Letter to Skeptic Magazine

In their vol. 5, no. 1 issue, Skeptic magazine published several articles on environmental science in general and on the population controversy specifically. Writer Frank Miele contributed an excellent overview, “Souled out or … souled short?” which mentions Julian Simon and Paul Ehrlich and provides graphs and information taken from Joel Cohen’s How Many People Can the Earth Support? Below is a letter-to-the editor I sent Skeptic about the controversy.

July 15, 1997

Editor, Skeptic,

As a regular reader and maintainer of a web site devoted to the overpopulation controversy (http://www.carnell.com/overpopulation.html), I found Frank Miele’s “Souled out or … souled short?” an interesting introduction to the differing perspectives between environmentalists and economists and like Miele I find Joel Cohen’s How Many People Can the Earth Support? an excellent book on the topic.

As someone who sides with Julian Simon in his debates with Paul Ehrlich, let me sum up my position as briefly as possible: Ehrlich is no Joel Cohen.

Cohen’s book sticks to what can be known, and throughout he does an admirable job of explaining the limitations of population statistics and models. Few of Cohen’s conclusions occur without at least one, and usually numerous, caveats. Cohen realizes, as do most demographers and others involved in population issues, that the subject is incredibly complex.

By contrast, Ehrlich is largely a headline writer. Rather than acknowledge the complexity and uncertainty of the issues, Ehrlich has repeatedly insisted on going for the zingers that get him a lot of media coverage but usually turn out to be scientifically unsound. As Ehrlich told Stanford magazine in 1990, “Everyone wants to know what’s going to happen. So, the question is, Do you say, ‘I don’t know,’ in which case they all go back to bed — or do you say, ‘Hell, in ten years you’re likely to be going without food and water’ and [get] their attention?”

Ehrlich has paid the price for playing the entertainer rather than the scientist. Year after year he has made one outlandish prediction after another that has failed to come true. If a popular astrologer or psychic made claims that consistently proved not only wrong but wildly wrong, it is doubtful many of your readers would take him or her seriously.

Ehrlich, however, seems to be the Teflon environmentalist. Time after time his predictions are falsified and yet almost no one considers looking at the underlying model to wonder if maybe there isn’t something wrong with the theory. Instead, much as the Ptolemaic astronomers resorted to ever more complicated epicycles, so Ehrlich’s adherents find ever more convoluted explanations of why Ehrlich is right even though the predictions his theory entails consistently fail.

The tragedy is Ehrlich’s attempts at grabbing the media’s imagination have led to a trend of polarization which makes rational discussions of environmental issues such as overpopulation all but impossible. Your picture of Simon with devil’s horns is an accurate but sad commentary on how he is viewed by many. We have reached a point where those who disagree with Ehrlich are, as the title of his latest book puts it, responsible for The Betrayal of Science and Reason.

As a result there has been a similar backlash among some critics. We now have people like Rush Limbaugh who respond to Ehrlich’s bombast with similarly uninformed bombast of their own. Scientific investigation of a matter of extreme importance to our species is reduced to a shouting match between two camps each accusing the other of heresy.

The most important lesson I hope readers of your series of articles on environmentalists and their critics is the enormous danger of allowing scientific inquiry to become politicized. Ehrlich’s explicit politicization of population concerns in the early 1960s started a chain reaction which today makes honest debate and inquiry far more difficult than it need or should be.

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