Some time ago I heard a story on one of my favorite podcasts, Planet Money (Episode 508: A Bet On The Future Of Humanity) about a bet that was made, between an Economist and a Biologist, based on the fate of humanity. The story goes that Dr. Paul Ehrlich believed that humans were careening towards disaster due to the rapid use of natural resources and population strain put on the environment. Meanwhile, Dr. Julian Simon believed that due to the adaptive nature of humans, we would be able to face any problem in the future without much worry. I won’t go into much more detail on the bet, because it isn’t the focus of this post, but you can listen to the episode in its entirety below.
The story is an interesting one, and in this post I want to explore why of the two highly educated people who have opposing views, one is still to this day relatively unknown outside his field. While the other person has had near celebrity status during the height of the debate. Naturally we can assume it had something to do with the methods that each professor used to communicate their message. So lets see what one did right and wrong to make the case for the future of the human race.
Dr. Paul Ehrlich appeared on the tonight show over many times, when his book The Population Bomb was published. You can hear from the Planet Money episode that on the audio clips from the tonight show, he is a witty guy with a pointed story. He uses anecdotes to get his point across, and can add a dose of humor to lighten the mood. These are all sound techniques that can be used in public speaking, and in general create a charisma that is hard to deny, whether you agree with him or not.
cha·ris·ma – /kəˈrizmə/ – noun 1. compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others.
Charisma helped him tremendously with his message, because people simply liked him regardless of whether they understood his message in it’s entirety. The other thing that worked towards the advantage of Dr. Ehrlich, was that his story at first glance appeared correct. Meaning that if you were only to consider what his side about for a few moments you would intuitively come to the same conclusion about the fate of humanity.
Dr. Ehrlich’s thesis is that, animals, like humans (if we can even distinguish ourselves as separate) can suffer total population collapses due to resource strain. The problem is that idea can easily lead to a case of confirmation bias. Since our only example of resource strain (given to us by Dr. Ehrlich) leads to collapse of butterflies in the animal kingdom, for example. To get the full picture you need to also consider cases where resource strain and stress does not lead to population collapse and see what is driving the system. If we do not take into consideration all outcomes when resource strain occurs, we may miss the controls on what triggers collapse. Additionally, one would need to evaluate if this can be even applied to humans in the same way and will it occur in the near future. The average person isn’t going to work through all this trouble to understand the biology and will most likely end up agreeing the expert. In fact most people do not even read for pleasure let alone to understand the scientific ideas written by a biologist. Therefore the general audience will likely put even more weight on his spoken word without knowing the complete story. Although we can think of confirmation bias as something scientists should try to avoid, it really didn’t harm his message in this case. I think that confirmation bias did however, cause his predictions about the future to be off.
Economist Dr. Julian Simon on the other hand believed that there was no problem with resource strain since humans are able to adapt. Dr. Simon is an educated speaker and in general he is able to articulate his story well to a highly educated (in economics) audience. The problem is that despite being an educated person, he has very little charisma, and basically bores everyone to sleep. This because he does not adapt his method of communicating, to the audience he is trying to reach (e.g. the general public). This is a virtual death sentence in the public realm and the reason why no one really remembers him. Watch the below video for the style of Dr. Simon to see for yourself. Despite trying to add some flare by wearing a pair of devil horns when speaking about the population collapse hypothesis, he quickly falls into a habit of using jargon such as “economic social systems”, “long-term trends in material human wealth”, and “unsound social economic regulation”. When an audience does not understand the jargon used they will often stop listening and confused and are trying to figure out what the speaker meant. Meanwhile the speaker has already moved on the next topic, leaving the confused audience behind.
Now compare the above video with Dr. Ehrlich, who is still around speaking about his over population idea. Despite the depressing undertones of his message, he is able to grab the attention of people due to his skill in speaking, how he projects his personality, and his charisma. These qualities continue to get him on air to this day. The below interview was just from this year, and at 82 years old and has still got it.
Maybe the most interesting thing about the whole debate is that Dr. Ehrlich was off on his predictions, yet despite this, he was and still is able to get his message out to the public. I should put a disclaimer here that I actually agree with Dr. Ehrlich on most of his points, the planet will get to a tipping point where we could see collapse of societal infrastructure if we continue to stress the planet and our resources. The timing, severity and affects of said resource strain, however, I think are debatable. The take home message from this debate is that communication is so very important to get your message across. Not only must communication skills be considered as part of a scientific career, but you also have to practice often and develop your own charisma!