Thursday, September 26, 2013

The law of conservation of legends

The classic urban legend of alligators living in New York's sewers. An example of the incredible staying power of legends (image from Wikipedia)

You know, I was trained in "hard" sciences; physics and chemistry. I learned that some physical laws are deeply entwined with the fabric of the universe. That you can't win against the relentless growth of entropy, that mass and energy are equivalent and conserved, that gravity always pulls matter together, and so on.

Now that I am learning a little more about the so called "soft sciences", such as communication, I am surprised to discover that there are some hard laws there too. Something that never ceases to amaze me is the incredible persisting power of legends. Really, it seems that it is more of a hard law than the second law of thermodynamics which, after all, is statistics in nature. The law of persisting legends has no statistical justification: it just exists.

Let me tell you about something that happened to me just half a hour ago. I am presently writing a paper on the effect of depletion on mineral extraction and for doing that I have to consult a number of rather ponderous tomes. So, I opened up a paper written in 2010 by.... well.... let me not write the name of the author here. Let me just tell you that it is written by a German geologist and it is dedicated to the classification of mineral resources. It is nothing like your average "publish or perish" paper; quickly assembled to improve one's h-index on the fly. No, it is a carefully written, extensive, encyclopedic tome of 420 pages!

So, I donwload this massive paper, start reading it and, at page 7, at the very start of the text, I find:

The widely known report "Limits of Growth" by the “Club of Rome" predicted in 1972 that by the year 2000 many deposits will be exhausted and many metals will no longer be available even at a high price level. The pessimistic and very constricted view of this group of persons has proved to be wrong....

All right; I told myself: don't forget that you have only one liver. I counted up to ten; then I counted up to ten again, then I regained a certain level of relaxation and consciousness. It was no small feat for someone - yours truly - who wrote an entire book dedicated to debunking the many legends that still surround the 1972 report to the Club of Rome; the study prepared by a group of scientists of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (not "by the Club of Rome", i.e "this group of persons" ).

I have seen all sorts of accusations against the Club of Rome, often written by people whose intelligence compares to that of invertebrates (with some advantage for invertebrates), assorted conspiracy theorists, politically motivated fanatics, and more. But here, come on, this is not a comment on a blog. It is a true micro-encyclopedia packed with data and diagrams. And it is a 2010 paper; it is recent. I mean, nowadays there is a debate on these matters - it is not any more the time when "Limits-bashing" was fashionable. Apart from my book, which was not out yet in 2010, there were plenty of scientific studies and Internet documents debunking the legend of the "errors of the Club of Rome". Already in 2008 I had written in "The Oil Drum" that the legend that the Limits study had predicted to total exhaustion of some resources by the year 2000 (or some other year) was just that: a legend that had originated from a paper written by Ronald Bailey on "Forbes" in 1989. There were no such statements in the Limits book.

But no way. And think that this specific paper is written by a single person and it must mark a milestone in that person's career. Think of the amount of work that must have gone into that. How can it be that the author didn't use a minimum of care to check that one of the first sentences of his masterpiece paper has no relation with reality?

It is the awesome power of legends. (really, at this point I think it is a law of physics)


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)