Ivy League Statistician Debunks NASA-Funded 'Socialism or Extinction' Study

Barbara Hollingsworth | March 28, 2014 | 1:10pm EDT
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Wolves (Wikimedia)

(CNSNews.com) – A Cornell University statistician is debunking a study indirectly funded by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) that “uses a predator-prey model of humans and nature” - with humans as “predators” and nature as “prey”-  to predict the collapse of human civilization unless it reaches a “sustainable equilibrium.”

After analyzing the collapses of advanced civilizations over the past 5,000 years, including the Roman Empire, the Mayans, and the Han Dynasty, the study concludes: “In order to reach a sustainable equilibrium in an unequal society, it is necessary to have policies that limit inequality and ensure birth rates remain below critical levels.” (See motesharrei-rivas-kalnay.pdf)

“Given economic stratification, collapse is very difficult to avoid and requires major policy changes, including major reductions in inequality and population growth rates,” authors Safa MotesharreiEugenia Kalnay, and Jorge Rivas say in the study, which was first reported by The Guardian.

The authors adapted a NASA-funded mathematical model on climate change to compare an Egalitarian society (“No-Elites”), an Equitable society (“Workers and Non-Workers with the same level of consumption”), and an Unequal society (“Elites and Commoners”) – the latter of which they say most closely reflects current conditions throughout the world.

They warn that societal collapse occurs when the Elites have “consumed too much," as measured in "eco-dollars," and the Commoner population starts dying off due to famine because their numbers exceed Nature’s “carrying capacity.”

“The results of our experiments…indicate that either one of the two features apparent in historical societal collapse – over-exploitation of natural resources and strong economic stratification – can independently result in a complete collapse,” the study noted, resulting in either a Type-L (“inequality-induced famine” which results in a “Disappearance of Labor”) or a Type-N (“depletion of natural resources” or “exhaustion of Nature”) collapse.

“This NASA-funded study makes case that future is socialism or extinction,” Derrick O’Keefe, a contributor to Ecosocialism Canada, summarized in a tweet.

But the study is fatally flawed, according to William “Matt” Briggs, a statistical consultant and adjunct professor of statistical science at Cornell University and author of Breaking the Law of Averages: Real Life Probability and Statistics in Plain English.

Using a predator-prey model, the “Human and Nature Dynamics” (HANDY) study “swaps the wolves for human beings and the deer for ‘Nature.’ Just how people prey on Nature is not too clear, especially since people are part of Nature,” writes Briggs in a stinging critique of the study.

Since “nothing empirical went into these equations,” the study’s doomsday conclusions “have no applicability whatsoever to humans,” Briggs told CNSNews.com.

“All of the flaws - when they give interpretations to all of those letters, the x’s, the c’s, the Greek letters that they have sprinkled throughout. Those interpretations are just pulled out of the sky, and have nothing to do with any real human society,” Briggs said.

The mathematical equations, he added, are "flawless as far as I can tell, the derivations, the sets of equations, all that kind of stuff. The problem is, all those symbols - they don’t mean anything.

“They attached meaning to those symbols. They said, ‘Well, let’s let this particular variable be Equality, and let this one be Elites, and let this one be Commoners,' and then they, you know, tweaked these parameters they have in the equation and give them various pictures. Now, I could have called them, you know, the number of banana exports and I don’t know, shipping traffic or anything, I mean.

“The math is fine, it’s the interpretation that’s on top of it. There’s nothing empirical that went into these equations, if you understand me. There’s no observations that went into [them], all right, let’s look at the actual state of equality, whatever that is, let's look at the actual sort of eco-dollars (I guess they call them, they never really quite define that), and let’s measure that somehow and then we’ll put these into an equation and then we'll model that reality.

"They did none of that kind of thing. They just developed a set of equations and then said, ‘This is the way reality should look.’ And of course, reality doesn’t look anything like that, as I tried to point out.”

In fact, Briggs says, real-world historical evidence points in the opposite direction. For example, he notes that being a “Commoner” now comes with a much higher risk factor for obesity in the U.S. and other developed nations, thanks to discoveries made by "Elites" of how to grow food more efficiently for a growing population.

"We used to call that progress," he told CNSNews.com.

And, he added, history also shows that socialist societies whose main goal is egalitarianism are actually more likely to collapse than their capitalistic counterparts:

“The HANDY model says Unequal societies must collapse. But which societies, say over the last century, in reality gave up their ghosts?” Briggs asks. “We must ignore those that collapsed because of war (such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Cambodia) or politics (e.g. Rhodesia, Czechoslovakia) because HANDY is silent on these important subjects. The remaining collapses were those societies which were Egalitarian (e.g. the Soviet Union, Cambodia again?)”

Nevertheless, he told CNSNews.com, "no amount of failed forecasts is sufficient to talk these people out of the notion that disaster is right around the corner. It’s a matter of faith.”

According to the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center SESYNC, “Motesharrei received minor support from NASA to develop a coupled earth system model. Some of this funding was spent on the mathematical development of the HANDY model.”

But in a statement last week, the space agency distanced itself from the study:

“A soon-to-be published research paper, 'Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY): Modeling Inequality and Use of Resources in the Collapse or Sustainability of Societies' by Univeristy of Maryland researchers Safa Motesharrei and Eugenia Kalnay, and University of Minnesota's Jorge Rivas, was not solicited, directed or reviewed by NASA.

“It is an independent study by the university researchers utilizing research tools developed for a separate NASA activity. As is the case with all independent research, the views and conclusions in the paper are those of the authors alone. NASA does not endorse the paper or its conclusions."

"The 'separate activity' funded by NASA was the adaptation of an existing physical climate model to include a population model. This is the HANDY model," NASA spokesman Steve Cole said in response to an inquiry by CNSNews.com. "This funding did not direct the University of Maryland researchers to conduct a study on the sustainability of societies.

"The creation of the HANDY model (directed by NASA) and the research conducted by the UMD scientists on the sustainablility of societies (not directed by NASA) are two separate activities. Both were conducted by the same group of researchers," Cole explained.

The $26,000 grant cited by the authors as the source of partial funding for their research "is an ongoing cooperative agreement between NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and the University of Maryland to support a joint Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center. NASA funding used by the researchers for the sustainability of societies study was made available via this cooperative agreement," he said.

In response to CNSNews.com's question about how such a grant helps fulfill NASA's mission, Cole replied: "The study of Earth from space that is part of NASA's mission involves developing data sets and research tools to better understand how Earth's connected natural systems (oceans, land, atmosphere, fresh water, ice sheets, etc.) influence the global and regional environment, weather and climate.

"Computer models of these Earth systems are an important tool to produce forecasts of these impacts that can then be used by decision makers," Cole added.



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