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Bad Scholarship: Fatal Misconception by Matthew Connelly

Fatal Misconception by Matthew Connelly:

Page 2 gives a Malthus quote which it cites to a secondary source instead of a primary source. This is bad. The following footnote, also about Malthus, cites a primary source -- the same one that first quote came from. So why doesn't the first quote cite the primary source he had access to? That makes no sense; I guess he just doesn't consider giving primary source citations a priority to care about...

Moving on we've got something really bad, page 2:
The tone of unremitting gloom [of Malthus in his essay] never lifted. "Misery and the fear of misery", were, for Malthus, "the necessary and inevitable results of the laws of nature in the present stage of man's existence." [2]
The cite directs us to the exact paragraph in an online primary source which is very nice. It is:
I am sufficiently aware that the redundant millions which I have mentioned could never have existed. It is a perfectly just observation of Mr. Godwin, that "there is a principle in human society by which population is perpetually kept down to the level of the means of subsistence." The sole question is, what is this principle? Is it some obscure and occult cause? Is it some mysterious interference of Heaven, which at a certain period strikes the men with impotence, and the women with barrenness? Or is it a cause open to our researches, within our view; a cause which has constantly been observed to operate, though with varied force, in every state in which man has been placed? Is it not misery and the fear of misery, the necessary and inevitable results of the laws of nature in the present stage of man's existence, which human institutions, so far from aggravating, have tended considerably to mitigate, though they can never remove?
The quote text is accurate but the meaning for it which Connelly conveys is wrong. If you look at the rest of the sentence which Connelly cut off without elipsis, Malthus is saying something positive: that human institutions do not aggravate misery but considerably mitigate (significantly reduce) it.

The topic of the paragraph -- the context -- is discussing the issue of what keeps the population down. Malthus proposes misery and fear of misery as the answer to the question: what keeps the population level low?

Malthus is not saying life is miserable. This isn't gloom. He's saying that this is an issue which is "open to our researches" -- we can figure out what's going on and do something about it. Then he further says how human institions reduce misery. So this isn't gloom, Connelly has simply taken the quote out of context and misread it.

This is rather bad considering the full paragraph (even the full rest of the sentence Connelly cut off with no indication) is enough context to see that Connelly has it wrong.

Elliot Temple on May 8, 2012

Comments (2)

eye opener

maybe i've been brainwashed to think Malthus was an advocate of population control, and the philosophical father of all the modern policy initiatives in that direction. Thank you for pointing all this out, and I'll certainly look deeper into his works now. That said, I'm not convinced that the overall THRUST of his work was advocating science and technological innovations to support a growing population. Did he ever explore the contrary idea that a growing population is necessary for the kinds of technological advances that support growing populations? I don't think so. It's an interesting hypothesis. Elliot, do you really think Malthus has just been the victim of poor scholarship, and everyone just misunderstands his ESSENTIAL message?

Jeff owens at 9:27 PM on May 8, 2012 | #2145
I think you're going way beyond what I said.

These quotes and statements I've posted about are wrong and incorrectly portray Malthus. That doesn't make Malthus a good guy.

To comment on the THRUST of Malthus, I'd have to read his whole book (preferably several editions of it). I haven't done that. But what I can say is that I at least comprehended more of Malthus than these authors who published unscholarly slanders about him.

I am no fan of Malthus. Godwin (one of the best thinkers) wrote a book about how Malthus was badly wrong, and I know enough about Malthus' big argument about population and food growth to know that stuff is wrong. But I can also say Malthus wasn't a horrible villain who wanted to see the poor die of plague, and condemnations of Malthus ought to stick to the facts, and quotes of Malthus ought to be accurate.

Maybe Malthus said some nasty stuff about misery somewhere else. It wouldn't shock me; I don't know. But Connelly just cut off his quote mid sentence and didn't bother reading even a whole paragraph carefully enough to understand what it was talking about. I don't think Connelly knows whether what he's saying is the ESSENTIAL message of Malthus or not. How could he know that without better research? If Connelly actually knew legitimate bad passages/messages of Malthus, presumably he would have quoted those instead.

One of the things I wonder about, and don't know, is why Malthus thought food production would only grow linearly while population kept doubly. Wouldn't double the population mean double the farmers? As long as you don't run out of land, why couldn't double the people growing food mean double the food production? If I read more Malthus I will try to find out his answer to that. I think that's an example of a good question to ask if one wants to understand Malthus, but some people are too busy hating a fantasy to think about what his ideas actually were. And some people are too interested in big picture agendas to worry about getting any details right. But how can you know what big picture is true if you put it together out of little falsehoods?

Elliot at 10:11 PM on May 8, 2012 | #2146

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)