Easily discredited arguments do not explain anything
A friend of ours forwarded Bobbi an email titled: “This explains everything” and asked for comments. Wisely, she forwarded it to me, and stupidly I spent a ridiculous amount of time analyzing it. Having made that foolish time investment, I’ll make the small incremental investment needed to turn it into a post.
The email claims that it explains everything but didn’t explain anything to me other than why liberals lose arguments when they don’t check their facts and when they exaggerate their statements beyond reason. Of course, conservatives do this too. I’m just picking on liberals because it’s a liberal email that hit my inbox.
What if we abandon our tribe’s custom of conflating free market values and unconcern about social welfare?
Right now, some people label themselves “capitalists”. They support free markets and oppose the social safety net. Other people call themselves “socialists”. They oppose free markets and support the social safety net. But there are two more possibilities to fill in there.
Some people might oppose both free markets and a social safety net. I don’t know if there’s a name for this philosophy, but it sounds kind of like fascism – government-controlled corporations running the economy for the good of the strong.
Others might support both free markets and a social safety net. You could call them “welfare capitalists”. I ran a Google search and some of them seem to call themselves “bleeding heart libertarians. “ I would call them “correct”.
That’s me. Correct.
Anyhow, the email that provoked this outpouring (aka rang). It copy-pastes an article that I found here, on a site called “The Tyee.” The title: “Downsize Democracy for 40 Years, Here’s What You Get” with the subhead “New signs civilization is veering toward collapse.” It argues:
The exceptionally successful four decades campaign to change the “ideological fabric” of society has put western civilization on a track to irreversible collapse, according to a major study sponsored by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The study focused on population, climate, water, agriculture, and energy as the interrelated factors determining the collapse or survival of civilizations going back 5000 years.
Well, there are problems—a lot of them. Anyone with rudimentary googling skills, or who reads the article in the Guardian that the Tyee article cites as supporting their claim, here, or who actually looks for the underlying study here will discover that it wasn’t a major study sponsored by NASA.
The Guardian article (as amended) says: “The HANDY model was created using a minor Nasa grant, but the study based on it was conducted independently.”
If they read the study, they’ll find a link at the bottom to a press release here that says this:
A soon-to-be published research paper ‘Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY): Modeling Inequality and Use of Resources in the Collapse or Sustainability of Societies’ by University of Maryland researchers Safa Motesharrei and Eugenia Kalnay, and University of Minnesota’s Jorge Rivas was not solicited, directed or reviewed by NASA. It is an independent study by the university researchers utilizing research tools developed for a separate NASA activity.
As is the case with all independent research, the views and conclusions in the paper are those of the authors alone. NASA does not endorse the paper or its conclusions.”
One might chalk this up to bad timing on The Tyee’s part. NASA might have posted this announcement after the Tyee article was written. Except the facts say that they didn’t. The article is dated 26 Jan 2015 (again, ref here) and the NASA statement is dated 20 March 2014, here. Ten months earlier. And the referenced Guardian article had already made the correction long before the Tyee article was written. They footnote:
This article was amended on 26 March 2014 to reflect the nature of the study and Nasa’s relationship to it more clearly.
Here we have an article written by people who either did not know the article on which they base their argument is NOT a “major study sponsored by NASA” or who did know, and said it anyway, because, hey, saying it’s NASA makes it more credible.
The NASA study is not optimistic…
The NASA reports says [sic]…
The NASA study highlights …
Right, I get it. NASA. But if not NASA, then who?
Well, it was written by a Research Assistant, a Ph.D. candidate, and their Prof.
Their bios are here.
And they did not say that the study says that western civilization is on a track to irreversible collapse. So much not that the authors had this to say in a follow-up Q&A at that same site, here
“Our article does not make a “doomsday prediction of the collapse of society.” In fact, we state in multiple locations in the article that our model shows that a sustainable outcome is possible, including right in the abstract, where we state that the model shows that “collapse can be avoided, and population can reach a steady state.”
For someone who is open-minded and wants to investigate this problem, a little bit of work discredits it. And discredits the source as well. And is likely to discredit anything else, valid or not, that they have to say.
This is just stupid.
Do I believe that income and wealth inequality are problems? Yes.
Do I think that resource utilization issues are real issues? Yes.
But I don’t think that bad arguments for good issues help. I think they hurt. If you are trying to convince people to support your agenda, the WORST way to do it is by citing something that is so easily discredited.
And I haven’t even gotten into the paper itself, which I have not studied, but read carefully enough to see that while their arguments are interesting, they explain very little.
The argument (again, the paper is here) is based on a mathematical model. Climate models are mathematical models based on well-verified quantitative statements of physical law as we understand it; they use real data as input; they attempt to calibrate themselves by using past data to “predict” more recent data. And they still have problems and are vulnerable to legitimate criticism. Not to mention wacko wingnut criticism.
This model is different.
It is not based on physical law; it does not use any data as input; it is calibrated against exactly nothing. The math is based on the metaphor that nature is “prey,” and humanity is “predator” and on equations, similar in form, that provide a measure of explanation of the cyclic behavior of certain predator and prey populations.
It’s a metaphor, folks. Yes, it is an explanation, but “it’s the will of God” is also an explanation. And “it’s the will of God” is about as good an explanation as this one’s equations are.