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June 11, 2005


Bruce Wilson

Gregg Easterbrook is a rather dubious source on a number of counts.

Why trust Easterbrook's assessments ? He is not a scientist. Why not look to what leading scientists in relevant fields are saying ?

The US National Academy of Sciences offers a lifetime of reading - 3,000 books - online for free. These publications are reflective of the views of leading scientists in relevant fields.

For example, you might consider looking at :

"Abrupt Climate Change : Inevitable Surprises"


A 2002 report By the Committee on Abrupt Climate Change of the National Research Council - which prepares reports on scientific matters for the US Congress.

( this theme is followed by another book - "Climate Crash" http://books.nap.edu/catalog/10750.html which is not authored by the NRC but offered by the National Academy Press )

Bruce Wilson

Also, I couldn't resist taking this on : "Drinking, smoking, and most forms of drug use are declining. Teen pregnancy is declining. Welfare rolls are shrinking without increase in poverty. Women, immigrants, and minority group members are acquiring ever larger slices of national pies. The divorce rate has stopped increasing. Personal freedom has never been greater."

A number of the positive changes in those trends Easterbrook cites have been tied fairly conclusively to declines in ambient lead levels in the environment : teen pregnancy, divorce, murder rates, and I believe the use of addictve drugs as well.

See :

Research Links Childhood Lead Exposure to Changes in Violent Crime ( PDF file )

"A recent peer-reviewed study (Environmental Research, May 2000) shows that variations in childhood gasoline lead exposure from 1941 to 1986 explain about 90% of the variation in violent crime rates from 1960 to 1998. Furthermore, variations in childhood paint lead exposure from 1879 to 1940 explain about 70% of the variation in murder rates from 1900 to 1960.

Rick Nevin, the author of this study, reviewed extensive research demonstrating that childhood lead exposure reduces IQ levels later in life, and he examined other research showing a strong association between low IQ and criminal behavior. He then conducted a statistical analysis of United States crime rate data and lead consumption data to determine whether changes in population lead exposure could explain subsequent trends in violent crime."

Here's a timeline of environmental lead in recent US history : http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml%3Fi=20000320&s=timeline

As far as Easterbrooks' claims on personal freedom go - well, those are amply challenged by the USA PATRIOT Act, and that claim is rather vague in the first place : it depends on how one defines "freedom".

For example, I don't have the freedom - in the USA - to walk continuously along the beach for more than a mile or so. Private ownership of beaches is allowed under US law. However, I can do so in Canada. So where am I more "free" ? I have the right - if I have the money - to buy beachfront property in the US and to fence it in, excluding all potential tresspassers. Hence - more freedom for the very wealthy, less freedom for the poor.

D. C.

Thanks for the comment and the citations, Bruce.

1. Easterbrook reliability: Do you have any specific reasons to suggest we not rely on Easterbrook's factual assessments, or do you just not like him? I've read a lot of his stuff; while I don't agree with all of his opinions, he seems like a fairly bright guy who wants to know the truth and isn't afraid to dig in, nor to challenge existing assumptions.

2. Climate change: I'm not sure I understand your point about the possibility of abrupt climate change. I've read accounts of this research -- the thinking is that every so often, the Gulf stream "flips" from warm to cold, potentially causing massive climate changes in Europe and America. This could be a serious matter that humanity may well have to deal with. But I don't see how that affects Easterbrook's thesis (in which which I concur) that over time, things have gotten better in countless ways, even if not in every conceivable way.

3. Scientists put their pants on one leg at a time: I get the impression that you regard scientists as necessarily more reliable than a "mere popularizer" like Easterbrook. I don't entirely share that view. I spent a large chunk of my professional life dealing with scientists in litigation. They do tend to be focused on the pursuit of truth, more so than many of us. But trust me, they're re just as prone to tunnel vision, wishful thinking, and other human weaknesses as the rest of us. (Do a Google search for stories about scientists falsifying data -- it happens rarely, but often enough to illustrate my point.)

4. Humanity eventually tackles its problems: Your comments about lead exposure actually support my own point: They illustrate a nice little process by which the human condition continues to improve despite nature and our own ignorance.

Concern about lead in the air started out with a few people who knew and felt strongly about the issue. Those people spoke their minds; over time, others came to share their concern. (That's a marvelous thing in itself.) Eventually we mobilized societal resources to tackle the problem by, for example, banning lead in gasoline.

To put it in biblical terms, it seems to me that humanity engages collectively in a process of metanoia. This Greek word is usually translated as "repentance." But I've read that it more closely means changing one's mind and heart and conduct.

In a nutshell, I would argue, metanoia simply means facing the facts. As illustrated by your example of airborne lead, that's pretty much what we collectively do, isn't it? Sometimes this process takes place far more slowly than in hindsight we might have liked. Sometimes we end up wasting resources because of our slowness. But remember that at any given stage, we're collectively having to address all of our various concerns -- some of which we may be misreading -- and that consequently our fact-facing takes time.

All of this takes place in the teeth of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. To me it's entirely possible that it's a divine gift of cosmic proportions.

5. Good News: I don't see any way around the conclusion that over all -- sometimes in fits and starts, sometimes with major setbacks, and sometimes at tremendous cost -- the state of the world, and indeed of the universe (or at least our corner of it), has improved immeasurably in the past 13.7 billion years. It shows every sign of continuing to do so, and there's no real reason to think that won't happen. If you ask me, that's pretty good news.

In fact, I wonder if the Jesus of the Gospels didn't have something like this in mind when he urged his listeners to repent, believe the good news of God, and put their trust in him. Consider his admonition in Mark 1:14-15. I don't think we would do violence to the text if we were to render it as something like the following, tweaked just a bit from the standard translations (with emphasis added):

Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. "The time has come," he said. "Look around you, and see the kingdom of God. Face the facts, and believe the good news!"

Again, thanks for stopping by; I appreciate your having taken the time to comment.

Bruce Wilson

D.C. - Thanks for your long and well reasoned reply.

Such arguments as Easterbrook's - that things are getting better and better every day and in every way ( to mildly parody his views ) make me gnash my teeth. They evoke in my mind nothing so much as Voltaire's Professor Pangloss, from Candide.

Some things - yes - are indeed getting better, and human health may, for the moment, be improving.

Now, let me also say that I have a strongly optimistic view on human creativity and our ability to solve problems. Given time. We are enormously capable. But, we are rapidly running out of time.

There are a number of trends ( which Easterbrook, as far as I am aware - please feel free to correct me if I am wrong - tends to deny or downplay ) which are converging simultaneously and which will come to a head in the next few decades :

Global climate change :

I cited the rapid climate change scenario because ocean-circulation driven changes in weather patterns are now assumed, by scientists working in relevant fields, to be guaranteed. The only question involves where on the scale - from gradual to abrupt and even catastrophic - those changes will fall. Further, even beside such changes, global warming will cause shifts in weather patterns that will have the overall effect of - at least - causing great disruption with rising temperatures, shifts in rainfall patterns, and so on.

Rapid Climate Change - if it occurs, or to what extent - would be an epiphenomenon driven by a pernicious global process, Global Warming, which is having a rather negative effect in countless ways. Pervasive changes - a drying out - have been discovered in the deepest part of the Amazon Rain Forest, and some researchers have predicted the start of an unstoppable unravelling of that great jungle system within a decade. Similar changes are occuring in other great equitorial forests of the world, although in equitorial African the forests are simply being burned down, for various reasons. Now here and there global climate change is having a positive effect for some human populations, but overall it is stressing a biosphere already heavily stressed by local human impacts.

See NASA's Earth Observatory, satellite images from 2002, biomass burning in equatorial Africa:


Species loss:

this is quite simple really - climate change, and disruption in habitat equals species loss. Many of the large land animals - primates, elephants, big cats, and various ungulates - are threatened with extinction, but countless less well known and less popular species will disappear in the next century. The Oceans - further - are rapidly being fished out, and reef systems globally are deteriorating.


By this, I mean the destruction of those old growth forests which are wild and support a wide diversity of species. Not tree farms, in other words.


Ongoing worldwide, with a few notable bright spots - reversals - here and there. But, for a notable example of extreme deforestation, look to Haiti.

The spread of WMD technologies:

Also, the breakdown in agreements designed to halt the spread of nuclear weapons materials and technologies.

Growing religious polarization and the rise of fundamentalist extremism :

mirror movements in Christianity and Islam demonize both other world religions and also modernity.

Key Resource Depletion:

Yes, humans can - given time - invent their way out of such constraints. But, the economies of the modern world are founded on cheap, plentiful oil. That, however, is a thing of the past.

I am quite happy to debate you on the reality of any of the trends I just cited and am quite confident that the best research - peer reviewed works by scientific leaders in their fields - is on my side.

Easterbrook I dislike for the simple reason that he has been singing the same tune for a number of years now, but that tune - as far as I can tell - clashes with scientific mainstream opinion. Not entirely, but I don't feel the need for such as Easterbrook for a filter. There are plenty of scientists writing from within their fields.

"I get the impression that you regard scientists as necessarily more reliable than a "mere popularizer" like Easterbrook. I don't entirely share that view." - Now, if you are arguing that "scientists are biased" ( as opposed to "unbiased" journalists such as Easterbrook ? ), I would have to reply in this way : the assertion that scientists are biased and that - therefore - positions on matters of science held by nonscientists are more valid - is not a logical one. It is only by way of empirical methodologies, the methods of science, that we can assess hypotheses and determine facts.

Journalists, such as Easterbrook, who write on science - the honest ones - derive their positions from various fields of scientific research. Lacking that, they will tend to be charlatans.

Let me put it this way - who would you prefer do your heart bypass operation : a journalist, or a trained MD ?

Of course the opinions of popularists may sometimes be proven more accurate than those of scientists in relevant fields. That would tend to happen however, randomnly.

The only tools we have at our disposal by which we can assess bias and use in our fumbling way towards empirical truth are the tools of science, and logic.

If we neglect those tools, all becomes mere opinion.

"Concern about lead in the air started out with a few people who knew and felt strongly about the issue. Those people spoke their minds; over time, others came to share their concern." - Yes, and those were scientists and people with scientific training. Without scientific research, the health effects of Lead would be mere folklore. Further, industries which used Lead - including the manufacturers of Leaded gasoline - have denied or minimized those ( quite massive ) health effects up to this day.

Improvements sometimes come by serendipitious accident, yes. But they very often require specific efforts by concerned and dedicated individuals.

"the state of the world, and indeed of the universe (or at least our corner of it), has improved immeasurably in the past 13.7 billion years." - What could your metrics for that claim possibly be ? Another billion or so years, and life on Earth will likely be gone. We don't live our mortal lives on such time scales.

"Humanity eventually tackles its problems" - If we are talking about human civilizations, that statement would be often incorrect. A long and bleak history has been demostrated by which civilizations consume their local resource base and then collapse. The history of Easter Island is the paradigmatic case of such a collapse.

D. C.

Thanks Bruce.

1. Specialists' Opinions: You asked: "Let me put it this way - who would you prefer do your heart bypass operation : a journalist, or a trained MD ?" If it were clear I needed a bypass, of course I'd want an experienced heart surgeon to do it.

But I wouldn't let a heart surgeon totally control the decision whether bypass surgery was the best course of action. For decisions like that, where a lot of different factors need to be balanced, I'd also want input from people with other perspectives; I've heard too many surgeons freely concede their tribe's love affair with the scalpel. Surgeons aren't the only professionals who can be guilty of this, of course -- the same can be true of other doctors; of litigators; of military officers in different branches of the service; of scientists; etc.

Don't get me wrong -- I know that surgeons and other professionals try to make the best decisions they can. I'm saying only that specialists of any kind can tend to focus on concerns that matter greatly in their particular line of work. Sometimes that can cause them to unconsciously downplay other factors that may need to be taken into account or given greater weight.

I'd never dismiss the informed opinion of a specialist. But neither would I disregard the views of an intelligent, well-informed generalist, such as Gregg Easterbrook in this case. Someone like that can bring a variety of perspectives to his thinking. S/he may present less risk of over-emphasizing the specialized concerns of one particular field of study.

2. Increasing "Goodness" in the Universe: You ask: "What could your metrics for that claim [that the state of the universe has improved immeasurably in the past 13.7 billion years] possibly be ? Another billion or so years, and life on Earth will likely be gone. We don't live our mortal lives on such time scales."

When I consider at the cosmic "factory" -- the physical processes that have caused a universe of undifferentiated subatomic particles to become organized into stars, planets, and complex life forms -- I can't help but be bowled over in awe. The cosmic coincidences sometimes labeled as the Anthropic Principle suggest that this was highly unlikely.

And then when you factor in the Second Law of Thermodynamics -- left to themselves, things tend to get disorganized -- I'm practically speechless.

I've found that if I take what I imagine to be a God's-eye view of the development of the universe, there's no question in my mind that the universe is many orders of magnitude more orderly than it was just after the Big Bang. The processes of organization -- including contributions from animals such as ourselves -- seem to continue unabated, albeit not without local setbacks from time to time.

3. Faith in the Ultimate Outcome: Your comment about Easter Island suggests you too are reading Diamond's recent book, Collapse. I guess you and I attribute different "weights," in the neural-network sense, to some of the adverse trends you describe, e.g., in climate change. For all I know, you may be right; I guess we'll see.

Please note that I'm not arguing that the universe's progress is monotonically increasing. Progress goes in fits and starts. History is replete with setbacks, sometimes catastrophic ones. For an extreme yet poignant example, read Arthur C. Clarke's short story The Star, about a star going supernovae, wiping out a flourishing civilization on one of its planets, but with a positive side effect that takes the reader by surprise in the last sentence of the story.

But notwithstanding the reality of setbacks, few people not in extremis would willingly choose to live as an ordinary person even 50 or 100 years ago, let alone 1,000 or 10,000 years ago, as Easterbrook says in his thought experiment that I quoted in my main posting.

Here's where I come out: It appears that the universe has been under construction in the past 13.7 billion years. We seem to have been, and to continue to be, participants in that project. Yes, bad things happen, including bad decisions by humans. But somehow the race manages to muddle through, to learn from our mistakes and misfortunes. On the whole, our lot continues to improve; the universe becomes more orderly, more benign. So, I submit, we wouldn't be entirely foolish to speculate -- and to have faith -- that, in the fullness of time, this cosmic "construction project" is going to turn out pretty well, indeed, perhaps unimaginably well.

(This is part of the basis for my thinking that there may well be a heaven: When I try to infer what God might be like, on the basis of what we know so far about his creation, it seems illogical that he'd simply discard us after we've served our time as his "construction workers." That doesn't mean it doesn't happen. But even if God were to relegate us to utter nonexistence after death, I'm not sure we should be terribly upset about it. More on that subject some other time.)

Thanks again for the comments.

D.S. Ketelby

The tendency to increasing disorder - or 'entropy' - underwritten by the Second Law of Thermodynamics applies to closed systems.

Neither the Earth nor human civilsation are closed systems, as both receive a continual and very large free gift of energy from the Sun.

The Universe is however a closed system, and the Second Law predicts - as I understand it - a fate known as heat death, many billions or trillions of years into the future. At this terminus, matter and energy will be so thinly and evenly distributed that the universe will, effectively and inevitably, have reached its state of maximum entropy.

Of course, it may not be that simple; other cosmological factors may be in play.

The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord.

D. C.

True enough, Daniel -- it's closed systems that tend toward disorder, and energy input from the outside of a closed system can cause a temporary and localized increase in orderliness.

But if I'm not mistaken, the energy input must be at least somewhat controlled, or "directed" if you will. If the energy input is undirected, the orderliness of the ssytem will actually decrease.

Try an experiment: Pour a glass of cold water. Take an eyedropper and add just a drop of red food coloring (or any other color) to the water. The red drop will stay together for a relatively long time before dispersing and turning all the water pink. If we think of the water and the red drop as comprising a "system," the system remained orderly -- with the red being separate from the water -- for a time.

Now repeat the experiment, this time with a difference. Just before you put the red drop into the cold water, take the glass of cold water and put it into a pot of hot water. The energy from the hot water will find its way into the system. As it does, the red will disperse into the water much more quickly than before. (I haven't yet actually done the experiment; it just occurred to me based on many things I've read over the years.)

In other words, an uncontrolled, undirected input of energy into a system actually speeds up the process of disorder. We see the same phenomenon in, say, river water flowing past a hydroelectric dam to produce electricity, versus a tsunami coming ashore as we saw in so many tragic videos.

That raises serious questions about how the universe has managed to evolve in the direction of increasing localized orderliness. It certainly seems worth thinking about.

You made a great point, Daniel -- thanks for bringing it up.

Steven S

Seems to me that Easterbrook's whole argument relies on a tenuously materialistic assumption of 'progress,' don't you think?

Statistics about improving physical health, and the ubiquity of magazines and sitcoms don't really strike me as anything approaching 'progress.' In fact I would argue the opposite!

Mother Teresa prayed constantly for the 'poor Americans.' She claimed that for all of her work with the dying impoverished of Calcutta, she had never seen people so alienated and alone as Americans.

There are other rubrics for progress...

What are your thoughts on non-material methods for comparing human life today with other eras?

D. C. Toedt

Steven S. writes: "What are your thoughts on non-material methods for comparing human life today with other eras?"

First: I'm curious how you'd propose to measure the non-material aspects of human life, either today or in earlier eras, and then how you'd weight them for comparison purposes.

(That's why I like Gregg Easterbrook's thought experiment: it says a lot that few if any people would likely agree to trade places permanently — as in, until they die, probably a lot sooner than they might otherwise — with a random person living X number of centuries in the past.)

Second: There's no reason to think that people of the past were significantly more moral than we are today. (For a one-data-point counterexample, I've read that some researchers have estimated that as many of one-third of the brides in colonial America were pregnant at the altar.) The beau idéal of the peace-loving noble savage, living in gentle harmony with neighbor and nature, has come under pretty severe scholarly attack in recent years.

As to Mother Teresa's opinion, here's another thought experiment: Suppose we had taken a poll of the dying for whom she was caring and of their families. Suppose we had offered to relocate these folks and their extended families to the United States on permanent-residence visas, with some resettlement assistance to get them started, and the possibility of citizenship in due course. (In essence, this is a reversal of Easterbrook's thought experiment.) Judging by the massive numbers of people who want to immigrate to the U.S., compared to those few who ever emigrate from it, I'll bet the vast majority of Mother Teresa's charges would immediately jump at the chance to relocate here. So now the question is: Does Mother Teresa's opinion on this subject trump theirs?

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