Thursday, September 22, 2011

Mark Lynas gets Jared Diamond wrong.

Mark Lynas joins the cottage industry of hating on Jared Diamond as he spins a myth of "The myth of Easter Island's ecocide:"

 Few historical tales of ecological collapse have achieved the cultural resonance of that of Easter Island. In the conventional account, best popularised by Jared Diamond in his 2005 book ‘Collapse’, the islanders brought doom upon themselves by over-exploiting their limited environment, thereby providing a compelling analogy for modern times. Yet recent archaeological work suggests that the eco-collapse hypothesis is almost certainly wrong – and that the truth is far more shocking.
As we will see, the most "shocking" thing Lynas brings to bear is evidence of his own incompetence and/or malice in misrepresenting Diamond's argument in the measured, carefully argued Collapse.

Judith Curry spreads the meme, and extends the faulty argument:
[C]omplex coupled social-ecological-environmental systems, simple theories are almost certain to be too simple.  The complexity of such coupled systems precludes simple cause-effect analyses.   If we are arguing about such a system on the scale of Easter Island, what hope do we have of understanding and managing such interactions on  continental or even global scales?  Ecosystems eventually adapt to climate change and insults from humans. 

From arguing that Diamond got Easter Island's tragedy wrong, Curry somehow gets to the point that all of Diamond's thinking is wrong, because it is "too simple," and by the way, climate science is impossible, because it is too simple too. Also, ecological devastation is nothing to worry about because "Ecosystems eventually adapt to climate change and insults from humans." (That single sentence is wrong in so many dimensions -- the moral, the practical, and the scientific -- not just Pollyannish but horribly pantheist and anti-humanist -- that it deserves its own post.)

Judith Curry was once a respected climate scientist. Now she poses for photos like this.

But we should really start with patient zero, Lynas himself. The reality he is describing -- one historian has one idea about how something happened, supported by pieces of evidence, and other historians highlight new evidence that challenges that account -- is really not punchy enough for the kind of "gotcha" post Lynas is writing (those evil environmentalists are trying to scare you!). So he sexes up the allegations with a small army of straw men:
Diamond’s thesis is that the island’s original lush tree-cover was destroyed by the Polynesian colonists, whose cult of making massive statues (for which the island is now famous) required prodigious amounts of wood to transport these huge rock idols. He suggests that as the ecological crisis brought on by deforestation worsened, the islanders tried to appease their apparently angry gods by making and transporting yet more statues, creating a vicious circle of human stupidity.
Anybody who has spent five minutes paying attention to Jared Diamond would know that he would be highly unlikely refer to an entire culture's spiritual practices as a "cult."  The only use of the word "cult" in the entire book refers to a post-disaster religious practice which Diamond regards positively: "The survivors adapted as best they could, both in their subsistence and in religion . . . the new religion developed its own art styles . . ." (141).

 What about the vivid (and given Curry's reaction, unintentionally self-referential) phrase "a vicious circle of human stupidity"? Did Diamond say anything like that?

Actually, if you search Collapse for the word "stupid," you find the opposite -- Diamond stressing the intelligent and cultured native civilizations, whose behavior we unfairly judge, with the benefit of hindsight, to have been unintelligent:

Page 24: "The societies that ended up collapsing were (like the Maya) among the most creative and (for a time) advanced and successful of their times, rather than stupid and primitive."

Page 513: "With the gift of hindsight, we now view it as incredibly stupid that colonists would release into Australia two alien mammals . . . But it's still difficult for professional ecologists to predict which introductions . . . will prove disastrous. . . . Hence, we really shouldn't be surprised."

Page 518: "We unconsciously imagine . . . just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredible self-damaging stupidity. Much more likely, though, the changes in the forest cover from year to year would have been almost undetectable . . ."

Whenever Diamond mentions stupidity (and there's one more reference, on page 624, but it's just the same) it is always to defend societies (and not just native societies; he sticks up for the Australian colonists too) from our harsh judgements, with the benefit of hindsight, that they behaved stupidly.

This is incredibly obvious to anyone that has read any of Diamond's books, including his most famous book, Guns, Germs, and Steel (and if you haven't read it, do). The theme that runs through all of Diamond's writing is that people are people and in the long-term make a similar proportion of good and bad decisions, decisions which however are usually based in a fairly deep understanding of the conditions in which the people at the time lived, decisions that are often smarter and more flexible than we tend to attribute to societies other than our own.

That is Diamond's big idea, and Lynas gets him entirely backwards. So how does he sell this straw man Diamond to the reader? Check out this epic bait and switch:

Diamond was not the first to draw this specific analogy: over a decade earlier, in a 1992 book entitled ‘Easter Island, Earth Island’, Paul Bahn and John Flenley (both palaeoecologists) wrote:
“…the person who felled the last tree could see that it was the last tree. But he (or she) still felled it. This is what is so worrying. Humankind’s covetousness is boundless. Its selfishness appears to be genetically inborn. Selfishness leads to survival. Altruism leads to death. The selfish gene wins. But in a limited ecosystem, selfishness leads to increasing population imbalance, population crash, and ultimately extinction.”
Lynas suggest that Diamond's thesis builds on this one, but as we now know, Diamond's conclusion was precisely the opposite:

“…the person who felled the last tree could see that it was the last tree. But he (or she) still felled it."

Page 518: "We unconsciously imagine . . . just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredible self-damaging stupidity. Much more likely, though, the changes in the forest cover from year to year would have been almost undetectable . . ."

Lynas depicts Diamond as extending the argument of Bahn and Flenley (doubtless the most extreme and unsupportable conclusion he could find) despite the fact that Diamond specifically addresses this theory and categorically refutes it. That's not just a poor argument: it's dishonest to attribute to Diamond a thesis he specifically entertained and vehemently rejected.

There's more here, much more, but after we've caught Lynas using Collapse to attribute beliefs to Diamond which are exactly the opposite of what he wrote in Collapse, that's sort of the end, isn't it? He's committed credibility suicide as that point. As so often with such as Lynas, we are left with the eternal question: is he a liar or just a sloppy incompetent?

UPDATE: Yes, I know I said that catching Lynas in a 180 degree misrepresentation of Diamond was enough to call it right there, but here's one more fun fact about his fallacy-laden screed.

Lynas casually introduces the following reference:

As Benny Peiser points out in this 2005 paper, fish supplies were abundant, and reports from early European explorers that the islanders were thin and miserable-looking are highly contradictory (others report that they lived in comparative luxury). Certainly Diamond’s reading of this seems highly partisan. As Peiser puts it:
“Together with abundant and virtually unlimited sources of seafood, the cultivation of the island’s fertile soil could easily sustain many thousands of inhabitants interminably. In view of the profusion of broadly unlimited food supplies (which also included abundant chickens, their eggs and the islands innumerable rats, a culinary ‘delicacy’ that were always available in abundance), Diamond’s notion that the natives resorted to cannibalism as a result of catastrophic mass starvation is palpably absurd. In fact, there is no archaeological evidence whatsoever for either starvation or cannibalism.”

Sounds bad for Diamond. I'll just do a quick check, as I always do, to make sure this paper is good science by a respected author in a reputable peer-reviewed journal . . .

B. Peiser (2005) From Genocide to Ecocide: The Rape of Rapa Nui Energy & Environment volume 16 No. 3&4 2005
 Energy and Environment. Your source for all your archaeological and archaeometrical needs, without the stress and hassle of peer review. So, Mr. Peiser, how did you come to be publishing in such as illustrious pillar of the historical sciences?

Of course there's a Sourcewatch page:

Benny Peiser is a UK social anthropologist on the Heartland Institute "Global warming experts" list. He runs CCNet (network) and is frequently quoted in Local Transport Today, a transport journal that frequently features the views of climate change skeptics. He is director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation.[1] He is co-editor of the skeptic journal Energy and Environment[2] and is on the editorial board of the Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development.
 An expert in climate change and historical instances of Polynesian cannibalism. Talk about your double threats.

His educational background is not given . . . I'm sure we can all come to a reasonable inference about that. But he is (or was) an academic, to be sure:

Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology & Sport Sociology, Liverpool John Moores University
 So far Mark Lynas has promoted this clown, and Judith Curry repeats the quote, whilst praising Lynas' "opening mind." Who will be next to join them in embarrassing themselves with lavish praise for psuedoscience? This threatens to become the Jonestown of credibility suicides.


  1. Can't argue what that: "Ecosystems eventually adapt to climate change and insults from humans." Adapt means "lose species."

    The question, however, for which it is best NOT make any assumptions, is: does the eventual, "adapted" system include the species which so abused the prior system?

    Make the wall stop beating my head!

    John Puma

  2. Rather typically, for Judith "opening mind" = agrees with Judith.

  3. John:

    Adapt means "lose species."

    Put another way, adaptation means lots of dying.

  4. It's just so nonsensical: like arguing we shouldn't be concerned about nuclear war because giant asteroids have hit the earth and ecosystems have adapted. I don't want to see that kind of adaptation up close and personal.

  5. IMO the "cut down the last tree" misunderstanding exemplifies a structural flaw in human communication, one that we ignore at our peril: the reader's mind best retains not the logical conclusion of what was said - "changes...would have been almost undetectable" - but rather the most vivid picture in what was said - a guy cutting down the single remaining tree.

    And our language tends to be most vivid when emotions run high, which they'll do in picturing a falsehood, not in correcting it.

    1. Well, in this Lynas is just lying about Diamond. And if he were writing his piece based merely on a memory impression, then he has committed what should be a capital offense.

  6. ...and "they weren't stupid" will likewise cause "stupid" to be retained, since we can't picture a negative.

    see also: "I am not a crook", "I did not have relations with that sheep", etc...

    1. "we can't picture a negative"

      Please don't project your inadequacies on the rest of us. Or in words that you can understand: you are not an imbecile.

  7. Thanks, Anna, that's a good point. I wonder how Diamond could have explained that point -- this appears dumb in hindsight, but is actually very understandable from the point of view of the actual people involved -- without emphasizing the mistaken view over the reasonable one. Your thoughts?

  8. But how many might have said to themselves, "Hmm, there are a lot fewer trees than when I was a kid" while cutting down on of the remaining ones? Some, I rather suspect. OTOH EI is a small enough place that whoever cut down e.g. the last original growth one could well have known it. The point is that if indeed the forest was eliminated over a course of ~300 years, changes would have been quite palpable within the span of a given generation (so I guess I'm disagreeing with Diamond on that point).

    1. So why aren't you personally in the Amazon preventing its further destruction, or on the line protesting mountain top removal in the U.S.?

    2. Because the cup was/is half full ;-)

      Or maybe its something similar to bystander apathy.

      In any case a threshold may have been reached beyond which no cutting was required and the last remaining trees died from other causes.

  9. The slowness of the change is part of the problem, but so is the tragedy of the commons. In the absence of collective political action, if you don't cut down that tree, someone else will. It could be that when the tree cover was down by 90%, three-quarters of the people refused to cut down any more trees. The remaining quarter could have finished the job easily nevertheless.

  10. Jared Diamond, as he himself wrote in Cosmos Magazine:

    "What did Easter Islanders say as they were cutting down the last palm tree? Were they saying, "Think of our jobs as loggers, not these trees?" Were they saying, "Respect my private property rights?" Surely Easter Islanders must have realised the consequences of destroying their forest. One wonders whether people of the next century – if there are still people alive – will be equally astonished about our blindness today."

    So Jared Diamond thinks that some environmental disaster will reduce the present human population of more than 7 BILLION to zero within the next 190 years? Why would anyone pay attention to a person who makes such ridiculous statements?

    1. a) He didn't say that he thinks that. b) Because, even if he's occasionally a little overboard with his hypotheticals, he's still at least twice as smart as you are.

  11. kenneth S. Doig
    Jared Diamond is a Boasnian, a Marxist, a Zionists and a Lysenkoist, (it is ethical for scientist to lie and impart the lie to further world communism, or any scientist lying, hiding the truth, fraud for any politcal, even benign motives. He claims as most Zionist Jews (not all Jews are Zionest, I have great respect for Sever Plocker, journalist for Ynet and Gilad Atzmon. They say races does not exists to trick policymakers into changing immigration law surreptiously without the consent or knowledge of the citizens, usually thru corrupts jurists, bribes, blackmail, boycotts. But when Jared Diamond was present in public with a self-DNA ethnicity kit, he dropped his guard and with boyish élan yelled out, 'now we can really find out who is truly Jewish!'. Odd, these self-same lying-liars, frauds are not mistaken, they know they are lying. And lest you believe I am some racist white hick, I speak 25 languages, all self-taught as nobody in my family has ever spoken English or Scots since 1100. I am an autodidactic polymath, but in some areas a moron. My father was the democratic mayor of Fresno in the 80´s, he was a true liberal as I am, freedom from intusive government, Libertarian, if you´re gay, I may not like it, but who am I, I don´t care, but homosexuality should not be exalted as it was listed as a mental disorder as late as the mid-90´s in the American the DSM, the holy Bible for psychiatry and psychology. It is used the world over and any MD, even a GP, or surgeon has the latest edition, always, 100%.

    My problem is with this newfangled notion of enforced diversity. That causes emnity and true racism. We humans for a million years, as a rule have self-segregated and are more amenable to people who look similar. It is not Nazi-KKK racism for a white man to become upset (as long as he keeps quiet) about seeing a black man with a blond. I have had many black women tell me they hate to see black men going after white women. This notion that diversity is more imortant than excellence, or merit is unorganic, at best naive and at worst meant to cause politcal havoc, waist gazillions of dollars on discrimination lawsuits, moronic, laws.
    If people want to come together voluntarily, it happens, no prob, but I am sick of these zionist Jews and Zionist Christian Neocons forcing Sweden, Iceland, Denmark to take in massive amounts of carefully chosen, the most hostile, ingrates and the law favors them. dont believe me, watch the youtube video where this american Jew who speaks no Swedish, which I do fluently, has no ties to Sweden, cons the Swedish government to fund Paidea, a Jewish organization to bring in massive amounts of nonwhites who don't really want to be in Sweden against the will of the native Germanic Indo-Europeans who have been there since 2000 BC and has been white for over 300K years and is 3000 miles away from any non-white lands and has non ex-colonials to deal with. Sweden is a very benevolent land, so, let's go ratfuck them. Sweden in 84, when I first went there was 95% Germanic Nordic, the remainder were racially similar but linguistically unrelated finns, a few proto-alpine lappinoid whites, they are not mongoloid, who speak a Uralic/Fenno-Ugric language. There were about 16000 white Jews, jews are white, some even Nordic, but the original or primary type (the Ashkenazim, who make up 90 % of all jews)is the armenoid white race, short-skulled, long-faced, with hooked-noses, ,amy with nordic pigmentation. The true Israelites were long-skulled dark-white mediterraneans with a small minority of nordics, since nordics come from the med/ race. Watch this video. Watch the black guy's too, he is spot-on.

    1. That's an awful LOT of stupid, Mr. anonymous.


      He has made up all kinds of lies in his books to perpetrate the hoax that all races are equal--except of course, his mythical imaginary "race", that is Jewish! He supported only one mythical imaginary race--"Jewish", for which he promoted research, the rest of the real races are all just a big jumble.

      His books are just frauds fabricated for ulterior purposes!! He is a deluded psychopath out to con the public.

  12. Mark Bahner,

    That quote should be read in its context. The preceding paragraph:

    "When I tell this story to my students at the University of California in Los Angeles, where I teach, the question that most intrigues them is one that hadn't registered to me: how could a society make such an obviously disastrous decision to cut down all the trees on which they depend?"

    And the paragraph after:
    "IT'S A QUESTION that astonishes historians too. The most cited book about the collapse of societies is by Joseph Tainter, entitled The Collapse of Complex Societies. In discussing ancient collapses, Tainter rejected the possibility that they might be due to environmental mismanagement because it seemed so unlikely to him."