William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

How Many Lousy Predictions Until Error Is Admitted?

Update Breitbart kindly asked to reprint this, and just did.

How long does it take for an expert who has, year upon year after year, made predictions of unrealized doom, an expert hailed heeded and hearkened to by the whole world, to admit error? Answer: forever. He never will, and neither will most of his admirers.

This is important to understand—let this sink into your bones—because this sad but true fact about the human condition tells us how long global warming will be with us. Answer: forever. It will last until the last of it proponents die. Which, given improvements in medical practice, will be at least several more decades.

No one said this pithier than Max Planck: Science advances one funeral at a time. The increased and increasing longevity of our species thus partly accounts for the deceleration in scientific knowledge which many have remarked.

Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the New York Times. The New York Times! No publication is more progressive or as detached from reality, no group of writers more convinced of their secularly divine destiny. Yet, somehow, they brought themselves to publish the piece “The Unrealized Horrors of Population Explosion“. Watch the video at the top. I’ll wait here.

Back? Fascinating, ain’t it?

Paul Ehrlich has been as wrong, wronger even, than Jim Hansen or Al Gore, yet no number of failed predictions has so much as put a crease in the man’s unwavering support of himself. And wasn’t he as a younger man convincing! The sheer authority in his voice, the utter believability! How many times did he say he was on The Tonight Show?

Dr. Ehrlich was so sure of himself that he warned in 1970 that “sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come.” By “the end,” he meant “an utter breakdown of the capacity of the planet to support humanity.”

As far as I can tell, though I haven’t done a systematic count, not one of Ehrlich’s predictions has come true. Does it matter? Not to him, and not to the many, many grant- and award-awarding bodies who, to this very day, fete the man. The Weekly Standard:

In 1990—the same year he lost his bet with Julian Simon—Ehrlich was awarded a million dollar MacArthur “genius” grant and was simultaneously feted across the Atlantic with Sweden’s Crafoord Prize, which was worth just about half a million. In 1993 the Heinz Family Foundation bestowed on him its first Heinz Award. This little trinket came with $100,000 in cash and the most delusional praise possible, claiming that Ehrlich’s “perspective, uncommon among scientists, has made [him and his wife] the target of often harsh criticism—criticism they accept with grace as the price of their forthrightness.” Which is a peculiar way of explaining that Ehrlich was completely wrong and that he responded to all such evidence with ad hominem attacks. Five years later, in 1998, he was awarded the Tyler Prize, which comes with $200,000. The money train kept on rolling.

Now don’t make the same mistake this magazine did and call Ehrlich “insanely dangerous”. He is not. He is a harmless old man, who was wrong about, as far as I can tell, absolutely everything. It is a world class blunder to focus on Ehrlich and not on the political scum who “leveraged” Ehrlich’s preposterous predictions to push their anti-human agenda. It was the one-worlders who deserve all the discredit, not poor Ehrlich.

Forced sterilizations! They happened. Forced population “planning”. It happened. Not because Ehrlich said they must, and not even because this deluded and delusional man desired them, but because the powerful progressives who used Ehrlich as a front-man wanted them. They were content to let Ehrlich and others create panic and then to use that panic to their benefit. Headlines shouted “Science Says…!”, “Scientists Agree…!”, “Science Science Science!”

Sound familiar?

Increased population was going to bring only ills. Every bad thing that happened was because of increased population. There were no possible benefits to increased population. Why, increased population was going to cause so much pollution that the globe was going to be plunged into another ice age! The only solution that any right-thinking person could conceive of was to cede more power to governments. Only governments, and preferably world government, could get us out of the mess.

Sound familiar?

It is long past the point where anybody, scientist or not, can seriously consider climate models worthy of attention. They are wrong as Ehrlich was, or wronger. But it doesn’t matter. Their inaccuracy is not the root malady.

Update Bill McKibben is not today’s Ehrlich, at the least because he is not nearly as intelligent, but this essay of his shows certain parallels.

33 Comments

  1. The video shows the young Paul Ehrlich as the zealot and megalomaniac that he is. His population story is really about Ehrlich as messiah and other people (all of us) as the problem.

  2. First, I refuse to watch a video from the New York Times that is not closed-captioned. They obviously care nothing about rules other people have to follow for the hearing impaired. Considering they’re liberal and “care”–you see my point?

    There are about 20 nations with negative or zero population growth–Russia being one of them. Russia cites this fact as a reason for not allowing gmarriage. Liberal comments? How do we fix this negative population growth resulting in gmarriage bans?

    The major reason for population increase is less infant mortality. I ask people who want a smaller population if they realize they are asking for more babies to die?

  3. Another note: War drastically reduces population. Anyone want to start a war to save the planet?

  4. The great thing about science is that as time goes by and we learn more and change our minds about things.

    It may be true that the atmosphere is absorbing the extra carbon we’re pumping into it, or it may be true the ocean is doing the same, or it may be true the North Pole cap is disappearing for reasons that have nothing to do with the carbon, or it may be true the northern and upward migration of flora and fauna is not a symptom of warming or that warming is happening at all.

    It also may be true that the amount of carbon we’re pumping into the atmosphere and water is dangerous. Humanity is, after all, pumping more carbon into the air now than ever before by far in a long ways. We’re like multiple volcanoes erupting every year.

    Clear, definitive answers are not to be had now. But they are coming. One way or the other. I always prefer to err on the side of what’s best for myself, my family and friends, and my country. I’d rather see less carbon pollution and other energy sectors booming too here in the USA.

    JMJ

  5. JMJ,
    I’m thinking that most of the people that frequent this blog would welcome more nuclear energy. Does that apply to you too?

  6. Really intelligent people can believe and promote nonsense. Isaac Asimov was a PhD and a prolific science writer. No one would consider him dumb. In an article he wrote in the 1960s he was predicting a catastrophe due to population increase by the year 2000. He was calling for drastic population limits. He even showed mathematically what was going to happen. However, it didn’t happen and his math was incorrect. It sure looked plausible to me at the time and I was impressed.

  7. Sander van der Wal

    June 6, 2015 at 12:31 pm

    Predicting Doomsday has been a popular passtime in the West since at least a couple of years before 1000 A.D. Why should it disappear with people becoming more secular?

    Also not that Plack was before Popper.

  8. “We have reached a crisis. Action in required NOW.”
    “I expressed more certainty to motivate”

    Sound familiar?

    Not sure if the video actually was supporting Ehrlich. The were a number of comments made by Stewart Brand (e.g., “how many years will it take to realize the original idea was wrong?”) ending with the Reverse Population Bomb that suggest otherwise. Not at all sure why Mr. Whole Earth Catalog”s viewpoint would be considered at all.

    The article says: To some extent, worrying about an overcrowded planet has fallen off the international agenda. It is overshadowed, as Mr. Pearce suggests, by climate change and related concerns.

    Someday hopefully people will come to see those issues are really one and the same thing. The article notes Ehrlich hasn’t changed his mind.

    It seemed pretty neutral for the NYT. The science is weak but I have low scientific expectations of journalist majors.

  9. The problem is not with a population bomb, but that population bomb is selective. See any of the articles by Mark Steyn on the real decline of the West, and in particular his book “America Alone”:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/America_Alone
    The birth-rate is much less than replacement (i.e.. less than 2.0+ per couple) in Europe and Japan (considered a Western country), whence the economic troubles–pensions not supported by a younger, working class, EXCEPT for the Muslim immigrants.
    And the birth-rate decline has gone too far to be salvaged, even when, as in Russia, an effort is made to stop it.

  10. Yawrate, Nuclear energy has it’s ups and downs. It never proved to be very cost effective, though. That’s why no one builds them here any more. You could do it with government backing, like they do in other countries, but otherwise if the privae sector market to build them was there, they’d be building them. To be honest, I find your question a little simplistic.

    JMJ

  11. Bob,

    Yes, Steyn has been all over European birth rates for years. I advise all young people to see Europe before the churches are torn down by the soon to be majority Muslim populace.

    To quote Steyn, “The future belongs to those that show up for it.”

  12. JMJ,

    It never proved cost effective due to the complaints of liberals. If people were serious about climate change then nuclear power would be the number one option. But it isn’t and that tells me that people promoting the CO2 alarm are in it for other reasons.

  13. JMJ: Nuclear, as Yawrate noted, is in part not cost effective because people fear it and the cost to cover liability is crippling. Even a minor spill that produces less radiation than an X-ray becomes grounds for huge lawsuits. The reason the private sector cannot build them is due to these lawsuits and the massive regulations attached. That’s were renewables shine–you can pillage the landscape with 50 turbines for a very tiny environmental impact study. Actually, it’s the power lines that take the most work. So saying the private sector won’t touch it–blame lawyers and the government, not the actual costs.

    If you compare the cost of nuclear versus renewables, nuclear is much more cost effective and works 24/7. It’s not a simplest question. The truth is the only way to cut CO2 emissions as far as those in climate policy are asking and without having massive poverty and death is to use nuclear power. That’s the physics, economics and sociology of it.

  14. So, questions:

    Sheri: Regardless of the reason, the legal costs and actuarial estimates of the NPV of future legal liabilities ARE a cost of nuclear. Even given entitlement, permitting, etc. issues being resolved, every nuclear generator massively exceeds estimated cost and duration of construction. And I’m a very big proponent of nuclear and follow the developments carefully.

    Dr. Briggs, et al: Is there any limit at all on population, extraction, disposal, etc.? Or can economic incentives provide food, energy, raw materials, refuse sinks, etc. without limit? The average American uses primary energy at the rate of something of 10 kilowatts continuously, all uses incorporated. The average Earthling uses about 2.5 kilowatts. So, if the population increases from about 7 billion to about 9 billion and the average rate increases to match ours, we’ll need to provide (9/7)*4 or about five times the current rate of primary energy use. There are western countries that use energy at about half the U.S. rate and live lifestyles that would, seemingly, not be abhorrent to us. Then, to bring a world population of 9 billion to that level, we’d only need 2.5 times the rate of energy production. Is this something you envision as possible? Is the end product of this rate of energy production no problem?

    It’s all well and good to chuckle at Malthus, at Ehrlich, at Club of Rome, etc. (though the “base case” enumerated by the latter – remembering that they did not “predict” in Limits to Growth – seems to be playing out pretty accurately) but, given the chuckling, are there any limits in your view to the population that the Earth can support, especially in any kind of lifestyle that a westerner considers his or her birthright?

  15. Rob Ryan: Agreed. Nuclear is the way to go in spite of the cost. If we wanted to keep the cost down, we could address some of the reasons for the cost, which is why I mention them.

  16. Rob Ryan

    It’s been said before that the population will grow asymptotically to meet the food supply. There will be no widespread, catastrophic famines although that doesn’t exclude smaller, localized ones. You can see the effects even now. As wealth increases the birth rate declines. Families tend to be smaller in cities compared to more rural areas. This was even noted in the NYT video.

    One of the mistakes made in predicting overpopulation is to assume population growth is linear or exponentially increasing. Instead it slows as it reaches saturation.

  17. Dav

    Therefore, you sanely conclude that there is indeed a limit (assuming that food production has a limit). Thus, the part of Ehrlich’s argument with which you disagree (other than, of course, timing) is the catastrophic aspect of it which is certainly at least worth a rational discussion. Your position assumes that there is a fixed limit that stays the same. What if it decreases with such things as lack of ability to fertilize, soil depletion, takeover of arable land, etc.?

    How about primary energy use, resource availability, and refuse sinks?

  18. Ye Olde Statistician

    June 6, 2015 at 5:51 pm

    Predicting Doomsday has been a popular passtime in the West since at least a couple of years before 1000 A.D.

    Which prediction was that?

    2.0 children per couple
    Since some women choose to not perform the marriage act at all, or do and discover they are barren, the math works out to more like “all women who have children should have an average of 3 children,” to make up the deficit. In practice, however, 2 children per woman is typically applied as an upper limit rather than as an average, with catastrophic results for maintaining the Modern Ages.

    population growth

    Even by Roman times, the world was hideously overpopulated — if you were a hunter-gatherer. But even primitive hoe-and-garden farming can support ten times the population as hunt-and-gather.

  19. XimbabweJones

    June 6, 2015 at 6:57 pm

    Why should Ehrlich stop preaching doom? He is making money out of the deal. He is not unllke the corporate polluter, who continues to pollute because they are making money. He is like the cigarette industry, who, despite making people sick, would not stop because they were making money. Paul Ehrlich is an industry of sorts. In his case, it is a rather small industry, one that does not employ anyone, just the doomsayer himself. But boy, what profits are to be had in doomsaying. Jim Hansen, presumably, learned at the feet of the master. And by the way, Al Gore is a millionaire many times over. He and his mansion thank you. Liberals just have their own, idiosyncratic industries that they protect. Usually, they are misinformation industries, and hysteria industries. Both pay quite well.

  20. YOS, the 2.0 figure was one that simple folks might appreciate. You (and I know) that because of infant mortality, the figure has to be higher (I seem to recall that Steyn mentions 2.1 as the crucial number, one that we are–or were–at in the U.S. And, by the way, if one says 2.0 per couple that takes account of the old maids, barren women, sterile men, etc. That is to say, the 2.0 per pair is presumed to be an average (I would presume it would even average over same-sex marriages).

  21. Is there an upper limit to population? Obviously, there has to be. There’s only so much space for people, for food, for housing, etc. Do we have any idea what that limit is? I don’t think so. As we improve farming and food production, less land is needed. If we can’t fertilize enough, or run out of land, etc. then other methods will be found to feed people. We already live in what was a science-fiction world 50 years ago. We have touch screen computers, 3d printers, we can grow vegetables in water without soil—I even read where they were trying to grow plants underground with black lights in case we had to go subterranean.

    The one factor in all of population growth that is impossible to anticipate is war. If food gets scarce, battles will erupt. If the world turns cold and not hot, more than likely wars will erupt sooner than later. Population will be reduced and food supply will be increased to those left.

    I suppose people want to find a way to avoid all the unpleasantness, but there really does not appear to be any way to do so. Humans reproduce at whatever rate works for their culture–or doesn’t work, as in the case of Russia. Governments can interfere, but it rarely matters. Like everything else on the planet, we’re subject to the rules of nature and nature will keep things in check.

  22. Ye Olde Statistician

    June 6, 2015 at 8:02 pm

    Of course the 2.0 is supposed to be an average. But it is applied operationally as if it were an upper limit. How many couples say, Oh dear, we must have three children for ourselves because Bessie next door has only one.

    How do you attach pictures to these comments. I have a graph of US Birthrates that show the steady decline since 1820, despite the complete absence of a government program to limit population.

    People generally make decisions intuitively based on
    N=(R-P)/C
    where N is the number of children
    R is the amount of resources available
    P is the amount of resources needed by the parents to maintain their niche
    C is the amount of resources needed to raise a child to independence

    This is why rural families have more children (on the average etc.) than urban ones. Farm kids add to resources at an early age, slopping hogs, feeding chickens. But urban children can seldom help out in the factory, let alone in the office.

    Similarly, poor families have more children than rich ones because it costs more to raise a child for Harvard Law School than to raise a child to be a street beggar. Rich parents have much larger P and C than poor parents, even in proportion to their R.

  23. Thus, the part of Ehrlich’s argument with which you disagree (other than, of course, timing) is the catastrophic aspect of it

    Yes and that was discussed here some time ago. Look it up.

    But consider this, if Ehrlich was right there should be times when we see lots of carcasses of other living things resulting from food shortages. I would think it would be fairly frequent if population growth is exponential. There should be piles of not only that creature but its predators as well as sometimes S rolls uphill. Have you seen them?

    Note than when food becomes suddenly scarce it only seems to affect the current generation. The scenario that all living things will experience overpopulation doesn’t appear to happen.

  24. Briggs,
    It’s only those wrongly predicting a Rapture who get ridiculed. Every other hare-brained prediction gets a pass. A Rapture is serious business and too scary to think it really could be true. Every other “disaster” is just a make-believe-scary zombie apocalypse and so nothing to really worry about.

  25. YOS,

    Only the middle classes / wealthy are using your formula. The poor have no formula – they end up with more children because their lives are lived with virtually no future time orientation (hence why they tend to stay poor, shop at the rent-a-center, live on payday loans, and have lots of children).

    Hence, Mike Judges’ prescient film, Idiocracy.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=icmRCixQrx8

  26. Yawrate, your grasp of the nuclear issue is sophomoric. I mean, do you really believe “liberals” are the reason nuclear energy isn’t more widespread? Really?

    Silliness.

    JMJ

  27. From the article, “To some extent, worrying about an overcrowded planet has fallen off the international agenda. It is overshadowed, as Mr. Pearce suggests, by climate change and related concerns. ”

    Since “CO2-Climate Change” has already been Scientifically Falsified by virtue of its record of 100% Prediction Failure – Karl’s recent study notwithstanding, the above statement is rather telling: some people are always trying to tell the rest of us about an imminent Apocalypse, which we can only prevent by following their nearly always toxic directives, or those of their Totalitarian State. But me, I just can’t see the wisdom of becoming the certain Slave of the usual Totalitarian Disaster, as compared to remaining free among free people, who have already pulled off enough flat-out miracles that the more likely case in the face of an imagined Apocalypse, is that the alleged Totalitarian “cure” is worse than the alleged “disease”.

  28. “I always prefer to err on the side of what’s best for myself, my family and friends, and my country.”

    This is the fallacy of thinking that one decision has a cost and another decision has no cost. We know X has enormous benefit so why choose not to do X because you are afraid yet admit no rational basis for your fear? This mantra of fear is popular among those who are a little dim witted and impatient with thought.

  29. JMJ appears to be correct with his statement about liberals not blocking nuclear power plants. Both parties are moving more and more in favor of nuclear, with a small number of new plants now permitted. The confusion seems to arise because most environmental groups oppose nuclear and many of these are definitely liberal in political areas. Unfortunately, people think that means all liberals are opposed.

    Just as an aside, the POTUS is not helping the cause with statements like this concerning new nuclear plants: “the plant will safely produce enough clean energy to offset 30 million barrels of oil or the equivalent of taking 3.5 million cars off the road.” Nuclear power has no relation to cars on the road and oil accounts for only 1% of electric generation, if that much. It’s not really fair to assume all liberals are as unscientific and uninformed as the POTUS.

  30. Ye Olde Statistician

    June 7, 2015 at 8:30 pm

    The poor have no formula – they end up with more children because

    Nobody actually uses the formula, save in an intuitive manner. That would require Vulcans, not humans. The human breeding strategy is to have the most babies affordable, given the niche in which they live.

    For example, suppose you were a woman living in a milieu in which your husband is unlikely to be around because he has been slain or incarcerated or has bought into the sexual revolution. Then you will need a good strong son to look after you as you get older. But if the death rate for young males is 50%, you will need two sons to ensure that one survives long enough; and to get two sons you will need on the average four children. Hence, large families is a rational breeding strategy.

    do you really believe “liberals” are the reason nuclear energy isn’t more widespread?

    No, it’s primarily environmentalists. It is only a coincidence of history that most environmentalists today nestle in liberal arms. In fact, the most virulent condemnation of their opposition to nuclear power came from a friend of mine who was an avowed Marxist.

  31. Mike in KC, MO

    June 8, 2015 at 10:06 am

    I’m just glad to know that it’s only pathetic, stupid hacks like… Freeman Dyson… who think the global warming hype is a bit overblown.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BiKfWdXXfIs

  32. Actually, websites like “Deep Climate” (where any information not in agreement with AGW but linked to will be removed by the moderator of comments) have all kinds of theories why Dyson is speaking out against AGE “Dyson’s participation in recent anti-AGW petition projects organized by Canada’s leading climate disinformation PR operative, Tom Harris”.

    There exists absolutely NO possible reason anyone can disagree with AGW, no matter how smart, how educated, degrees held, etc. It is simply a tuatology to the AGW folks that NO reason ever, ever, ever could exist for their being wrong. AGW holds a godlike status there. It’s hard to fight a god, and certainly it cannot be done with science, even if one claims it is. (/sarc and I would hope you would all recognize that….)

  33. Dysanthropy — the hatred of humanity — is a philosophy without limits. Dysanthopists will kill anyone: the aged, the young, the weak, the strong, even unborn babies, individually or en masse.

    Dysanthropists always have good reasons for mega-slaughter… well, “reasons” anyway. Wiping out the inferior vermin is very appealing to the indulgently self-deluded.

    Dysanthropy is the opposite of Christianity. Jesus advocated love for your fellow man, each of whom is loved by God, endowed with a soul, and therefore sacred and precious. Dysanthropy, in contrast, advocates hatred, enslavement, and murder of your fellow man. Atheists are dysanthropists because Christianity cramps their style, which is kill kill kill all humans.

    Scientism is purely dysanthropic, taking on first principle that the Universe is separate and other than mankind and would function just fine, better in fact, if humanity were eradicated.

    Dysanthopy did not end in Hitler’s bunker. It has always been with us and always will be. You cannot wish evil away; you must confront it if goodness is to have any chance.

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