Wednesday, 25 October 2006

Environmental Skeptic or Charlatan?

I quote the following in full with annotations, for reasons which will later become clear. My annotations are in bold.

Ignore the doomsday prophets

Environmental alarmist Paul Ehrlich has been wrong before and he'll be wrong again, writes economics editor Alan Wood
October 25, 2006

AUSTRALIA'S Treasurer has made it on to the cover and into the pages of a journal in which the world's finance ministers rarely, if ever, feature. Peter Costello loves to say demography is destiny, and it was demography that did the trick.

It was Costello urging families to have "one for Australia" that made the cover of New Scientist and it is environmentalist Paul Ehrlich he has to thank. Ehrlich is well known to demographers and economists for his spectacularly wrong predictions on world population growth and its consequences, including famine, economic catastrophe and the end of industrial society.

Some of the most spectacular were in his 1968 book The Population Bomb. As it happens, the book was the result of an article Ehrlich wrote for New Scientist in 1967. Now he is back again, undaunted, with another article, written with his wife Anne.

Before we get to this, it is worth recalling a few Ehrlich gems. Perhaps most often quoted is this one from The Population Bomb: "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now."

In fact, the final quarter of the 20th century was more remarkable for the increase in food production from the Green Revolution and the reduction in famine deaths and poverty.

Another prediction was that the US would see life expectancy drop to 42 years by 1990 due to pesticide usage, and its population fall to 22.6 million by 1999. According to the US Census Bureau, life expectancy in the US in 2005 was 77.7 years and, as of yesterday, its population was 300 million and growing.

In 1969 he was prepared to take an even-money bet that England would not exist in 2000. He regularly said population growth would overtake the world's food supplies and mineral resources. Economic growth is another scourge of humanity.

"We already have too much economic growth in the US," he said in the late '80s. "Economic growth in rich countries like ours is the disease, not the cure."

So has Ehrlich changed his tune in his recent New Scientist article? Not much.

He is now taking world governments to task for their concern with population ageing and shrinking populations, and their measures to try to slow or reverse these trends. Which is where Costello comes in.

Not only has he instigated a baby bonus of "almost 900 pounds sterling" (actually nearly twice that), he has urged young women to have one child for themselves, one for their husband and one for Australia.

That's good. If Costello is doing the idiotic by paying people to have babies, just as well he is actually being even more idiotic than Ehrlich realises.

Ehrlich doesn't approve of this at all: "If civilisation is to persist on our finite planet, impending resource shortages and the mounting environmental costs of overpopulation make it imperative that we gradually and humanely reduce our numbers."

He thinks the planet's optimal human population is about two billion, "an excellent and achievable target to aim for over the long term". As of yesterday, the population of the world was 6.55 billion and, according to the US Census Bureau, will reach nine billion in 2042, although its rate of growth is declining sharply.

Ehrlich sounds his usual warning about the evils of consumption: if the developing countries follow the evil ways of the West we will need at least two more Earths to cope.

"Despite the challenges, we see population shrinkage in the industrial nations as a hugely positive trend. It is, after all, the high-consuming rich in these regions who disproportionately damage humanity's life support systems and wield their economic and military power to keep their resource demands satisfied, without regard to the costs for the world's poor and to future generations. The more people there are, the more climate change humanity will face, with a concomitant loss of biodiversity and the crucial ecosystem services it helps provide."

At least Ehrlich is consistent: consistently wrong. One of his most trenchant and effective critics was US economist Julian Simon, who said of Ehrlich and his supporters: "As soon as one predicted disaster doesn't occur, the doomsayers skip to another ... why don't they see that, in the aggregate, things are getting better? Why do they always think we're at a turning point or at the end of the road?"

The point isn't that there are no limits but that there is no reason to believe we are anywhere near them. And there is ample evidence that the economic growth and prosperity Ehrlich rails against are the preconditions for successful environmental action.

Now we see the point of this whole diatribe. Ehrlich has made mistakes therefore someone he criticises must be all right. Sound logic there.

In his book The Skeptical Environmentalist, Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg demonstrated, using reputable international data sources, that things are generally getting better over a wide range of environmental indicators. Predictably, Ehrlich was one of the gang of four environmental zealots recruited to launch a vindictive but unsuccessful attack on Lomborg in Scientific American.

Some years back, The Economist erroneously described Lomborg as a "statistician", and we see that repeated here. He is not: he is a political scientist, and all his gradute-level qualifications have been in that discipline. I don't know where this description originated: maybe the editorial staff of The Economist are ignorant as to the distinction between the disciplines, or Lomborg misrepresented himself. He claims he was an "associate professor of statistics" at some point in his career -- how he would have held such a position in a political science department is unclear. He certainly does not claim to have published anything significant in the field of statistics: only newspaper articles and his book. In any case, one has to wonder at the naiveté of not only the economic editor of The Australian and what is otherwise a highly reputable news magazine. Could it be a matter of believing what you want to hear? If you do a web search on Lomborg you will find a mass of material refuting his claims. If his methodology was sound, he should have been able to publish at least one peer-reviewed paper -- even in a lesser journal or conference -- on his environmental position. He has published none.

Instead the magazine seriously damaged its own reputation when it attempted to suppress publication of an annotated reply to the articles by Lomborg on his website.

Seriously damaged their reputation? They objected to Lomborg reusing their copyrighted material without permission.

There is a wider moral to this tale. Ehrlich has jumped on the global warming bandwagon, a fertile field for serial doomsayers.

When you see he has been joined by a Washington snake oil salesman such as Al Gore, it seems a pretty good reason to be cautious about accepting uncritically their greenhouse scaremongering.

This is worse than a Canberra snake oil salesman like your favourites in the increasingly-inaccurately named Liberal Party?

Global warming is taking place, but how fast it will proceed, what its causes and consequences are, and what can, or should, be done to attempt to mitigate it are still matters of legitimate debate, not the subject of a phony scientific consensus.

Scientific American damaged its reputation how? By protecting its copyright and objecting to someone copying their article in full without permission, with annotations. Challenge to The Australian: let me know if it's OK to quote your article in full without permission.

So what about Lomborg's reputation?

He lists two academic papers (completely unrelated to climate science or economics) on his web site (only one with publication details), and of course his book, plus rebuttals of rebuttals of his book. Never (to rephrase Churchill) in all the fields of scientific research has so much been written about so little. Proof positive that counting citations can be a highly inaccurate way of rating a researcher.

So is Lomborg a genuine environmental skeptic or charlatan?

There's lots of material out there to help you decide. But you won't find it in The Australian.

Tuesday, 24 October 2006

You're wrong, Comrade Mboweni

In September 2006, South African Reserve Bank governor, Tito Mboweni, infamously said he preferred working with Afrikaners, who stayed and became expert, to black empowerment appointees who left for another job as soon as he skilled them up.

Sorry, comrade. These people are pulling the wool over your eyes.

What you are witnessing is confirmative action, the process of making it appear that black people are no good.

Here are some of the tricks of the trade.

First, whenever someone shows up with really good credentials, think up all kinds of excuses not to appoint them. Give all qualified candidates the runaround, so that you are sure whoever you appoint is desperate for a job.

Do a half-assed job, while making sure that black employees are not close to the action. They feel frustrated at being ineffectual and unable to effect change, and leave. If that doesn’t work, conduct as many meetings in Afrikaans as you can in the hope that they (probably schooled in the struggle years, when Afrikaans was unfashionable) will not be able to keep up.

Think I am making this up?

I have had stories like this from Wits graduates who have left jobs in the government and parastatal sectors in disgust, to do well in industry.

While you could argue that all this is not doing much harm – a civil service job in many countries is a sinecure and the real action is in the private sector – South Africa is a country with massive backlogs in government services, including education, health care and policing. Bottlenecks caused by the old order preserving their turf are a serious cost.

It’s time something was done about it.

How about externally-measured performance benchmarks – including service delivery, and recruiting and retention of black empowerment appointees? Would it be too much to include a measure of rooting out incompetence?