Monday, October 17, 2005

Liberal Fantasies Of Doom

Yesterday the Brit Sunday Times ran an opinion piece that showed breathtaking ignorance of science and economics.

Waiting for the lights to go out

The greatest getting-and-spending spree in the history of the world is about to end. The 200-year boom that gave citizens of the industrial world levels of wealth, health and longevity beyond anything previously known to humanity is threatened on every side. Oil is running out; the climate is changing at a potentially catastrophic rate; wars over scarce resources are brewing; finally, most shocking of all, we don't seem to be having enough ideas about how to fix any of these things.

The Sunday Times folks have no ideas on how to fix these problems because they're lefty liberal arts majors. Here at DU, we're happy to announce that building lots of nuclear power plants will fix the oil problem, that the climate isn't changing at a catastrophic rate but just enough to make life a bit nicer, and that if we do have to have any wars, we'll win them. Happy?

Probably not - the writer continues:

One of the strangest portents of the end of progress is the recent discovery that humans are losing their ability to come up with new ideas.

Jonathan Huebner is an amiable, very polite and very correct physicist who works at the Pentagon's Naval Air Warfare Center in China Lake, California.

After some elaborate mathematics, he came to a conclusion that raised serious questions about our continued ability to sustain progress. What he found was that the rate of innovation peaked in 1873 and has been declining ever since.

In fact, our current rate of innovation — which Huebner puts at seven important technological developments per billion people per year — is about the same as it was in 1600.

Huebner offers two possible explanations: economics and the size of the human brain.

You'll see that he's measuring innovation rate on a per-person basis. So, if the human population expands rapidly (as it has), he expects the number of innovations to increase proportionally.

So a third explanation is that most useful advances have come from a small group of nations that have grown their populations only moderately over the past 100 years - the Anglos, Nordics, Japan, Germany and the Jews.

Their relatively slow population growth is because there's a strong correlation between family size and the education level of women, and in these successful societies, women get decent education.

As a sanity check, try to think of significant scientific innovations from any of the areas that had exploding populations in the 20th Century - Islam, South America, Asia (excluding Japan) and Africa.

So we're not innovating less, it's just that the big increase in the world's population has been in groups that don't innovate - possibly for cultural reasons. Problem solved.

Maybe the Pentagon should give Mr. Huebner a chance to solve a really hard problem, like how to get a proper job.