has never presented its scenarios as predictions.

To operate in an uncertain world, people need to be able to reperceive—to question their assumptions about the way the world works, so they could see the world more clearly. The purpose of scenarios is to help yourself change your view of reality—to match it up more closely with reality as it is, and reality as it is going to be.

The end result, however, is not an accurate picture of tomorrow, but better decisions about the future.

(From The Art of the Long View. Emphasis in original.)

The scenarios are thinking execrcises. In order to "question assumptions" and get a better grip on "reality as it is," GBN usually develops a set of highly divergent scenarios. That means that the global warming doomsday scenario that the Observer article referenced was part of a set. If GBN was true to form, they did anywhere from two to four additional scenarios (not referenced), at least one of which would probably have described a future in which little or no climatological change occurs.

The author of the original article may or may not have known about the existence of additional scenarios. But had he done his homework, he would have learned enough about GBN to know that they aren't in the business of peddling doomsday predictions. Greyhawk, for all of his "the truth is out there" advice, might have done the same. Unfortunately, he took The Oberver/Guardian's word for it that these were predictions, so he researched the GBN site to collect a few nuggets that he could use to discredit Schwartz and company.

The scenario-planning technique that GBN uses is far from perfect, although it has had some remarkable successes in the past. I've been lucky enough to meet Peter Schwartz and attend one of his talks. His political opinions may be a little too "Berkeley" for my tastes, too — although actually, his group's headquarters are in Emeryville, an industrial enclave to the south of the People's Republic, which is home to hippy outfits like Siebel Systems — but by and large, politics is beside the point. GBN doesn't have a political axe to grind, at least not in the traditional sense. They would like to bring about a change in the way political discourse occurs, particularly where the future is concerned. In this instance, I think Schwartz and company would prefer that the author of the Observer piece, rather than zeroing in on one set of easily sensationalized possibilities that fall perfectly in line with his own biases, find out about the other scenarios, opening himself and his readers to multiple possible futures. Likewise, they would probably consider it helpful for Greyhawk, rather than jumping to the conclusion that GBN is an "enemy" who needs to be made to look ridiculous, consider some of the other work that they've done (not just the Oprah and War Games and Mother Earth News stuff.) Who knows? He might find that his own certainty about the future is as poorly justified as that of his opponents, and that he still might have a few things to learn...even from a group heaquartered near Berkeley.

UPDATE: Via Instapundit, Tim Blair reports just how wrong the Observer got it, inlcuding an explanatory quote from Schwartz himself:

This is very much in the spirit of thinking the unthinkable. The report that we put together for the Pentagon is an extreme scenario, in the sense that most climatologists would say that this is low probability, in the sense of it happening soon, and as pervasively. But it is the Pentagon's job to think about many cases, [including?] the worst-case scenario.

Posted by Phil at February 23, 2004 09:05 AM | TrackBack

You read a bit too fast. The discredit was entirely to the Guardian, GBN services were in no way impugned. I note only that the authors were non-scientists. Those who think that's an insult are very mistaken.

Posted by: Greyhawk at February 23, 2004 01:26 PM


I may, indeed, have read too fast, seeing sarcasm where none was intended. If so, I apologize. Maybe you just mentioned the fact that they're in Berkeley and the connection with the Oprah show as interesting details.

I certainly don't consider it an insult to point out that someone isn't a scientist. Nor do I consider the label "science fiction" to be an insult. However, the notion that GBN's work is "science fiction stuff, by guys who can't write well enough to be pros" seems a pretty harsh assessment. There's a suggestion there that writing "science fiction" stories isn't a good expenditure of taxpayers money. And did I misread this question: "Do you think maybe the authors got angry when they were laughed at?"

Posted by: Phil at February 23, 2004 04:06 PM

Wow - explanations take all the fun out. Yes. The items you cite are there for people to make up their own minds. The entire story was written to leave people room to think. This normally leads to a good comment thread. In fact, had you added a comment to the effect, a rousing good discussion might have ensued.

The GBN folks are obviously good at what they do. I included a fine example of something else they did that was obviously not a doomsday piece.

Now stop and think: What does Greyhawk do for a living? Could he already be familiar with the work of GBN? Why does he even bother commenting here? Might I have taken a huge logical leap in using the term "the enemy" above?

The Guardian's actions are outrageous, and the focus of the story. You've drawn an erronoeus conclusion and jumped on a bandwagon. But I suppose I left that door open for you.

The beauty of the Blogosphere.

Posted by: Greyhawk at February 23, 2004 09:41 PM

You've drawn an erronoeus conclusion and jumped on a bandwagon.

Nonsense. First off, if there was a "bandwagon" of bloggers leaping to GBN's defense, I'm not aware of it. I replied to a piece that appeared to be laced with sarcasm directed at GBN.

The items you cite are there for people to make up their own minds.

Right. As long as they don't draw any "erroneous conclusions." Kind of asking your readers to walk a thin line, aren't you? But at least you're willing to help:

Now stop and think: What does Greyhawk do for a living? Could he already be familiar with the work of GBN? Why does he even bother commenting here? Might I have taken a huge logical leap in using the term "the enemy" above?

If you genuinely expect all your readers to engage in this kind of Socratic inner dialog every time they read something you write, you might as well get used to the odd instance of someone jumping to an "erroneuos conclusion." The only one of those questions that's relevant* is the last one. As I pointed out in my initial reply, I may well have been mistaken. However, owing to your deliberately obfuscatory presentation of the material, I must take exception to the word "huge." This was, at best, a very small leap.

* I don't expect my readers to take my personal history and employment background into consideration when reading what I write. Of course, you're free to operate by a different set of rules but -- as I'm sure you're aware --we're currently on my blog.

Posted by: Phil at February 24, 2004 07:45 AM
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