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“The Special Case of Paul Ehrlich” (Julian Simon remembered)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- April 21, 2021

This reprint from a collection of essays at Julian Simon.com is published as an ode to Earth Day (tomorrow). This piece was finalized in Simon’s treatise, The Ultimate Resource 2 (1996), pp. 604–607. Simon’s relative politeness to his adversary is a tribute to open, honest, and respectful debate (versus the Paul R. Ehrlich approach).

“When you launch a space shuttle you don’t trot out the flat-earthers to be commentators. They’re outside the bounds of what ought to be discourse in the media. In the field of ecology, Simon is the absolute equivalent of the flat-earthers.” (Paul Ehrlich, quoted below)

For economy of treatment of the matter of attack rhetoric, let’s focus on just one critic, Paul Ehrlich, who has directed a great deal of colorful language in my direction (see also his comments in the Afternote to Chapter 15, and my interchange with him in Simon, 1990, Selection 43).

He is a treasure-trove of snappy quotes (for other of his remarks, please look him up in the index of this book) useful for writers who are critical of me and also for me in this chapter to show how he works; for example, he (with Anne Ehrlich) confer on me the leadership of a “space-age cargo cult.”

One of Ehrlich’s main devices is attributing some combination of stupidity and scientific ignorance to those with whom he disagrees. In a talk to 200,000 people in person (how many more on television I do not know) on Earth Day, 1990, Ehrlich alluded to the title of this book, saying “The ultimate resource – the one thing we’ll never run out of is imbeciles”, which got a good laugh from the crowd; he frequently uses words like “ignorant”, “crazy”, “imbecile”, and “moronic”.

In an essay entitled “Simple Simon Environmental Analysis”, which is a commentary on a preceding short essay of mine, the Ehrlichs refer to “a few uninformed people [who] claim that population growth is beneficial”, and write,

The connections between economic growth, population growth, and quality of life are much more subtle and complicated than Simon imagines…. Getting economists to understand ecology is like trying to explain a tax form to a cranberry. It’s as if Julian Simon were saying that we have a geocentric universe at the same time NASA’s saying the earth rotates around the sun. There’s no reconciling these views. When you launch a space shuttle you don’t trot out the flat-earthers to be commentators. They’re outside the bounds of what ought to be discourse in the media. In the field of ecology, Simon is the absolute equivalent of the flat-earthers. [Minor comment: I’m not “in the field of ecology”.]

Then others copy Ehrlich’s colorful language. The former Medical Director of International Planned Parenthood Foundation, Malcolm Potts, writes, “Julian Simon – and his fellow flat- earthists – assured Washington decision makers that entrepreneurs and Nobel prize winners would be popping up from the streets of Calcutta propelled by the glorious multiplication of human numbers.”

Ehrlich taxes me as follows: “Misdefining the problem, selective use of data, analyses of time series over inappropriate intervals, and determined ignorance of the most basic tenets of science. Indeed, the book contains so many childish errors that it would take work of equal length to detail them.” (Paul Ehrlich, with Anne Ehrlich.)

Ehrlich frequently recycles the same remarks: “To explain to one of them the inevitability of no growth in the material sector, or…that commodities must become expensive would be like trying to explain odd-day-even-day gas distribution to a cranberry.” And “The views of … Simon are taken seriously by a segment of the public, even though to a scientist they are in the same class as the idea that Jack Frost is responsible for ice-crystal patterns on a cold window.”

“Simon apparently doesn’t know the difference between an old-growth virgin forest (with its critical biodiversity intact) and a tree farm.” And when asked “his opinion of Simon, he said, ‘that’s like asking a nuclear physicist about horoscopes.'”

Ehrlich and I have never debated face to face. He says that he has refused because I am a “fringe character”. We have only locked horns directly in two cases, and in both incidents he has been demonstrably wrong. He and his colleagues based their criticism of my 1980 Science article (that conveyed some of the findings of this book) on what turned out to be a typographical error in a source.

If I had been in their shoes, I would have been chagrined and embarrassed when this was discovered. But Ehrlich replied: “What scientist would phone the author of a standard source [as I did] to make sure there were not typos in a series of numbers showing a general trend with which every analyst in the field is completely familiar?” (That must be one of the most peculiar lines ever written by a member of a profession whose business is the search for scientific truth.) I consider it very significant that Ehrlich has suffered no apparent damage from being so wrong; I know of no mention of the incident in print.

Our other encounter was the bet mentioned on [pp. 35–36], following on the 1980-1981 interchange in Social Science Quarterly (reproduced in my 1990 book). Many people have asked him about its outcome, and a few of the answers have been passed on to me. To a college newspaper: “The bet doesn’t mean anything”.

On BBC television: “It was an excellent bet. We happened to lose it. You can lose making an excellent bet”. (Indeed that is quite correct. But one should then be anxious to repeat the bet – which Ehrlich refuses to do.) But on the same program he said, “I debated a long time about whether to take him up on the bet because it was the wrong bet [but compare his remark cited on (p. 35) about how anxious he and his colleagues were to make the bet, and to make it much larger.]

“On the other hand, it was very hard to explain the right bet to him and finally we decided that if we took the bet we’d shut him up for at least ten years”. To a book interviewer: “We knew if we bet on metals there would be a fair chance we’d lose. But we knew at the very least that if we took him on we could keep him quiet for a decade. But the bet was trivial; we could have bet on the state of the atmosphere or on biodiversity loss…”

And “The bet doesn’t mean anything. Julian Simon is like the guy who jumps off the Empire State Building and says how great things are going so far as he passes the 10th floor. I still think the price of those metals will go up eventually…. I have no doubt that sometime in the next century food will be scarce enough that prices are really going to be high even in the United States”. But to repeat, of course Ehrlich will not bet again.

Ehrlich (with Stephen Schneider, 1995) has also written that he “once made the mistake of being goaded into making a bet with Simon on a matter of marginal environmental importance (prices of metals). And he told reporter that “I got schnookered…Prices of metals really don’t have much to do with environmental quality”.

But in 1980 Ehrlich and his colleagues said they would “accept Simon’s astonishing offer before other greedy people jump in.” Goaded? And concerning “marginal importance” and “schnookered”, check his voluminous writings about the importance of predicted scarcities he predicted for food and other natural resources – scarcities which are best measured by prices, of course. (San Francisco Chronicle opinion column of May 18, 1995)

Others have attempted to explain the bet away, too. Norman Myers writes: “The Ehrlich group lost the bet, but through unusual circumstances of the 1980s that prompted Simon himself to write…`I have been lucky that this particular period coincided so nicely with my argument.'” Myers’s statement is false; I was not “prompted” by “unusual circumstances” to say “I have been lucky”. Rather, there always is a certain amount of uncertainty in any wager, and the soundest wager can be lost if one has bad luck; that is all that I meant. In fact, I consider the circumstances in the 1980s not the slightest bit unusual.

(If Mr. Myers himself believes that the circumstances were unusual, why will he not take me up on my offer to repeat the wager – for any period he picks, for any commodities? During a debate with him I repeatedly challenged him to wager on this or any other trend of material welfare. But he merely ignored my offer, just as Ehrlich and others have ignored the offer of another go-round – in the same breath as they try to explain away losing the first time.)

An entire article was devoted to “How Julian Simon Could Win the Bet and Still Be Wrong”. The argument is: “Most economists would have bet on Simon from the start…but many of them also know that Ehrlich is right. Quality of life did deteriorate worldwide in the ten year interval.” (Nobody said that the bet was an index of “quality of life”. But in any case, quality of life has not deteriorated, as this book shows aplenty.)

One of Ehrlich’s devices is to refer to “Julian Simon, a specialist in mail-order marketing,” a device copied with variation by Garrett Hardin as in “marketing expert Julian Simon.” I plied that trade for two years ending in 1963 (plus writing a book on the subject that still sells well in the 5th edition, I’m proud to say. Unfortunately, there are many to whom the idea of private business is incompatible with truth or honor or public service, and Ehrlich clearly is playing to them. He probably also is suggesting that a former businessperson must not be a sound scholar.

Sometimes Ehrlich combines this device with not mentioning my name, as in “an economist specializing in mail-order marketing”. Here he actually writes a falsehood about my specialty at present (and the past 30 years), which he does again in another variation, referring to me without name on television as “a Professor of Mail-Order Marketing”; a more litigious person might sue him.

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