If everything seems under control, you're not going fast enough. - Mario Andretti
In the late 1970s my cousin, who was at the time in her late teens or early 20s, came to visit my family in Australia. My father, as most of you know, was in the oil business, specifically the drilling aspect. He knew all there was to know about getting oil out of the ground. My cousin, a good soul, expressed great concern that “within ten years” the world’s supply of oil would be depleted, and regaled him with the horror stories of global doom that would accompany this eventuality. My father listened to her, then patiently explained how she had no idea what she was talking about, that her head had been filled full of mush by leftist professors, and the idea that the world would ever “run out” of oil is absurd. Remember, this was thirty years ago that we were “ten years” away from running out of oil. Oddly enough, we’re still now “ten years” away from running out of oil.
You would not believe the number of times I had this conversation with liberal coworkers in California, all of whom believed the peak oil nonsense. It’s a means by which left-leaning people scare other people into supporting environmentalist causes. We heard exactly the same thing in the 1970s about population explosion, how by the turn of the century there would be global starvation due to overpopulation. Oddly enough, not only did this never come to pass, but the exact opposite is true—in the aggregate, people the world over are better fed and living longer lives than at any time in their past.
This morning I read this particular piece of stupidity linked on Drudge, and couldn’t let it go without comment.
Most people believe oil is running out and governments need to find another fuel, but Americans are alone in thinking their leaders are out of touch with reality on this issue, an international poll said on Sunday.
On average, 70 percent of respondents in 15 countries and the Palestinian territories said they thought oil supplies had peaked. Only 22 percent of the nearly 15,000 respondents in nations ranging from China to Mexico believed enough new oil would be found to keep it a primary fuel source.
“What’s most striking is there’s such a widespread consensus around the world that oil is running out and governments need to make a real effort to find new sources of energy,” said Steven Kull, director of WorldPublicOpinion.org, a global research organization that conducted the poll.
Note that we’re back to “consensus” in science. In other words, the more people believe something the more likely it is to be true. Unfortunately, science is not about consensus. Something either is or is not true. Just because the vast majority of people on the planet believe in some kind of higher being does not prove, in and of itself, that a higher being exists. (Something like 90% of Americans believe in angels. I suppose that this should be taken as scientific fact supporting their existence.)
To me, what is striking about this poll is the degree to which the media have done nothing to debunk this peak oil nonsense to the point that there is a global consensus about something so utterly and demonstrably false.
In the United States, the world’s biggest oil consumer and among the biggest emitters of climate-warming pollution from fossil fuel use, 76 percent of respondents said oil is running out, but most believed the U.S. government mistakenly assumes there would be enough to keep oil a main source of fuel.
“Americans perceive that the government is not facing reality,” Kull said.
This is the milkshake analogy. People just think that one day there’s going to be a huge empty sucking sound coming out of the ground, like what happens when you get to the bottom of a milkshake. People who think this have no grasp of economics or a fundamental grasp of how oil markets work. This isn’t really anyone’s fault, these are specific areas of expertise, and it only makes sense that most people wouldn’t understand them. That being said, the fact that there’s a global consensus about something which most of the globe doesn’t understand thus makes the consensus argument completely worthless.
Note what was said: “Americans perceive that the government is not facing reality.” [Emphasis mine.] This doesn’t mean that the government actually isn’t facing reality, only that there is a perception that it is not. The tone and manner of this news article, however, indicates that this fact alone is something which should cause great concern. Why are we not conducting global opinion polls about whether or not light is a particle or a wave? Surely if it turned out that there was global public consensus that light was a wave and not a particle this would have merit, right? Or would it be a completely worthless statistic?
The United States is alone among major industrialized nations in rejecting the Kyoto Protocol, which aims to limit greenhouse gas emissions that exacerbate global warming.
Note the wording used above. The Kyoto Protocol “aims” to reduce emissions. It doesn’t say that it “will” reduce emissions, only that it “aims” to. The sentence is written in such a manner as to say that the United States, by not signing on to the Kyoto Protocol, is not reducing greenhouse emissions by doing so. But that’s not the case. It’s been shown time and time again that the Kyoto Protocol is a complete failure, that the signatory nations not only are not meeting their targets but are actively working to find legal loopholes to try and weasel out of doing so because of the damage that this asinine piece of legislation will cause to the global economy.
It’s articles like this one, which use the type of linguistic trickery shown above, which is the reason for this global “consensus” that oil is running out. It’s just like the argument with healthcare.
1. Country X needs to provide universal coverage to its citizens.
2. Proposal Y details a plan for a socialist, government-run, taxpayer-funded healthcare system.
3. Group A supports this type of program. Group B, which agrees with the concept of universal coverage, disagrees that a socialist government program is the best means of achieving this goal. Group B then opposes Proposal Y.
4. Group A demonizes Group B by implying that because they oppose Proposal Y they are opposed to universal coverage. This is, of course, patently false and anyone who has ever taken a logic course in college can explain why. Unfortunately, most people don’t know what logic is, let alone had a course in it, so they fall for these types of assertions.
I am an avid proponent of providing universal access to all residents of the United States. I am also adamantly against this program being administered by the government. These two views are not diametrically opposed, despite the fact that this is how they are presented in the media. I bring this up because it illustrates the following point from the article.
Concerns over climate change, which is spurred by emissions from fossil fuels including oil, also were a factor among respondents, Kull said.
This is where the manipulation comes in. If you want to get a particular piece of legislation passed you scare people into supporting it. Making a case FOR a particular proposition is difficult. Making a case why OPPOSING a particular proposition will result in some kind of doomsday is vastly easier. Think about any hot button issue, from either side of the aisle. Look at torture. “If we don’t do this, there could very well be a mushroom cloud over Manhattan. Are YOU willing to take that chance?” Rather than make a case for torture they make a doomsday scenario and tie it in to not torturing. Global warming is exactly the same way, it’s presented in the same cataclysmic, end of the world, doomsday manner that the population explosion was presented in the 1970s. The world’s “top experts” were warning that if we didn’t address population growth immediately, why, in just a few years there will be global starvation. “Do YOU want that on your conscience? Well, do you?”
(Allow me to go on the record, once again, with my views on global warming. It’s real, it is happening, humans are contributing to it, and something should be done about it. I do not, however, subscribe to the “end is nigh!” hysteria that surrounds the issue.)
Thus with oil. The difficult argument is to explain to people, calmly and rationally, the situation with oil. The easy thing to do is terrify people into thinking that, just like sucking on a milkshake, one day we’re just going to run out. As I’ve said before, technological advances will make oil obsolete long before we ever actually run out of it. If oil were actually in any danger of running out any time soon it would be $500,000 a barrel instead of $100. (That’s freshman economics, folks. Everyone should understand that.)
We need to develop clean technologies. We need electric cars. We need to be concerned with global warming and the environment. These are all legitimate, and you will find no bigger proponent of finding solutions to these problems than me. But what I refuse to do is buy into the Chicken Little syndrome whereby I wail and screech about how the world is going to end if I don’t support a particular political proposition. Kyoto was a stupid idea when it was first proposed during the Clinton administration, and there’s a reason it was voted down 95-0 in the Senate. (That’s right, liberals, not one member of the Democrats voted in favor of it.) But opposing bad legislation does not equal a desire to ignore the problem, it’s a disagreement about the means. And, given the total, utter, abject failure of Kyoto since its ratification the United States seems eerily prescient with its rejection.
Oil will never run out. Ever. There is too much money to be made in the technology industry for the world to keep relying solely on oil. We don’t need nightmares, we don’t need screaming histrionics, we don’t need end of the world scenarios. What we need are smart people taking the problem seriously, and finding workable, reasonable solutions to transition the world from a petroleum economy into the next generation.
Unfortunately, doing things reasonably and sensibly doesn’t win elections. So we’ll continue to have global consensuses on all sorts of things that make no sense.
For those of you who might be unfamiliar with it, allow me to recommend you familiarize yourself with the famous Simon/Ehrlich wager. It demonstrates the dynamic I have described here beautifully. Obviously having never heard of this bet, a bunch of peak oil lunatics have made a similar $100,000 wager concerning the price of oil.
Anyone want to predict how this one will turn out?
Update: The Wikipedia link about the wager contains a link to this 1997 Wired aricle concerning the wager. In light of everything I wrote above, read this section.
All of [Ehrlich’s] grim predictions had been decisively overturned by events. Ehrlich was wrong about higher natural resource prices, about “famines of unbelievable proportions” occurring by 1975, about “hundreds of millions of people starving to death” in the 1970s and ‘80s, about the world “entering a genuine age of scarcity.” In 1990, for his having promoted “greater public understanding of environmental problems,” Ehrlich received a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award.”
[Simon] always found it somewhat peculiar that neither the Science piece nor his public wager with Ehrlich nor anything else that he did, said, or wrote seemed to make much of a dent on the world at large. For some reason he could never comprehend, people were inclined to believe the very worst about anything and everything; they were immune to contrary evidence just as if they’d been medically vaccinated against the force of fact. Furthermore, there seemed to be a bizarre reverse-Cassandra effect operating in the universe: whereas the mythical Cassandra spoke the awful truth and was not believed, these days “experts” spoke awful falsehoods, and they were believed. Repeatedly being wrong actually seemed to be an advantage, conferring some sort of puzzling magic glow upon the speaker.”
Far from being pilloried for being monumentally wrong about everything, Ehrlich was heralded for “promoting understanding” of a particular viewpoint (i.e. left-wing socialism economic policies tied to environmental hysteria). And the more wrong he was, the more he was heralded for being so. Thus we now have a global consensus about peak oil, something absurd on its face. And the more wrong peak oil turns out to be, the more people will believe it and the more the consensus will grow.
Why? Because people are stupid. This was illustrated beautifully in the film Men In Black, in an interchange between Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) and Edwards (Will Smith).
KAY: Humans, for the most part, don’t have a clue. Don’t want one, either. They’re happy. They think they’ve got a pretty good bead on things.
EDWARDS: Why the big secret? People are smart, they can handle it.
KAY: A person is smart. People are dumb. Everything they’ve ever “known” has been proven to be wrong. A thousand years ago everybody knew as a fact, that the earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, they knew it was flat. Fifteen minutes ago, you knew we humans were alone on it. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.
Individuals are smart. People are stupid. And consensus polls about technical or scientific issues are beyond worthless.
Posted by Lee
on 04/21/08 at 06:07 AM (Discuss this in the forums
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