“Settled Science” Fiasco Remembered


As a medical doctor I’m trained in scientific methods. I learned that science is always discovering new information that challenges or refutes our earlier understandings. So declaring anytime that the “science is settled” is just unscientific.

The latest example of such a fiasco is the fifty-year anniversary of the publication of Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb. In 1968 Ehrlich was convinced the earth couldn’t sustain the growing population and he predicted a global cataclysm if something wasn’t done about it. (Does this sound familiar?)

William McGurn, columnist for The Wall Street Journal, says, “The book sketched out possible scenarios of the hell Mr. Ehrlich believed imminent: hundreds of millions dying from starvation, England disappearing by the year 2000, India doomed, the average American’s lifespan falling to 42 by 1980, and so on.” (The average American’s life span in 2017 was 78.6 years.)

Ehrlich certainly got a lot of people’s attention – he sold three million copies of his book. His false scientific assumptions became an unquestioned orthodoxy for the technocratic class that seems to welcome such cataclysmic scares as an opportunity to tell the rest of us what to do.

Robert McNamara, former Defense Secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, who was largely responsible for escalation of the Vietnam War, later went on to become President of The World Bank. McNamara would declare that overpopulation was a greater threat than nuclear war – because the decisions to have babies or not were “not in the exclusive control of a few governments but rather in the hands of literally hundreds of millions of individual parents.”

McGurn goes on to say, “In his day, Mr. Erhlich’s assertion about the limited “carrying capacity” of the Earth was settled science (emphasis mine). Never mind that it is rooted in an absurdity: that when a calf is born a country’s wealth rises, but when a baby is born it goes down. Or that the record shows that when targeted peoples resist the prescription – don’t have babies – things quickly turn coercive, from forced abortions in China to contraceptive injections given to black women in apartheid-era South Africa.”

This “settled science” was challenged by Julian Lincoln Simon, a professor of business and economics at the University of Illinois – at Urbana-Champaign. Simon wrote a counter-argument book called The Ultimate Resource. Simon recognized that human beings are more than just mouths to feed. They also come with minds.

Simon believed that human beings were able to adapt to their circumstances in a way that Ehrlich discounted. He believed that human ingenuity could turn what were once luxuries into everyday amenities. That’s why he called the human mind, “The Ultimate Resource.”

Fifty years has demonstrated that Simon won this argument with Ehrlich and the “settled science” is no longer settled. In 2011, David P. Goldman published a new book called How Civilizations Die. The opening words of his book paint an entirely different picture compared to that of Ehrlich’s book fifty years ago:

Population decline is the elephant in the world’s living room. As a matter of arithmetic, we know that the social life of most developed countries will break down within two generations. Two out of three Italians and three of four Japanese will be elderly dependents by 2050. If present fertility rates hold, the number of Germans will fall by 98 percent over the next two centuries. No pensions and health care system can support such an inverted population pyramid. Nor is the problem limited to the industrial nations. Fertility is falling at even faster rates – indeed, at rates never before registered anywhere – in the Muslim world. The world’s population will fall by as much as a fifth between the middle and the end of the twenty-first century, by far the worst decline in human history.”


The reason for this population decline is declining fertility rates, not starvation or overpopulation. Changes in the cultures of the world have led to fewer women having babies – as a matter of choice.

Mr. Ehrlich remains impervious to the false science he perpetrated on the world fifty years ago. McGurn says Ehrlich gave an interview to the Guardian just two months ago in which “he decreed the collapse of civilization a “near certainty” in the next few decades. Which may be a good reminder that skepticism is in order whenever someone waves the flag of “science” to justify the latest antihuman nostrum.”

Some people never learn.

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