Reason for a New Age

The Straight Line Fallacy

Posted by publius2point0 on 2010/05/22


The Wikipedia has a list of logical fallacies, but the one I am going to discuss today is of my own creation — though its name and definition were suggested by someone else. One could view it as a particular sort of false premise.

Straight Line Fallacy: A prediction about the future which takes the current trend line and extends it out straight blindly.

The traditional example of this would probably be the Malthusian Catastrophe, where it was hypothesized that with the rate at which the Earth’s population was growing versus the rate at which food production was growing, we would soon run out food and be reduced to subsistence farming again. Of course that was “soon” as of around 1800. Obviously, this eventuality did not occur.

This isn’t to say that it’s impossible for the population of the world to outstrip food supply, but simply that one must always factor in human ingenuity. In the case of food production, we invented machines that allowed a single individual to produce significantly more food and then we followed that by the invention of crops which produced a greater yield per the same level of effort. For all I know, we’ll next invent a way to make crops grow taller, or grown on decks with electric lighting. Vat-grown produce may become the standard, with vegetables and meat grown in a factory with greater far greater efficiency. And of course, right now tons of food go to waste making people fat or is simply discarded due to overly high quality standards. It’s conceivable that the food supply we have right now could be spread to cover a further 30-40% greater population, without changing a thing but common habits — which the higher price, as supply dwindled, might well accomplish on its own.

Another example is that of the CPU where it was thought that complex instruction sets (like Intel uses) would give way to simple as the latter was faster. But then human ingenuity invented the internal cache, allowing far more meaningful speed increases than could be gained by simplifying the command set. Then it was thought that CPUs had gotten as fast as they could without overheating, but human ingenuity came up with the multi-core processor, allowing each internal CPU to still run at the same manageable speed, while still increasing throughput. These days, the basic assumption for processing increases is that regardless of the technical hurdle, enough money dumped into the problem will solve it. But note that neither of these solutions was truly an “answer”, rather it was a way to cheat around the problem.

You can’t say 100% that against any wall, mankind will figure out a way to break through or circumvent it, but the great odds are that we will.

But perhaps even more often, with the straight line fallacy, isn’t that people discount human ingenuity, but that they assume that at the point were the line goes into the red, that catastrophe emerges.

Say for example there is the idea that the aquifer will be depleted of water, and then mumble mumble, something or another, and we’re all back living in caves. But of course, there’s plenty of water on the planet. Point in fact, we’re essentially in a closed system with an unchanging amount of water from day-to-day. Now, while it may take millenia for the aquifer to replenish itself, mankind won’t die of dehydration in the meantime, and it really doesn’t take any particularly inspired ingenuity to solve the problem either. We might do a better job at capturing rain water, but more likely we’ll focus on desalinization and lots of long pipes. The end result is that water costs a little bit more.

Another example is that of peak oil. While it’s certainly possible for us to circumvent the issue of a limited supply of crude oil by moving to hybrid, electric, hydrogen fuel, or other types of motor, more importantly there’s the Fischer-Tropsch process for converting coal into oil which was at least sufficiently cost effective for the Nazis to use it to power their military juggernaut during WWII. So again, the worst case scenario of peak oil is we pay a little bit more.

Certainly it’s good to be aware of the course along which things are flowing, but simply, when one calls “catastrophe”, it should probably be with the internal realization that you’re only doing so to keep people aware, not because a catastrophe is likely.

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One Response to “The Straight Line Fallacy”

  1. Roberta said

    I think, also, that politicians (and perhaps others who like to control people which, in the past, as well included priests and other ‘intellectuals’ and sages or those who like the idea of an all-controlling central power) to convince people of catastrophes so that they will be more amenable to a ‘take-over’ of a central controlling group (could be a government or a religious central authority, which, in the past invariably was mixed with government — think of the pharoah as also the high priest of the ancient Egyptians, or the kings of Europe along with the Pope working in cahoots together to ‘control the people’). There are those who simply like power and think that they have all of the answers; a ‘catastrophe’ is a good way to convince people to give power over to them. Once that happens, they are basically ‘serfs’ of the system.

    People in the past believed all sorts of things that weren’t true and were told to them by their government/priests. We in the modern world think we are immune to that…but we’re not as you have so aptly illustrated.

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