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Category: Culture

The best that has been thought and written and why these ideals are difficult to meet.

February 3, 2010 | 27 Comments

Malthus Was Wrong, But Not Why You Think

It’s hard to think of a historical writer more misunderstood than Thomas Malthus. A week doesn’t go by without somebody dropping his name, but only to show how wrong he was.

Take this Stephen Malanga City Journal article, “Our Vanishing Ultimate Resource: Plummeting birthrates threaten prosperity worldwide. Can America buck the trend?

Malanga writes that the “media continue to warn us about impending environmental catastrophe and mass starvation caused by an exploding human population. These Malthusian alarms persist even though the last 200 years have proved Malthus completely wrong.”

Malthusian alarms! Well, I don’t blame Malanga, because you cannot find our good Reverend named in any context other than as a failed forecaster in the same vein as Paul “Population Bomb” Ehrlich. Everybody thinks that Malthus predicted doom by overpopulation.

Not so.

Malthus’s theory was a steady state one. He said that a species will breed up to the point at which no more of it can be fed. He made the logically undeniable point that no more of a species can exist than can be supported by the available food supply. The population will increase and stay at those levels and cannotbecause there is no food to—go beyond that point. The doom of which you constantly hear is impossible. Stay here until you understand this. This applies to man, too.

What Malthus said was that a species was always at its limit—barring disasters, wars, famines, booms (exceptionally good harvests), “unnatural practices” (by which he meant abortion and homosexuality), and so on. Charles Darwin saw the brilliance of Malthus’s theory and married it to his idea of evolution: that species are always competing for food provided the mechanism to drive evolution. Those that were better at finding food, survived.

But Malthus was wrong about our species, and exactly in the opposite direction you commonly hear. Man has not bred up to the point that he can be supported by the available food supply. Man does not follow the strict theory of evolution.

NOTE: this does not imply that that theory is wrong overall; merely that it is incomplete with respect to our species; e.g., strict Darwinan “selfish genes” theory does not sufficiently explain abortion, altruism, and adoption, to name just the As.

In fact, mankind has turned out to be quite a slacker, survival-of-the-fittest-wise. As things get better, we breed not more, but less. Take a look at this picture, which shows the estimated World population since 1950.

World Population

Looks like nowhere to go but up, right? If so, this is yet another example of how to cheat with statistics. Take a look at the same numbers, but shown as the velocity, or rate of change of population.

World Population Velocity

That hatchet-notch around 1960 was caused by yet another attempt to create a socialist paradise in China (it’ll work next time, right?). Centrally-planned famine wiped out a good chunk of humanity.

However, Malthus would be at a loss—as we are—to explain the drop-off starting around 1990. True, part of it is due to good old communist stick-to-itiveness: China is vigorously aborting a fairly large fraction of its pre-women, and some pre-men, in its “one-child” policy (they misread Malthus, too).

But weirder is the trend in the West, where the beer is always cold, grocery stores overflow, over 500 channels are on demand, and there is plenty of room to grow. In short: life is good. But people are not celebrating their success in the way they would have in the days before electricity.

Following strict utilitarian principles, some of us are willingly giving up the passing on of our genes. We are not competing for our survival.

Don’t believe it? Then look at Japan. Is there are more technologically advanced civilization? Low crime, more than enough food, and talk about healthy? These people regularly pop out past the century mark. Surely, they must be beavering away producing the next generation. Here are the numbers:

Japan Population

The dip is obvious, even in the raw numbers. And remember: demographic forecasts are almost always right, at least at the decadel level. It’s easy to count people, and breeding new humans takes about a year. Makes it easy to guess what will happen in the short term.

But you don’t have to accept the prediction. Just look at the velocity.

Japan Population Velocity

A line that straight downhill is spooky: it cries out for a cause. It is such a steep slope that it appears there was a national decision, after some initial indecision before the 1970s, to stop having babies.

Can a civilization exhaust itself? Turn so inward and self-indulgent? Is there some hidden virus or amoeba acting to suppress the desire to breed? Maybe an adequate diet—in exact opposition to theory—causes that suppression.

It isn’t just Japan. It’s Italy, Sweden, Germany, Austria, and on and on. Even the “developing” countries show signs of the same disease: the better they get (materially) the less they breed. So far, the US is holding its own and still getting to business. Nobody knows why.

Malanga says it’s because we lack an overly strong government. But if he’s right, and since our government has only grown stronger, then the US will be on the same downward path soon.


January 31, 2010 | 37 Comments

Tim Tebow’s Super Bowl Ad and the Washington Post Editorial

Very delicate ground, here.

I want to be as precise as I know how in discussing the language used in today’s Washington Post editorial about the upcoming Tim Tebow ad, while trying to avoid the extreme emotions that usually accompany this topic.

The ad is said to feature Tebow and his mother. Tebow’s mother was being treated for amoebic dysentery during her pregnancy and it was feared that the drugs used to treat her illness would cause grave harm to Tebow. She was advised to have an abortion. Obviously, she did not.

This is not just an anti-abortion ad, it is also a reminder that doctors can be wrong. Tebow’s mother makes a statement that having her baby was the correct choice. The implication is that this decision would be correct for some or all other women.

I do not want to discuss the politics of the abortion debate. So it is immaterial to our central topic whether it is right or wrong for CBS to run this ad.

Clarity must be paramount: let us carefully define our terms. The most common euphemism abortion supporters use is “pro-choice.” They mean by this that all women should be allowed to choose to kill their fetuses or not to kill them.

The emphasis is on choice, but it is the act which is at contention. The pro-abortion euphemism is meant to, and does, distract attention away from the act. For our case, this is important because of the way the Post uses this euphemism, about which more in a moment.

Anti-abortion supporters come closer to acknowledging the act of abortion with their slogan of “pro-life.” They mean by this that no woman should be allowed to choose to kill her fetus. The proper word is “kill” because the fetus is alive.

There are, as we all know, gradations and subtleties of both positions. Some anti-abortion people would make an exception and allow abortion if certain conditions held. And some pro-abortion people would disallow abortions if other conditions held. These subtleties are immaterial to our central point.

Which is this: We can take it that all agree that to murder is wrong and is a punishable act. But one can only murder another human. Anti-abortion supporters hold that a fetus becomes human at the moment of conception. Pro-abortion supporters hold that a fetus does not become human until it is delivered from its mother.

This is the point to argue. All other matters fade to insignificance or are political distractions. For example, the Post reports that “Erin Matson, the National Organization for Women’s new vice president, called the Tebow spot ‘hate masquerading as love.'” This is unintelligible philosophically, however revealing it may be politically. Thus, we will ignore it.

Now, if a fetus does become human at conception, then no woman may legally “choose” to kill it, for if she does, it is plainly murder. If a fetus does not become human until birth, then a woman may choose to kill it and cannot be punished for doing so.

It is, of course, possible and coherent to define the point at which a fetus becomes human at times intermediate of conception and birth, but these definitions are presently irrelevant to our discussion.

The Post editorial—which supports the “right” for Tebow to air his ad—is a typical example of muddled thinking that follows this debate. They say, “abortion is as tough and courageous a decision as is the decision to continue a pregnancy.” This is false. If a fetus is not human, it is no act of courage to undergo a medical procedure from which there is little risk of harm. But if a fetus is human, then the act of abortion is not courageous but villainous.

The writers (Frances Kissling and Kate Michelman) then descend into, what must be, an unspoken desire on their part. They say, “Pam Tebow was indeed courageous and had the legal right to choose…” Courageous she may have been, but the implication is that she might not have had the “legal right to choose.”

Since she was determined to have her child, and if she did not have the right to choose, then the choice whether to abort or not would have been made by others. Evidently, the Post is imagining that doctors should have that right, or that they would be in the best condition to judge, what defines a human.

In the same vein, while showing that support for abortion has decreased, the Post, repeats a common non-sequitur, “We read about successful fetal surgery; we don’t read about women dying in pools of blood on their bathroom floors after botched abortions, as we did when the procedure was illegal.”

If a fetus is human, then the harm caused a woman from a self-induced or botched abortion is not mitigating. She has still committed, or has been complicit to, a murder and does not have our sympathy. And if a fetus is not human, then the question shifts to one of stupidity (on the woman’s part) or possibly medical malpractice (on the part of whomever botched the abortion).

Doctors are in no better moral position than any of us to say what is or is not a human. But medical technology has evidently been partly responsible for the decrease in abortion support. Many, after seeing a colorful, three-dimensional picture of a young fetus, have concluded that the fetus is human. It is rational to suppose that these sorts of images and anecdotes will become more vivid and that support for abortion will continue to wane as more people conclude that fetuses are human.

The Post‘s writers tacitly admit this, and suggest some pro-abortion group produce a competing ad.

We’d go with a 30-second spot, too. The camera focuses on one woman after another, posed in the situations of daily life: rushing out the door in the morning for work, flipping through a magazine, washing dishes, teaching a class of sixth-graders, wheeling a baby stroller. Each woman looks calmly into the camera and describes her different and successful choice: having a baby and giving it up for adoption, having an abortion, having a baby and raising it lovingly. Each one being clear that making choices isn’t easy, but that life without tough choices doesn’t exist.

This brings us to probability and counterfactuals, which are unfortunately confusing subjects. Suppose a woman has an abortion. We cannot know, but can only guess, what her life would have been like had she not had the abortion. As the time from the abortion increases, the guesses become vaguer and more improbable. At best, then, any personal story it is weak evidence for the benefits of abortion.

However, we can generously suppose that the consequences of abortion are positive and as rich as you like. If a fetus (at whatever point in its development) is not human, then showing a post-abortion woman living a glamorous life would only serve to increase the number of abortions (try arguing the opposite), something few claim they support.

But if a fetus (from conception) is human, then showing a woman benefiting from her crime, and encouraging others to do the same, is evil.

January 30, 2010 | 9 Comments

Welcome-to-Saturday Links

My heart soared like a hawk this week after several readers sent in fascinating stories. Here are a few of them.

  • Reader Sara C sent in a wonderful example of how easy it is to cheat with statistics. A Scottish city instituted a program to talk to “young people about sex in terms of relationships, not only mechanics.” They claimed that this caused a drop in the teenage pregnancy rates and presented graph to prove it. A brilliant instance of how choosing your end points selectively can flip a negative finding into a positive one. From the BBC: The bumps in a falling teenage pregnancy rate.
  • Blogger and nuclear power expert Randy Brich sent in an interview he conducted with “Dr. Antone (Tony) Brooks, a grandfatherly figure who recently retired as the Technical Research Director of the US Department of Energy’s Low Dose Radiation Research Program.”

    As a boy, Brooks lived downwind from a nuke test site and was once dusted. He survived and became interested in the health effects of low dose radiation, leading him to a PhD in radiation biology.

    Exposure to low doses of radiation have been demonstrated to lower the number of free radicals in the body, protect the cells against transformation (changes that produce cancer), kill pre-cancer cells through a process of programmed cell death (apoptosis), activate immune responses and to lengthen the time between radiation exposure and the induction of cancer. It has also been established that exposure to the same amount of radiation (dose) over a short period of time is much more effective in producing biological changes than exposure of the same amount of radiation over a longer period of time (dose-rate).

    Brooks rightly emphasizes that “It is important to recognize the difference between scientific data and radiation protection policy.” Learning how to effectively communicate subtle differences in measurement and research will be crucial if Mr Obama keeps his promise about increasing the use of nuclear power. The public is scared to death of radiation but also knows nothing about it.

    Pay attention to the graphic Birch linked (it’s from the government). It’s confusing in spots (“Epidemiology?”) but worth looking at.

  • Stalwart reader Katie sent in more evidence England has lost its mind. Ebay refused a listing of a Dad’s Army board game. Why? It had swastikas on the box. Dad’s Army was a harmless and silly Brit TV show about a crew of creaking soldiers who guarded the home front during WW II (Yes, I have seen it: somebody gave me the first season as a birthday present.) Ebay banned the sale because they claimed the game was “memorabilia associated with the Nazi Party” which is verboten!
  • Reader John Emery found an utterly enthralling, peer-reviewed, IRB-approved research paper that claims “Democrats and Republicans Can Be Differentiated from Their Faces.” Although this is obviously another example of modern-day phrenology (the other is fMRI studies), it is impossible to dispute the conclusion.

    Which is “Republicans were perceived as more powerful than Democrats.” Another obvious finding: They were also rated as more mature (somehow the copy editors misplaced the words “manly” and “virile”). Democrats were rated as more likable and trusty. All of which can be summed up with the question: Who wouldn’t want a pal rather than a father?

    The study is so goofy that I might use it as an example of how bad statistics is easily published.

  • This one has been making the rounds. “Climate chief was told of false glacier claims before Copenhagen.” Raise your hands if you’re shocked that yet another UN official turned out to be a bit of a fibber? Scandal is so endemic to that organization that it must be the result of planning. Perhaps incoming officials must take some kind of Oath of Graft, or be able to positively demonstrate to have at least one relative that lives in New Jersey.

Update I have corrected the spelling of Mr Brich’s last name. I beg his pardon.

January 29, 2010 | 3 Comments

Two-and-a-Half Millennia Don’t Change Much

Herodotus begins his history by telling us that some Phoenician traders came to Argos, Greece and, on a whim, abducted the king’s daughter Io and took her to Egypt. Later, to show that two could play at that game, the Greeks slid over to Phoenicia and stole their king’s daughter, Europa.

(Bad pun: and how these ladies ended up with Jupiter, nobody knows.)

“So far,” Herodotus, checking his sums, said, “the scores were even.” But then the Greeks, into the game, decided to do a one-up. The went back to another Phoenician stronghold and kidnapped that king’s daughter, Medea.

The king wanted her back and asked the Greeks, “How much?” The Greeks, in a fit of pique, said, “Not a chance.” They were still miffed that they hadn’t received any royalties for Io.

So things stood for two score years. You can guess what happened next. Alexander, son of Priam, came to Greece and swiped the beautiful Helen. All even again, after two rounds.

From the Waterfield translation:

Although the Persians regard the abduction of women as a criminal act, they also claim it is stupid to get worked up about it and to seek revenge for the women once they have been abducted; the sensible course, they say, is to pay no attention to it, because it is obvious that the women must have been willing participants in their own abduction, or else it could never have happened.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the Phoenicians disputed the Greek story about Io’s kidnapping. They say she slept with the captain of the traders who came to Argo, and got herself pregnant. She was thus too embarrassed to go home and went “willingly” to Egypt. How she could have known she was pregnant so quickly—the Phoenician traders were only in Greece for five or six days—is left unexplained.

The Greeks would have none of this. They actually took offense at Helen’s capture. Her kidnapping took all the fun out of the game.

And the Greeks were not satisfied with a tie, either. They launched some ships and attacked Asia before, they reasoned, Asia could attack them. The Greeks won the initial battle, destroying Priam and his forces.

Herodotus could have written his next line yesterday: “Ever since then, the Persians have regarded the Greeks as their enemies.”

Therefore, as all these events took place two-and-a-half millennia ago, and that attitudes, cultures and sets of minds have not changed much since then, it is rational to suppose that the next two-and-a-half millennia won’t change much, either.