March 11, 2013

THEODORE DALRYMPLE: Paul Ehrlich’s False Gospel.

John Maddox (1925 – 2009) was for many years the editor of Nature, one of the two most important general science journals in the world. In 1972 he published a broadside against the radical pessimism then very prevalent with the title The Doomsday Syndrome: An Assault on Pessimism. In this book, which makes interesting reading today, Maddox attacked the propensity of scientists such as Paul Ehrlich and Barry Commoner to project current trends indefinitely into the future and to conclude therefrom that catastrophe must sooner or later (usually sooner) result.

Ehrlich – who is still predicting catastrophe with as much confidence as if all that he had predicted for the recent past had actually come to pass – famously, or infamously, asserted in his neo-Malthusian book, The Population Bomb, published in 1968, that the battle to feed mankind was over and that hundreds of millions of people would inevitably starve to death in the 1970s, irrespective of what anyone did to try to avoid it.

His prediction was not borne out; forty years later the greatest nutritional problem in the world is probably obesity caused by over-eating. But like those persons on the fringe of religion who predict that the world will beyond peradventure end on a certain date but whose faith is quite unshaken by the failure of that wicked world to conform to their righteous prophecies, so Professor Ehrlich continues to assert that really he was right all along: merely that he mistook the date of the great reckoning.

But most of Ehrlich’s believers would probably mock those religious people as dumb followers of superstition.