I see that Rush Limbaugh has dived into the latest climate nontroversy. That makes this is a good time to post this, which I wrote several months ago. Sorry to make this Global Warming Week. I hate that debate. But with the way the Daily Fail’s nonsense is propagating, I have no choice.
Posts Tagged ‘Science’
I have quite a few posts in the queue that will come out in the next few weeks but this has been my quietest month ever on the blog. One thing I did want to post on, however, came to a head tonight. While working in the basement, I knocked over a basket of bulbs and one shattered. Of course, it was a CFL with mercury in it so I had to follow the EPA’s elaborate instructions for cleaning up. Because it was the basement, I couldn’t take the most important step — airing out the room.
Of course, the amount of mercury in CFL’s is very small — a couple of mg. I probably got ten times the exposure when I dropped and broke a mercury thermometer as a kid and then played with the mercury for a while. But still, these things were foisted on us and encouraged before anyone had really explained the potential danger (in parts of the world, they’re now mandatory). The EPA has done an analysis showing that, on balance, less mercury will be released into the environment because of the decreased amount of coal burnt to power the bulbs. However, I’m not sure this analysis is accurate since 1) history shows that greater energy efficiency mostly results in us using more powered devices: energy use tends to rise or be flat; 2) coal is slowly dying an industry. Powered by gas or nuclear, it’s likely that CFL’s will put more mercury into the environment. It also ignores the aspect that having mercury in the air from power plants is a little different from having it on the floor where your children play.
LED bulbs are better but … they have their own concerns, which no one talks about.
Global warming is real — one of my queued posts is on that subject. But the environmental movement has become fixated on it almost to the exclusion of all else. There is no such thing as perfect technology. Wind and solar require dirty manufacturing techniques and extensive use of rare-earth elements (that have to be mined). Nuclear has its obvious dangers. Fracking is less carbon-intense than coal, but doesn’t come without its own set of risks.
The problem is that we do not talk about these trade-offs. We don’t balance rare-earth mining versus radioactive waste versus carbon emissions. We simply get into tizzies about global warming or nuclear waste and stampede toward something that looks good. And that extends into the home. On balance, I might take an LED or CFL light because it saves money, saved energy and the toxin risk is low. But that choice should not be mandated. People should be free to make their own evaluations of the tradeoffs.
Some time ago, I talked about my Rule of Expertise. I’m in the process of catching up on old posts from Bill James’ website. The article I refer to is behind a firewall. It’s about the Jeffrey MacDonald case. But in the course of it, Bill says something utterly brilliant:
There are certain characteristics of bullshit, and there are certain characteristics of the truth. The truth tends to be specific; bullshit tends to be vague and imprecise. The truth tends to involve facts that can be checked out; bullshit is always built around things that you have no way of checking out. The truth tends to be told consistently, the same from one day to the next; bullshit changes every time it is told. Stable, responsible honest people tend to tell the truth; unstable, dishonest, unreliable people tend to bullshit. The truth is coherent and logical; bullshit is incoherent and illogical.
Almost everything I said in my Law of Expertise post could be considered a subset of that general rule. When an “expert” tells you what a great expert he is, he’s spewing vague bullshit. Real experts tend to be specific, consistent and verifiable.
I think the equation has changed a bit in the Information Age. The internet has a long memory and this has forced the bullshitters to be more consistent and more specific. The result is that BS now gets debunked faster than ever. However, it has also allowed BS to assume a facade of truth that fools some people.
Think about vaccine hysteria. The lies are specific, consistent and seem to involve facts. That makes people believe it, even after thorough and unremitting debunking.
(I should note, in passing, that the MacDonald case is of particular interest to me. My dad was — and still is, as far as I know — convinced that MacDonald was an innocent man railroaded by a biased judge, a vindictive prosecutor, a slimy writer and a vengeful father-in-law. I was convinced of that myself until I read Weingarten’s post, which pointed out that there is almost no evidence to prove MacDonald’s contention that his family was murdered by a bunch of hippies and that all the extant evidence — including recently tested tissue under the wife’s fingernails — supports the prosecution case. It’s kind of rare that I disagree with my dad on something like this, but … I do. The prosecution was able to put together a scenario consistent with the evidence (although I don’t buy the amphetamines angle). The defense wasn’t.
However, while I am mostly convinced that MacDonald probably did murder his family, I’m not as sure that he should have been convicted. The crime scene was not properly secured, for one and exculpatory evidence might have been destroyed. The judge did seem biased against MacDonald. And I do think Bill James (and Megan McArdle) make a good point about prosecutions — once they focus on a suspect, they develop a tunnel vision which sees everything in light of that suspicion. James’ makes what I think is the most important point: the prosecution’s case fits together extremely well … if you assume that MacDonald was the killer.
It’s an awful case and probably one of the reasons it fascinates so many people. On the one hand, you could have an innocent man convicted of one of the most heinous crimes a man can commit. On the other hand, you have a man committing one of the most heinous crimes a man can commit, including the deliberate murder of a sleeping toddler.
In any case, you should subscribe to James’ site if you have even a mild interest in baseball. Baseball analysis is only part of what he offers.)
This video makes some fantastic points about the so-called “paleo diet”:
This post, which I wrote months ago, was originally much longer and incorporated many of the points Dr. Zuk makes, in particular my belief that evolution proceeds in a haphazard random way and does not necessarily lead to some supreme state.
She also puts some science behind the principle objection I have always had: that there is unlikely to be some idyllic point X at which our diet was perfectly suited to our physiology then and forever more. We have evolved with our diet. Our diet has been evolving since we were primordial slime. Claiming that our ancestors’ diet at some time X — even making the huge assumption that we know what our ancestors ate at point X — is arbitrary. Why go back to that point? Why not go back to the time when we were primordial slime eating protozoans?
Moreover, how do we know that our ancestors were eating the right foods in the first place? That’s a gigantic assumption to make based on what we know about evolution. Isn’t it possible that their paleo diet was actually bad for them? That they only ate it because they had no choice in the matter? That our technology and diet has evolved toward something better suited to us?
All that having been said, I’m not slamming the paleo diet, per se. Some people seem to have improved their health with it and I’ve found that cutting carbs benefits me. I do think the current received wisdom of cutting fat and protein and emphasizing carbs is not nearly as supported by the science as our government likes to pretend it is. But let’s not swing the pendulum too far back and pretend that the paleo diet has more science behind it. Or that any one-size-fits-all diet is appropriate. I think the point to take away is that diet is a lot more complex and a lot less well understood than we would like.
It’s been a while and I’ve been accumulating links. You’ll have to forgive me if I ramble on a bit.
In a rather grammatically- and stylistically-challenged article, the Atlantic talks about the latest study:
Viren Swami and Martin Tovée at the Universities of Manchester and Newcastle, respectively, look into the intricate world of why physical ideals are ideals, and in turn why they drive people beyond reason and morality in the current Archives of Sexual Behavior.
Stylistic note: this lead make it sounds like the study is unique. But I’m guessing that the Archives of Sexual Behavior have published dozens if not hundreds of articles on why physical ideals are ideals. Indeed, the abstract says as much. So why are we talking about this one in particular? Is it the best done so far? I’m going to make the case below that it isn’t even close. What we’re about see is what I call the Scientific Peter Principle: poorly designed studies usually have the most attention-getting results.
(Also, do ideals drive people beyond reason and morality? That’s an awfully loaded statement.)
The problem is primal, so the research methods are not to be outdone. 361 white British men were “taken to a quiet private location” to look at women. Not real women; 3D computer renderings. The men were allowed to rotate them 360 degrees. The only difference among the women was breast size.
The men were then asked to “make their ratings on a paper-and-pencil survey.”
Emphasis mine. “Not to be outdone”? I can think of about a dozen ways I could outdo this study.
Swami and Tovée compared the results with the men’s preferences in breast size, which showed that “men who more strongly endorsed benevolently sexist attitudes toward women, who more strongly objectiﬁed women, and who were more hostile toward women idealized a large female breast size.”
The study’s abstract, which is all I have access to, is rather stunning in its lack of humility. After noting that previous studies have been ambiguous, they boldly proclaim their results and then say:
These results were discussed in relation to feminist theories, which postulate that beauty ideals and practices in contemporary societies serve to maintain the domination of one sex over the other.
Even if we were to accept the conclusions of this article — and I don’t — it’s a long way from there to beauty ideals maintaining the domination of one sex over the other. Would you like some science with your ideology? Actually, we don’t even need to go to the abstract to see the boldly stated ideological bias. The title is: “Men’s Oppressive Beliefs Predict Their Breast Size Preferences in Women”.
You probably know that I’m not going to be sympathetic to this and not just because of my distaste for ideology. In my previous post, I stated my hypothesis that the breast fetish is just like any other fetish — something that the male mind has latched onto as a way of identifying potential mates. It’s commonality is simply because of its obviousness — visible breasts are the easiest way to identify the female of our species. It’s not a social construct, per se. It is a preference that arises within a social construct. If it weren’t breasts, it would be something else (and almost always is). But the key point here is that fetishes are not really chosen. They just happen. It’s just something that, on a very primal level, the human sexual id locks onto.
Still, even without my prior assumptions and biases, we can easily see that this study, which has now been widely cited by various mainstream sites (and not just because they like to talk about breasts), has some big problems.
First, the study was of 361 men. 361 men who were willing to be taken to a “private, quiet location”. 361 whose age, employment and marital status is not exactly clear. That’s an awfully small and demographically narrow number to be drawing conclusions from.
Second, if the 3D drawing in the Atlantic article is an accurate reproduction of what they were shown, this wasn’t a reasonable test at all. I hate to break this to the authors, but the average bust size in the Western World is quite large and increasing: at least a 36C by old standards and probably larger if the lamentations of bra fitters are to be believed. This is partly rising obesity, marginally because of implants and mostly for reasons that aren’t really clear. This has had a significant effect on the landscape in that men’s perception of what constitutes a big bust has changed. Looking at the figures, even the last one didn’t really cross me as “very large”. Were these informed by some statistical survey of women’s breasts sizes? That’s one way you could improve this “not to be outdone” study.
There’s a related issue of body type. Critics of male sexuality often claim that men want big breasts on skinny bodies. Certainly, there is a subset of men who like that but most men who prefer busty women actually prefer curvy women. They like big hips and curvy backsides just as much as they like big breasts. Asking these men to look at 3-D computer models — frankly, none of which look like a real woman — is problematic at best.
(Aside: as I argued in my previous blog, male preferences are not monopolar. All things being equal, a man may prefer a woman with bigger breasts. But in the real world, things are rarely equal. He may be fine with a woman with smaller breasts if she has other features he finds attractive — enchanting eyes, a warm smile, a slender frame, beautiful hair. And — this is a critical point — if a man likes a woman, finds her interesting, enjoys her company — he will begin to see her as attractive. She will become beautiful to him. He will see the beauty in her even if there really isn’t that much to see on an objective level.
I would posit that there are very few men who date or are attracted to women entirely on bust size. Their preference in models and pornography — situations in which there is no interaction — may reflect a preference (although even then there is probably a broad range). But their behavior in real life can be wildly at variance with this. I would bet you that a significant fraction of the men who preferred “very large” breasts are dating or married to skinny women. And I would bet that some of the men who preferred “very small” breasts are dating or married to busty women. And I would further bet that they find the women in their lives attractive despite not conforming to their preferences in zombie-like computer models.)
Third, the questions. I don’t have access to the study, but here are the sample questions they provided:
Attitudes Toward Women Scale (sample prompt: ”Intoxication among women is worse than intoxication among men.”)
Hostility Towards Women Scale (sample prompt: ”I feel that many times women ﬂirt with men just to tease them or hurt them.”)
Benevolent Sexism subscale of the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory (sample prompt: “Women, as compared to men, tend to have a more refined sense of culture and good taste.”)
Whoa, really? Those are your sample prompts? Those three prompts are all judgements. You would probably find lots of women who would agree with at least a couple of those. You would probably find that a man would agree or disagree based on his emotional state (if he’s just had a bad break-up, for example). And prompt three (and many of the questions on Ambivolet Sexism Inventory from which they are taken) aren’t clearly sexist. Many of even the most blatant ones probably probe misanthropy far more than they probe misogyny specifically.**
(Another aside: the Atlantic author illustrates sexism by quoting a lawsuit in which a boss constantly commented on a co-worker’s breasts and once shook her breast as a substitute for shaking her hand. This is not the behavior of a man who likes big breasts or thinks women have a more refined sense of cultural taste. This is the behavior of a sociopath.)
But I think the real flaw is highlighted by Ann Althouse:
They were taking a science-y survey, so deference to authority and desire to be socially acceptable would be an influence along with real-world sexual preference.
The scientists found “men who more strongly endorsed benevolently sexist attitudes toward women, who more strongly objectiﬁed women, and who were more hostile toward women idealized a large female breast size.” Were these men really the ones who “idealized a large female breast size,” or were they simply the ones who didn’t feel as strongly compelled to moderate their opinions to conform to the perceived demands of polite society?
Exactly. I keep harping on this in the social sciences: there is a huge difference between what people think and do and what they tell a group of leering scientists that they think and do. Most people do not want to be perceived as abnormal (or sexist). This is a big problem with this study since, if I read it correctly, the men were shown all five images at the same time. This creates a very obvious social pressure that is different from if five groups of men were shown five different images separately. Hell, if I were put in a room and asked which image I liked, I might say 3 or 4 even though I would prefer 4 or 5 (and would actually prefer a real women with real physical proportions).
How would I improve this “not to be outdone” survey? First of all, I would have a lot more than 361 white British men. Second, I would show each man only one image and ask him to rate her on a scale of 1-10. Second, I would get images of real women and digitally alter them, using some statistical model based on women’s actual bust sizes. Third, I would make a second axis by having some women altered to have both bigger hips and bigger breasts and others to just have bigger breasts. Breast size and hip size are correlated, as anyone who has seen real women instead of 3-D models knows. Fourth, I would use something a little less ambiguous than these prompts. For example, I might give the men two different job applications and just change the gender and see how they rated the applicant. Or have some people enact a job situation and ask them what they thought of the woman’s behavior. Something a little more direct, at any rate.
Or I might go to the gigantic database compiled by the authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughts who gathered data from Google when men didn’t know they were being studied. The only problem is that I would probably find — as those researchers did — that men actually prefer curvy women, not just just busty ones. And that would ruin my thesis that a preference for big boobs is a results of sexism.
So, let’s sum up: a small and poorly designed study asked men to look at unrealistic images of women. They were then asked leading questions of dubious utility. And from this, we conclude that men who like big boobs are more likely to be hostile to women and that feminist theory is vindicated.
That makes me feel some hostility all right. But it’s not directed against women.
**Update: Michael Talarski alerted me that there are links to the questions in the Atlantic article. Here is the attitude toward women quiz. The other triggers a download. The questions are mostly reasonable probes of attitudes toward women (although a few are bit ambiguous). But I would be curious to see how women score on that test. And I would be especially curious to see if these attitudes correlate with actual behavior.
This article, about sleep, has been particularly relevant to me lately. Since returning from Australia, I’ve been struggling to sleep. It reached an awful nadir the past weekend when I was able to get only about two hours. Since then, I’ve been rebuilding things with better sleep hygiene (i.e., turning the computer off no later than 10:30) and was able to get five straight hours last night, which was a huge relief.
What jumped out at me was this, which is relevant to my perennial struggles with sleep:
Each of us has an internal clock, or, to use Roenneberg’s term, a “chronotype.” Either we’re inclined to go to bed early and wake up at dawn, in which case we’re “larks,” or we like to stay up late and get up later, which makes us “owls.” (One’s chronotype seems to be largely inherited, although Roenneberg notes, not altogether helpfully, that the “genetics are complex.”) During the week, everyone is expected to get to the office more or less at the same time—let’s say 9 a.m. This suits larks just fine. Owls know they ought to go to bed at a reasonable time, but they can’t—they’re owls. So they end up having to get up one, two, or, in extreme cases, three hours earlier than their internal clock would dictate. This is what Roenneberg refers to as “social jet lag”—each workday, owls fall asleep in one time zone and, in effect, wake up in another. By the time the week is over, they’re exhausted. They “fly back” to their internal time zone on weekends and sleep in on Saturday and Sunday. Then, on Monday, they start the process all over again.
For larks, the problem is reversed. Social life is arranged so that it’s hard to have one unless you stay out late on Friday and Saturday nights. But, even when larks have partied till 3 a.m., they can’t sleep in the following day—they’re larks. So they stagger through until Monday, when they can finally get some rest.
The moral equivalence here is staggering. First of all, the problem for “larks” is non-existent for most people. If you have a family or are past the age of 30, it’s rare to stay up partying late on weekends. But the problem for “owls” never ends. No matter what age you are, you are expected to be at work at 9 am or earlier.
The simple fact is that the larks set the rules for the rest of us. And moreover, they cast their larkness as a sign of their virtue and industry (see Franklin, Ben). Those of us who are owls are seen as lazy sluggards. And this prejudice is only strengthened by our schools, government and military setting lark schedules (an especially odious practice in schools where, as the article notes, children are biologically prone to be owls but forced to live on adult lark schedules).
But, in a way, I’m being too harsh on the larks. The problem is partially them but also our insistance, as a society, on conformity. Everyone has to go to work at the same time, everyone has to come home at the same time. This makes some sense — businesses have to be open simultaneously to interact. But we carry it to a ridiculous extreme. It manifests not just in the owl-lark problem but in the absurdity of Daylight Savings Time (it would make far more sense for businesses to adjust their hours to the season on an individual basis, rather than forcing uniformity on all of us; astronomers understand this).
Shortly after I graduated from college, I was on a kick to try to get healthy and lose weight. It still hasn’t worked, 19 years la- … holy crap, 19 years?! … let me see … 1994 .. good God, I’m old … anyway, it still hasn’t worked 19 year later.
At one point, I tried Herbalife. This was not something I came to of my own accord. A friend’s husband was into it on the lowest tier of their multi-level marketing. I was too young and stupid to know just how idiotic herbal supplements were, so I figured “what the hell” and jumped.
It was a big mistake. The compound contained ephedra and it caused my first incident of Premature Ventricular Contractions — a common harmless arrhythmia that nevertheless is scary as hell. Some time later I tried a prescription weight loss pill that also caused PVC’s. They went away after I stopped, mostly. I still get them occasionally, most notably right after my wedding and when I haven’t been getting enough sleep. I had a full cardio workup six years ago and everything looks fine. But I still wonder if the ephedra did any permanent damage.
The thing is that I’m not normally into that sort of thing. But it was sold to me because I wasn’t terribly familiar with high-pressure marketing techniques and certainly didn’t expect them from a friend’s husband. I’ve since … well not wised up, exactly. I’ve gotten confident enough to tell people to fuck off. In fact, high pressure sales pitches are the surest way to drive me away. When we bought our first home, I literally walked out on people who tried to get me to buy right then with “if you buy right now” incentives. The home we bought was sold in a low-pressure way. We felt — correctly as it happened — that this reflected the salesman’s confidence in his product.
I’m rambling. Let me get to the point. Part of the sales pitch I got for Herbalife went like this:
Mike, I’m telling you, I’ve investigated all kinds of supplements. I’ve looked into everything. And I’ve researched this product really thoroughly. I wouldn’t take anything I didn’t know everything about. So trust me: this is the real deal.
Standard stuff, right? But hidden within that is something I’ve come to recognize as the mark of a shyster. If someone spends an inordinate amount of time telling you, in a vague sense, how much experience they have and how much expertise they have and how they’ve really researched this and they’ve looked at everything out there, they are, to be blunt, full of shit.
This instinct has served me well. When Neal Boortz began flogging the Fair Tax, he talked about how much research had been done and how he’d looked at every plan out there (really? every plan?). That pinged my radar and I did some research and found out that the Fair Tax had giant gaping problems (documented here). When a contractor came by and gave me a pitch about how he’d tried everything and he was the best expert, I went with someone else.
And you see this constantly in the alternative medicine crowd. Sellers and promoters will constantly tell you how extensively they’ve surveyed things, how much research they’ve done, how much experience they have and, inevitably, it turns out not to be the case.
So, in my roundabout way, here is Mike’s Rule of Expertise: Experts don’t constantly reassure you of their expertise; they simply dole out facts and data.
Let cite some good examples from my blogroll: Radley Balko doesn’t talk about what an expert he is on criminal justice matters; he tells you specifically what he’s learned, seen and read. The Bad Astronomer doesn’t talk about how much experience he has in astrophysics; he points you at research and researchers who’ve done the work. Maggie McNeill doesn’t pontificate about her extensive background in the sex industry; she links every study and opinion piece she can find. Joe Posnanski doesn’t talk about how many athletes he’s interviewed or how much Bill James likes him; he crunches the numbers, gets the quotes and presents the facts.
I’ve been to hundreds of science talks. Not one has centered around the speaker’s credentials and how they’ve explored every alternate theory. They present hypothesis, data and conclusion. The best ones acknowledge their limitations and possible alternate theories. The kind of dead certainty you will encounter in, say, a homeopathy practitioner, is minimal in any good scientist and absent in the best ones.
This is how real experts do it. Experts want you to trust the facts; con men want you to trust them.
(In a related note, I, like most astronomers, rarely affix “Ph.D.” to the end of my name unless I’m applying for a grant where the credential is required. I also only refer to myself as “Dr. Siegel” when yelling at the cable company. And the only time I’m called that at work is either as part of a running gag or when being addressed formally (grant correspondence, for example; and I usually encourage them to call me Mike). This is partially because astronomers are an informal bunch. It is also related to my time at UVa, where everyone except Ed School professors and medical doctors takes the moniker of “Mr.” and “Ms.” as a sign of respect to Mr. Jefferson.
But I also I think this flows from the same skepticism of over-credentialing. A real scientist wants you to trust the data, not them. The only academics I know who use the Ph.D. suffix or the Doctor prefix are either a) pretentious; b) medical doctors, where I think it’s appropriate, and c) women or minorities in disciplines where they have trouble being taken seriously and it’s hard to begrudge them. And anyone who refers to themselves as “Dr. Smith, Ph.D.” is almost certainly full of it.)
What brought this to my frontal lobe was a re-eruption (a few months ago now) of controversy over Sex at Dawn. I find the premise of Sex at Dawn — that humans are naturally polyamorous — interesting if flawed. But what has long bothered me is the certainty with which this supposedly scientific premise is discussed. Every time I hear Christopher Ryan speak, I feel like he’s about to sell me herbal supplements. He’s not quite as bad as my friend’s now ex-husband. He actually does know some stuff. But he seems stunningly unaware of what he doesn’t know or of what facts are inconsistent with his thesis. Is he right? Dammit, if this comes down to me reading his book, I give up.
Anyway, there is some controversy over Christopher Ryan’s credentials. I took a look at his wikipedia page and this is what I found:
He received a BA in English and American literature in 1984 and an MA and Ph.D. in psychology from Saybrook University, in San Francisco, CA twenty years later. He spent the intervening decades traveling around the world, living in unexpected places working odd jobs (e.g., gutting salmon in Alaska, teaching English to prostitutes in Bangkok and self-defense to land-reform activists in Mexico, managing commercial real-estate in New York’s Diamond District, helping Spanish physicians publish their research). Drawing upon his multi-cultural experience, Ryan’s academic research focused on trying to distinguish the human from the cultural. His doctoral dissertation analyzes the prehistoric roots of human sexuality, and was guided by the psychologist, Stanley Krippner.
Ryan has guest lectured at the University of Barcelona Medical School, consulted at various hospitals, contributed to publications ranging from Behavioral and Brain Sciences (Cambridge University Press) to a textbook used in medical schools and teaching hospitals throughout Spain and Latin America and makes frequent mass media appearances. Ryan contributes to both Psychology Today and Huffington Post.[
I read that and I heard, “I’m telling you, I’ve been all over the world and met all kinds of people and read all the papers. And this polyamory thing; this is the real deal.” Maybe Ryan is right. I’ve got an 80-book backlog right now, but I’m hoping to get to his at some point. But a Wikipedia entry filled with such a wide array of credentials combined with his “I’m such an expert” public statements make me suspect the work has flaws. And what I’ve read indicates this perception is correct. If and when I get to his book, I’ll know for sure.
(I wrote the above a couple of months ago. When I went to it today, I was reminded of a recent post at Popehat that mocked a legal spammer for doing the same thing: talking himself up as some modern-day renaissance man. Ken has a lot more experience in dealing with shyster lawyers, obviously. His approach to this is different because he gets a lot of legal spamming. But the basic tenet is the same: a real hot shot lawyer doesn’t try to wow you with his credentials.)
Now that I’ve (sorta) got internet back in Australia, it’s time to catch up on a passel of backlogged posts. Some of these will address issues that bobbed into my mind months ago, but … that doesn’t bother me with my personal blog. On RTFLC, I try to keep up with current, mostly political events. On this blog, I’m more interested in deep thoughts.
A couple of months ago, Pew indicated that our birth rate has fallen to historical lows. More alarmingly, it’s fallen among immigrant populations, who have usually made up for the anti-reproductive attitudes of native-born Americans. This is part of a global trend of falling fertility rates that have exploded (pun intended) hysteria about overpopulation. Indeed, people are now openly worried about potential under-population:
That might sound like an outrageous claim, but it comes down to simple math. According to a 2008 IIASA report, if the world stabilizes at a total fertility rate of 1.5—where Europe is today—then by 2200 the global population will fall to half of what it is today. By 2300, it’ll barely scratch 1 billion. (The authors of the report tell me that in the years since the initial publication, some details have changed—Europe’s population is falling faster than was previously anticipated, while Africa’s birthrate is declining more slowly—but the overall outlook is the same.) Extend the trend line, and within a few dozen generations you’re talking about a global population small enough to fit in a nursing home.
I must admit that this is a concern I share. Part of it is my penchant for “end of the world with a whimper” type concerns. Part of it is my own decision to reproduce (and thus far frustrated desire to reproduce again). It may be egotistical, but I feel I have a responsibility to create future generations, especially given the lucky hand of genetic cards I was handed (good health, etc.) But I’m also interested in this as a generalized demographic issue. Are we not having enough children?
Expressing concern over this trend is thorny, as Ross Douthat found out last year. He wrote an article about it and was promptly slammed for wanting women to be barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. But as McArdle notes:
This shouldn’t need saying, but apparently it does: those who say that this is not a real problem, just something that Douthat made up because he thinks that wives should be barricaded in the kitchen until they’ve birthed at least a basketball team, are just wrong. They’re wrong because, well, if you’ve mett Ross’s wife, you know they’re just wrong, is all. But that’s a sidenote. They’re wildly wrong about the policy side. Population decline presents us with big, big problems–ones that we have in no way figured out how to solve.
Our whole economy and social system are designed for a growing economy, and a growing population. Without future growth, savings and investment become more necessary, but less attractive. Without growth, people become less generous towards strangers and more unhappy about their own circumstances. And without the growth around which all of our modern welfare states have been structured, the modern safety nets that governments have spent the last century establishing may not be politically or economically sustainable.
If you think that population decline is going to be a net boon to society, take a long hard look at Greece. That’s what a country looks like when it becomes inevitable that the future will be poorer than the past: social breakdown, political breakdown, economic catastrophe.
You should read the entire McArdle post, but it boils down to this: a society that has no children has no future. Saying so is not sexist; it’s simply reality.
(There’s another ugly aspect of this that comes up frequently in these discussions: the racial/national component. White people are declining far faster than any other race. And various pundits have expressed concern that European countries will soon be dominated by ethnic minorities or that Israel will one day be a majority-Arab state. I really have no idea what to make of these issues. I see the point. I also see that such points have been raised historically and have often turned out to be overblown. That is, unless you think 19th century pundits were right and our country really was ruined by all the Irish and Italian immigrants who came to our shores.)
So are we doomed? Is there a solution? I have no idea but I find concerns over things projected to occur centuries in the future to be a bit dubious. Worries about underpopulation are a little more realistic than past worries about overpopulation; we’re seeing real-life negative consequences of declining fertility in Europe and, very soon, China. But there are a number of things that could change the game dramatically. Medical advances could extend reproductive age (in theory, indefinitely). We could see a Brave New World type society in which children are primarily bred in labs. The state of our population problems five hundred years ago is as murky to us as our problems would have been to Martin Luther.
The fact is that almost all doomsday scenarios — be they overpopulation, underpopulation, global warming, pollution or whatever — rely on humanity not adapting to deal with the problem. So far, we have always found a way to keep going.
Some steps have been taken to fight this trend but I’m dubious of their utility. European countries have massively expanded paternal and maternal benefits and leave. Australia is paying bonuses to women who have children. But these countries have lower reproductive rates than the cold, unhelpful United States. The problem is not financial, it’s cultural. No matter how much money or leave you give someone, that’s going to have a weak effect on their willingness to take on a life-long obligation.
No, I think the changes are going to be cultural and technological. One advance might be group families, as shown in the works of Robert Heinlein, where multiple couples can pool time and resources in the way that extended families once did. Grandparents, living longer and better than ever before, can step in to effectively be stay-at-homes for working young people. As mentioned above, fertility tech that extends the time of child-bearing into the forties or beyond is already combatting the declining fertility trend by allowing women to build a career and then have a family. Improvements in robotics might ease the crushing burden that a newborn places on a young family.
And the ultimate X-factor is space exploration, which could potentially create a baby boom that would dwarf anything that’s come before.
But that’s in the future. And there’s little government can do about it, other than stand out of the way. In the meantime, we’ll just enjoy what might be “peak human”. Right now there are more people than there have ever been and those people are richer, healthier and happier than they’ve ever been. That’s something worth celebrating, whether it is the peak before our inevitable decline or just the resting point on a journey that ends with quadrillions of us spread across the Galaxy.
Earlier this week, the Journal of the American Medical Association came out with a huge study of obesity that concludes that the obesity hysterics are, indeed, hysterical. Their results indicate that being moderately overweight or even very mildly obese doesn’t make you more likely to die than a thin person. In fact, it may make you less likely to die, to the tune of 6%. (Severe obesity, however, did show a strong connection to higher death rates).
Now you would think that this would be greeted with some skeptical enthusiasm. If the results are born out by further study, it would mean we do not have a massive pending public health crisis on our hands. It means that instead of using cattle prods to get moderately overweight people into the gym, we can concentrate on really obese people.
So is the health community greeting this with relief? Not exactly:
That’s the wrong conclusion, according to epidemiologists. They insist that, in general, excess weight is dangerous. But then they have to explain why the mortality-to-weight correlation runs the wrong way. The result is a messy, collective scramble for excuses and explanations that can make the new data fit the old ideas.
William Saletan at Slate lists a dozen different explanations for why this study is wrong, definitely wrong, absolutely wrong, no sir. Most of these cross him (and me) as trying to rationalize away an inconvenient scientific result.
Not a bad bunch of pictures, if I do say so myself.