The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Sunday, May 19, 2019


Many voters are far too young to remember Paul R. Erlich. He was an author and media darling, interviewed by everyone from the New York Times to CBS News. His message is described by David Epstein:
... In his 1968 best seller, The Population Bomb, Ehrlich insisted that it was too late to prevent a doomsday apocalypse resulting from overpopulation. Resource shortages would cause hundreds of millions of starvation deaths within a decade. It was cold, hard math: The human population was growing exponentially; the food supply was not. Ehrlich was an accomplished butterfly specialist. He knew that nature did not regulate animal populations delicately. Populations exploded, blowing past the available resources, and then crashed.

This article appears in the June 2019 issue.

In his book, Ehrlich played out hypothetical scenarios that represented “the kinds of disasters that will occur.” In the worst-case scenario, famine rages across the planet. Russia, China, and the United States are dragged into nuclear war, and the resulting environmental degradation soon extinguishes the human race. In the “cheerful” scenario, population controls begin. Famine spreads, and countries teeter, but the major death wave ends in the mid-1980s. Only half a billion or so people die of starvation. “I challenge you to create one more optimistic,” Ehrlich wrote, adding that he would not count scenarios involving benevolent aliens bearing care packages.
Overpopulation across the globe was the climate change of the late 1960s. Disease, famine, violence, and other catastrophes were unavoidable, would happen within the next decade or two, and were all due to too many people.

Except none of those things happened on a planetary basis. Erlich, the expert de jour, was wrong.

Remember peak oil (the 1990s), or maybe the coming ice age (the 1970s), or possibly the Y2K bug (the year 2000), or perhaps North Korea-is-many-years-away-from-developing-nuclear-weapons (early 2000s) All of those things were stated as fact by "experts" who were embraced by a media that used them to promote a specific narrative. Except, none of them happened, and none of the dire predictions came to pass.

Epstein takes a broader look at "expert" predictions:
The idea for the most important study ever conducted of expert predictions was sparked in 1984, at a meeting of a National Research Council committee on American-Soviet relations. The psychologist and political scientist Philip E. Tetlock was 30 years old, by far the most junior committee member. He listened intently as other members discussed Soviet intentions and American policies. Renowned experts delivered authoritative predictions, and Tetlock was struck by how many perfectly contradicted one another and were impervious to counterarguments.

Tetlock decided to put expert political and economic predictions to the test. With the Cold War in full swing, he collected forecasts from 284 highly educated experts who averaged more than 12 years of experience in their specialties. To ensure that the predictions were concrete, experts had to give specific probabilities of future events. Tetlock had to collect enough predictions that he could separate lucky and unlucky streaks from true skill. The project lasted 20 years, and comprised 82,361 probability estimates about the future.

The result: The experts were, by and large, horrific forecasters. Their areas of specialty, years of experience, and (for some) access to classified information made no difference. They were bad at short-term forecasting and bad at long-term forecasting. They were bad at forecasting in every domain. When experts declared that future events were impossible or nearly impossible, 15 percent of them occurred nonetheless. When they declared events to be a sure thing, more than one-quarter of them failed to transpire. As the Danish proverb warns, “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.”
Today, the media promotes a broad spectrum of "expert" predictions—about the climate, about the economy, about conflict between nations. As long as the predictions conform with a narrative that the trained hamsters like, it's promoted endlessly. And if the prediction doesn't conform—then the "expert" is labeled a quack or a conspiracy theorist.

The bottom line is this—All predictions, even those made by "experts" should be viewed with healthy skepticism. In fact, the harder an agenda-driven media push a specific prediction, the more skepticism it should receive.