Beware The Overconfident Expert
I hand the worn and faded book to the old man, and he smiles. He remembers it well.
He is Professor Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan. Little-known in this country, Swaminathan, 85, is a legend in Asia. He is the scientist who brought the Green Revolution to India in the 1960s and in doing so he likely saved tens of millions of people from starving to death. Maybe hundreds of millions. He may even have saved India itself.
The book in his hands is Famine 1975! It was a hugely influential best-seller in 1967. “This is Paul and William Paddock,” Swaminathan grins. The Paddocks argued that mass global famine was inevitable. It was “foredoomed,” as they put it. Efforts to avoid it — efforts like Swaminathan’s — would fail. “They said Indians, and others, were like sheep going to the slaughterhouse. They’ll all die.”
The Paddocks were wrong and Swaminathan was right, a fact that was established long ago. But this is not ancient history. The story of how Malthusians like the Paddocks were certain that mass starvation would sweep the world, and destroy nations like India, is an important reminder to beware experts who are sure they know what the future will bring. It’s also an important warning for decision-makers: Excessive confidence can be extremely dangerous.
Today, it’s often thought that concerns about soaring populations and mass starvation started with Paul Ehrlich’s famous 1968 bestseller The Population Bomb. They didn’t. All through the 1950s and 1960s, fear rose as rapidly as the number of people. The population crisis made the cover of Time magazine in 1960. In 1967, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson called it the second greatest threat facing the world, after nuclear war.
How could a world of four, five or even six billion people feed itself? By the time Famine 1975! was published in 1967, countless experts had become convinced it could not. “All serious students of the underdeveloped nations agree that famine among the peoples of the underdeveloped nations is inevitable,” wrote biologist James Bonner in a review of Famine 1975! published in the prestigious journal Science.
That sense of inevitability was critical. If the catastrophe were merely possible, but not certain, the best response may be to pour resources into stopping it, but, if it is certain to happen anyway, that would be foolish.
Paul and William Paddock understood the logic. They denounced the Green Revolution as an inevitable failure. Instead, they proposed “triage”: Rich countries should stop sending food aid to countries that were doomed and instead direct it to those who at least had a chance of averting tragedy. Which countries were doomed? At the top of everyone’s list was India.
In The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich praised the Paddocks and passionately endorsed “triage.” A few years later, the head of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences did the same.
The Paddocks were under no illusions about what “triage” would do. India was on the knife’s edge. Whole regions lived “ship-to-mouth” on Western food aid. Cut aid off and “immediate turmoil and possible catastrophe” would result, the Paddocks wrote. In effect, it would cause the very famines they predicted.
They were at least right about that, says Swaminathan, who was in Ottawa to give a lecture at the International Development Research Centre. “It would have been a terrible tragedy,” he says. Small wonder that Norman Borlaug “couldn’t stand the name Paul Ehrlich,” Swaminathan says.
Fortunately, “triage” was never implemented. In 1968, Swaminathan’s work caused the country’s wheat harvest to soar from 12 to 17 million tons. In 1970, Norman Borlaug, “the father of the Green Revolution,” whose work Swaminathan adapted for India, won the Nobel Peace Prize.
When fears of starvation surged again in 1973 and 1974 — thanks to soaring oil prices and regional crop failures caused by bad weather — Ehrlich published The End of Affluence. Once again, he declared India doomed. With luck, it might stagger on to the end of the century, Ehrlich wrote, “but the train of events leading to the dissolution of India as a viable nation is already in motion.”
In 1975, India did well enough to decline all foreign food aid, and it never looked back. Today, India is an emerging global power.
That is not all there is to the story, however. In the 1980s and 1990s, as food surpluses grew, governments cut funding to agricultural research and rural development. The threat that once seemed so vivid receded in memory. It came to seem inevitable that the Green Revolution would succeed, that there would be no global famine, that the world would have plenty to eat. So why worry about food production? “There was a spirit of complacency,” Swaminathan says.
In 2008, soaring food prices caused riots. The phrase “food crisis” returned to headlines for the first time in a generation. Governments scrambled to restore funding, hoping to make up for decades of lost progress.
The problem then and now is overconfidence. As I discuss in my new book, Future Babble, psychologists have amply demonstrated that people tend to be far too confident in their judgments. So, in a world where essentially nothing is certain or inevitable, people often declare themselves “certain” that something is “inevitable,” and they make very bad decisions as a result.
The solution is to temper confidence with humility and avoid rewarding overconfident fools. Unfortunately, we struggle with both these points.
In 1994, the United Nations Environment Program made a joint award of its prestigious Sasakawa Prize to two men: Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan and Paul Ehrlich. The UN said Swaminathan won for feeding India; Ehrlich won for raising the alarm on population growth. It apparently escaped the judges’ notice that Ehrlich had not only made numerous false predictions during the crisis, he had also urged a course of action that would have undermined Swaminathan’s work and doomed millions to starvation.
Swaminathan only grins when I mention the award. He is too gentlemanly to be critical. “It puzzled me,” he says with a laugh.