New Discussion Group

Do you like my blog posts? Interested in ideas? Want to get questions answered, have your ideas improved by criticism, get feedback and refinements, etc? You should join my discussion group:

This new group is intended to replace my other groups. Everything is now in one convenient place!

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Plastic Bag Bans are not Reforms

Reform is important. People have to make changes to make progress. But some ideas for change are good, and some are bad. To achieve reform, we need to sort out the good changes from the bad changes.

People can and do make mistakes frequently. To achieve reform, we have to use methods which are capable of figuring out our mistakes and improving on them. Methods which can do that are called “rational”.

If would-be reformers do not use rational methods, they will make things worse instead of better. They will implement mistaken ideas. That is destruction, not reform. So, how can we judge proposed reforms?

  • Uses reason to consider the issues.
  • Makes only true arguments.
  • Actually works as intended. Watch out for unintended consequences!
  • Makes things better, not worse. If possible it should be thoroughly better, not a mixed compromise.
  • Reforms should be cooperative, not adversarial.
  • Communicates why and how it is a reform. Aims to persuade people.
  • Most or all people agree to it voluntarily because they understand that it’s good.
  • Goes one step at a time instead of trying to remake society into a utopia tomorrow.
  • Has been considered critically.
  • Refutes all criticisms that try to say it’s a mistake.
Some cities are banning plastic bags at grocery stores. Lobbyists claim that they are reformers and their ban is a reform. It’s not.

Real reforms work as intended. Take a look and tell me if the plastic bag ban is working as intended:

How is this possible? Isn’t it illegal? Actually, where I live, the ban only applies when you visit a grocery store, but not to grocery deliveries. It has a big loophole.

Why does this happen? Because the “environmental activists” did not successfully communicate why the ban is good. Safeway isn’t persuaded that plastic bags are bad, so it still uses plastic bags in legal ways. If the activists had made better arguments, then Safeway would work with them and follow the spirit of the ban. Instead, the activists used irrational adversarial methods, instead of finding a way to cooperate with Safeway for mutual benefit.

Plastic bag bans also increase shoplifting. That is an unintended, bad consequence.

Plastic bag bans (and their arguments) have been critically considered but have not successfully addressed the criticisms, as rational reform would.

Why are plastic bags worse than other types of bags? Why should they be banned? Where is the rational analysis?

Actually this has been studied, but the activists and lobbyists chose to irrationally ignore the results. The study by the UK’s Environment Agency concluded, “The conventional HDPE [plastic] bag had the lowest environmental impacts of the lightweight bags in eight of the nine impact categories.” And that study didn’t even consider the costs of laundry or washing bags!

Environmental impact is not the best way to consider plastic bags. But it is the way the anti-bag lobbyists look at it, and they are wrong by their own standards.

The right way to look at bags is in terms of human impact. What is the impact on human lives? Does a particular policy make life better or worse for human beings? Humans should come first.

When all types of bags were available, plastic bags were chosen because they were the best for humans. Grocery stores wanted happy customers. Plastic bags are strong, light, clean and cheap. Banning them denies humans these wonderful, modern benefits of plastic bags.

The anti-plastic-bag lobby has argued that the bags use up our limited oil supplies. However, this is simply false. Real reform avoids factually false claims.

Anti-plastic-bag activists have not communicated a coherent, well-reasoned, true argument for why plastic bags should be banned. Plastic bags are good for humans and good for the environment, and complaints such as their use of oil are false.

The plastic bag ban does not meet the criteria necessary to qualify as a reform. It is actually irrational, pointless destruction, not reform.

That illustrates how to approach reform the wrong way. What is the right way? Let’s consider a concrete example.

A rational reform was the transition from transportation by horses to cars. Horses had problems such as polluting the streets with poop, getting you wet in the rain, and being slow. Changing to cars made life better for people; it reformed the old situation.

How was this reform accomplished? By voluntary action and rational argument. People were not forced to give up their horses, nor were they forced to use cars. They didn’t have to be forced because they understood that the new way was better. People wanted to make the change and happily participated, rather than working against it (like Safeway continues to use all the plastic bags they can).

Not everyone changed right away. Early cars were expensive and had some other downsides, but over time cars became clearly superior. And some people had special circumstances that made a horse better for them personally (even today some people still have horses, and that’s fine). So each person switched to a car if and when it made sense for him. Forcing someone to buy a car that isn’t right for him, or not letting someone buy a car when he decides it’s best, would both hurt people.

Even when a reform is a good idea, such as switching from horses to cars, it still has to be approached in the right way or it could hurt people. People should only switch when they are persuaded – when they think switching is best for themselves. Reforms should proceed by voluntary methods and people should make changes when their rational judgment says to.

Changes in bag use should be approached more like cars and transportation were.

This is not a new idea. People who want to be thinkers and reformers should know better. They should take responsibility for learning how to reform correctly before trying to do it. The philosophers Edmund Burke and William Godwin explained reform around 1790, for example Godwin wrote:
Let us consider the effect that coercion produces upon the mind of him against whom it is employed. It cannot begin with convincing; it is no argument. It begins with producing the sensation of pain, and the sentiment of distaste. It begins with violently alienating the mind from the truth with which we wish it to be impressed. It includes in it a tacit confession of imbecility. If he who employs coercion against me could mould me to his purposes by argument, no doubt he would. He pretends to punish me because his argument is strong; but he really punishes me because his argument is weak.
People make mistakes. Trying to argue your case is a great way to test if you might be making a mistake. If you persuade people, maybe you’re right, or at least no one knows better. If you don’t persuade people, maybe you’re wrong, maybe someone knows better, maybe someone can tell you something you didn’t know. So attempting persuasion is a rational win/win approach; it works out well whether you’re mistaken or not.

If your explanations fail to persuade people, it’s time to consider that you might be mistaken, or you might not have clear enough ideas. If your ideas aren’t clear enough for other people to understand why they are true, you shouldn’t be persuaded either. Your ideas aren’t good enough (yet). Reconsider or work on them more.

If you can persuade people, that is a good sign that you have a quality idea. It’s a good candidate for reform. If you cannot do that – if your idea isn’t that quality – that’s an unbelievably bad excuse for using force.

Why doesn’t the anti-plastic-bag lobby persuade everyone to stop using plastic bags? Because they can’t. It’s that simple: they would persuade everyone if they could, but they can’t.

Their arguments are not good enough. So far, they’ve failed at persuasive reasoning. And how do they react to that? Irrationally. Anti-plastic-bag lobbyists pretend that they ban plastic bags because their arguments are strong. Actually they do it because their arguments are weak.

They aim to force their bad ideas on us, rather than aiming to improve their ideas. Changing society that way is not reform, it is irrational destruction.

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Plastic Bag Ban Article

I wrote a new article for the Center for Industrial Progress. It's about a ban on plastic grocery bags:

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I Changed My Mind About David Deutsch

I have changed my mind about some things I have communicated about David Deutsch. I think the responsible thing to do is to say so.

When someone puts forward ideas in public, and persuades people, but then changes his mind, he ought to tell people. They shouldn't go by his old ideas with no chance for an update and to maybe change their minds too.

For example, if Thomas Szasz had decided he was mistaken that mental illness is a myth, then he would have been responsible for publishing a retraction and correction, and explaining why he changed his mind. Not doing so would have been immoral and irresponsible.

I do not know exactly what I have communicated about David Deutsch over the last decade, in public. This is partly an issue of memory, partly an issue of some things being communicated inexplicitly (without directly saying them, but they still come across), and partly an issue of trying to remember what was said in private or in public.

Let me clarify my relationship with David. I have known David for over a decade and had many, many discussions with him. For David's book The Beginning of Infinity, I provided over 200 pages of especially appreciated comments and edits. I made and own the website and discussion group for the book. David is a founder of Taking Children Seriously (TCS) and Autonomy Respecting Relationships (ARR). I own the dicussion groups for both of those, too.

We no longer associate closely. Things changed. I have learned a lot from David and I used to think we agreed more than I now think. I now regard David as rejecting some important good ideas. For some of these ideas, I had thought I learned them from David, but I've changed my mind about that.

Here are some things I have changed my mind about.

I believe I have communicated that David is a world class expert on TCS, ARR, and some other parts of philosophy. I thought he was. However, he has stopped talking about a lot of that stuff and has said things exposing misconceptions. So I've changed my mind.

I think have communicated that I consider David a better philosopher than myself with higher status and more knowledge. I have changed my mind.

In the past I think I basically said David is always right. I did not mean it literally but I did mean something, and I have changed my mind.

I believe I have communicated that David is super rational. That I endorse him and his ideas pretty much without exception. That I'm a big fan. I've changed my mind.

I've said that David is a fan of Ayn Rand. He made this claim to me and I accepted it. I've changed my mind.

The list of issues I now know that I disagree with David about includes qualia, mirror neurons, Edmund Burke, Thomas Szasz, Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, William Godwin's economics, deduction, hard to vary, meta discussion, justificationism, the value of school and academia, and the right approach to email discussions. Note that I have left some out to respect David's privacy.

Despite David's TCS reputation, and arguments against school, he actually has a a much more favorable opinion of university and academia than I do. His position on school is incompatible with TCS.

I believe I have communicated that David has the utmost intellectual integrity and responsibility. He does not. I thought he did; I was surprised when he acted otherwise; I've changed my mind.

People can seem more rational than they are as long as they are right frequently. This can happen when they already know a lot of things, but are not learning new things. When there are serious criticisms of their thinking then they are put to a harder test. Critical challenges can be particularly revealing about someone's character. David has done poorly on several.

I still consider The Fabric of Reality and The Beginning of Infinity to be very good books. They are world class. And there are other things David has written that are good.

I made every effort to avoid this outcome. For example, I tried to help David by explaining his misconceptions and offering him new ideas.

I have learned from this. In the future I will hold people to a higher standard. Many of my comments about David were years past, and I have improved my judgment.

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Don't Take Power For Granted

I wrote a blog post for the Center for Industrial Progress.

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Thomas Szasz

Thomas Szasz died on Sept 8, 2012. He was a great and wise man, and a friend who I miss.

The article does not say how he died. I hope he controlled and chose his own death (edit: he did commit autohomicide), because that is the best way. Here is one of Szasz's many wise comments on suicide, in his last book, Suicide Prohibition: The Shame of Medicine:
We do not and must not hold a person responsible, nor must he hold himself responsible, for a natural event or human action over which he has no control. However, we must hold a person responsible, and he should hold himself responsible, for acts that he can, or ought to be able to, control. Prohibiting death control-like prohibiting birth control and other self-regarding behaviors-reduces the individual's opportunities to assume responsibility for these behaviors and makes the person dependent on external controls instead of self-control. Therein lies the most insidious danger of using prohibitions to regulate behaviors that can, in the final analysis, be effectively regulated only by internal controls. If young people believe that they cannot, need not, or must not control how they procreate-because assuming such control is sinful or because others will assume responsibility for the consequences of their behavior-then they are likely to create new life irresponsibly. Similarly, if old people believe that they cannot, need not, or must not control how they die-because assuming such control signifies that they are insane or because others will assume responsibility for the consequences of their behavior-then they are likely to die irresponsibly.
Szasz wrote extensively about psychiatric coercion, the myth of mental illness, and related topics. He covered the history of psychiatry, drugs, suicide, ethics, the medicalization of everyday life, and more.

What fewer people know is that he was a broader thinker who went beyond psychiatry. He discussed, at a world class level, philosophical and political topics such as autonomy, self-control, responsibility and freedom. He was well read and had extensive knowledge of political philosophers and economists like Mises, Hayek, Rothbard, Rand and Burke. He also understood Karl Popper's writings. He applied his expertise in these matters to psychiatric issues, in addition to having insight in psychiatry itself. His breadth was crucial to the high quality and consistency of his thinking. The norm is to stray outside one's expertise and consequently make frequent mistakes, but Szasz avoided this by having incredible breadth of understanding. And because Szasz understood so much of life, his writing was much more interesting, filled with insights applicable to more than psychiatry, and compatible with the best ideas outside of psychiatry. Further, because many parts of life and fields of thought are connected, his inter-disciplinary approach allowed for insight that narrower thinkers could not achieve.

Szasz was a truly critical thinker. It's a very rare quality, but Szasz genuinely appreciated criticism. This is one of the most important metrics for judging any intellectual and Szasz deserves immense credit for it. Szasz was also a responsible man who could take responsibility for his mistakes that were criticized, even while correcting them. He was not the type of person to make excuses and rationalizations, or to lie to himself. Nor was he the type of person to admit a mistake to himself while hiding it from others to protect a public image.

Szasz was one of the best philosophers of all time, competitive with the greats like Popper, Rand, Burke and Deutsch.

To learn more, I strongly recommend Szasz's books. I think everyone interested in ideas should read a bare minimum of ten of them. I also created an informative iOS app about psychiatry.

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Zubrin Replies

I sent Robert Zubrin my earlier blog post fact-checking his book, Merchants of Despair. This is the full text of his amazing reply:
So you are fine with the deaths of millions of Irish and Indians, under the
administration of British Malthusians, the murder of millions of Jews and
Slavs by German Malthusians, and the myriad ongoing worldwide crimes of
other Malthusians ever since.
I guess they were all misquoted too.

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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.

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Bad Scholarship: Population Control by Steven W. Mosher

Population Control: Real Costs, Illusory Benefits by Steven W. Mosher, p 32
Such a fate [population catastrophe], Malthus argued, could only be avoided by stern, even pitiless, measures. [...] [Things got better in the Industrial Revolution e.g. lower death rate.] Malthus proposed to undo all this:

[blockquote] All children born, beyond what would be required to keep up the population to a desired level, must necessarily perish, unless room be made for them by the deaths of grown persons.... Therefore ... we should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavouring to impede, the operations of nature in producing this mortality; and if we dread the too frequent visitation of the horrid form of famine, we should sedulously encourage the other forms of destruction, which we compel nature to use. Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country, we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations. But above all, we should reprobate [I.e. reject -- this is from Mosher] specific remedies for ravaging diseases; and those benevolent, but much mistaken men, who have thought they were doing a service to mankind by projecting schemes for the total extirpation of particular disorders.

[Back to Mosher writing] These were strange, almost diabolical, views for a member of the Christian clergy to hold.
This is completely wrong. Details to follow:

The source it gives is a secondary source, a 1977 book. Why would you quote a secondary source for a very well known and easily available Malthus book? The full text is even free online now. This Mosher book came out in 2008 so I'm pretty sure it was already free online then too.

Quoting secondary sources, instead of primary, is bad practice for any kind of scholarly book. You should always use primary sources when they are available. Mosher wants to be a scholar; he gives lots of sources and notes for his book; but he's doing it wrong.

If you trust secondary sources some of them are going to be wrong. Like Mosher himself if someone trusted him on Malthus. Or like Zubrin or like the secondary source Mosher quoted.

Another problem with citing a secondary source is I can't tell what edition of Malthus' book he's quoting from without getting the secondary source book. Either he's quoting from an edition other than the 6th, or some words have been changed.

The 6th edition says "All the children born" instead of "All children born" and "keep up the population to this level" instead of "keep up the population to a desired level". Other than that it's the same.

Now on to the important part: this quote is taken out of context. The chapter title is this:

"Of the Consequences of pursuing the opposite Mode."

It is the "opposite mode" that Malthus is describing in the quote. He's not advocating it. It's the opposite of what he advocates. He's saying the consequences of not doing what he advocates (which is moral restraint) will be all these horrible things.

So basically Malthus said, "Do what I suggest (moral restraint), or all this horrible stuff is going to happen." Then Mosher quotes the horrible stuff and says Malthus wanted that horrible stuff.

By moral restraint, Malthus means people shouldn't marry and have children irresponsibily. They should have enough wealth to support a child before having that child. That's his favored solution to population problems. But Mosher claims Malthus' favored solution is plague and disease, and then calls Malthus a villain. This is just plain wrong and terrible research.

Zubrin did the same thing with almost the same quote. All of Zubrin's other Malthus quotes were wrong. And it's the same for Mosher. He provides one big out of context quote then moves on, considering the issue settled. When you're going to rely on a single quote or just a couple quotes, you need to get it right! This is so bad. People want to attack "Malthusians" in their book, so they include a section on Malthus, but they don't do any reasonable research and don't understand him at all and misquote him.

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Bad Scholarship: Merchants of Despair by Robert Zubrin

After reading Merchants of Despair, I decided to do some fact checking and to learn about some of the topics in more detail. I started in chapter 1 about Malthus. I found serious scholarly errors. Next I skipped to material about population control and President Lyndon Johnson. Again I found serious scholarly errors. I have not fact checked the rest of the book; I did not fact check any other part and find it was OK. Topics I already knew something about (DDT, nuclear power, Julian Simon's bet about resource prices) seemed correct when I first read them. I think the book is approximately correct in general claims and has some good philosophical ideas, but it gets a lot of details wrong. Do not trust its specifics. Educate yourself by reading further books on the topics that interest you.

Below I detail some scholarly errors I found. I only checked a small amount of material to find these. If we assume the rate of errors is representative of the rest of the book, then that's really quite bad.


Zubrin does Malthus fast and hard, and then talks about what is "Malthusian" throughout the rest of the book, relying on the early presentation of Malthus in chapter 1. In chapter 1, he provides only two Malthus quotes. After that he moves on to quoting people he identifies as Malthusians. Both Malthus quotes are misquotes. He also provides a very clear and direct paraphrase of Malthus, which he cites to two Malthus chapters. But Zubrin's story is a fantasy not backed up by his cites. This is very poor and unacceptable level of scholarly research.

First Malthus Misquote

Malthus prescribed specific policies to keep population down by raising the death rate:

[blockquote] We are bound in justice and honour to disclaim the right of the poor to support. . . . [W]e should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavouring to impede, the operations of nature in producing this mortality; and if we dread the too frequent visitation of the horrid form of famine, we should sedulously encourage the other forms of destruction, which we compel nature to use. Instead of recommending cleanliness to the poor, we should encourage contrary habits. In our towns we should make the streets narrower, crowd more people into the houses, and court the return of the plague. In the country, we should build our villages near stagnant pools, and particularly encourage settlements in all marshy and unwholesome situations. But above all, we should reprobate specific remedies for ravaging diseases; and those benevolent, but much mistaken men, who have thought they were doing a service to mankind by projecting schemes for the total extirpation of particular disorders.[3]

Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 128-136). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
Malthus' view as presented is despicable. But it's both misquoted and taken out of context.

The actual quote can be found here:

Principle of Population Bk.IV Ch.V

Principle of Population Bk.IV Ch.VIII

This is the same edition Zubrin cites, see here:

Principle of Population, Card Catalog Information

Why can it be found in two different chapters? Because Zubrin took two different Malthus quotes and combined them into one quote for his book. Then he cited it as if it was just one quote from book 4 chapter 5.

The first part of what Zubrin quotes, before the ellipsis, is actually from three chapters later. And it's edited. The bulk of the quote, starting at "[W]e should facilitate" is a correct quote in the literal sense but completely out of context and misleading. But besides being out of context, Zubrin doctored it by adding an initial sentence, from elsewhere in the book, which he also changed the wording of. This is an unacceptable distortion of the facts.

Besides moving a Malthus sentence out of context, Zubrin edited it. It actually reads (from 4.8):
As a previous step even to any considerable alteration in the present system, which would contract or stop the increase of the relief to be given, it appears to me that we are bound in justice and honour formally to disclaim the right of the poor to support.
Zubrin made the following changes:

He started mid-sentence while giving no indication of doing so.

He changed "we" to "We". This is especially misleading because immediately afterwards he uses "[W]e" to indicate the same type of change. Since he indicates it the other time, you would expect him to indicate it other times. This sort of inconsistency in quoting practices is extra misleading to the reader.

He deleted the word "formally".

He un-italicized the word "right".

These things make it a serious misquote. Plus he moved it three chapters earlier out of context. When he cited the quote, he did not cite the chapter this actually comes from, only the chapter the other part of his supposed-quote is from. This is very unscholarly.

But it gets worse. Did Malthus really want plague? No. His argument is structured like this: (I haven't read the whole book but I read enough to get the basic idea and see that Zubrin had this part wrong, you can get a lot of context from the two chapters prior to the one Zubrin quotes. 4.3 and 4.4)

What we need is moral restraint. Do not marry and have kids if you can't afford them. The poor laws are bad because they subsidize having kids you can't afford and they make promises they can't keep. What are the alternatives to moral restraint? Nothing good because of limited resources. Too big a population will lead to famine. Or if we don't want big nasty famines, then the logical consequence is we should keep people dying off regularly from plague, disease, dirtiness, crowding, malaria, etc... But Malthus is not advocating that, he's saying it's the consequences of lack of moral restraint. What he's advocating is moral restraint.

So Malthus was saying, "If we don't do what I'm suggesting, then what happens? All this bad stuff." And Zubrin has quoted that bad stuff out of context and said it's what Malthus was proposing. That's utterly wrong.

Second Malthus Misquote

In a letter to economist David Ricardo, Malthus laid out the basis for this policy: “The land in Ireland is infinitely more peopled than in England; and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the population should be swept from the soil.”[12]

Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 189-191). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
This is commonly misquoted. Maybe Zubrin didn't know any better. He cited a secondary source for this which I haven't checked. Regardless, he's guilty of bad scholarship. He should have checked a primary source whenever he could instead of relying on secondary sources. If I can find out the truth of this one just with Google, he ought to have been able to find out too using Google, book writing skills, libraries, and his swarm of interns:
I wish to acknowledge my debt to New Atlantis interns A. Barrett Bowdre, Elias Brockman, Nathaniel J. Cochran, Jonathan Coppage, Brendan Foht, and Edward A. Rubin, who put in many weeks at the Library of Congress verifying, and where necessary correcting, every fact, quote, and footnote in this book.

Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 3693-3695). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
Many weeks of work verifying "every fact, quote, and footnote"? Well, I believe they tried, but it was shoddy work that, sadly, overall, failed at its task.

This Malthus quote is edited, truncated, and taken out of context. This gives the false impression that Malthus wanted lots of people dead. "Swept from the soil" sounds like killed or at least gone. He didn't want them to live and exist anymore. Except that isn't what Malthus actually said or meant. The full quote, in context, is completely different and is part of a dry, economics discussion. It has nothing to do with genocide. But Zubrin falsely presents Malthus as genocidal using this fake quote (twice).

The full quote can easily be found with Google by any researcher (no doubt libraries have it too! e.g. the Library of Congress which Zubrin sent a bunch of interns to). I found it on these four webpages: one, two, three, four.

The most informative one actually explains the issue of this passage being misquoted:
An examination of the full text of this letter finds Malthus's intent to be far different that [sic] the one implied by the truncated wording commonly used by Mokyr and others. As a reading of the whole letter makes clear, in this correspondence Malthus was conveying his surprise that the Irish economy was not as bad as he had been led to expect. He commented earlier in the letter that "[t]hough the distress was certainly great, it was I think on the whole less than I expected." Referring particularly to the south, where he had toured through Tipperary, Waterford, Kerry, and Limerick, Malthus noted that "great marks of improvement were observable." It is in this context that Malthus undertook his observation on the Irish population that Mokyr cites. In this section of the letter, Malthus was reflection not on overpopulation and hunger, but rather on employment and wages. He noted that Ireland possesses "a population greatly in excess above the demand for labor." In this context, Malthus went on to make an economic argument concerning the distribution of labor "[t]he Land in Ireland is infinitely more peopled than in England; and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the this population should be swept from the soil into large manufacturing and commercial Towns."[11] In examining the unedited quotation, it is clearer why Malthus emphasized the word Land in his letter, to very explicitly contrast it to the towns mentioned in the frequently elided ending phrase. The central issue here for Malthus was not the absolute scale of the population of Ireland, but rather its concentration in agriculture rather than industry. As this example well illustrates, the tendency to misread Malthus as a Malthusian is strong, especially in the wake of the Great Hunger.[12]
I'm not sure what he means about misreading "Malthus as a Malthusian". But in any case, Zubrin lowercased the word "Land" (I'm unsure what is italicized in the original which I don't have a copy of), Zubrin omitted the context, and Zubrin incorrectly presented the quote as ending on the word "soil" without revealing that Malthus wanted to sweep them off the Land into Towns for economic reasons, rather than wanting genocide as Zubrin falsely implies. Overall, it means one thing and Zubrin misquoted it to mean something else very different.

Malthus False Summary

In short, Malthus argued that we should do whatever we can to encourage disease, and we should condemn doctors who try to find cures. In addition, everything should be done to keep the wages of working people as low as possible.[4]

Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 137-138). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
And the source on that:
3 Thomas Malthus, Essay on Population, 6th ed. (London: John Murray, 1826), bk. IV, chap. 5,300–301.
4 Ibid., bk. iii, chap.7, especially 371–375; ibid., bk. iv, chap. 1.

Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 3716-3718). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
So, to see if Zubrin's summary was accurate, I read those chapters (3.7 and 4.1), in the 6th edition from 1826. They are available here:

Principle of Population Bk.III Ch.VII

Principle of Population Bk.IV Ch.I

One of the problems here is it's hard to tell which text the citation is intended to cover. At first I thought it was covering both sentences. But what Zubrin says here about disease and doctors isn't in the cited chapters (3.7 and 4.1). I've now figured out the disease sentence is referring to the previous misquote (in which Malthus suggests we "court the return of the plague"). Whereas the wages sentence, which looks like it goes with the disease sentence, is actually separate and refers to a different part of the book, found in the footnote.

So far this is confusing but not actually a very big deal (though bear in mind that his summary about Malthus wanting to "encourage disease" is just as completely false as the implications of out of context quote. This is a summary only of Zubrin's total misreading of his misquote). But it gets worse. Zubrin summarized Malthus, "In addition, everything should be done to keep the wages of working people as low as possible." That is absolutely not what Malthus says in the cited chapters (3.7 and 4.1), which I read through specifically to check for this.

Zubrin provides primary source citations to give the superficial appearance of having done proper research. But he hasn't; he is misleading his reader. Books should not be traps to fool their readers!

I'd like to show you this with quotes but how do I quote Malthus to demonstrate that his text lacks the statements Zubrin says it has? Click the links and search them yourself on words like "wages", "low" or "possible". I did that in addition to reading the full chapters. Zubrin's claim about keeping wages as low as possible is just not there; Zubrin made it up and then falsely represented it as a summary of Malthus.

The closest Malthus comes is some economic arguments about how you can't make the poor rich with minimum wage laws. These bear no resemblance to Zubrin's supposed summary, but maybe Zubrin (who does not understand economics and praised minimum wage laws twice in the book) confused Malthus discussing facts of economics for Malthus trying to keep wages for the poor low. That's my best guess at what happened but there is really no excuse.

I'll try to give you a sense of what Malthus actually said when he talked about wages in 3.7 (I don't know why 4.1 was cited, it doesn't even mention wages and is irrelevant):
What I have really proposed is a very different measure. It is the gradual and very gradual abolition of the poor-laws. And the reason why I have ventured to suggest a proposition of this kind for consideration is my firm conviction, that they have lowered very decidedly the wages of the labouring classes, and made their general condition essentially worse than it would have been if these laws had never existed. [...]

To remedy the effects of this competition from the country, the artificers and manufacturers in towns have been apt to combine, with a view to keep up the price of labour, and to prevent persons from working below a certain rate. But such combinations are not only illegal, but irrational and ineffectual; and if the supply of workmen in any particular branch of trade be such as would naturally lower wages, the keeping them up forcibly must have the effect of throwing so many out of employment, as to make the expense of their support fully equal to the gain acquired by the higher wages, and thus render these higher wages in reference to the whole body perfectly futile.

It may be distinctly stated to be an absolute impossibility that all the different classes of society should be both well paid and fully employed, if the supply of labour on the whole exceed the demand; and as the poor-laws tend in the most marked manner to make the supply of labour exceed the demand for it, their effect must be, either to lower universally all wages, or, if some are kept up artificially, to throw great numbers of workmen out of employment, and thus constantly to increase the poverty and distress of the labouring classes of society.
Malthus wants to very gradually abolish the poor-laws, which he says have lowered the wages of the labouring classes and made their lives worse. His plan is to improve the lives of the workers and raise their wages by this reform! Zubrin said pretty much the opposite, that Malthus wants wages to be low; actually Malthus wants to improve wages. More generally, Malthus wasn't trying to make the poor miserable or kill them, and actually he wanted to improve their lives (by explaining moral restraint and reforming bad laws. Also by understanding resource limit, population growth and crop yield issues, about which Malthus was mistaken but not evil).

Malthus further discusses minimum wage laws, which he says are illegal, irrational and ineffectual. He tries to explain why they won't help the labourers. He basically says that if you force wages above the market rate, this causes unemployment and doesn't provide more wealth to the poor people overall as a group.

Zubrin's scholarship here was very bad and he misstated what Malthus was saying.

To clear things up about Malthus a bit more, in general, he meant well, at least according to his book (first edition preface):
If he [the author, Malthus himself] should succeed in drawing the attention of more able men, to what he conceives to be the principal difficulty in the way to the improvement of society, and should, in consequence, see this difficulty removed, even in theory, he will gladly retract his present opinions and rejoice in a conviction of his error.

Indira Gandhi

Indira Gandhi arrived in Washington in late March and met first with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, who handed her a memo requiring “a massive effort to control population growth” as a condition for food aid. Then on March 28, 1966, she met privately with the president. There is no record of their conversation, but it is evident that she capitulated completely.

Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 2508-2510). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
False. Indira Gandhi was already in favor of population control before meeting with Lyndon Johnson. She did not "capitulate". Zubrin presents a false, anti-American picture in which the US pressures Indira Gandhi into semi-betraying her country accepting unwanted population control, in return for food aid (India was having a famine at this time).

Zubrin's anti-American story is based on his imagination, not historical facts. I learned this reading books which Zubrin himself cites, so you might expect him to have read them too. They clearly tell a different story, but Zubrin changed the story to make USA look worse and bias his book to have more of a "USA and other first world countries screw over the third world" slant (which is a theme throughout, with some truth to it, but apparently Zubrin is so committed to this cause that it matters to him more than facts do.)

Here's the real story:

The Coming Population Crash And Out Planet's Surprising Future, by Fred Pearce, p 60 (this is a book Zubrin cites and therefore ought to have read):
Johnson found an unexpected ally: the newly elected Indian prime minister, Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi. As minister of information, she had run aggressive family planning propaganda for her father. Now she wanted to do more than exhort. After the two leaders met in March 1966, Johnson reported back to Congress... [that they agreed about the population control agenda]
Since I discovered Fred Pearce is himself a poor scholar, I didn't know what to believe yet. So I checked Zubrin's source for this specific passage. It's Fatal Misconception by Matthew Connelly, p 222. Connelly backs up Pearce (and then some), while contradicting Zubrin.

Connelly says nothing about Indira Gandhi capitulating. Instead he says, p 222, "Johnson did not have to insist." Why not? Because of stuff like this, "the local USAID administrator noted that, under Gandhi and Mehta's leadership, 'more punch in very recent weeks is being added tot he Central Government's family planning program.'" Indira Gandhi was already in favor of population control without Johnson having to make her capitulate. The US didn't need to pressure her into it, she already wanted to do it to her own people.

There are more details in Connelly, p 221.
[Indira Gandhi] had wanted to donate her family's ancestral home in Allahabad so that it could become an Institute for Family Planning. As information minister, she had pressed a plan to distribute hundreds of thousands of radios across rural India to transmit family planning information. And Gandhi together with Rama Rau was also among those who had been pressuring Nayar to pay women to accept IUD insertion. [70]
After being elected, "Gandhi's interest in family planning was apparent in her first meeting with Ambassador Bowles. So too was her evident need for American help." Bowles said good relationships would require three things: 1) "peace with Pakistan" 2) "genuine and positive neutrality in the Cold War" 3) Connelly quotes his own source for this one, which says, "pragmatic economic policies ... giving high priority to agriculture, education and population planning." Connelly continues:
Gandhi replied that managing relations on this basis would be any "easy matter," promising to
"press hard on such programs as family planning." On January 25, 1966, the day after she was formally sworn into office, the Ministry of Health was renamed the Ministry of Health and Family Planning, including a separate department with its own permanent secretary and minister of state. [71]
Indira Gandhi did not implement population control measures under US pressure. She didn't capitulate. She was eager to do these things and got started right away, months prior to meeting Johnson. Zubrin misleads us in a way that contradicts his own sources.

Lyndon Johnson

Zubrin tells a story in which Johnson gets in office and then population control advocates want to get him on board with population control and have to persuade him.
To get President Johnson on board, [people showed Johnson a fraudulent study]

Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Location 2281). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
In passing the study on to Bundy, Komer commented: “Here’s a little flank attack that I think might just penetrate LBJ’s defenses . . . . It might score.”[9]

It did. Johnson bought the claptrap, including the phony mathematical results. Two months later, he declared to the United Nations that “five dollars invested in population control is worth a hundred dollars invested in economic growth.” Having succeeded in this policy coup, “Blowtorch” Komer was promoted...

Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 2287-2290). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
With the Johnson administration now backing population control, Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act in 1966...

Zubrin, Robert (2012-03-20). Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (New Atlantis Books) (Kindle Locations 2292-2293). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
Notice the date of 1966. The thing is, Johnson was already in favor of population control before this. I learned this, again, from a book Zubrin himself cites and presumably read.

The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson: The White House Years by Joseph A. Califano, Jr. is a primary source book. California worked in the Johnson administration and tells about it firsthand. It says, p 154:
Previous presidents had either opposed mounting government birth-control programs, finessed the issue, or gingerly approved a little research on population control. Johnson himself had waited until he was elected in his own right to unveil his position. Then, in his January 4, 1965, State of the Union message, Johnson had said, "I will seek new ways to use our knowledge to help deal with the explosion in world population and the growing scarcity in world resources."
So who needs to trick Johnson with a "flank attack" and fraudulent study? He already agreed with their basic agenda enough to advocate it in major public speeches since since at least January 1965. Zubrin presents it as a "policy coup" to trick Johnson into believing a position he'd already been advocating. That's bad historical research, apparently including not paying much attention to Zubrin's own sources.


As we've seen, Zubrin has multiple misquotes and factual inaccuracies in the areas I checked. I fear the rest of the book may have a similar densities of serious errors. It strains credibility that I just happened to choose the only two poorly researched parts to investigate.

UPDATE: I sent this post to Robert Zubrin, author of Merchants of Despair. This is the full text of his reply:
So you are fine with the deaths of millions of Irish and Indians, under the
administration of British Malthusians, the murder of millions of Jews and
Slavs by German Malthusians, and the myriad ongoing worldwide crimes of
other Malthusians ever since.
I guess they were all misquoted too.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (13)

Bad Scholarship: The Coming Population Crash and Our Planet's Surprising Future by Fred Pearce

I found numerous serious scholarship problems in the first 3 pages.
It led him [Malthus] to oppose the English Poor Laws, which had for two hundred years offered the destitute meager protection inside workhouses.
That's not a good statement of how the English Poor Laws worked. Workhouses became a larger part of the English Poor Laws later in 1834.
Their daughter [of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft] had eloped at sixteen with the poet shelley and wrote the far-from-utopian gothic horror novel Frankenstein.
The implication here is that her book disagree with her father's, which Pearce called utopian, and Pearce offers this in the context of Godwin's life getting "off track". Godwin wrote a utopian book, his daughter wrote a far-from-utopian book, says Pearce. This picture of father and daughter in conflict is completely wrong. Well, they did have some conflict but not about this. Frankenstein is very much in line with Godwin's views and advocates a lot of his important ideas. Focussing on the setting/genre of Frankenstein is superficial and misses the point. It also ignores the mood of William Godwin's own novels, which wasn't necessarily positive. In both Caleb Williams and St. Leon, Godwin tells a pretty grim and sad story, while still advocating his principles. Frankenstein does the same and has a lot in common with her father's novels.
Just as Godwin had earlier caught the wave of revolutionary optimism [during the early days of the French Revolution], so Malthus now rode the backlash [when the French Revolution was unpopular].
This is hard to comment on because "caught the wave" is a vague metaphor. I first read it as meaning that Godwin was a revolutionary who said and believe pro-French-Revolution things and was caught up in the cause at the time. But it could merely mean that his popularity was due to other people doing that, even though he didn't. Either is false, though the second much less false. There was something that could be called French Revolutionary optimism, and while Godwin himself refused to take part, it may have helped provide a portion of Godwin's popularity. Not very much though because Godwin's book did attack the principles of the French Revolution, and he himself alienated many French Revolution supports by disagreeing with them. (During the French Revolution, people complained that Godwin wasn't favorable enough to reason and reform. Later, after many of them had changed their minds, they complained he was too favorable to that kind of thing. Godwin's position stayed constant while other people flip-flopped. Overall Godwin -- not to mention the whole world -- would have been much better off with no French Revolution, but maybe one could credit a little of Godwin's early popularity to revolutionary optimism.)
... the world-famous Norfolk revolutionary Thomas Paine had published his liberation manifesto, The Rights of Man. Freedom was in the air.
Actually Thomas Paine was an enemy of freedom and friend of violence. His book was more of a libel against Edmund Burke (who was, somewhat alone, doing his utmost to save the world from violent destruction -- and he succeeded!) than a liberation manifesto. It was irresponsible and dangerous. Worse, the statement "Freedom was in the air" implies the French Revolution itself -- which had already started and was in the air -- has a connection to freedom (other than the destruction of freedom...)

You might call this one a political disagreement rather than a scholarship issue but I don't think it does nearly enough to openly present itself as mere political opinion. If you want to advocate your politics, go ahead, but don't disguise it as factual-historical statements.

The other things I criticize in this post are worse, but I wanted to include this one too because Pearce is basically pretending to quickly catch us up on some history, but actually he's providing a heavily biased version that is more propaganda than history. He's disguising his agenda as historical summary.

Also, as far as historical summary goes, considering the book focussed so much on attacking Burke, to pretend the topic was liberation, without mentioning Burke anywhere in the discussion, is pretty wrong. And also, the way this is presented basically puts Paine and Godwin in the same category which is totally wrong. Just to take one example, Paine was very anti-Burke and Godwin very pro-Burke.

I think when I say Burke was trying to save the world from violent destruction, everyone knows I am taking sides (I think correctly and objectively, but you may disagree). But when Pearce speaks about Paine, it looks more like mere historical description, even though it isn't.
... English journalist William Godwin, who in 1793 published a popular manifesto for an anarchist utopia called Enquiry Concerning Political Justice.

Malthus ... was having none of this libertarian babble.
Godwin was not a journalist. He was primarily an author of serious books.

Political Justice was not a manifesto. It was, as the title says, an enquiry into the truth.

Godwin was not a utopian.

Godwin was not a libertarian. Political Justice says a lot of things which libertarians would disagree with. We can see this just within what Pearce quotes Godwin saying, "Every man will seek, with ineffable ardour, the good of all." That is not a libertarian sentiment.

Godwin is misquoted with no footnote. There is no mention of edition but 1793 is mentioned so we might assume the first edition. But the quote given does not match the first or third edition (the third is the last and most common).

Pearce quotes Godwin:
"a people of men and not children. Generation will not succeed generation. There will be no war, no crimes, no administration of justice, and no government. Every man will seek, with ineffable ardour, the good of all."
This is simply wrong. Godwin never wrote it. Here's what he actually wrote, first (1793) edition:
The men therefore who exist when the earth shall refuse itself to a more extended population, will cease to propagate, for they will no longer have any motive, either of error or duty, to induce them. In addition to this they will perhaps be immortal. The whole will be a people of men, and not of children. Generation will not succeed generation, nor truth have in a certain degree to recommence her career at the end of every thirty years. There will be no war, no crimes, no administration of justice as it is called, and no government. These latter articles are at no great distance; and it is not impossible that some of the present race of men may live to see them in part accomplished. But beside this, there will be no disease, no anguish, no melancholy and no resentment. Every man will seek with ineffable ardour the good of all.
That's misquoted. Now here's the third edition from 1798 which is most common.

(And I also checked my paper copy and another online version. No help for Pearce there.)
The men therefore whom we are supposing to exist, when the earth shall refuse itself to a more extended population, will probably cease to propagate. The whole will be a people of men, and not of children. Generation will not succeed generation, nor truth have, in a certain degree, to recommence her career every thirty years. Other improvements may be expected to keep pace with those of health and longevity. There will be no war, no crimes, no administration of justice, as it is called, and no government. Beside this, there will be neither disease, anguish, melancholy, nor resentment. Every man will seek, with ineffable ardour, the good of all.
That's still misquoted. Pearce just plain edited the text without any indication that he was changing it, and stuck it in quote marks anyway.

What is wrong with people to just doctor quotes and publish them as quotes? That's totally unacceptable.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)

Merchants of Despair

Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism is a book about antihumanism — philosophical ideas that are opposed to human life.

The most covered topic is eugenics and population control (still having a large impact today, and being funded by US tax dollars) and also how that relates to the Nazi Holocaust. It also covers attacks on life-giving technologies like nuclear power, DDT and genetically engineered crops. And it covers the attack on economic development and "fire" (combustion) from global warming rhetoric and the anti-human plans for dealing with global warming by destroying modern industrial progress.

The book is strong and shocking. The brutality of some of these things, and callous destruction of human life, can be hard to take. But it's stuff everyone should be informed about. This book is pretty easy to read. I think it's a good start on the topic. It's badly researched, but the better books are less appealing in other ways. I'd suggesting reading Merchants without trusting any specifics and then reading other books to learn more detail. Merchants covers a lot of ground quickly and enjoyably and can serve as a good introduction to make you aware of its topics. I think most of what Merchants says is approximately, mostly true, besides the Malthus stuff.

It's a philosophical book. The overall theme is the ideas of antihumanism, which it traces back to Malthus and Darwin ("social darwinism" is a mistake and not implied by the theory of evolution, but it was Charles Darwin's open intention), and then to the Nazis and the modern population control and green movements.

Population control is the new name for eugenics. It claims that we have limited resources and too many people. Does that remind you of today's green sustainability agenda? It's evil but it's popular. Actually people use their minds to create resources, and there's plenty of raw material to turn into resources. We're better off with more people, not fewer; human life is a good thing. But because of this nonsense, US money (and other) is going to sterilize vast numbers of people, often without consent and in unsanitary ways. It's especially affecting poor people and frequently targeting ethnic minorities around the globe. The extreme brutality of China's one child policy is only a small fraction of it.

Don't understand what I'm talking about? Don't worry. Read the book and it will explain it all in gory detail. It's pretty short and easy to read. The stakes are huge. Anyone who cares about humanitarian issues must inform themselves about these problems. Start here or elsewhere, but do start!

Read a sample about population control.

More information.

Buy the book.

EDIT: I have edited this post after finding multiple scholarship errors (e.g. misquotes, incorrect historical facts) in Merchants of Despair. For more information on the scholarship mistakes, see my blog post about it.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Comments (0)