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Hagbard's Law

The dubious statistical measures that were the theme of last week’s Archdruid Report post have had a massive impact on the even more dubious decisions that have backed the United States, and the industrial world more broadly, into its present predicament. When choices are guided by numbers, and the numbers are all going the right way, it takes a degree of insight unusual in contemporary life to remember that the numbers may not reflect what is actually going on in the real world.

You might think that this wouldn’t be the case if the people making the decisions know that the numbers are being fiddled with to make them more politically palatable, as economic statistics in the United States and elsewhere generally are. Still, it’s important to remember that we’ve gone along way past the simplistic tampering with data practiced in, say, the Lyndon Johnson administration. With characteristic Texan straightforwardness, Johnson didn’t leave statistics to chance; he was famous for sending any unwelcome number back to the bureau that produced it, as many times as necessary, until he got a figure he liked.

Nowadays nothing so crude is involved. The president – any president, of any party, or for that matter of any nation – simply expresses a hope that next quarter’s numbers will improve; the head of the bureau in question takes that instruction back to the office; it goes down the bureaucratic food chain, and some anonymous staffer figures out a plausible reason why the way of calculating the numbers should be changed; the new formula is approved by the bureau’s tame academics, rubberstamped by the appropriate officials, and goes into effect in time to boost the next quarter’s numbers. It’s all very professional and aboveboard, and the only sign that anything untoward is involved is that for the last thirty years, every new formulation of official economic statistics has made the numbers look rosier than the one it replaced.

It’s entirely possible, for that matter, that a good many of those changes took place without any overt pressure from the top at all. Hagbard’s Law is a massive factor in modern societies. Coined by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson in their tremendous satire Illuminatus!, Hagbard’s Law states that information can only be communicated between equals, since in a hierarchy, those in inferior positions face very strong incentives to tell their superiors what the superiors want to hear rather than ‘fessing up to the truth. The more levels of hierarchy between the people who gather information and the ones who make decisions, the more communication tends to be blocked by Hagbard’s Law; in today’s governments and corporations, the disconnect between the reality visible on the ground and the numbers viewed from the top of the pyramid is as often as not total.

Many of my readers will be aware that two examples of this sort of figure-juggling surfaced in the last couple of weeks. From somewhere in the bowels of the International Energy Agency (IEA), a bureaucracy created and funded by the world’s industrial nations to provide statistics on energy use, two whistleblowers announced that the 2009 figures that were about to be released had been jiggered, as past figures had been, under pressure from the US government. The reason for the pressure, according to the whistleblowers, was that accurate figures would be bad for the US economy – as indeed they would be, for much the same reason that a diagnosis of terminal illness is bad for one’s prospects of buying life insurance.

Of course news stories about the leaks brought a flurry of denials from the IEA. Doubtless some people were fooled; still, the gaping chasm between the IEA’s rosy predictions of future oil production and the evidence assembled by independent researchers has been a subject of discussion in peak oil circles for some years now, and it was useful to have insiders confirm the presence of fudge factors outside analysts have long since teased out of the data.

The second and much more controversial example came to light when persons unknown dumped onto the internet a very large collection of private emails from a British academic center studying global warming. Like everything else involved with global warming, the contents of the emails became the focus of a raging debate between opposed armies of true believers, but the emails do suggest that a certain amount of data-fudging and scientific misconduct is going on in the large and lucrative scientific industry surrounding climate change.

This sort of thing is all too common in contemporary science. In many fields, ambitious young scientists far outnumber the available grants and tenured positions at universities, and the temptation to misconduct for the sake of professional success is strong. Though overt fakery still risks punishment, less blatant forms of scientific fraud pay off handsomely in papers published, grants awarded, and careers advanced. Since science is expected to police itself, scientific fraud gets the same treatment as, say, sexual abuse among the clergy or malpractice among physicians: except in the most blatant cases, punishing the guilty takes a back seat to getting along with one’s peers and preserving the reputation of one’s institution and profession.

The result is a great deal of faux science that manipulates experimental designs and statistical analyses to support points of view that happen to be fashionable, either within a scientific field or in the broader society. I saw easily half a dozen examples of this sort of thing in action back in my college days, which spanned all of five years and two universities. Still, you don’t need a ringside seat to watch the action: simply pay attention to how often the results of studies just happen to support the interests of whoever provided the funding for them. You don’t need to apply a chi-square test here to watch Hagbard’s Law in action.

There’s good reason to think that the feedback loop by which popular attitudes generate their own supporting evidence via dubious science has distorted the global warming debate. The fingerprints show up all over the weird disconnect between current global warming science and the findings of paleoclimatology, which show that sudden, drastic climate changes have been routine events in Earth’s long history; that the Earth was actually warmer than the temperatures predicted by current doomsday scenarios at the peak of the current interglacial period only six thousand years ago; and that the Earth has been a hothouse jungle planet without ice caps or glaciers for around 80% of the time since multicellular life evolved here. Technically speaking, we’re still in an ice age – the current interglacial is on schedule to end in the next few thousand years, giving way to a new glaciation for a hundred thousand years or so, with several million years of further cycles still in the pipeline – and claims that setting the planetary thermostat a little closer to its normal range will terminate life on Earth are thus at least open to question.

What interests me most about the current global warming debate is that these facts, when they get any air time at all, commonly get treated as ammunition for the denialist side of the debate. This hardly follows. Paleoclimatology shows that the Earth’s climate is unstable, and prone to drastic shifts that can place massive strains on local and regional ecosystems. It’s equally clear that number juggling in a British laboratory does not change the fact that the Arctic ice sheet is breaking up, say, or that a great many parts of the world are seeing their climates warp out of all recognition. Even if natural forces are driving these shifts, this is hardly a good time to dump vast quantities of greenhouse gases into an already unstable atmosphere – you could as well claim that because a forest fire was started by lightning, dumping planeloads of gasoline around its edges can’t possibly cause any harm.

The problem with the global warming debate just now is that tolerably well funded groups on both sides are using dubious science to advance their own agendas and push the debate further toward the extremes. The common habit of thinking in rigid binaries comes into play here; it’s easy enough for global warming believers to insist that anyone who questions their claims must be a global warming denier, while their opponents do the same thing in reverse, and the tumult and the shouting helps bury the idea that the territory between the two polarized extremes might be worth exploring. As a result, moderate views are being squeezed out, as the radicals on one side try to stampede the public toward grandiose schemes of very questionable effect, while the radicals on the other try to stampede the public toward doing nothing at all.

It’s instructive to compare the resulting brouhaha to the parallel, if much less heavily publicized, debate over peak oil. The peak oil scene has certainly seen its share of overblown apocalyptic claims, and it certainly has its own breed of deniers, who insist that the free market, the march of progress, or some other conveniently unquantifiable factor will make infinite material expansion on a finite planet less of an oxymoron than all logic and evidence suggests it will be. Still, most of the action in the peak oil scene nowadays is happening in the wide spectrum between these two extremes. We’ve got ecogeeks pushing alternative energy, Transition Towners building local communities, “preppers” learning survival skills, and more; even if most of these ventures miss their mark, as doubtless most of them will, the chance of finding useful strategies for a difficult future goes up with each alternative explored.

The difference between the two debates extends to the interface between statistics and power discussed earlier in this post. Both sides of the global warming debate, it’s fair to say, have fairly robust political and financial payoffs in view. The established industrial powers of the West and the rising industrial nations elsewhere are each trying to use global warming to impose competitive disadvantages on the other; fossil fuel companies are scrambling to shore up their economic position, while the rapidly expanding renewables industry is trying to elbow its way to the government feed trough; political parties are lining up to turn one side or the other into a captive constituency that can be milked for votes and donations, and so forth.

This hasn’t happened with peak oil. Now it’s true, of course, if the world’s petroleum reserves have already peaked and other fossil fuels are shortly to follow, the game is over and nobody wins. The end of the Age of Abundance promises to tip the world’s industrial economies into permanent contraction, leave political parties without the resources needed to buy support from increasingly needy constituencies, curtail the global military reach of industrial nations, and foreclose most of the options for the future on which industrial society relies. Still, a modest round of global warming – something, let’s say, on the order of the temperature spike at the end of the last glaciation 11,000 years ago, which jolted global temperatures up 13 to15°F in less than a decade, melted continental glaciers as large as the world’s present ice caps, and sent sea level up 300 feet or so, drowning millions of square miles of formerly dry land – would have equally challenging impacts on industrial society.

Why should that possibility become a political football, while peak oil remains all but unmentionable in polite company, and has been embraced so far only by political groups on the outermost fringe? It’s a fascinating question, for which I don’t have a simple answer. The evidence supporting peak oil is at least as strong as the evidence backing claims that global warming will rise to catastrophic levels, and the consequences for industrial society are pretty much the same. The conspiracy-minded can doubtless come up with some reason or other why the currently fashionable incarnations of “Them” would favor one rather than the other.

Still, I find myself wondering if Hagbard’s Law plays a much bigger role here than any deliberate plan. The global warming story, if you boil it down to its bones, is the kind of story our culture loves to tell – a narrative about human power. Look at us, it says, we’re so mighty we can destroy the world! The peak oil story, by contrast, is the kind of story we don’t like – a story about natural limits that apply, yes, even to us. From the standpoint of peak oil, our self-anointed status as evolution’s fair-haired child starts looking like the delusion it arguably is, and it becomes hard to avoid the thought that we may have to settle for the rather less flattering role of just another species that overshot the carrying capacity of its environment and experienced the usual consequences.

It’s hard to think of a less popular claim to make these days. Similar logic may be behind the way that both climate change believers and deniers shy away from the paleoclimatic data that shows just how lively Earth’s climate has been in prehistoric times. A species that’s desperately trying to maintain a fingernail grip on an inflated self-image has enough trouble dealing with the fact that an ordinary thunderstorm releases as much thermal energy as a strategic nuclear warhead; expecting it to grapple with the really spectacular fireworks Gaia likes to put on when she jumps from one climatic state to another is probably too much to ask.

All this, as suggested above, has potent effects on what we can collectively accomplish in the twilight of the Age of Abundance, and those effects show themselves with particular force in the political arena. Hang onto your hats, dear readers, because next week we start talking about the political economy of peak oil.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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