Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Paulcast

I've been watching Johnny Carson reruns (are there any other kind?) on Antenna TV.  It's a different world--less frantic, for one thing.  It's interesting to hear him do political jokes to see how things have changed.  Or haven't.

Just last week I saw Paul Ehrlich on a 1980 broadcast.  He's a biologist still with us, and had already been famous for over a decade by this appearance.  He was (and is) renowned for his doom-and-gloom forecasts, saying in his classic The Population Bomb (1968) that it wasn't long before there'd be major starvation in America (though he would claim he was just discussing a potential scenario).  Though he seemed to have been proved wrong by 1980, he was still pushing for Zero Population Growth.

We had 220 million Americans then, which he thought was too much.  He'd prefer to go back to around 150 million.  We now have 320 million, if you're wondering, and are not only not starving, but have a much bigger obesity problem than we used to. (Oddly, he was worried about illegal immigration.  What's that got to do with anything?  Even if it increased the population here, it'd help lower it elsewhere, so it's a wash.)

He made arguments which he should have known were questionable, but Johnny and the audience seemed to eat it up.  First, he said the pie is only so big, which is, I suppose, the central argument for keeping population down.  Except the size of the pie can change based on human ingenuity.

He also said--and this goes along with the limited pie--the fewer people there are, the bigger the share for everyone will be.  Really?  First, of course, we don't live in a hunter and gatherer world, we live in a world where people work to make products, including food, that others buy.  The more people there are, the more people there are who need things but also the more people there are to make things.  More important, in our modern economy, we have programs like Social Security and Medicare and public pensions that people pay into but don't fully pay for.  To keep these programs going, you need a bigger pool of earners or pretty soon every worker or two is responsible for keeping someone disabled or retired afloat.  If your population goes down, or even remains stable, someone's going to lose out.

Ehrlich also noted, when it comes to energy, that we'll be out of oil in twenty or thirty years, so we better figure out an alternative.  Well here it is 35 years later and we're still awash in the stuff.

So what's my point?  Nothing, except it's a mugs game to predict the future.  What he was saying then (and similar things he's saying now) were accepted by many as conventional wisdom.  CW doesn't have to be wrong, of course, but the future has a way of making even the smartest prognosticators look foolish.

13 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The one thing I cannot stand is watching "Columbo" episodes. Nothing against Columbo; I loved it. I just find it a marker of something degenerate--not then, now. And it's unique to Columbo. If I don't watch "Mash" or "Murder She Wrote," it's because I don't feel like it, not because I find something inherently wrong with the concept.

I have to say, though, that as interesting and true as your point may be, that Carson is a fabulous time capsule, I'm wondering if it fits in the Columbo box.

Someone Who Might Be ColumboGuy

2:14 AM, April 27, 2016  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So what's wrong with Columbo again?

What makes it a marker of something degenerate?


You know who else was worried about degenerates?

8:02 AM, April 27, 2016  
Blogger LAGuy said...

I agree with Anonymous--I have no idea why you think there's something wrong with Columbo, or Carson, today. Would you care to explain how you come by this belief, or are we going to leave it at that?

(Now MASH I could understand.)

9:11 AM, April 27, 2016  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

I never watched Columbo, but that is neither here nor there.

My question is, has Ehrlich received any noted derision or negative reputation for his blown predictions? Does anyone ever lose stature for disproved theories, or does the public geneally accept justifications and rationalizations and move on (or simply not care)?

I heard a presentation on Peak Oil as little as 9 years ago. If I could remember the guy's name, I'd be inclined to send him an email and ask him what went wrong, since gas is not $10 a gallon.

You see the Jehovah's Witnesses still knocking on doors after multiple missed end-of-the-world predictions (wasn't Prince a JW?). What happened to the killer bees? And the Bird Flu - in a previous job about 10 years ago we had an investment advisor seriously come tell us that we needed to shift the portfolio to account for the coming wave of bird flu cases!

And now, will there ever be a reckoning for the predictions of imminent Global Warming, sea level rise and the end of snow in winter? It seems to me the current response to failed predictions is simply to push them out so far that no one alive today could possibly be held responsible for the failed predictions.

3:36 PM, April 27, 2016  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Ehrlich has gotten plenty of criticism and derision from certain groups (google the Simon-Ehrlich wager), though, generally, environmental activists don't hold his failed predictions against him since his heart is in the right place and anyway, he may some day be correct.

Environmental activists--really any activists, to be fair--believe they see things clearly and also that they've generally got it right in the past. (Indeed, even though the facts on the ground often fall short of the dire predictions of climate activists, it's a commonplace for them to claim that things are much worse than they expected.) It's those who disagree with them that they're hoping to punish for being wrong.

4:23 PM, April 27, 2016  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well there actually has been warming temperatures, sea level rises and different winter weather patterns but not as extreme as the loudest prognosticators though. I would recommend Nate Silver's "The Signal and the Noise" for an analysis of predictions (and why things like baseball and elections are relatively easy and the weather is harder and climate and larger trends (which involve independent actors reacting to the predictions, among other variables are very very hard. Why do star stock analysts have a good run and then suck? The future, she's a bitch

4:24 PM, April 27, 2016  
Blogger LAGuy said...

It's not just that the facts are not as extreme as the loudest prognosticators predict. They're not as extreme as the claims of the average activist who discusses such things in the media--politicians, celebrities, and yes, scientists.

If we had a measured conversation, we'd see that there's a problem that has disastrous potential, but we're not entirely sure how disastrous it is, how quickly it's progressing, what we can actually do about it, and how costly counter-measures are. But this is not how things are argued in public.

4:31 PM, April 27, 2016  
Blogger ColumbusGuy said...

Do you think it's impossible to argue things that way in public? If so, why do you suppose it is that way?

6:21 PM, April 27, 2016  
Blogger LAGuy said...

I don't know why it's that way, any more than I know why Columbo is degenerate.

8:40 PM, April 27, 2016  
Blogger ColumbusGuy said...

Columbo is not degenerate. Watching Columbo is degenerate.

2:43 AM, April 28, 2016  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Really? We have had the hottest months ever and hottest years ever in the last half-decade. You ideologues amaze me. Sounds like "my aunt smoked for years and lived to be 80." talk I used to hear.

Alarmists have to exaggerate to get attention which is unfortunate as it seems to give excuses to the willfully ignorant

6:12 AM, April 28, 2016  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous's last comment is an example of why we can't have a serious debate.

8:32 AM, April 28, 2016  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It reads like a bot comment.

11:51 AM, April 28, 2016  

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