The Skeptical Methodologist

Software, Rants and Management

Innumeracy in Academia

I have nothing but respect for Academics, but I do have a problem when a person from one field decides to enter another without the greatest humility.  In this case, I’m referring to this series of videos.  The author makes many good points, but unfortunately, the classic Malthusian catastrophe that each generation foresees seems to come from a general, subconscious and primitive fear of large things than any real gut understanding of whats at stake.

Zero population growth advocates seem to constantly ignore the fact that most Western countries are nearing flat growth as it is.  If you have three things: decent access to health care, relatively good wealth, and women’s access to family planning, then you will see a decline in growth to a steady state, if not shrinking, population.  I do not take that fact from theory, but from empirical evidence.

Ironically, it’s usually the poorest among us that will be the most influenced by these zero growth policies.  After all, what demographics are growing the fastest?  What social class tends to have the most number of children?  Militant social Darwinists who still think that whole Eugenics thing sounded good if we honestly just gave it a good shot are uneasy about this.  Many ‘educated’ people don’t like to be reminded that the mathematical fact is that unless they have more children, their genes are going to be replaced with the ‘morlocks’.  So we come up with these zero growth advocacy groups who, instead of deciding that hey, maybe having kids won’t be so bad at all, they decide to push their austere lifestyle on the rest of us – most notably the underclass who’s only joy might be their children.

Consider this the alarm bell “It’s all going to be ok.”  Each generation doesn’t understand how we could possibly survive another doubling, and yet, we keep doing just that.  Across nearly all ways of measuring society, things are getting better.  Worldwide well is better distributed than ever before.  Fewer people are being oppressed than ever before.  Disease, starvation and war are affecting fewer than ever before.

It may not seem like it, but by empirical measures it’s true.  The main reason many of us think that this generation is the worst yet is because of the overblown sensationalism of our modern media.  Salmonella outbreaks sicken thousands and kill a few dozens, yet more than thirty thousand people die on our roadways each year and we don’t bat an eye.  Why are sharks more dangerous than cars?  Why are we more afraid of food poisoning than we are of heart disease?  This is the innumeracy that Academia should be attacking.  Not finding something else to scare us all about.

I think ultimately there are people out there that have to have a crisis – they have to believe in doom and gloom.  They’re the type of people who remind you, when you’re eating dessert, that it’ll do nothing but make you a diabetic.  Or explain that they can’t come meet you out at your favorite bar because second hand smoke causes cancer.

Why can’t we celebrate the great days we are living in?  When a war with only a few thousand casualties draws millions to the streets in protest, when we are more conscious of our environmental impact than ever before, and when things like the Internet allow any sentient being any where a voice on the world stage?

Doom-and-gloomers get excited when the price of oil spikes, when housing prices crash, and when former superpowers invade their neighbors.  After all, we’re one step closer to proving them RIGHT.  “Things are more out of control than ever!” They’ll exclaim.  But any student of history should see our time as, perhaps, the most boring.  In the grand scheme of things, there really is nothing major going on – just slow, steady, exponential progress:  Towards wealth, health and environmental stewardship.

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August 17, 2008 - Posted by | Social Commentary | , ,

2 Comments »

  1. Are the growing numbers of poor people enjoying the benefits of exponential technological progress? Last I heard their food prices were starting to take up more than the allotted dollar a day they are living on. And the HIV cocktail is well out of their price range.

    Fully agreed that the 24 hour news cycle tends to emphasize dramatic examples and tends to ignore the underlying statistics, but I don’t think its a conspiracy to turn us all into gloom and doomers. People react to in depth visceral images and tune out statistics — they’re just trying to make a living.

    Malthus may have been wrong so far, but lets not pretend that the planet can sustain an infinite number of people and lets not pretend that getting to where we are has had no negative effects just look at the number of species that have gone extinct and are predicted to do so.

    Since I believe you are right — that societies that have a fair amount of prosperity tend to have flat population curves. Wouldn’t it make sense to try to lift those poor up if possible?

    Comment by Adam | August 18, 2008 | Reply

  2. “Many ‘educated’ people don’t like to be reminded that the mathematical fact is that unless they have more children, their genes are going to be replaced with the ‘morlocks’.”

    Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy” takes an irreverent look at what society will look like in 500 years, given this mathematical fact. Funnier than H.G. Wells, but not necessarily less scary. Rent it, or buy it off the bargain bin.

    Comment by whereslumpy | August 26, 2008 | Reply


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