Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ 'Trees' and other Putative 'Facts'

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jan 07, 1997

Posted to HotWired 8 Jan 97

One of the fascinating things about arguing with neoconservatives is their fast and loose usage of facts. It's a tactic Rush Limbaugh honed on his show. Now I don't like to nitpick, but poster Brian Carnell has been teasing us with his "facts" for a week now, and it's time somebody pushed them a bit to examine their substance.

One common conservative tactic is to call a proposed rebuttal "simple" - making it seem like the opponent is so stupid they couldn't figure it out for themselves. A case in point:

The solution is simple -- opt out of any aspect of your life which requires cash transactions. Go live in a mountain by yourself somewhere.

This solution is not at all simple. What Mr. Carnell fails to mention - thereby bypassing the point of the argument entirely - is that all mountaintops are owned by someone. Further, most mountaintops are not suitable for life. In order to show that it is possible to boycott banks he needs to show that this can be done without starving oneself or being arrested in the process. He hasn't come close to showing that - but these minor concerns are written off by saying the solution is "simple".

Another common tactic of conservative writers is the misattribution of causes to explain these purported facts. Mr. Carnell, for example, writes,:

True, this is very inconvenient, but not impossible. The reason we don't do it is due to the low marginal value of doing so.

We need to ask: would people leave if they could? We have to think that there are good grounds for an affirmative here. North America was settled voluntarily. People in the hundreds of thousands picked up stakes and left. Often (though not always) they were leaving capitalistic industrialized societies such as Great Britain or (later) the eastern United States. So there are good grounds for saying that people often choose to leave even if they face great hardship. So the "low marginal value" doesn't deter them. So what does? That there's no place to go.

Why is this important? It means that we're stuck here. The capitalist illusion that we live here by choice is just that: an illusion.

Now let's play some statistical games:

Korten cites "The World's Sicentists' Warning to Humanity" which was signed by a whopping 1,575 scientists (including some Nobel laureates). That document is next to useless for two reasons.

First, that is a ridiculously small percentage of the total number of scientists in the world -- I've seen figures showing there are close to half a million scientists in the U.S. alone (that was a Census Bureau figure, but I don't have my Statistical Abstract close by to give the exact figure). You could probably have no problem finding 1,575 scientists in the world who believe the world was created in several days exactly as it says in Genesis or 1,575 scientists who believe in UFO abduction.

By analogy, then, since the Declaration of Independence was signed by only a few dozen people, it too is of no value. And no doubt in the colonial United States we could find an equal number of people who supported the British monarchy.

Just as my analogy is clearly a bad argument, so is Mr. Carnell's. He is disputing the survey on the grounds that it might be unrepresentative. But saying it might be unrepresentative is a far cry from saying that it is inrepresentative.

Or, to put my point another way: we should probably dismiss Mr. Carnell's arguments because he might be insane. Indeed, unless he can show us that he is sane, he is probably wrong.

Playing fast and loose with the "facts". It's easy, when you know how.

Mr. Carnell continues:

But the real problem with the statement is it's a vague statement signed by people who have no special knowledge in and have likely done very little research in the areas they mention. How many experts in population dynamics signed that, for example?

Mr. Carnell makes the bold assertion that the scientists who signed the statement are unqualified. Damaging enough, if he can prove it. But his next two sentences reveal that he has no idea who signed it. Clearly, then, he is unable to assert that the signatories are unqualified, right?

Having called his own arguments "simple", Mr. Carnell next moves to the tactic of calling his opponents ideas almost incoherent:

But lets move on to the point about sustainability. I believe it borders on an incoherent idea.

Look at Korten's three-pronged definition back there. Using these criteria life itself is probably not a sustainable phenomenon (which, of course, it isn't). We exist in a highly entropic system the amount of energy available for doing work is constantly decreasing. We're able to get around that here on Earth because we're leeching all the Sun's energy away, but there is no doubt life on this planet is sucking away energy infinitely faster than it can be replaced (since if the universe is a closed system, there is no "regeneration" of energy.)

Mr. Carnell is asserting that sustainable development is almost incoherent. Why? Because life consumes energy, and there is only a finite amount of energy in the universe.

For the record, Mr. Carnell is right. Life exists because it takes concentrated forms of energy and disperses it. This process cannot go on indefinitely. According to our best scientific theories, life in the cosmos will probably die out after several billion years. When the human population reaches galactic proportions, no doubt this will be a concern to us all.

But no proponent of sustainable development is taking such a wide view. They focus on the earth, or at the very least, the planets of the solar system. This is not a closed system. It constantly receives energy from the Sun. This energy is concentrated in a variety of ways: in wood, oil, geothermal fluctuations, and so on. So long as human life does not consume more of this energy than the Sun can produce, it is sustainable. So the concept of sustainable development is not incoherent after all.

The next set of arguments are a bit complex and need some background:

From time to time environmentalists make dire predictions based on current technology. More often than not, a technological solution is proposed which mitigates those concerns. My favourite example is the prediction which asserted that, if horse traffic in London continued to increase, then in fifty years the streets would be filled with ten feet of dung. Of course, London switched to internal combustion and got smog instead. But the original prognosticator looked pretty silly.

To make an argument like this work, you need to cast your opponent in the role of the ill fated prognosticator. To wit:

Korten also appears to have a hidden assumption in his definition of sustainability which you also find in ideas of carrying capacity -- namely he assumes that either a) technological and behaviors relating to resource usage will remain constant or b) we can exactly predict how such technology and behavior will change.

Now this is a careful recasting or Mr. Korten's argument. It makes it look like Mr. Korten is arguing that technology will always remain constant or change in predicatble ways. But of course that's not true, and obviously not true. Indeed, Mr. Korton argues merely that in some key instance, there will be no technological fix to the problem which faces us.

But now having falsely attributed Mr. Korten with a sweeping generalization, Mr. Carnell runs through the easy refutation with a counterexample:

Consider the telephone system. At one point almost all the switching done by telephone systems was done by human beings. As the size of the phone system multiplied the number of people kept growing and growing, until someone figured out that at the rate it was growing soon just about everyone in the U.S. would have to be a telephone operator to keep the system working.

Let's leave aside for the moment the fact that this argument is intended to refute a point Mr. Korten never makes. Is it a good argument? Is it an effective counterexample?

Clearly, no. First of all, it hasn't been established that anybody actually made such a prediction. Saying that "someone figured out" is not citing an example. But suppose someone said that. Is it the same sort of prediction? No. This is not a situation where we face declining resources. It's a situation where we face increasing use. The use of a declining resource can continue indefinitely (at least, until the resource is gone, which is the point of the prognosticator's argument). But increasing use cannot continue indefinitely: you run out of people. So this is not a good analogy at all. (It's a lot like those predictions that there will be 20 billion internet users in a decade, based on current rates of growth.)

This method of switching was in Korten's terminology, an unsustainable system.

Not at all! The two situations are not even remotely similar!

Would it have made sense to throw our hands up in the air and say, well hey lets get rid of the phone system or make it much smaller because we can't have everyone being a telephone operator?

Well of course the realization that the primary resource for telephone switching, human beings, was becoming scarce caused a scramble and competition for an alternative and electric switching was invented, refined and implemented.

Now the solution is proposed: the environmentalists proposals, which are apparently equivalent to "throwing our hands up in the air" and limiting consumption, or Mr. Carnell's solution, which is a "realization" that "of course" technology will change.

Now I ask: who is making the generalization? For the environmentalists' argument to succeed, there need to be only one case in which technology fails to provide a solution. For Mr. Carnell's optimism to carry the day, technology must succeed every time. Just out of prudence, I would like to at least weigh the possibility that technology might fail, not to dismiss it out of hand as "incoherent".

Now let's look at the argument as applied to the depletion of resources:

The problem with sustainability measurements is they are highly susceptible to even minor changes in human behavior or technological change. James is right. At various times in the 19th century there were all sorts of concerns about running out of resources. Whale oil was used at one time very heavily, and people were worried whales were on the verge of being hunted to extinction. Trees were being cut down (in the 17th century moreso) at such a rate that people wondered how long until the last tree would be cut down to go in someone's stove. Back to the 19th century, there was constant worrying and fretting about the imminent exhaustion of all coal resources.

You can look at several centuries of dire prediction that the current system is unsustainable and come to one single conclusion -- predictions about future resource usage and availability are almost always not only wrong, but wildly wrong.

Yes they were wrong, but not because their conclusions were false. Whales were hunted almost to extinction. Coal resources have been exhausted in many parts of the world. Deforestation was a major problem, and many previously forested areas have never recovered.

So why were the predictions of disaster wrong? Not because the resource wasn't depleted - it was, every time. The predictions were wrong because we found a new source of energy.

OK, fine. But now Mr. Carnell's argument amounts to: We will always find new sources of energy. Well, perhaps. But: will they be as cheap as the old forms? Can we produce them without risking environmental catastrophe? Can we produce them in the quantities needed? All these are open questions. It is a leap of faith - nothing more - to assume we will find solutions to all those problems. I hope we do, and I think we will. But it is prudent - not incoherent - to plan for the possibility that we won't.

Now let's go for more analysis, Carnell style:

The problem is ideas like sustainability and carrying capacity come from biological studies of non-humans.

Really? That's news to me. I wonder where Mr. Carnell gathered this fascinating tidbit. So far as I can tell, this "fact" was made up by Mr. Carnell.

Now if we were a herd of deer on an island, they might be more successful at making predictions. Which is what makes me wonder why Korten says the weight of "scientific" evidence is in his corner. We've had decades of these sorts of dire predictions, and they've all been falsified. Why should we continue to believe an economic theory which so far has simply proven wrong?

The theory is that if you continue to use a resource at a rate faster than it is produced, it will be depleted. Nothing in any of these arguments has shown this to be false. Indeed, history has shown that this line of reasoning is correct.

True, environmentalists sometimes overstate their case. But suppose we present the argument in this way:

  • If we consume an energy source faster than it is produced, that energy source will be depleted.
  • If an energy source is depleted, then if it is not replaced we face an energy shortage.
  • At some point, we might not be able to replace a current energy source. Thus
  • In order to avoid a potential energy shortage, it is better not to consume energy sources faster than they can be replaced.

Now, nothing in Mr. Carnell's arguments refutes this. And - I propose - my recasting of the argument is much closer to the environmentalists' than Mr. Carnell's.

Now Mr. Carnell mores to a straightforward attack on his opponent's facts with some putative "facts" of his own:

Look at Japan. If Japan has a huge trade surplus and the U.S. has a huge trade deficit, why is Japan the nation in severe economic trouble?

So far as I can tell, Japan is not in severe economic trouble. Ethiopia is in serious economic trouble. Japan, so far as I can still, remains a major economic and industrial power. Am I wrong here?

In any case, having a trade surplus with the United States does not entail that a nation has a trade surplus per se. Nor does it paint the complete picture of the flow of capital in or out of a country - movements on the money markets, for example, do not show up in such trade figures. So simply pointing out that japan is in economic trouble, even if it is true (which it isn't), does not refute the argument.

Or how about Finland? Last time I checked with my friend from Finland, unemployment in that nation is close to 9.6% and they've suffered from some of the worst currency devaluation in the industrialized world (trade is not Finland's problem, btw, it's Finland's welfare state that's causing it fits).

Having a friend in Finland hardly makes someone an authority on Finland. But be that as it may, the argument still falters. A 9.6 percent unemployment rate is far from uncommon in the western world (Canada's hovers around 10 percent). And I would need to know more about Finland's "currency devaluation" before I comment. Usually when we say that a currency is "devalued", we are referring to a desperate act of a government attempting to stem inflation. However, this phrase is so vaguely worded that it might just mean that Finland's currency is falling in global trading. This is nothing unusual - it happens a lot. Canada's currency dropped from $1.00 (US) to $0.75 (US) during a time of relative economic prosperity and growth.

Of course, if anything is bad in a country, it must be because of the welfare state. This shows Mr. Carnell's understanding of the precept that, if the Big Lie is going to be believed, it must be restated at every opportunity, no matter how slim.

You also note that income disparities are increasing. I don't know if that's true or not, but if it is, so what? The absolute standard of living has increased worldwide. It is false to say that it is the West's fault that people in places like Sudan or Zaire or Ethiopia don't have enough food or basic education. It is those nations own internal political problems which lead to the sort of problems they experience today.

This paragraph is full of putative facts which are not supported in any way whatsoever.

The "absolute standard of living has increased worldwide". Even if this is true, which I doubt, it does not show that conditions have not worsened for a majority of the people. For example: a factory employs ten people for a dollar a day and pays the manager a hundred dollars a day. Then one day, the employees' wages are cut to fifty cents a day while the manager's income is raised to two hundred dollars. Before, the total amount earned was $110. After, the total amount earned was $205. So even if it is true that absolute standards of living increase, the majority may still be worse off. And more to the point, an increasing gap between rich and poor is evidence that this is what is happening.

But even if it's happening, argues Mr. Carnell, it's not our fault. After all, "it's those nations' own internal political problems". It would be nice to have a handy scapegoat, but the facts simply don't support this reasoning. Because if they did, then nations which are stable internally would be improving economically. But Africa is full of counter-examples (they're not all suffering political strife). Mali, Botswana, Tanzania, Zambia -- these nations have all had relatively stable governments (more stable, say, than South Korea) yet their condition year after year does not improve.

True, in places where there is civil war, it gets worse. Clear examples are the Sudan and Ethiopia. But it is foolish to say that these wars are entirely the result of internal problems. A significant number of wars which linger today were the result of two industrialized nations - The U.S.A. and the Soviet Union - fighting by proxy. Others are the results of boundries drafted by western nations which have nothing to do with indigent population and cultural patterns. And all conflicts in the less developed world have been fed with a steady supply of weaponry and funding from developed nations.

Also let me point out that many conflicts are caused by economic conditions. As global free trade becomes more and more prevalent, more pressure is placed on these economies. Free trade favours more efficient nations. But underdeveloped nations are less efficient (efficiency is not measured only in wages).

And we continue with the factoids...

As for wages, let me just underscore what James said. There are numerous problems with official measurements of income, but the biggest is they don't measure benefits. The share of total compensation that is given in the form of benefits has increased immensely since the 1960s (thanks to the high marginal tax rates of the 1960s and 1970s). I believe benefits now make up about 40% of employee compensation. When you leave 40% of an employee's compensation out of income statistics, it's easy to make him or her look poor.

It's always nice when you can pluck a nice round figure like 40% out of the air and use it to support your argument. However, this 40%:

  • is probably not accurate
  • and even if it is, probably doesn't apply to all employees, only those with good jobs
  • and even if it applies to all jobs, probably applies only to Americans,
  • and even if applied globally, probably includes employee contributions to arrive at that total, and
  • even if it is accurate in every way, is rarely left out of calculations of income.
When you invent statistics, it's easy to make someone look rich.

Now let's look at the politics of forestry:

It is believed that prior to colonial times there were 950 milion wood acres in North America. By 1920 there were only about 600 million wood acres. Today there are about 728 million. Remember that though we cut down a lot of trees in North America, we also plant close to 2 billion of the little buggers every year.

One wonders who "believed" there were 950 million wood acres prior to colonization, or how they arrived at that figure. But let's leave that aside. The problem with this argument is the nicely fudged term "wood acre". A wood acre could mean anything from a stand of red fir to the weed-like sprouting of poplar.

Much of the wood which existed prior to colonial times was good timber - "old growth", as it is often referred to. Much of the land which was clearcut for old growth forests was reforested, not by replanting, but by the emergence of scrub brush. It still counts as a 'wood acre' -- but is not in any sense a replacement of the wood which was harvested.

I also note that people always talk about the number of trees "planted". I have seen city-sized fields filled with dead trees which were "planted". It would be more useful to know how many acres have been successfully replanted.

In another email, Mr. Carnell asserts bluntly that:

Today there are fewer malnourished people both in absolute numbers and percentages than there were in the mid-1970s. Despite all his disparagement of the limits of the Green Revolution, Ehrlich was dead wrong.

Well this is a fascinating piece of information. One wonders what the source is. It would be nice to know the "absolute" numbers, as well. Somehow I don't think that the problem is behind us.

I would also like to know what the definition of "malnourished" is.

Or let's consider Mr. Carnell's views on birds:

As for Carson, face it -- she was wrong. How many of the bird species she said were on the verge of extinction are extinct today? Yeah, those robin's are really rare aren't they?

I am unaware of robins having ever being placed on the endangered list. Mr. Carnell is correct in saying many bird species have made recoveries. But this was the result of a major intervention spurred in large part by people like Ms. Carson.

Of course, Mr. Carnell is good enough to acknowledge this fact - but then argues that Ms. Carson was wrong because she was "bombastic".


I could go on for a long time just regarding the posts in this thread, but thankfully there's a limit to how large a post can be.

But let me say this: most of the purported facts and analysis presented on the conservative aide of the ledger in this thread are the same as the ones I've described: pure fiction.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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