Bad Science Dies (Very) Hard

Given the scientific turn this blog has taken over the past week, I want to continue the theme by highlighting some very grave dangers when science becomes scientism. Despite the assurances of people like Steven Pinker in his New Republic  article that science is all about checks and balances, peer-review, open-mindedness, and discarding of discredited ideas, here in the real world the academic guild of science often believes itself impervious to critique. Paradigms gain ascendancy and then marginalize all competing hypotheses. As Thomas Kuhn showed decades ago, the process of overturning scientific consensus is a long-term affair full of intellectual, academic, and professional resistance and upheaval.

Let's be honest. Scientific orthodoxies of yesterday die hard. 

And some of those orthodoxies are truly horrible. 

Take Thomas Malthus. He believed that resources are scarce and that there is a limit to the number of people the earth can sustain. He was the intellectual Grand-daddy of "population control," by which I mean the forced sterilizations, abortions, and genocide carried out over the past century by bloody-minded progressive Malthusian eugenicists (and continues to this very day). Quite simply, if we don't keep the population down, we'll all starve to death.

Makes sense, doesn't it? Any Fish & Wildlife Officer out here in Montana can tell you that if you don't allow hunting, whereby the deer are thinned out, then the entire population will be at risk because of a lack of resources. 

Only one problem. What is true of animals is, in this case, not true of humans. 

A 19th century Englishman, Henry George, put the lie to Malthus this way: 

Here is the difference between the animal and the man: both the jay-hawk and the man eat chickens, but the more jay-hawks the fewer chickens, while the more men the more chickens.

Human beings are rational and creative in ways that animals are not. More population does not mean more scarcity of resources; it almost always means (where economic freedom allows) more resources

Millions of people have perished because of Malthusian orthodoxy, a fact chillingly documented in Robert Zubrin's book Merchants of Despair : Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism. Please read this book. 

Now, Malthusianism has been a failure of spectacular proportions, which is not much comfort to the multitudes of women conned into tubal ligations or forced abortions worldwide. However, so difficult is this orthodoxy to overcome that President Obama’s science adviser is none other than the most famous (and destructive) Malthusian of them all: Paul Ehrlich. Ehrlich’s 1970 book, Population Bomb, revitalized Malthus and led to massive population control efforts worldwide, most notably through the efforts of the United Nations. Never mind that every single one of Ehrlich’s predictions proved 100% false. He even famously lost money on his bad predictions. This man of scientific disgrace is honored in the West Wing and scientific guild alike.

I think of another noteworthy prognosticator in 1970, biblical prophecy guru Hal Lindsey. At least when Lindsey’s predictions of the end of the world in 1988 proved untrue, people by and large stopped listening to him. Ehrlich failed no less than Lindsey, but he’s still revered. Chalk it up as a case where a religious “orthodoxy” (aberrant as it was) proved easier to overturn than an equally false scientific “orthodoxy.” Hmm. Religious folks proved more intellectually flexible than the scientific guild. Who would have thought?

I bring all this up because public pseudo-intellectuals keep repeating Malthusian claptrap. Here is renowned law professor Richard Posner, asking the question “Does the World Need More People?” His answer? "I am dubious." Underlying his entire piece is the mistaken notion that population v. resources is a zero-sum game (jayhawks v. chickens) rather than the truth: a population explosion usually means an innovation explosion. Even leaving this aside, I find the fact-free ruminations of these supposedly “scientific” thinkers irritating in the extreme. Here’s a reality check: if the world’s population lived as densely as people do in Manhattan (very dense, to be sure, but hardly unlivable), every last man, woman, and child could live in New Zealand. But, if we wanted to spread out a bit and live, say, as densely as they do in Bangladesh, we could all live comfortably in Australia.

Posner is not alone. Now revered American intellectual Wendell Berry has tossed in his two cents which, surprisingly given his reputation for profundity, are not really worth the two cents. Again there is a Malthusian presupposition: we are all fighting over scarce resources. He has a unique twist, though. For Wendell Berry, the worst thing that could happen is the discovery of a limitless supply of "clean" energy. If we had such a limitless resource, he writes that we would "use the world up even faster than we are using it up now." I'm inclined to think Berry just phoned this essay in, since that sentence is literally nonsensical. The Malthusian assumption always appears in those words, though: "use it up." We are just jayhawks fighting over chickens. But I can credit Berry for at least his honesty: the solution to humanity's problems is that we all need to get poorer: "If we want to stop the impoverishment of land and people, we ourselves must be prepared to become poorer."

I credit him for not jetting around on his Gulfstream to preach this message.

The earth does not have too many people. We have quite the opposite problem. And not just the Western world. Asia, too. And we are not “running out” of anything. It is sheer fantasy that some people can look at the industrial, technological, and economic boom of the past century and see, as Berry does, nothing but current and looming disaster. On the contrary, never have so many lived so well and so long. You can go read all the relevant metrics, say, here and here. The world has never before had so much food, so much health, so much energy, so much clean air and water, all due to the creative genius of human persons in community.

Have there been downsides? Of course there have. But the solution to those is not to be found in the Malthusians, who invariably argue that the poorest must pay for the sins of the richest: in its worst instantiations, better that the Indians or Africans starve to death or suffer from malnutrition than feed them. That is the track record of this scientific “orthodoxy” that will itself not die.

If “science” is so good at fact-checking, peer-reviewing, and throwing out bad hypotheses, I have just one question in response to the condescending reassurances of Steven Pinker:

Why does Paul Ehrlich have a job at all, much less as an adviser to the President of the United States of America?

Brian Mattson