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Climategate Did Not Begin With Climate (Remembering Julian Simon and the storied intolerance of neo-Malthusians)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- December 8, 2009

A powerful argument against climate alarmism is the failed worldview of modern neo-Malthusianism, which has promoted fear after fear with an intolerant, smartest-guys-in-the-room mentality. Remember the “population bomb” where many millions would die in food riots? Well, obesity turned out to be the real problem.

Remember the Club of Rome’s resource scare? In 1972, 57 predictions of exhaustion were made regarding 19 different minerals. All either have been falsified or will be.

Remember the global-cooling scare promoted by, among others, the Obama administration’s science czar, John Holdren? (Yes, global cooling was a big deal, although it was not a “consensus.”)

And all of the above doom merchants were uber-confident and still are loath to admit they were ever wrong. Holdren, for example, is sticking to his prediction that as many as one billion people could die by 2020 from (man-made) climate change. That’s about ten years, folks.

Climategate/Climate McCarthyism

Now to today. Error and intolerance rule in the global warming scare. Read the flaming emails from the principals of Climategate. Read about Joseph “Climate McCarthyism” Romm by his critics on the Left.  Read the latest from (non-Climategater) Michael Schlesinger, who lost his cool against New York Times environmental reporter Andrew Revkin.

And of course there is John Holdren, now science advisor to President Obama, who said this to me when I asked him to critically review my essay evaluating his 2003 criticism of Bjorn Lomborg, “The Heated Energy Debate.”  Holdren responded:

What exactly entitles you to the evidently self-applied label of ‘energy expert’?  …. You are of course entitled to (verbally) attack me in any legal way you like, but please don’t then pretend in personal notes to me that we are colleagues, each doing our best to get at the truth…. [Y]ou appear to be … lacking both discernible qualifications in the real world and the ability to tell a good argument from a bad one. I want nothing further to do with you.

A strange intellectual dude.

Remember Julian Simon

Today’s Climategate is predictable with some of the same players at work–and many new ones as well. Remember how Paul R. Ehrlich treated his intellectual rival Julian Simon? The Stanford University biologist refused to debate Simon or even meet him in person. He insulted Simon repeatedly in print. Ehrlich even scolded Science magazine for publishing Simon’s 1980 breakthrough essay “Resources, Population, Environment: An Oversupply of Bad News,” with the words: “Could the editors have found someone to review Simon’s manuscript who had to take off this shoes to count to 20?” (quoted in Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource II, 1996, p. 612).

Here is the full story from chapter 11 of my Capitalism at Work: Business, Government, and Energy (pp. 272–73):

Science magazine in mid-1980 published an essay by Julian Simon that “raised the blood pressure of the scientific community a good twenty points,” one Malthusian environmentalist recalled. “Resources, Population, Environment: An Oversupply of False Bad News” presented official statistics to refute high-profile media scare stories. In so doing, Simon challenged the interrelated notions of a fixed supply of land, fixed and depleting resources, a growing inadequacy of food supply, an inverse relationship between population and progress, and a worsening environment.

Simon’s cherry-on-top was answering, Why do we hear phony bad news? Part of his explanation was “bad news sells books, newspapers, and magazines: good news is not half so interesting.” He asked, “Is it a wonder that there are lots of bad-news best-sellers warning about pollution, population growth, and natural-resource depletion but none telling us the facts about improvement?”

The provocative essay, published on the home turf of the neo-Malthusians, put Simon’s ideas in play. Princeton University Press rushed ahead to publish what became Simon’s signature book, The Ultimate Resource. The sustainability debate was finally joined.

A flood of dissent filled the offices of the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in response to Simon’s cannon shot. Paul Ehrlich asked: “Could the editors have found someone to review Simon’s manuscript who had to take off his shoes to count to 20?” Paul and Anne Ehrlich, John Holdren, and John Harte in a reply challenged Simon’s contention that oil was not becoming permanently scarcer. “The fact is that OPEC’s price hikes and the ‘improved market power’ of coal and uranium both reflected a new reality based on emerging scarcity of oil and natural gas.” Record oil prices gave at least superficial credence to their depletionism, but Simon, like M.A. Adelman, would soon have the upper hand.

Simon designed The Ultimate Resource (1981) to irresistibly engage his opponents. Using The Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith as his model, Simon sought to write a popular book that would influence academia via the general public. Thus Simon turned over his trump cards in the introduction.

Hold your hat—our supplies of natural resources are not finite in any economic sense…. If the past is any guide, natural resources will progressively become less scarce, and less costly, and will constitute a smaller proportion of our expenses in future years. And population growth is likely to have a long-run beneficial impact on the natural-resource environment.

Energy. Grab your hat again—the long-run future of our energy supply is at least as bright as that of other natural resources, though political maneuvering can temporarily boost prices from time to time. Finiteness is no problem here either. And the long-run impact of additional people is likely to speed the development of a cheap energy supply that is almost inexhaustible.

Twenty-three chapters and thousands of data points later, his book ended: “The ultimate resource is people—skilled, spirited, and hopeful people who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefit, and so, inevitably, for the benefit of us all.” This was Erich Zimmermann resurrected—but backed by a much richer empirical record within a wider framework. It was Zimmermann who had written decades earlier, “Freedom and wisdom, the fruits of knowledge, are the fountainhead of resources.” A science of expansionism, and the integration of “depletable resources” in the corpus of general economics, was at hand.

The Ultimate Resource, condensing and building upon Simon’s 1977 book, The Economics of Population Growth, offered a new way to view the world. Science historian Thomas Kuhn, two decades before, had explained the whirlwind that Simon now found himself in. In Kuhnian terms, Simon’s time-series data revealed a gaping anomaly in an entrenched neo-Malthusian paradigm. The process of normal science had now to give way to extraordinary science, a scientific revolution whereby a new gestalt came forth. Not surprisingly, the establishment, viewing the world in a preformed and relatively inflexible box, was intolerant of the new theory.

Paradigm shifts, Kuhn explained, overturn the established order. Emotions run high. The process begins with scientists … behav[ing] differently and continues with pronounced professional insecurity where years and perhaps lifetimes of work and writing are put at risk. If the paradigm is powerful and useful, with open questions answered, it prevails until only a few elderly hold-outs remain.

Simon’s shift of vision was not verifiable as in the laboratory sciences, where experimentation under controlled conditions can objectively settle matters. While taking into account physical laws, social science issues such as the costs and benefits of population growth offered plenty of wiggle room for scientists to interpret the data differently or hold out for new data. Julian Simon would practically have to go it alone until economists—a few, more, then many—joined him against an entrenched core of largely environmental scientists wed to Malthusian notions.

Is there a paradigm crisis with exaggerated climate science? Is this why, in Kuhnian terms, so many–far too many–scientists are behaving strangely and badly?


  1. Charles G. Battig  

    Cheers to Bob for highlighting Julian’s efforts to bring truth and rational optimisim to the general public and the Malthusian “experts.” The public is finally getting it, but Paul Ehrlich and his population control and energy scarcity supporters are still seeing doomsday, just around the calendar.

    My favorite book of Julian’s is the last one he wrote before his death in 1998; the title says it all…”Hoodwinking the Nation.” He dispatches with fact and eloquence the “vanishing U.S. farmland scare” and the “global warming doomsday sayers”, including Al Gore and Paul Ehrlich. “False bad news” still sells papers, and funds universities, politicians, climate centers, enviornmental activists, and government blessed industries.

    It also pays for winter wonderland fairs in fairyland homelands, such as Copenhagen, the home to King Knut and to Shakespear’s Hamlet, whose three witches brewed a rot, provoking “there is something rotten in the State of Denmark” remark later in the play.


  2. Eric Anderson  

    Good post. The Ehrlich/Simon episode should really give pause to anyone who thinks they have the ultimate truth on their side in any scientific discipline, particularly when the “science” includes predictions of future states of affairs. If I understand correctly, Holdren is still drinking from the same Kool-Aid. If so, that is certainly disappointing.


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  4. Bob in SeaTac  

    And nothing about the Ehrlich-Simon bet that Ehrlich lost big time?


  5. Gary Novak  

    The thing that strikes me in all of these arguments, but which never gets addressed, is the methodology. The truth seekers produce endless evidence and explanations, which allow the readers to evaluate for themselves. The frauds attack subjectively without explanations. You just have to take their word for it based upon their status and authority. In fact, they usually have no status or authority, they just speak for those who do.

    These two standards are at opposite ends of the universe. Why does not the standard of communication tell the whole story? Why are the frauds never held accountable for their fraudulent communication standards? A subject has not been addressed until the communication standards rise to the level of explaining claims or accusations with enough evidence and logic to determine the truth.

    The frauds produce fake explanations which can easily be shown to be false. But one-way communication prevents the corrections from reaching the public. Insulating the falsehoods from criticism is one of the elements of the scam at the other end of the universe.

    In other words, producing truth doesn’t look anything like producing fraud. Anyone who doesn’t see the difference doesn’t want to. It’s like going into a bank with a ski mask and gun. It isn’t how banking is supposed to be done.

    Why should the public spend trillions of dollars turning the social order into chaos until the standard of proceeding is more justifiable? Because the tipping point is approaching too fast. We don’t have time to be rational and honest. Supposedly, when your in a bind, corruption is the best answer. The basic premise of Nazism was that morality is for fools, because sin is the only responsible way to run a society. Saying we don’t have time for rationality is the same thing; it’s saying corruption is the only responsible way to run a society.

    Supposedly, climategate was just the trivial banter of concerned scientists. Where then is the standard with produces truth? Supposedly, corrupt standards produce flawless truth. The result always follows the purpose. When the purpose is to show a temperature increase, the result is to show a temperature increase. The purpose was clear in the climategate material including the data mess which the programmers had to deal with. Every adjustment was in the direction of increasing temperature. If heat islands are skewing the result, the solution is to increase the measurements instead of decreasing them. If satellites are drifting due to atmospheric drag, The adjustment increases the measurement instead of decreasing it. Drag would move a satellite closer to the earth and increase the measurement, so the correction is to increase the measurement some more.

    In real science there is no such thing as adjusting date to improve it. The whole purpose of science is to remove the human element from the study of nature. Otherwise, one person’s improvement is another person’s fraud.


  6. David Onkels  

    Those who wish to read a wealth of clearly-written information about climate science might wish to visit Mr. Novak’s website:

    My cousin is married to a famous German physicist: he worked with Teller and Heisenberg, was a founding member of the Club of Rome, a board member of Greenpeace, the Chairman of the Max Planck Insititute (“Herr Doktor Direktor Professor Durr” as my aunt used to say).

    I remember him stopping to see members of his family in the US, interrupting his return from a trip to China, in about 1962. He held a roomful of people in thrall, describing in glowing terms how energy-efficient the Chinese were. He was fascinated by how little they used in the way of resources in the conduct of their daily life.

    I haven’t spoken to him in years, but I found him on Youtube, holding forth on Global Warming. Unfortunately, it’s in German.


  7. Pierre Desrochers  

    Good survey of the story. And if I may be shameless enough to highlight my own work, I would add than a relatively unknown aspect of that controversy is that Ehrlich was only rehashing the content (using the same rhetorical style) of the neo-Malthusian popular writers who had shaped his outlook as a young man, Fairfield Osborn and William Vogt, who both published neo-Malthusian eco-catastrophist tracts in 1948. Of course, these authors had already been proven wrong when Ehrlich entered the popular scene. I have a short piece on this story at http://www.perc.org/articles/article1186.php
    and a more detailed one at http://www.ejsd.org/public/journal_article/12#abstract


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