In The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley offers example after spectacular example of a phenomenon that has baffled me ever since I began covering environmental issues in my first job in journalism thirty years ago: to wit, that while the entire presumable goal, purpose, and raison d’être of applied environmental science is to solve environmental problems, any environmental scientist who dares to suggest that problems are being solved is asking for trouble. As Ridley observes, we have arrived at a state where even the most wildly irrational pessimism is treated with reverence, while the most cautiously sober optimism is ridiculed.
Some of this is human nature and was ever thus; intellectuals, as The Rational Optimist reminds us, have been decrying modernism ever since modernism began. Actually, I wouldn’t stop there: the belief in a lost golden age is as old as civilization, as is the intellectual vanity of casting oneself as the lone uncorrupted voice in the wilderness. A few thousand years before Dostoevsky, Malthus, George Orwell, and Paul Ehrlich, the Hebrew prophets were pouring out gloom and dismay with the best of them, dismissing the superficial comforts of the civilized world and its material rewards as a fool’s paradise. Pessimism is what people with deep minds and deep souls have; optimism is what idiots with vacant grins on their faces have.
Pessimism is of course a proven fund-raising tool; “save the whales!” is always going to bring in more cash than “the whales are being saved!” But much more than that, we have today the amusingly ironic spectacle of tenured professors with salaries, health insurance, lifetime job security, and excellent retirement plans courtesy of TIAA-CREF being showered with worldly rewards (bestselling books, “genius” awards) for telling us that progress is an illusion and the end is near . . . while still preening themselves as daring outsiders courageously taking on the mighty and powerful. The fact that it takes no daring at all to adopt such an intellectual posture these days does not stop any of the practitioners of this business model from invariably announcing themselves to be the bearers of “dangerous” or “heretical” ideas and congratulating themselves for “speaking truth to power.”
So there are understandable reasons why it pays to say that things have gone to hell and will continue to go to hell.
What I find almost inexplicable in all of this, however, is how the scientific doomsayers get away over and over again with making predictions that are fabulously, ridiculously — and demonstrably — incorrect, without the slightest repercussions upon their credibility or careers. Predictions of impending doom are published based on absurd methodologies and threadbare evidence of a kind that in the normal course of scientific affairs would be sufficient to ruin careers ten times over, and the authors walk away from them without a scratch.
Ridley has a number of remarkable for-instances in his book, many provided by MacArthur genius award winner Paul Ehrlich — who in addition to insisting in 1971 that the world had already lost the race to feed an expanding population and that mass starvation in the 1970s and 1980s would cause death rates to soar and world population to collapse to 2 billion, also declared around the same time that because of exposure to cancer-causing chemicals that had already occurred, “the U.S. life expectancy will drop to forty-two years by 1980, due to cancer epidemics.”
The astonishingly wrong and repercussion-free prediction of imminent doom that first riveted my attention was the claim of the impending mass extinction of the Earth’s species. In 1979, the biologist Norman Myers declared that a fifth of all species on the planet would be gone within two decades. This prediction was based upon . . . absolutely no evidence whatsoever. Myers acknowledged that the documented species extinction rate of animals was 1 per year; he then asserted that scientists had “hazarded a guess” that the actual rate was 100 per year; he then speculated that government inaction was “likely to lead” to several thousand or even tens of thousands a year, which would add up to as much as a million species over two decades. (This was when people thought there were 5 million species; the best guess now is at least 10 million.) It swiftly became conventional wisdom.
Subsequently, an attempt was made to give these made-up numbers a patina of scientific respectability that was in many ways an even worse abuse of scientific logic and evidence. In the 1990s E. O. Wilson began citing the so-called “species–area relation” as the basis for predicting that tens of thousands of species were being extirpated a year by habitat loss caused by forest clearing. Wilson popularized various numbers ranging from 4,000 to 100,000 species a year being lost, and these numbers were repeated over and over again in environmental groups’ fundraising literature, in congressional testimony, in speeches by Al Gore (who in 1993 said that “one-half of all species” could disappear in our lifetime, apparently an extrapolation of Wilson’s and Ehrlich’s pronouncement, in a 1991 paper in Science, that as many as a quarter of all rain forest species will disappear in 30 years).
I started to look into the science and mathematics of the species-area relation when my father, who was an applied mathematician at Harvard University, mentioned to me an Op-ed in the New York Times by his fellow Harvard faculty member Wilson that included a description of this formula, which had struck my father as absurd on its face as a mathematical model. The formula most often used is:
S = CAz
where S is number of species, A is area, and C and z are arbitrary constants tweaked to make the curve try to match the data. Basically, the formula says if you count the number of species on, say, islands of varying sizes, the bigger the island, the more the species. Wilson’s argument was that if you start cutting down rainforests, say, you’ll shrink the number of species contained in them according to the same curve.
The prima facie problem, which irked my father, is that the dimensions of the arbitrary constant C vary according to the numerical value of the other arbitrary constant z. Without going into the technical details too much, this is (as my father put it) “cockamamie” from any scientific perspective; it means that this is just an exercise in curve-fitting, not a scientific model based on any cause-and-effect understanding or mechanism.
The more I looked into it the more ridiculous it became.