# This time we really are all doomed, famous doomsayer prof says

A professor famous for predicting the imminent demise of the human race at regular intervals since the 1970s has predicted the imminent demise of the human race. Paul Ehrlich, who is the Bing Professor of Population Studies at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, says it's definitely on this time. In a tinned …

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1. Nature abhors a vacuum, something will fill the gaps.

1. If Nature abhors a vacuum, then why does it seem so hell-bent on filling so many heads with one?

1. @CD

How can you fill a head with a vacuum ?

1. and what's this big empty thing we call space which seems to make up the majority of the known universe?

2. No, no. Cats abhor vacuums. When Nature runs across a vacuum, it just kind of sits back and lobs stuff in its general direction.

2. #### doom

you're being cruel. At least he's pretty consistent in his predictions / prophecies.And, you know, third time lucky, hahahahahahahahhahahahaaaaaaa

1. #### Re: doom

A stopped clock is correct twice a day.

At this point, even if we go extinct, it does not make Ehrlich's theory correct. It just means Ehrlich is like the economist who predicts a stock crash year after year procliaming victory when after a decade of bad predictions, it finally does.

1. #### Re: doom

"A stopped clock is correct twice a day."

Not if it's missing the hour hand...

1. #### Re: doom

Not if it's missing the hour hand...

If a hand is missing, calling it a clock isn't entirely* correct.

*pun intended

2. #### Re: doom

"A stopped clock is correct twice a day."

Not if it's missing the hour hand...

It can have both hands and not be correct, as should be immediately obvious when you consider how a two-handed analog clock represents the time. The hour hand points to the exact time (to the accuracy of the clock and correctness of its setting); the minute hand is a redundant indicator for the benefit of the human reader.

If the hour hand points directly to an hour, and the minute hand is on the 6, then the clock is never correct at any time of day.

That's why the proper form of the saying (used by the OP in this case) is "a stopped clock..." and not "a broken clock....". I see the latter more commonly here in the US, and it's patently wrong. "Stopped" is a specific failure mode that allows the clock to be correct at the appropriate time; "broken" is any of a range of failure modes, most of which do not apply here.

There really should be a published standard for these maxims. So many people get them wrong. I'll contact ECMA; they'll standardize anything.

2. #### Re: doom

The central problem facing the green lobby, is that even if one day science comes in that actually backs their predictions, they'll be viewed as the little boy who cried wolf.

The sky isn't falling, the earth isn't dying, and absent a large asteroid nobody noticed, humaity isn't about to become extinct. It just isn't.

1. #### Re: doom

"The central problem facing the green lobby, is that even if one day science comes in that actually backs their predictions, ..."

Is that having had the predictions confirmed, we can reasonably expect society to adapt (it may even be very painful) and so avert the 'doom' element of these projections. Then subsequent generations can laugh at the 'ancient' doom-sayers for failing to see x, y or z. ...

The only real question we have is whether we will have sufficient time to adapt when/if the predictions are confirmed...

2. #### Re: doom

absent a large asteroid nobody noticed, humaity isn't about to become extinct

There are plenty of catastrophic events besides Big Space Rocks that could wipe out human beings. Some are still hypothetical, like false vacuum collapse (and we'll never know about that one before it hits us, since it'd expand at nearly the speed of light). But things like gamma-ray bursts and supernovae are well-established and avoiding those is just a matter of luck.

Closer to home, a bad supervolcano eruption could easily stomp civilization into the dust. Survivors of the immediate event would have to deal with immediate problems like aftershocks and tsunami, and then the extended effects like crop failure. That would likely produce a severe population bottleneck, which would make humanity much more vulnerable to extinction by pandemic or the like.

While overpopulation doesn't look likely to wipe us out, and we've managed to avoid nuking ourselves to death so far, that doesn't mean there aren't other plausible candidates. The simple fact is that almost certainly, sooner or later a catastrophic event of some sort will wipe out what currently passes for civilization on this planet. The species might survive, and might even eventually put some sort of civilization back together; but Shelley had the right of it in "Ozymandias".

1. #### Re: doom

True there are ways we have no control over that could wipe humans out. Ehrlich is not talking about these but about Malthusian overpopulation on a worldwide scale. He seems to extrapolate for local famines, which have numerous causes, that worldwide famine is inevitable.

3. #### Re: doom

We're doomed!!!*

* but for only small, local values of "doom".

4. #### Re: doom

The problem I see is that to explain why Ehrlich's predictions in the 70s of mass starvation were wrong every Captain Hindsight points to the green revolution. Which is to say if the green revolution hadn't occurred, Ehrlich's predictions would likely have been correct. So I ask who was able at the time to predict the green revolution was sure to happen?

It seems the counter for such dire warnings then and now remains nothing but optimistic guff, what I call the theory of "A Miracle Will Occur". It is a really more a dismissal of the problem than any reassurance of a solution, the idea that all looming problems can be ignored because God or Lady Luck will stop them becoming catastrophes.

There are a number of issues charging up due to rising human population and consumption, including peak oil, peak soil, aquifer depletion, climate change and species extinctions. Where are the *guarantees* or even half-baked guarantees based on *logic* that these issues are not imminent problems?

An example of something that has already gone wrong are various fish stock collapses due to overfishing, where very notably The Miracle Did Not Occur and instead it was a Nasty Surprise.

But of course we can safely ignore all future warnings because we got lucky once before.

1. #### Doom

One reason Fish Stocks are collapsing is the protection of Whales, Sharks and Seals. If we want more fish to eat we should fish the top predators, thus increasing the supply of their prey. I kind of like Whales, so let's fish out the Sharks first,and then the stinking Sea-rats some people call Seals. That will replenish the fish stocks quick smart, and we can take over from the Sharks as top predator of the seas. It is our manifest destiny to do so: we have 7 Billion hungry mouths to feed and Shark tastes surprisingly good in batter with chips!

2. #### Re: doom

Well the Population Bomb was published in 1968 and William Guad coined the term Green Revolution in 1967 becuase it had been going about 20 years by then so Ehrlich should of known he was wrong but his book sold well

3. #### If he's right...

and we all die, then I will raise a glass to him.

1. #### Re: If he's right...

and we all die, then I will raise a glass to him.

He is right that we are all going to die. Just not necessarily all at the same time.

4. #### Wait...

You mean he missed the whole Mayan brouhaha? No prediction that time? Tsk, tsk... he's losing his touch.

5. #### Keep trying

Maybe he is working on the broken watch theory. Keep predicting the same thing which is theoretically possible and maybe eventually get lucky. Or maybe he is just determined that he doesnt like what people are doing and so will look to the worst case nightmare he can dream up to try and make us change.

Sounds a bit like a guy with a cardboard sign telling us the end is coming.

1. #### Re: Keep trying

It's either that or he needs more funding to continue living the lifestyle he has become used to.

There has yet to be a doom prediction NOT linked to requiring more funding by the author.

6. #### Bing Professor?

Does that mean he looks after the universities microwave oven?

1. #### Re: Bing Professor?

No - It means he's searching for the microwave oven....

2. #### Re: Bing Professor?

Not at all. It means he uses Microsoft's search engine to perform all his academic research.

...

Which probably explains quite a bit about his theories.

3. #### Re: Bing Professor?

Professors that go "Bing!"; as opposed to Knights that go "Nyit!".

7. #### Oh for god's sake...

A scientist voices an opinion that our race is on its way to extinction and Tim chooses to cast up that he's been voicing it for 40 years...? Perhaps Tim thinks that mass extinctions take place in the blink of an eye rather than over the course of centuries or millennia?

On the balance of credibility I think I'll go for the Professor rather than the opinionated author.

1. #### Re: Oh for god's sake...

I guess you missed the point : his previous doomscares were unrelated to the extinction event.

2. #### Re: Oh for god's sake...

On the balance of credibility I think I'll go for the Professor rather than the opinionated author.

Well, at least our opinionated author got the guy's name right. You didn't even seem to read the byline...

3. #### Re: Oh for god's sake...

Tim?

You didn't read it, did you?

1. #### Re: Oh for god's sake...

I did read it, directly after another article by my other favourite commentator, Mr. Worstall...

4. #### Re: Oh for god's sake...

His previous two claims had time frames which have come and gone, and all three claims have differing causes. So while he's been saying the world was going to end for 40 years he keeps changing his mind on the *why*, which is the scientific bit

1. #### Re: Oh for god's sake...

Not wishing to defend him particularly, but the brunt of the argument is that his previous two claims have been falsified by the passage of time.

1) overpopulation - yes, he was wrong because he forgot to apply Moore Law to food production. There will come a point at which we cant find ways to eke out more food calories from the available area though, at which point what he says will turn out to be true. Not really an argument in his defence, just a fact of nature.

2) nuclear winter. I appear to have missed the bit where we had a nuclear war and his theory was proven wrong here. Can someone remind me about this? That Freeman Dyson disagreed with him isnt the same as proving it wrong. Scientific debate frequently has people with different opinions, even when it is "right."

So, really out of 3 claims, 1 we dont know about yet, 1 hasn't been tested yet and 1 has been proven false.

1. #### Re: Oh for god's sake...

"he forgot to apply Moore Law to food production"

I know you are not claiming it literally, but there was no equivalent for Moore's law for food production. As far as I can tell, at the time there was no guarantee that crop yields could be massively increased more than they already had been.

"2) nuclear winter. I appear to have missed the bit where we had a nuclear war "

Exactly. It seems they are arguing Erlich should not have raised warnings about nuclear winter because he should have assumed nuclear war would not occur. As if anyone could have known that at the time.

The warnings themselves are not being judged on the knowledge available when they were made, but in hindsight using the knowledge of today. So for example they argue Erlich should not have made warnings of global starvation because he should have assumed food production would ramp up, as if he should have been psychic. None of them offer reasons for why it was obvious he was wrong at the time.

It's a fine way to dangerously shut down discussion of threats though. I notice that any warning that does not come to pass is now used as an excuse to dismiss further warnings out of hand.

1. #### Re: Oh for god's sake...

@NomNomNom I think it was called the 'green revolution'. The fact that it was over pretty much by the '70s invalidates the erstwhile prof's ideas, but still, it is kind of analogous to Moore's Law.

2. #### Re: why it was obvious he was wrong at the time

The simple fact is that nobody can know enough about complex situations like these, with an unknown number of unknown variables, to be able to make predictions that are guaranteed to be accurate, so anyone who claims that ability is overstepping his authority and subjecting himself to ridicule. It brings to mind the great horse manure crisis of 1894.

1. #### Re: why it was obvious he was wrong at the time

On the subject of the great horse manure crisis: http://scienceblogs.com/mikethemadbiologist/2009/11/20/how-the-solution-to-the-manure/

To be clear, the solution to the "crisis" is only obvious with hindsight and it often needs to overcome significant inertia from established businesses and ways of thinking. Plus, the solution to the great horse manure crisis included massive amounts of lead poisoning for a good few years.

Keep in mind, if we were dealing with the horse manure crisis today, huge swathes of commenters on the internet (and renowned economists & technology bloggers) would be talking about how the car could never replace the horse drawn cart (and they'd be right as the answer would still be really 30 years away).

3. #### Re: Oh for god's sake...

@NomNomNom

it is a bit like saying "oh my God, you are so drunk you are going to crash and kill someone." Then the driver saying, "hey, fuck you, I didn't kill anyone so why should I listen to you in the future?"

Warnings are there to make people change their behaviour (stop doing things, start doing things or invent new shit) to stop something bad happening. Hindsight is almost always wrong, simply because one of the three options tends to have happened so the warning wasnt wrong, it was just mitigated.

2. #### Re: Oh for god's sake...

Given that:

• famine was a recurrent feature of India's history until fairly recently

• it stopped when they started massive use of nitrogen-based fertilisers in the 50's

• nitrates in the water is now an increasingly severe problem (everywhere, actually, but nowhere more so than India)

• India's population has grown from 300M to 1200M people during this time.

I think our Prof's prediction on India is an extremely safe bet in the mid-term. New technology might contribute, but something has to give at some point.

5. #### Re: Oh for god's sake...

Actually, it's beginning to look like mass extinctions DO occur 'in the blink of an eye'. At least the evidence we'renow unearthing leans towards a series of catastrophic events, sometimes as a combined result of small changes over time, sometimes from an unprecedented and violent 'one off' event (the catastrophic draining of the north american inland sea for example).

That said, even with hindsight it'snot always (or even often!) possible to piece together preceding events to correlate with the later catastrophe.

So we might as well all pick a randome date and yell "We're DOOOOOOOMED!!!". Hell, SOME of us might be right, just by the law of averages, but it doesn't mean any one of us has much in the way of credibility.

8. #### Majikthise and Vroomfondel

Is this where Mr. Adams got his idea?

9. #### Probability

Chances are he'll eventually be correct. Just have to wait a while.

10. #### Careful

Be careful folks, he only needs to be right once..... Ironically though he won't be around to gloat if he does manage to get it right

11. #### Obligatory xkcd

http://xkcd.com/1338/

1. #### Re: Obligatory xkcd

Obligatory irrelevant xkcd?

1. #### Re: Obligatory xkcd

Obligatory irrelevant xkcd?

3rd time lucky?

2. #### Re: Obligatory xkcd

"http://xkcd.com/1338/"

So there are about 5 kilos of human for every kilo of goat. ... Was there a hidden steganography message that I didn't see or is the image some form of charade ?

There is a relevance to this article somewhere but unfortunately I still don't get it

3. #### Re: Obligatory xkcd

It's relevant because it graphically displays human overpopulation of earth, which isn't just about members of our own species but the even greater numbers of livestock species we artificially breed. All of which have displaced other species in the wild and require great amounts of crop land and water to feed.

Of course we aren't supposed to examine this subject critically and ask whether it is sustainable, because Erlich was wrong in the 70s or something.

12. #### Ehrlich ?

I misread that as Eldritch. As in abomination. If humanity is going to go out, it should do so in style (katana wielding samurai dragons optional, but recommended), not some pathetic fade-to-black.

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