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Malthus and the three card trick

By Mark O'Connor - posted Monday, 21 November 2011


There has been a view, much put about by rightwing pro-business think-tanks, that Malthus was a gloomy pessimist from whose story we should learn not to listen to "pessimists". This view is now looking very shaky as famine stalks more and more countries. Journalistic articles are beginning to appear that use as their opening "peg" the remark that Malthus may not have been such a false prophet as we all assume (e.g. "Gloomy Malthus provides food for thought as world's appetite builds").

In fact scholars and reputable encyclopedias never did so assume - that claim may be wishful thinking by those with their own reasons for wanting to believe population growth is not a problem.

Yet scholarship is of limited value in dealing with representatives of the growth lobby. Overall, their argument that today's population campaigners are wrong because they are "followers" of Malthus can fairly be called a three-card trick. (A matter of standing on edge three flimsy cards of assertion so that they seem to support each other, and pretending that you have built a solid house of proof.) Here's how it goes:

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1. Thomas Malthus was the first or at least the greatest thinker to argue that population growth tends to outgrow food and resources. (Largely true).

2. Malthus was a pessimistic false prophet who prophesied a gigantic famine the British Isles never experienced. (Grossly unfair. If that was all he was, he would not be the most famous thinker on the subject, and the three-card trick would collapse at this point. In fact Malthus did not claim to know the future, and he did not so much predict a future famine as provide an intelligent account of existing famines - and of reasons they were likely to recur.)

3. Therefore all later such warnings, no matter how eminent the experts who make them, will not come true and should be ignored.

Note that even if the first two cards were valid, the conclusion would still be faulty. One might as well say, "Eminent seismologists have warned of tsunamis that did not occur; therefore no one should heed such warnings". The logic resembles the invalid syllogism: "My horse is grey. Therefore all horses are grey."

Yet from this supposedly universal disproof of Malthusianism a cornucopian extremist may soar to O'Neil's claim that:

Population scaremongering springs from a fundamentally warped view of human beings as simply consumers, simply the users of resources, simply the destroyers of things, as a kind of 'plague' on poor Mother Nature, when in fact human beings are first and foremost producers, the discoverers and creators of resources, the makers of things and the makers of history.
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-a version of the late Julian Simon's logic-chopping claims that humans can't run out of resources because they are "themselves a resource"; or that because it is supposedly impossible to define the limits to the planet's resources, therefore there are no limits.

Of course the smarter growth lobbyists realize that if they present their argument as a syllogism, its logical flaw will be noted. Their skill is to disguise the logic, and make a great parade of talking about the need to respect historical facts, what we can learn from the story of Malthus, etc.

In replying to the three-card argument, I always point out the main logical error first. Then I go on to point out a second logical flaw: If in fact Malthus is simply a man who made a spectacular mistake, why are you buttering him up, representing him as pre-eminent in the field, and implying that he is more likely to be right than the modern experts you seek to discredit? Have demographers and agricultural experts learnt nothing since his day? And have there been no improvements in our ability to gather data and to observe global patterns? Would you argue "The founders of modern medicine used to deny the heart pumped blood, so why should I believe my cardiologist?"

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About the Author

Mark O'Connor is the author of This Tired Brown Land, and co-author of Overloading Australia: How governments and media dither and deny on population, by Mark O’Connor and William Lines. He blogs at He blogs at http://markoconnor-australianpoet.blogspot.com/.

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