Back to the 1970s

I have argued for a while that the US appears to be regressing back to the 1970s.  George Bush is showing every sign of rivaling Richard Nixon for the award for most heavy-handed, misguided economic interventions by a President nominally espousing free market principals.  And there is no reason to think that Obama's outsider appeal and leftish economics will clean things up any better than did Carter.

Another sign the 1970's are back is Obama's appointment of Paul Ehrlich buddy John Holdren as his Science Adviser.   The Reference Frame has more on his work and "credentials", but suffice it to say there is very little there.

He is a strong practitioner of what I call post-modern science, where being fact-based and rigorous is far, far less important than coming to politically correct conclusions that are wrapped in just enough pseudoscience to wow science-illiterate media and most of the public.  His only highly cited works are Club-of-Rome type stuff with Ehrlich in the 1970s, and, not surprisingly, climate alarmist work today.   He is the type of scientist that is more comfortable (and better received) on an Oprah episode than in a detailed science debate.  He has a tendency to declare issues settled without having ever produced any evidence, and a history of eventually backing down from ludicrous positions he adopted without evidence in earlier phases of his life, only to then make the exact same mistake again in a slightly modified form.

The title comes from perhaps his most famous work, and is a great example of exactly what this guy is about.  I=PAT is supposedly an equation to measure man's impact (generally interpreted to be negative impact) on the Earth.  The letters stand for Impact (or Influence) = Population x Affluence x Technology **

The fact that he has an "equation" makes it look like science.  But in fact, it is not an equation at all.  He never tries to put any numbers to it, and in fact one cannot put numbers to it.  It is merely a political point of view popular on the left - that growth and technology and wealth are all bad - made to look like there is some science behind it.   It gives the scientific impremateur to something that is no such thing, so limits-to-growth supporters could yell back at their critics that is was "settled science."  Its a kind of voodoo, where activists could wave Holdren and Ehrlich at their critics, to try to keep the fact-Gods at bay.  Similar forces are at work in climate, though climate scientists have learned not to put their equations on paper (since then churlish outsiders can criticize it) but to bury them in a black box climate model.

In fact, even as a concept I=PAT fails.   Because at least two of the three terms have exactly the opposite relationship.  What do I mean?  Well, I guess I could be convinced that, all things being equal, rising human population has a net negative impact on the environment.   But affluence and technology should be in the denominator, not the numerator.  I won't bother with an extensive proof, since Holdren never proves his equation, but I will offer up a couple of thought experiments:

  • Imagine 6-7 billion people on the earth today but with the wealth and technology of the pre-Jethro Tull 17th century.  It would be a freaking disaster.  The catastrophe, to humanity and the environment, would be unimageable.   We are able to have the P we have today only because it is offset by A and T.  Or, in a point made in an earlier post, poverty is not "sustainable."
  • America is demonstrably less polluted and cleaner than in 1970, despite a higher population.  Many areas are cleaner than in 1920, and we have more untouched land and more forest coverage today than we did in 1920.  Why?  Technology and affluence.

If one really wanted to be scientific about it, and studied actual data, I think he would find that environmental impact follows a parabola with development.  Initial increases in population and industrialization lead to messy problems, which are then fixed with increasing wealth and technology.  There are many places in the world where halting growth would merely freeze the country at the top of this parabola.  China is a great example.  China's environmental problems will get solved through increasing wealth.  Stopping it from growing would actually increase the negative impact on the environment.

Anyway, I just spent more time on the proposition than it deserves.  If Holdren ever steps down, I suppose there's always Rosie O'Donnell to replace him.

** This is based on the popular interpretation of the equation.  In fact, in its original form, T was not technology but just a plug factor, something like impact per population-dollar.  At this level, the equation is certainly true, as mathematically it is hard to argue against the equation impact = population x dollars x impact per population-dollar!  So, at some level, the finding was not wrong but simply trivial.  However, in popular mythology, T was changed to technology, and the authors really did nothing to correct this interpretation, because essentially they agreed with it, even if they hadn't proved it.  (more here)  This approach, of proving one thing that is trivial and then claiming the proof is of something broader and more robust is now typical of climate science.

  • Ari

    Yeah, the equation's actually pretty retarded. You're right; it should be I = P/(AT). But it's such a trivially simple concept that it doesn't need an equation, really.

    Also, where are the units?!

  • Milena Thomas

    I think I might cry because of I=PAT.

    There are so many things wrong with it.

  • Methinks

    I think I might cry because Coyote's post was just that good.

  • Lorenzo

    The best book on the whole post-modernism phenomena is Stephen Hicks’s Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault , which I review here

    The example you give in this post fits in perfectly with Hicks' thesis about post-modernism.

  • Allen

    Rosie would likely make better decisions.

  • TooMuchTime

    Here's an excellent speech by Michael Crichton about imperfect formulas. It has to do with the number of planets that could sustain life. Remember that bit of BS from the 60s? I do.

    The entire problem is: if you put numbers in place of the letters, what numbers do you use? Who's to say one number is more correct than another? Obviously, zero in any of the places renders the entire formula useless. But zero is a possibility. So, it is possible that I=PAT is garbage.

    Consensus is a very dangerous thing when applied to science.