Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Can Malthusian pessimism ever be disproved?

This question struck me after reading a group email from an Australian writer that cited various statements and recent events to attack cornucopian optimism and draw pessimistic Malthusian conclusions using this article as a "hook".

When the Rev. Thomas Malthus was writing his original Essay on Population – the first edition was published in 1798, the last in 1826 – the food riots which had proceeded the French Revolution would likely have loomed large in the consciousness of him and his readers. Let us consider what has happened in the world since that time, since 1810 in this splendid animation by Hans Rosling.

Does that count as evidence against Malthusianism? Apparently not. Why not? Because Malthusian pessimism is about the future, it is about what is going to happen. It does not matter how much success we have had in the past, the Malthusian pessimist insists it is all going to come crashing down, some time.

In doing so, the Malthusian pessimist has two great advantages. First, they can never be wrong. No matter how much their predictions do not come true, they can always be asserted to be a case of “not yet, but soon”; their predictions can always be moved off into the recesses of the as-yet-unknown future. It is like the Second Coming of Christ, the Ever Sharpening Crisis of Capitalism or the Looming Hyperinflation of (some) Austrian economists: being completely unanchored in any specific time, the prediction can never be falsified.

We can see this from the financial success, but persuasion failures, of anti-Malthusian bets. (Read the rest at Critical Thinking Applied.)

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