“The quality of [truth-seeking] depends on a willingness to respectfully engage in open, honest, and objective debate, to challenge … our own beliefs…. As the philosopher, economist, and Anglican bishop Richard Whately observed: ‘It is one thing to wish to have truth on our side, and another thing to wish sincerely to be on the side of truth’.”
– Charles Koch, The Science of Success (John Wiley & Sons, 2007), p. 115. [Book review here]
A week ago I posted a tribute to Julian Simon (1932–1998) on the anniversary of his death. The post was picked up elsewhere in the blogosphere, and I received a number of emails from academics who remarked about how much they appreciated Simon’s personal kindness and scholarly qualities. Steve Horwitz wrote at Coordination Problem:
[Simon] was a model of what a scholar can and should be: well-read, totally on top of the relevant data, fearless about taking on sacred cows, unafraid to be in your face but always with a smile on his face. Plus, his boundless optimism for humanity’s future makes for a wonderful contrast to not just the doom-and-gloom of the environmentalists, but even the doom-and-gloom of some libertarians, for whom disaster (though political not environmental) lurks just around the corner.
Plus, Simon’s bet with Ehrlich is the best example of challenging “cheap talk” ever.
Above all of that, he was a charming man who even had time for three over-eager assistant professors on a boat ride in the middle of the Mediterranean in the fall of 1994. I know that Pete, Dave, and I would all tell you that the 45 minutes we spent chatting with Julian at the rear of that boat on a gorgeous sunny day was one of the fonder memories we have of time spent with Big Thinkers. He was funny, charming, and gracious. And he is missed.
Yes, Simon was a true scholar who worked in a ‘challenge culture’ inside his mind. I remember how at his Houston Forum talk, “More People, Greater Wealth, Expanded Resources, Cleaner Environment,” he was asked perhaps the hardest question of all: what do you think is the major weakness of your view. (What would your answer be to this question?) I remember the pained expression on Simon’s face as he grabbled with that question. I just knew how hard he was trying….
A Reformed Malthusian!
Simon fundamentally changed his worldview as an adult. Here is the story (sources at listed in the end):
In 1966, Julian Simon began studying issues of population, resources, and the environment. He began as a Malthusian, fearing more people in a world where the means of subsistence was fixed (Simon, 2002: 237–40).
Simon’s conversion to viewing human beings as the solution rather than the problem occurred in 1969; by 1972 or so, he had achieved full confidence in his new outlook (Simon, 2002: 240). He first went public with his contra world view in 1970 (Simon, 1996: 578; 2002: 243), the year in which he engaged in an Earth Day debate against Paul Silverman on his campus, the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign (Simon, 2002: 259–64). Simon’s shift was influenced by the statistical inferences he uncovered and by studying the research of others, particularly Harold Barnett and Chandler Morse’s 1963 classic, Scarcity and Growth (Simon, 2002: 242–43).
In 1969, Simon had an epiphany on the way to a meeting with U.S. officials to discuss ways to reduce fertility in less-developed countries. He thought, “Enabling a potential human being to come into life and to enjoy life is a good thing just as protecting a living person’s life from being ended is a good thing” (Simon, 1996: xxxii). He also thought: “What business do I have trying to help arrange it that fewer human beings will be born, each one of whom might be a Mozart or a Michelangelo or an Einstein—or simply a joy to his or her family and community, and a person who will enjoy life?” (xxxi).
Thus did Julian Simon, an open-minded scholar, change his mind on professional and personal grounds and become a determined advocate for his contra-Malthusian view to the day he died in 1998.
Barnett, Harold, and Chandler Morse. Scarcity and Growth: The Economics of Natural Resource Availability. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (for Resources for the Future), 1963.
Simon, Julian. The Ultimate Resource 2. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.
Simon, Julian. A Life Against the Grain. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2002.
With a variety of intellectual, political, and public relations setbacks, climate alarmists are on a hot seat of their making. They can dig in more (the new denialists) or at least more sympathetically study the ‘opposition’ to perhaps become global lukewarmers–and non catastrophists.
If so, they will follow the example of the late, great Julian Simon.
From the above, it appears Prof. Simon had a Damascean moment, and decided it was not his role to decide the worth of another human being. Worth being – good, bad or neutral; and existing or future people.
Conversely, the genuine environmental movement ( not shameless carpetbaggers and rent seekers ) arguably do have strong and abiding views on the ‘worth’ of a human being – and that is largely framed in the context of piling up negative externalities attributed to ‘humans’ – at the expense of the environment and ‘the poor’.
Prof Phil Stott has a nice attempt at profiling the psychology over at:
The arguably near-religious aspects of the catastrophists suggests that it will take an awful lot, if anything, to shake the True Believers out of their faith. And very regrettably this is one belief system where the ‘faith’ is inextricably bound with the politics, not subject to church/ state separation.
This conflict of world views is likely to be battled through for many years to come yet and at great cost to the public purse.
Thanks for keeping the flag of Prof. Simon flying.
The trouble with the warmests transitioning to a new mode of thought is that they have lost all credibility. If one proposes something, and it turns out wrong, there should not be a loss of credibility if one goes about it honestly. Remember that an answer of false is just as valuable as an answer of true. If one acted with integrity during the exercise of truthseeking, then one keeps that integrity regardless of the answer. This goes back basically to a short-term politictal viewpoint versus a longer-term scientific view point. The former is now called post-modern or post-normal science, and the latter is classical science. I think the difference today is the amount of money involved (like steriods in baseball, why take something dangerous if playing baseball barely covered the bills like in 1900?). There is so much money and power in energy that government elitists can’t think beyond how to get a greater piece of it. Face it, they don’t have the scientific or engineering background to understand how it all works, so they appeal to authority of polictical-driven scientists (who’ve made a deal with the devil for short-term gain or notoriety). All it is a mafia racket, really.