The Folly of New Scientist

New Scientist recently published a special issue, The Folly of Growth, ostensibly an expose of flawed economic theory.

As you can deduce from this blog and writings elsewhere, New Scientist is my favourite magazine, and I have read practically every issue the last twenty years. While generally of quality there have been some duds among the articles and issues. This issue is among the worst.

New Scientist has changed through generations of editors, but retaining many of the strengths and weaknesses. It has never done economy well, and most of the time it has been weak in information technology, doing better these days.

Whatever your viewpoints this issue was bad economics, anyone reading it would not learn anything about economy from it, and whatever they learned would be more likely to be wrong than right. Through a Global warming thread in the forums I was pointed to a rebuttal from The Register (of all places), as the errors were basic and numerous that saves me some time.

What dismayed me more with this issue was bad science. I would love to see a scientific outlook on the “dismal science”, where you can find much folly indeed. New Scientist here wasted a good opportunity. I know how hard it is to make a special issue work well, you depend greatly on the contributors and the editors to turn the disparate articles into a coherent whole, and reject the articles that can’t be improved. I don’t know who declined to participate, but of the contributions several articles should never have been published in New Scientist.

Several contributors were recycled from the old-style ecological movement. This in itself was bad judgement, they have repeatedly been shown to have poor domain expertise. Traditionally ecologist have had poor grasp of economy and vice versa, which can seem odd given that both are working with complex dynamic systems that in many ways are similar.

I would pick out Tim Jackson‘s article Why politicians dare not limit economic growth as particularly badly written, he should stick to writing letters to the editor, or at least do some research. I pick on him for an article with no substance and horrible style.

Originally posted by Tim Jackson:

The message from all this is clear: any alternative to growth remains unthinkable, even 40 years after the American ecologists Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren made some blindingly obvious points about the arithmetic of relentless consumption.

The Ehrlich equation, I = PAT, says simply that the impact (I) of human activity on the planet is the product of three factors: the size of the population (P), its level of affluence (A) expressed as income per person, and a technology factor (T), which is a measure of the impact on the planet associated with each dollar we spend.

Take climate change, for example. The global population is just under 7 billion and the average level of affluence is around $8000 per person. The T factor is just over 0.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide per thousand dollars of GDP – in other words, every $1000 worth of goods and services produced using today’s technology releases 0.5 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. So today’s global CO2 emissions work out at 7 billion × 8 × 0.5 = 28 billion tonnes per year.

I in particular take exception to this language, I don’t expect to see arguments by the “blindingly obvious” in New Scientist, this is a scientific journal, not a religious one. If this had been a post in our own Debates & Discussions he would be promptly shot down.

This is not to say that there was no thought-provoking content in this issue, but what was there to be found was badly edited and hidden by the chaff. The editor of New Scientist, Jeremy Webb, may right that NS should be an ideas magazine and not do proper science the Custodian of Truth. The open questioning approach of NS is why I am a fan of the magazine after all, other magazines tell you what science “has discovered”, no questions asked. The Folly of Growth had preciously little opennness however.

As an example of an almost-good article asking an important question I would highlight Does growth really help the poor? Unfortunately the article is only half-done, but it was a good start. Fundamental questions like this, testing whether the economic system actually achieves what it proclaims to do, would be within the domain of New Scientist to ask. Unfortunately they forgot to be a science magazine this time.

Join the Conversation

  1. One particular thing: The rebuttal by the Register mentioned in your fourth paragraph is a misunderstanding of the focal concept in the NS article by the rebutter. It’s a classic talking past each other.The rebutting article picks up the concept GDP and shows it’s not quite the same thing as growth in consumption of resources. It’s true that the link between these two is rather indirect, as the Register article correctly points out.However, the NS article clearly did not speak about GDP. It doesn’t mention GDP at all. Instead, it emphatically mentions consumption of resources. Additionally, it mentions growth, which is meant to be growth in, first, consumption of resources and, second, economy clearly in a broader sense than GDP. As you can verify, GDP is not mentioned in the NS article, so as long as the rebuttal by the Register deals only with the GDP, it doesn’t qualify as a rebuttal at all.I’m not taking sides on any other mentioned issues or details. So there’s no need to rebut me.

  2. ersi, you can’t get by just reading the blurbs… Try Tim Jackson’s Special Report; it’s free content. That will give you a better idea of what’s being discussed.The Register’s piece was directed (as is jax’s post) at the whole NS issue, not just the splash-page.Or did you not read jax’s post?


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