[This is the second part of a series on peak-oil theorist and neo-Malthusian, the late Matthew Simmons (1943–2010). Yesterday, Robert Bradley examined the Simmons’s peculiar interpretation of the Club of Rome’s 1972 Limits to Growth.
Part III will look at Simmons’s failed bet with different parties that the average price of oil in 2010 would be $200 per barrel or higher.]
The death last year of Matthew Simmons, author of Twilight in the Desert and a well-known peak oil advocate, offers an opportunity to review his work and draw a cautionary lesson.
The nature of punditry has changed in the modern age, and for the worst. The original pundits were geographical surveyors in India, mostly natives working for the British, mapping areas where few Europeans dared to go (and from which many failed to return). Their work was extremely useful, highly scientific and precise, and largely unsung, none of which applies to many modern pundits.
Now, it has become normal not only to be a self-proclaimed pundit but a self-proclaimed expert. A successful pundit is one who gains an audience, which can mean they provide insightful commentary, but more commonly they have a point of view which is popular in specific circles or, occasionally, are attractive and/or entertaining.
Of course, it helps pundits that few in the public are capable of judging their backgrounds—which are rarely investigated in any case—making it easy to pass themselves off as knowledgeable in subjects of which they are only moderately familiar. Thus, Joe Romm (one of our favorites!) posts extensively on peak oil, despite the fact that he has no expertise in the area. Having written books on energy, and served in the Department of Energy, he does however carry an aura of ‘expertiness’.
And especially as pundits are not writing for scholarly journals, but rather and books for lay audiences and, in the past few years, blogs, they are under little or no pressure to provide evidence to back up their opinions: citations, data or research that might be checked or validated. Instead, not only does opinion rule the day, it is all too often passed off as fact, and then gains immortality as those who want to believe repeat it endlessly, creating a circle of citations with no true beginning.
Making of an Alarmist
Matt Simmons, an investment banker sporting an MBA from Harvard, was quite successful in his chosen field of endeavor, lending to the oil and gas industry in the Gulf. But Simmons was hardly trained as a researcher, either in the hard or soft sciences. And Simmons certainly had no expertise in reservoir engineering or petroleum geology, although he often made technical arguments (frequently in error).
Although some of Simmons’s recent claims were repudiated by those in the peak-oil community, many of his earlier mistakes live on–not just in the Internet but repeated in articles and books. His book on Saudi oil, for example, has been debunked by a number of other experts, including myself. Yet most in the peak oil community still treat its basic arguments as valid.
Simmons use of his own ignorance as evidence was a classic example of punditry gone wrong. Most famous was his comment that the impetus for his book on Saudi oil was hearing from an Aramco executive that the company modeled reservoirs using ‘fuzzy logic,’ something Simmons had never heard of–and didn’t bother to research. Or his reference to ‘secret’ government studies that were publicly available—but which he hadn’t heard of earlier.
He made other technical errors, as when he warned of gasoline shortages two years ago because finished gasoline inventories were very low, not realizing that the use of ethanol blends meant more inventories were held as ‘blending components’ than in the past. He also confidently bet on $200 per barrel oil for 2010, entering wagers that he lost by a Texas mile. (He would have lost betting on $100 oil too, as it turned out.)
Exaggeration, No Midcourse Corrections
Simmons was prone to making extreme claims based on little or no evidence, including the warning that the world faced $500/barrel oil, or that deep drilling might cause a supervolcano. In response to the BP oil disaster, he claimed the primary leak was not at the well site, was much greater than reported, and would leave a tar mat covering the Gulf of Mexico, while escaping ‘toxic’ methane was killing wildlife. Ultimately, his investment bank formally cut their ties with him, although that might have been as much due to his prediction that BP would soon be bankrupt, and even some in the peak oil community criticized these claims.
Simmons’ increasing alarmism demonstrates the effect of the pressure on some pundits to provide fresh and exciting insights in order to maintain their audience, which can result in carelessness and exaggeration, to say the least. When the subject is complex as reservoir engineering, it can be hard for the mainstream media to screen them out. In several of Simmons’ recent appearances on cable news, some skepticism can be detected on the part of interviewers, but even so, he continued to find media channels for his arguments.
“Crazy Uncle of the Oil Patch”
With his death, there has been a more sober appraisal, with many praising him personally, while noting his controversial beliefs—not his peak oil views, but Gulf spill theories.
Some, such as Forbes writer Christopher Helman, referred to him as the ‘Crazy Uncle of the Oil Patch,’ while the blogosphere contains a number of reviews of his claims. In a further cautionary note, the blogosphere also contains theories he allegedly made that I can’t seem to find, as well as suggestions that he was killed for telling the truth. (Searching for “Matt Simmons death cover up” brings about two million hits; I haven’t dared check for alien abduction theories.)
Ultimately, this is a story about the price of fame, and the role the Internet plays in misleading the public (or, too often, allowing them to mislead themselves).
In a kind of 21st Century Gresham’s law, the alarmist drowns out the thoughtful, the kind of alarmism which Bjorn Lomborg and others has ably criticized. Hopefully, the public will become inoculated to the virus of Malthusianism and other apocalyptic attitudes, but until that day, it behooves us all to be on guard. The strange case of Matt Simmons requires such caution, but one can hope that the likes of him do not appear again.