And The Winner Goes To…Oscar Statistics Wrap Up

Our model was right: The King’s Speech won. In this weekend’s Oscar Statistics post, we modeled the chances of each nominated movie. We guessed that the movie most likely to win would be the one which took in about 1/4 of the Most Popular movie of the year, would have no significant roles for actresses, would be a drama, and would star a man at least 40 years old.

Of course, The King’s Speech, which shared all those traits, was the favorite for a variety of other well-known reasons, but we took none of these factors into account; our model was purely statistical.

Specifically, we did not try to predict what the best movie of the year would be, just what would win the Oscar for that category. As all know, the statuette is not awarded entirely for quality, but for political, personal, historical, equability, and other arguments.

The original purpose of our analysis was, however, to examine quality. Was the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences a better judge of quality than the “crowd-sourced” American public? The answer, we think, is probably yes.

Here are the movies for Oscar-winning Best Picture and Highest Grossing for those years when the Oscar winner made less than 25% of the Most Popular movie (recalling that we measured box office gross by hand and with some error).

Movies in which the Best Picture made 25% or less of the Highest Grossing Picture.
Year     Best Picture     Highest Grossing Movie
1940 Rebecca Pinocchio
1942 Mrs. Miniver Bambi
1950 All about Eve Cinderella
1951 An American in Paris Quo Vadis?
1958 Gigi South Pacific
1967 In the Heat of the Night The Jungle Book
1977 Annie Hall Star Wars Ep. IV: A New Hope
1980 Ordinary People Star Wars Ep. V: The Empire Strikes Back
1981 Chariots of Fire Raiders of the Lost Ark
1982 Gandhi ET: The Extra-Terrestrial
1984 Amadeus Ghostbusters
2004 Million Dollar Baby Shrek 2
2005 Crash Star Wars Ep. III: Revenge of the Sith
2007 No Country for Old Men Spider-Man 3
2009 The Hurt Locker Avatar

(First a note: our sources give two difference answers for Gigi; one says the movie made $7.3 million, another says double that. If the truth lies in-between, then Gigi should drop off this list. Since there is some doubt, we do not account for it below.)

Except for Quo Vadis? besting An American in Paris in 1951, every other Highest Grossing Movie could be considered a cartoon, a movie that the whole family could, and probably did, go to, thus boosting the bottom line. Certainly many of the movies in the list were cartoons (hand- or computer-drawn). The rest were cartoonish.

Because of ratings, some of the Oscar-winning movies the whole family could not go to, like Ordinary People, No Country for Old Men, and The Hurt Locker which hurts them in the bottom-line comparison. Even so, there are a distinct differences in the quality between the two columns.

Crash was an example of re-capturing the glory of long-won battles, but surely it was better than the direct-to-film-merchandising of Star Wars Ep. III: Revenge of the Sith. In the Heat of the Night might—for all the right reasons, of course—be overrated, but it was better than the watery version of The Jungle Book.

On the other hand, were Chariots of Fire and Gandhi, with vaguely similar sub-themes of the previous movies, and while also reflecting the Academy’s love of all things British, both better than Raiders of the Lost Ark and ET: The Extra-Terrestrial? Probably; maybe.

Then few older than six would argue Shrek 2 was better than Million Dollar Baby or that Ghostbusters improved upon Amadeus. And we’d have to push that age down a year when comparing Rebecca with Pinocchio, Mrs. Miniver with Bambi, and All about Eve with Cinderella.

However, it is true that this latter three Most Popular movies are good children’s films. So in effect, we are comparing the wrong things. Of course the Oscar winning movie would be better than a movie aimed at a child. But that was the case only into the 1970s, after which the children’s movies had pretensions of being grown-up, culminating in the politically simplistic Avatar.

Now look at the 17 movies which won Oscars were also the Highest Grossing. (This means the Oscar-wining movie had 100% of the take of the Highest Grossing movie. The next lowest percentage for an Oscar-winning movie’s take of the Highest was 85%.)

Movies in which the Best Picture made 90% or more of the Highest Grossing Picture.
Year     Best/Highest Grossing Picture
1929 The Broadway Melody
1934 It Happened One Night
1935 Mutiny on the Bounty
1938 You Can’t Take It with You
1939 Gone with the Wind
1944 Going My Way
1952 The Greatest Show on Earth
1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai
1959 Ben-Hur
1962 Lawrence of Arabia
1965 The Sound of Music
1972 The Godfather
1976 Rocky
1979 Kramer vs. Kramer
1988 Rain Man
1994 Forrest Gump
1997 Titanic
2003 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Two of these were R-rated: The Godfather and Rain Man, which means many sales were not to kids. Two of them involved simple minds, an increasingly popular theme: Rain Man and Forrest Gump. Only one was cartoonish: the endless orc slaughter-fest The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King . Two were with Dustin Hoffman (when he was 42 and 51).

At least three had strong Christian themes: Going My Way, Ben-Hur, and The Sound of Music, but none since 1965. Most of the movies before 1979 are better than the movies which came after.

This is a loose assessment, of course, but since Kramer vs. Kramer movies in this category were goofier, for lack of a better word. It is a wild guess, and therefore likely to be wrong, but perhaps the increase in goofiness reflects the voting members of the Academy paying more attention to the bottom line then they had done previously.

Oscar Statistics: Money, Men, and Maturity; Plus Our Predictions

This article was written with the assistance of the very employable John Briggs, who did all the grunt work.

Also see And The Winner Goes To…Oscar Statistics Wrap Up.

Which is the better movie, the one awarded an Oscar for Best Picture or the Most Popular, defined as the one with that year’s highest box office gross? The former is, ostensibly, chosen by experts, the latter picked by you.

We cannot answer that question, but we can discover some of the differences between Best and Most Popular pictures.

  • The Most Popular picture routinely made about twice what the Best Picture took in, and there is good evidence this trend is increasing.
  • Many pictures had only men in the lead and no women.
  • Women over 40 are rare, and over 50 virtually non-existent, while older men show up increasingly frequently.
  • Best Pictures usually had older actors and actresses than the Most Popular movies.
  • There were fewer comedies for Oscars, more Action & Adventure for Most Popular flicks.

The Oscars for Best Picture were awarded from 1927/1928 until 2009; 83 years so far. In 1928, there was no Best Picture award, but one called Most Outstanding Production, which was given to a film that ran over 1927 and 1928 (Wings). We included this in the Best Picture category for 1927.

Sixteen of the 83 years, or 19%, found the Best Picture also being the Most Popular. These were movies like The Broadway Melody, It Happened One Night, Gone with the Wind, The Sound of Music, and The Godfather.


We retrieved data on box office grosses from The Numbers and Box Office Mojo, supplemented by IMDB. We could not find data for 11 years, mostly early on. We used total box office take as our main measure. Unfortunately (since we did this by hand) we only have totals including monies made in re-releases, releases which might not have been in the same year the movie was first shown. This limitation should be kept in mind when considering how certain the results are.

Ratio of box office gross

The red dots in this picture are those years when the Best Picture was also the Most Popular. For the remaining films, the line is the ratio of box office gross, Best Picture divided by Most Popular, for the two categories. The trend implies the widening divergence between what the Academy and the public thinks is the best movie each year, as voted by wallets.

Up through the 1960s and into the 1970s, the Best Picture took in about half of what the Most Popular picture realized. But that dropped to about a third through 2000, after which the Best Picture only made 20% or less of the Most Populars’ take. For example, in 2006 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest sailed effortlessly past The Departed, and in 2009 Avatar crushed The Hurt Locker.

If this trend continues, in twenty years nobody but Academy members will even have heard of the Best Picture. On the other hand, if the previous 5 Most Popular pictures are any guide—Shrek 2,
Star Wars Ep. III: Revenge of the Sith, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Spider-Man 3, The Dark Knight, Avatar—the Most Popular movie two decades from now will be targeted at audiences who are still attempting to master pasting and scissoring skills.

Men vs. Women

All but one of the Oscars for Best Picture had a leading actor. The only one missing a man in the leading role was the picture All about Eve, starring Bette Davis. Men were in this picture, but only in supporting roles, and not as the male rivals of Miss Davis.

On the other hand, there were 32 years, or 39%, in which no women appeared as leading actress in the film that won the Oscar. Examples of movies without women in a lead role: Mutiny on the Bounty (Clark Gable), Going My Way (Bing Crosby), Patton (George C. Scott), The Godfather (Marlon Brando), The Last Emperor (John Lone).

The same disparity was found in the Most Popular picture. Only one movie did not have a leading actor, and that was the cartoon Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs!

However, plenty of flicks (20, or 24%) made money without leading actresses. Films like The Bridge on the River Kwai (William Holden), The Longest Day (John Wayne), Jaws (Roy Scheider), Back to the Future (Michael J. Fox), Saving Private Ryan (Tom Hanks), and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Elijiah Wood). Several of these films had almost no women at all, let alone one in a leading role. Of course, many of these were war (fictional or otherwise) pictures, so this is not surprising.

The lesson is clear: if you want to save money, don’t hire a leading actress.


Oscar winning men were older than the Most Popular winning men, and likewise for the women. Leading men were also older than leading women. Academy members prefer older men and women; audiences prefer younger.

The median age of Oscar winning men was 38, for the Most Popular it was 35. However, for the years in which the Oscar winning movie was different than the Most Popular, the Oscar winning men were on average 6 years older.

For women, the median age for winning the Oscar was 30, while for the best picture it was 28. For years when the two best pictures were different, Oscar winning women were 5 years older on average.

The frequency of older men in Oscars is increasing. Before 1980, only twice did the Oscar winning movie find men 50 or older: Lionel Barrymore in You Can’t Take It with You and Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. Since then, there were 7 men older then 50 (but two of these were Clint Eastwood: Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby).

Only once did the Most Popular movie break the 60 year-old mark for men: in 1967 The Jungle Book voiced by Phil Harris, meaning he wasn’t even seen. And the last time the Most Popular actor was older than 50 (51 actually) was in 1988, Rain Man with Dustin Hoffman.

There was only one Oscar winning movie with a leading actress older than 50: Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy. Eight women were at least 40 in Oscar winning movies, e.g. Myrna Loy, Bette Davis, Sandra Bullock. However, half of these were just 40 or 41.

Just three women older than 40 were in the Most Popular picture: Barbara Luddy (47) Lady and the Tramp (a cartoon), Dorothy McGuire (44) Swiss Family Robinson, and Ellen Burstyn (41) The Exorcist. The last of these was way back in 1973!

The old—get it?—adage that once a woman pushes past 40, her chances of appearing in a major motion picture drop precipitously. Men are allowed to age and still be considered worthy of watching.

Genre Differences

We categorized movie genres by eye; thus, not all will agree with our classifications. Our categories were: Action Adventure (to include mysteries, horror, sci-fi), Comedy (to include romantic comedy), Drama (to include biopics, war films, westerns), Family (to include cartoons and musicals), and Romance (definitely not comedic).

For example, we put From Here to Eternity as Romance when that could be considered a Drama. And we coded Bing Crosby’s Going My Way as a musical, hence Family, though it could just as easily been classed as a Drama.

Oscar winning movies must have tears! Only four movies (5%), weakly classified as a Comedy, took home Best Pictures: It Happened One Night in 1934, You Can’t Take It with You 1938, Annie Hall in 1977, and Shakespeare in Love in 1998. Note that all of these except for You Can’t Take It with You might also be classed as dramatic romantic comedies.

Again, only four Oscar winning movies were Action & Adventure: Around the World in 80 Days in 1956, Ben-Hur in 1959, Gladiator in 2000, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003. The overlap between drama and action is also obvious.

By far the largest category of winning movies was Drama at 56%, with Romance coming in second at 21% and Family at 13%.

Action & Adventure was the most common genre for the Most Popular pictures, at 33%. Dramas were 27%, Family 16%, Romance at 13%, and Comedy at about 11%. The Comedies in this category differ not only in frequency, but in content. Winners include Blazing Saddles in 1974, 3 Men and a Baby in 1987, Shrek 2 in 2004.

Who Wins On Sunday?

The top grossing movie for 2010 was Toy Story 3. Both Tom Hanks and Tim Allen were older than 50 (54 and 55 respectively), but this was a cartoon where the men’s faces could not be seen.

Based on our results, we pick the The King’s Speech with Coin Firth to win this year’s Best Picture Oscar. It took in about 1/4 of what Toy Story 3 did, which is in line with the trend, and it features two men with women only in peripheral roles. The category is clearly Drama, and Firth is 50, a preferred age.

This picture best matches our data and the trends we have seen. Our guess of the probability of winning is 80%, with the remaining probability split between the remaining films, but most of the going to The Fighter for similar reasons.

Please pass this article on to movie lovers!

Also see And The Winner Goes To…Oscar Statistics Wrap Up.

We Need To Slaughter Owls To Save Them, Environmentalists

Here is a quiz to accurately determine how devoted an environmentalist you are. What is the best way to “save” Oregonian owls? (a) Ignore them and let them take care of themselves; (b) Allocate funds for studies; (c) Outlaw logging; or (d) Shoot them down in cold blood.

The correct answer, obvious to all true activists, is (d), kill, kill, kill.

I do not jest. According to Oregon Live, and sent in by longtime reader Mike B, armed government agents are fixing to “shoot barred owls to save spotted owls.” They even have a quota: 1,200 to 1,500 barred owls will be soon sent on their way to an early exit with a bullet to the head.

Why? It seems Oregonian owls have formed themselves into rival gangs. As with all gangs, members sport “colors” to identify themselves. One group sports “bars”, the other “spots.” For years there was a truce between the two gangs. But then, one dark day, a Barred called “Little Blue Wings” flew into Spotted turf and proceeded to have his way with some of the Spotteds’ mice.

Nobody understands why, but the Spotteds chose not to fight back. Word of their cowardice spread, and soon Barreds were overrunning the Spotteds’ turf, eating up everything in sight. The Barreds, with bellies full, began to breed more Barreds, and they in turn produced even more of their troop, etc., so that now, Barreds outnumber Spotteds.

The brash behavior of the Barreds incensed environmentalists, a group, it’s true, who are easily incensed. Their sense of fairness, badly wounded, induced them to take action. It isn’t reported, but these activists must have first tried “dialog.” One cannot imagine them resorting to violence before giving peace a chance. When it proved that the Barreds were recalcitrant, war became inevitable and weapons were handed out.

Don’t think they reached this decision without qualms; no, sir! The government first “hired an environmental ethicist to guide its discussions.” (I’m not sure what one of these creatures are, but I am so enamored by the title that I am forthwith adding to my list of credentials.) The environmental ethicist, as government-sponsored ethicists have been doing for well over a century, opted for death as the solution.

Barred Owls Shot by EnvironmentalistsThe owls pictured here were gunned down mercilessly by passion-filled environmentalists. The euphemism chosen for the slaughter was “management experiment.” As in, “Cheech, I think we need to conduct a little management experiment on Big Joey.”

These heartless black-hearted owl-killing brutes didn’t close the eyes of their victims! Just laid them out on a slab. They could have at least hollowed out their carcasses and made them into hats, or woven their feathers into souvenir t-shirts. But there they sit, uneaten, wasted flesh.

To be sure, not all are convinced that “liberating” barred owls will benefit spotted owls. Biologist Blake Murden said, “barred owls expanded rapidly because they adapt well to mixed habitat and eat a variety of prey, while spotted owls prefer old-growth to nest and, in most of its range, flying squirrels to eat.” The “generalist” barred owls are better adapted for life in that neck of the woods. “Population dynamics between two native species should not be artificially manipulated,” he said.

However, Murden works for a logging company and is therefore hopelessly biased because he receives money to say what he says. It must be admitted that environmentalists also receive money to say what they say, but what they say cannot be biased because their money did not come from logging companies. Well, not all of it. Anyway, environmentalists cannot be biased because they only want what is best.

This isn’t the first time ardent activists have taken to the wilds with death on their minds. Deadly force has long been authorized to hunt down and kill renegade sea lions. This is in Oregon, too. These same environmentalists were upset that sea lions were eating a certain brand of salmon on the environmentalists’ Pretty Fish list. Problem is, some of the sea lions in the cross hairs are on the Pretty Mammals List. Environmentalists are having a tough time deciding just what to kill.

But none of that is worrisome. What is is wondering how long until these guys figure that a “management experiment” on humans is the best way to save the planet?

Prettier Politicians Preferred At Polls

“It is well established that being beautiful confers many advantages on a person.” This is the opening sentence of a break-through paper by two Swedes and a Finn. From that true statement, our authors conclude pretty politicians do better than ugly ones, and that evaluations “of beauty explain success in real elections better than evaluations of competence, intelligence, likability, or trustworthiness.”

The paper is The Looks of a Winner: Beauty, Gender and Electoral Success (by Berggren, Jordahl, and Poutvaara). In it, our “researchers” define a “beauty premium”, which is a statistical quantification of the advantage the gorgeous have over the facially challenged (I’m not up on the PC euphemism for ugly; anybody know it?).

To discover the beauty premium, the men showed photos of about 2,000 Finnish politicians to around 3,000 non-Finnish non-politicians. They wanted to know “whether male and female respondents differ in their evaluation of candidates’ beauty and other traits.” Why? Because—and I don’t know whether to weep or laugh as I paste in this next quotation—”The beauty literature so far has paid scant attention to the gender

Beauty literature? Good grief!

Well, we might as well stick with it. They quote from a personage named Langlois:

The meta-analyses showed that, both within and across cultures, people agreed about who is and is not attractive. Furthermore, attractiveness is an advantage in a variety of important, real-life situations. We found not a single gender difference and surprisingly few age differences, suggesting that attractiveness is as important for males as for females and for children as for adults. (Our italics.)

Non! cry our crew. They say that Langlois might be right about beauty in other arenas, but in “electoral studies, rather little is reported on gender and beauty.” Thus a new paper—or even better, new papers—are needed. The only possible evidence is from one Hamermesh, who looked at elections at the “American Economic Association, and his results indicate that there is a large and almost statistically significant effect of beauty on the electoral success of a male candidate” but none with females.

Elections at the American Economic Association? Almost statistically significant? Why, that is as good as statistically significant!

Actually, I cannot fault them for this faux pas because, as I often argue, the term “statistically significant” should be banished from the kingdom for good and for all time. For one, it is ripe for abuse of the sort perpetrated by our authors. For another, almost nobody has any idea what it really means (not much, and not what most think it does).

The study itself is dull. The pictures are shuffled and shown and the raters are asked various questions related to beauty and other traits. There are no surprises; indeed, it would have been surprising if there were surprises. There are plenty of criticisms that can be leveled at the design and analysis, but why bother? This study is the kind of bad statistics I call “Type 1 Bad”, meaning it purports to prove something that was already obvious. It is therefore, as Douglas Adams might have said, mostly harmless.

So why mention it? Because our authors could not restrain themselves. They must have more! They went from saying something obviously true, to saying something stupid and false. They could not just present the results, they had to theorize about them. In comments to a gullible press, Berggren said, “One possible explanation is that people who are seen or consider themselves beautiful tend to be more anti-egalitarian and right wing.”

It was this statement that was picked up and highlighted in newspapers throughout the world. It even made the New York Post!

Now, there is not one word of theorizing in the paper. Yet Berggren and his brother authors could not resist opining on the popularity of (yes) Sarah Palin1 and Ronald Reagan. “I think the right has been more conscious of looks,” said Berggren. Evidence? And what’s that bit about people considering themselves beautiful? Wild, wishful extrapolation, that’s what.

It might be true—and probably is, if my mirror is any guide—that conservatives are better looking than lefties. But it does not follow from this that conservatives are more anti-egalitarian, unless by that word they mean “freedom loving.” We can conceded that in the contest of which side of the aisle is more efficient at removing freedoms, the left have compiled a steady stream of victories.

Let’s test out our authors’ theory. Pictured below are Berggren, Jordahl, and Poutvaara (in that order). Which are the lefties and which conservatives? (It will also be obvious which of these considers himself more beautiful.) Click on their names to land on their web pages, where their political beliefs will reveal themselves.

Berggran, Jordahl, and Poutvaara


1Laura, if you’re reading this: she is hot.

Midweek Catchup: The Natural Advantage Of Doomsayers

Micro-economics of the End of the World

As I sit contemplating my under-employment and its various causes, it became clear to me that my natural sunny disposition has hampered me. Too much sunshine has always been known to be harmful, incidentally.

Consider the doomsayer, a man who leads a charmed life in our culture. The doomsayer has a natural advantage over his more sanguine colleague. If he is, like most are, an academic, he writes a grant with the title, “The Calamity That Awaits Us When The Climate Changes.” The granting agency is skeptical, but they reason: “Although the probability of calamity is low, if it does occur the effects will be calamitous. Therefore, our doling out this meager sum is nothing compared to what it would cost us if the calamity occurred.”

Meanwhile, the other man writes a grant entitled, “People Worry Too Much: Life Is Pretty Good” which attracts no funders.

The doomsayer, sitting in his newly appointed office, writes his speculative papers which, when joined with the output of his nervous brothers, become authoritative because of their sheer number, just like ghost stories.

Worse, when it comes time to promotion the doomsayer can point to his steady stream of grants (which employ administrators) and papers, while the other man can only point to failures in these areas. The effect on the system is obvious.

Job Interview

“What is your ideal job? In the best of all worlds, tell me me what you see yourself doing?”

“I see myself winning the lottery.”

Pause. “Do you know the odds of that happening?”

“It’s because I know the odds that I’m sitting here!”

We’ll see if I get a call back.

Bot people

49erDweet points us to Patriot Action, which details one of the revelations from the HBGary hacking (see Sunday’s post).

The US government is offering private intelligence companies contracts to create software to manage “fake people” on social media sites and create the illusion of consensus on controversial issues.

The contract calls for the development of “Persona Management Software” which would help the user create and manage a variety of distinct fake profiles online.

The call for proposals, issued by the United States Air Force of all places, is found here ( or here; solicitation number RTB220610).

Jerry Pournelle writes that “I recall that in China there is the ‘fifty cent party’ of some 200,000 paid bloggers and commentors whose job is to make up a consensus of approval of the government and Party.” Various companies pay marketers to do similar things here, like touting for snack crackers, but with little success.

The Persona Management Software is not this, and is instead meant to be an Eliza-like system which will fool real people into thinking they are talking to other real people and not bots. The bots will feed real people whatever propaganda its masters deem important. The system must be opaque, so that if suspicions are cast on the bots, it can offer “powerful deniability.”

Given the context and content of the vast majority of on-line communications between real people, particularly through Facebook, Twitter, and the like, the influence of any such software package is likely to be minimal at best.

The Patriot Action Network is rightly worried, but I see it as the computerized equivalent of dropping leaflets, a practice that has almost never worked, except in the rare instances the leaflets announced that your house is right under the planned bombing route.

Planet Could Be ‘Unrecognizable’ By 2050: Doom Just Around The Corner

If you are in your 40s now, as yours truly is (am?), then by 2050 you and the rest of our cohort will be dead or in our 80s. If we last this long, this will be the age during which we will regularly misplace our glasses. Either way, then, pushing up marigolds (prettier than daisies) or tottering about on our canes, the world will look very different to us than it does now.

This, however, does not appear to be what a group of exceptionally nervous scientists meant when they said Mother Earth will be “Unrecognizable” by 2050. They claim that if we don’t actually see at least one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, then, as the saying goes, we will at least hear the approaching of his hoofbeats.

According to a news report, always a dangerous source upon which to rely, gatherants at the American Association for the Advancement of Science were concerned—deeply concerned—about the frequency of sexual intercourse of non-scientists. Specifically, they think there is too much of it. Breeding, that is, and subsequent births resulting from that oh-so-natural habit.

The guess is that by 2050 there will be 9 billion humans roaming to and fro across the surface of the Earth. Jason Clay, of the World Wildlife Fund, a non-partisan, ideology-free scientific organization estimates that to feed the newcomers, “we will need to produce as much food in the next 40 years as we have in the last 8,000.” His conclusion is thus, “By 2050 we will not have a planet left that is recognizable.”

Food for the next 40 years will feed roughly 320 billion mouth years (summing the population through each year until 2050, figuring in a smooth growth trend). Now last year we fed just under 7 billion, the year before it was just under that, and the year before that it was a little lower and so on.. Progressing back to 1800, when there were only about 1 billion Johns and Janes, and to our present date shows that we have already produced enough food to feed 560 billion mouth years (approximately, of course).

Taking it back 8,000 years, the figure the uninterested Mr Clay provided, gives us about 4,200 billion mouth years of food that we have, as a race, so far provided for ourselves. Mr Clay, whose number is not just wrong, but wildly wrong, is thus either lying, exaggerating, or under the sway of theory. I don’t care to say which. (The fourth possibility is the reporter who questioned him mistranslated Mr Clay’s “8 years” to “8,000 years.”)

Mr Clay and his compatriots also appear to have forgotten a basic fact in biology (and here the possibility of misreporting is larger): we cannot have more humans alive than we can produce food for. That is, if there really will be 9 billion souls in 2050, then, ipso facto, we will have produced enough food to support 9 billion. Unlike our dear and caring governments, we cannot deficit spend in mouth years. If the food is not present, breeding cannot occur.

And if we have produced just enough food so that 9 billion people can live yet some of that food subsequently disappears, then we will soon have fewer than 9 billion people. Some of the living will die earlier than they would have had their stomachs been constantly filled, but a more important variable will be those who are will not be born to replace those who die (it takes more food to sustain a pregnant female than a similarly matched non-pregnant female).

Now it is true that, ceteris paribus, and ignoring the odd act-of-God calamity, if we “use up” a particular resource necessary in the production of food, then we might find ourselves being unable to sustain food production at current levels. This has often happened locally in human history. Land cannot be one of these resources, however, for we have always been stuck with what we have.

But things have never been ceteris paribus, and thus it is rational to suppose that they will not remain so. It was innovation that allowed us to produce more food, and it was this cheap food which led to an increase in the “surplus population” (the WWF and their ilk always write with more than a hint that many are undesirable). If we cease innovating, we slow or stop our increase in food supply, and we thus naturally reduce population. If we continue to innovate, then etc.

Plus we have the empirical fact, not predicted by evolutionary psychology, that as people do better materially the fewer children they produce (the selfish genes of the rich are money mad!). Thus, innovation will not only feed the poor, but it will distract the rich. Missing in the doomsday pronunciations were the demographic forecasts (frequently good) which show a diminishing world population after, say, 2100. The world really be unrecognizable, but probably from a surfeit in hedonism, not population.

Thanks to 49erDweet for today’s tip.

Weekly Mail

I receive regularly a lot of red hot tips from regular readers, but as the week goes on they are often buried by newer mail. Thus I will try out a weekly link compilation post. Beware that the links might show up used in a regular post later. Anonymity will be honored for those who want it.

Inside Story of the HBGary Hack

Fascinating write up of how Anonymous broke into security firm HBGary, from Ars Technica. A clearer introduction to basic computer security I have never seen. Read this and you’ll be prompted to change your passwords. Also a good plea to change to that most secure (and superior!) of operating systems, Linux.

Thanks to Eric Dailey, who was referred by

House votes 244-179 to kill U.S. funding of UN IPCC

Defund IPCC ‘amendment was sponsored by Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-Missouri), who read aloud on the floor from the 2009 U.S. Senate Report of more than 700 dissenting scientists! (Written by Climate Depot’s Morano) — Luetkemeyer: Americans ‘should not have to continue to foot the bill for an (IPPC) organization to keep producing corrupt findings’

Thanks to Marc Morano.

Dawkins’ Genes Encode Memes

From “gene machine” (edited for length and to restrict content to memes, our subject of last week):

Did you read the book?…

If I remember correctly, Dawkins hypothesised that other natural replicators would have a similar selection for “phenotypes” which aid their replication. The only other example he could find in the natural world were “memes”. A fair point, in that we do copy behaviors/words/ideas of other people (they are replicators) and we’re more likely to copy someone rubbing 2 sticks together if it creates something useful like fire (there is a selection of “good” ones). There are important differences too, but it is interesting to note that they are another class of natural replicator and to look at what they have in common with genes.

Up to this point, has Dawkins said anything disagreeable? This is his “bizarre thesis”.

Some of your comments:

>Calling this mundane process a “transmission of memes” isn’t wrong, but an unnecessary obfuscation, a bureaucratic complication.

You may find it trivial, and it is obvious when you think about it, but there is something that is transmitted when one copies another. If Dawkins is going to discuss this then he might as well give these replicators a name and existing words such as “ideas” don’t quite describe the more general class of replicators he is discussing. Boring? that subjective, but not incorrect.

>it is impossible for one copy of a meme to benefit from other copies

No, but it is possible for rubbing sticks together to be more popular than rubbing stones when there is the reward of fire. On average, most ideas should be selected to not harm their own existence such as the “jumping off the cliff meme” and to fit into the ecosystem of memes they compliment or contradict. I don’t think Dawkins, if he used the word, meant “benefit” in the way that you facetiously imply he does.

>Memes are often welcomed by those who want freedom from responsibility for their own actions. If a man can’t point to his “selfish” genes and say “They made me do it!”, then perhaps memes are the real culprits. People aren’t really racists, they have racist memes.

Yeah and people only doubt that CO2 will destroy the universe because they are evil capitalist bastards. This is not an argument, this is just an insult.

>These arguments are identical with those saying there is no free will. “We must not punish the criminal! He has no free will, no choice to have done what he has done.”

I’m not aware of anybody is making an argument not to punish criminals (I’m including containment, along with attempted rehabilitation in punishment here) , isn’t this just a popular parody made of people who believe in causality? Genes, cultural influences, childhood brain injuries, experiences and the current situation all play a role in how we act at any moment, are you proposing that there is a supernatural input too or that some kind of quantum dice constitutes free will? The existence of free will depends on the details of the definition used.

Anyway, Dawkins was right-on with the genetics, this is rightly the most iconic popularisation of the, sometimes under appreciated, modern synthesis. Dawkins was right to look for other replicators to see how the ideas of the book could be generalised. Memes are not a bad label for these replicators. Personally I did not take too much from the memes part of the book, other than to ponder how (other!) stupid ideas can become popular. The real meat of the book, for me, was giving a foundation for understanding animal (and human) behaviors including sex differences, cooperation and deceit.

So, do the decent thing, go read the book if you have not already, and get your apology written. If you like I will buy you a copy.

Now, now, and tsk, tsk, Mr gene machine. It is rude to suggest that I have not read Dawkins. Proof that I have is evidenced by my surly attitude whenever his name is mentioned; after effects of exposure to poor arguments. I await your apology from your ungentlemanly accusation.

And I’ll bet that you have not read (much of) Midgley and none of Stove. Tell you what. Take the money you would have donated to me (see the upper left corner of this page) and use it to buy Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity and Other Fables of Evolution. Read that with a clear eye and then report back to me.

Further, I repeat that to call “behaviors/words/ideas” “replicators” is an unnecessary complication and is false. Ideas do not replicate, people may or may not pass on ideas. To stick just with ideas, these can be passed on regardless whether they are harmful or useful to people, in any dimension, or to the ideas themselves. Take socialism. A lovely but murderous idea. Yet it survives, even as “it” kills off its hosts.