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When Someone Tells You They're Lying, Believe Them
Some people refuse to admit they're wrong, but there's other clues
Paul Ehrlich became well-known for his 1968 book The Population Bomb, where he made many confidently-stated but spectacularly-wrong predictions about imminent overpopulation causing apocalyptical resource scarcity. As illustration for how far off the mark Ehrlich was, he predicted widespread famines in India at a time when its population was around 500 million people, and he wrote “I don't see how India could possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980.” He happened to have made this claim right before India’s Green Revolution in agriculture. Not only is India able to feed a population that tripled to 1.4 billion people, it has long been one of the world’s largest agricultural exporter.
Ehrlich is also known for notoriously losing a bet in 1990 to one of my favorite humans ever, the perennial optimist (and business professor) Julian Simon. Bryan Caplan brings up some details to the follow-up that never was:
We’ve all heard about the Ehrlich-Simon bet. Simon the cornucopian bet that resources would get cheaper, Ehrlich the doomsayer bet that they would get pricier, and Simon crushed him. There’s a whole book on it. What you probably don’t know, however, is that in 1995, Paul Ehrlich and Steve Schneider proposed a long list of new bets for Simon - and that Simon refused them all.
The first bet was fairly straight-forward: Ehrlich picked 5 commodities (copper, chromium, nickel, tin, & tungsten) and predicted that their price would be higher in 1990 compared to 1980 as the materials become scarcer. Instead of rising, the combined price went down. Ehrlich’s decade-spanning obstinance and unparalleled ability to step on rakes make him an irresistible punching bag but despite his perennial wrongness, his responses have ranged from evasion to outright denials:
Anne and I have always followed U.N. population projections as modified by the Population Reference Bureau — so we never made “predictions,” even though idiots think we have. When I wrote The Population Bomb in 1968, there were 3.5 billion people. Since then we’ve added another 2.8 billion — many more than the total population (2 billion) when I was born in 1932. If that’s not a population explosion, what is? My basic claims (and those of the many scientific colleagues who reviewed my work) were that population growth was a major problem. Fifty-eight academies of science said that same thing in 1994, as did the world scientists’ warning to humanity in the same year. My view has become depressingly mainline!
Some humans possess the unfortunate egotistical and dishonorable habit of refusing to admit error. It’s a reflex I personally find utterly baffling, because nothing engenders someone’s credibility to me more than their ability to admit error. So if we can’t always rely on people to admit a mistake, what else do we have?
What I find so interesting about the second bet in 1995 is how peculiar the proposed conditions were:
I kept thinking “…so?” as I read these. Why would someone care about the availability of firewood versus the heating and cooking costs in general? Why would someone care about per capita cropland statistics versus the availability of food in general? Many of these are also blatant statistical fuckery, such as monitoring increases in absolute worldwide AIDS deaths during a period of persistent population growth.
Ehrlich is playing a seemingly uncomfortable game of Twister here, but his behavior makes perfect sense if you read intelligence and agency behind his decisions. The only explanation for the indirect, tangential, and collateral measurements is that Ehrlich knows that a direct measurement will not be favorable to his pet theory. He does not believe in truth, but rather believes in belief as the kids say, and he’s not willing to jeopardize it.
The acrobatics are the tell here. When Meghan Murphy debates the sex industry, she has to keep the wheels on her goalposts perpetually greased up. Meghan wants to say that everyone who works in the industry has a negative view of it, but the preemptive goalpost shifting she employs is proof she knows that’s a lie. The guy claiming there’s a dragon in his garage can only preemptively dismiss [thermal imaging/flour/whatever] as a legitimate investigatory tool only because he knows there is no dragon.
It’s not perfect but it’s often the best we have. Ideally we get people who act honorably and admit mistakes and are willing to falsify their own theories but barring that, just look for the acrobatics. They’re the product of intelligent design, not random chance.