Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The crazy coverage of a supposed NASA doomsday study [updated]

I find humor in certain odd phenomena. One such is the spread around the world of wildly hype-ridden coverage of a study showing that civilization is heading for an "irreversible collapse." The study reportedly got some funding from NASA, so headlines emphasize that or sometimes transform it into NASA saying that civilization is about to collapse. Amazingly, even the National Journal went this route: "Here's How NASA Thinks Society Will Collapse."

Where's the study itself? A pre-publication version was posted at where I looked at it briefly, but now I'm getting that as a broken link (because of too much traffic or has it been taken down?); other than that, I suppose you'll have to wait for an upcoming issue of Ecological Economics, where it has reportedly been accepted for publication.

The essence of the research it seems is four equations, including a model of "elites" and "commoners" as predators and prey. For more, see this David Appell post. Does the study offer any valuable insights? Who knows (at least for now, given that it seemingly cannot be accessed)? But one thing that's clear is that weighing its credibility was not a big factor in its rapid dissemination. Another is that it found resonance on many points of the ideological spectrum. And here's a bit of equally clueless backlash: "NASA Goes from 'Muslim Outreach' to Leftwing Activism."

UPDATE 3/20, 12:10pm: And here's the (or a version of the) pre-publication paper (PDF): "A Minimal Model for Human and Nature Interaction." As for the NASA role, it says "This work was partially funded through NASA/GSFC grant NNX12AD03A, known as 'Collaborative Earth System Science Research Between NASA/GSFC and UMCP.'" Searching for info on that grant, one gets the following (though no breakout as to how much of the total went to this particular paper):

Researcher: Antonio Busalacchi Grant Sponsor: NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center 
Amount: $334,835 in additional funding, bringing the total award to $9,344,034
Grant Study: "Collaborative Earth System Science Research between NASA/GSFC and UMCP"

Me: I will (at least for now) suspend judgment on the paper and the merits of NASA funding it, though those both are interesting topics. The thing that strikes me most so far is not the putative threat to civilization but the crazy media coverage. In a roundabout way the paper has made its point: A society this receptive to half-baked information may indeed be more fragile than has been recognized.

UPDATE 3/20, 12:33pm: OK, I've read it, which didn't take long. This is, as Appell wrote, a "toy model." That is, it's an extremely simplified approach that abstracts away, among other things, any government policies, the existence of different regions, differences in types of natural resources, most socioeconomic distinctions (there are just "commoners" and "elites," and the elites keep on consuming while the commoners sink into famine). I hope that NASA did not spend much money on this, and if it did, the awful "How NASA Thinks Society Will Collapse" media coverage begins to seem like a fitting punishment.

UPDATE 3/21: NASA's statement, released yesterday, referring to a version of the paper with a different title than the one I mentioned:

NASA Statement on Sustainability Study

The following is a statement from NASA regarding erroneous media reports crediting the agency with an academic paper on population and societal impacts.
"A soon-to-be published research paper 'Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY): Modeling Inequality and Use of Resources in the Collapse or Sustainability of Societies' by University of Maryland researchers Safa Motesharrei and Eugenia Kalnay, and University of Minnesota’s Jorge Rivas was not solicited, directed or reviewed by NASA. It is an independent study by the university researchers utilizing research tools developed for a separate NASA activity.
"As is the case with all independent research, the views and conclusions in the paper are those of the authors alone. NASA does not endorse the paper or its conclusions."

UPDATE 3/22: About time to put this sordid tale from the Age of Misinformation behind us, but first a final pair of links. One is intelligent: "NASA Doesn't Think the World Is Ending and Journalists Should Stop Implying That." The other is, well, the final punchline, and includes this gem: "One would think that a scientific paper predicting the imminent end of civilization, backed by the imprimatur of no less an authority than NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, would generate considerable interest, not to mention news coverage. Oddly, though, it hasn’t, at least not in North America."


Ray Haupt said...

The study may be perfectly valid or totally off base but why is a study of this nature being conducted by an agency whose expertise is in airplanes and rockets and other things aviation, not political philosophy? One does not turn to the Corp of Engineers for advice in medical matters or agricultural crop rotation as it is not their expertise. Surely another agency would be more suitable for such a project if the matter is even an appropriate speculation to be performed by a government agency at all. The matter seems most appropriate for a university Political Science or Economics department.

Kenneth Silber said...

I don't know. If the study is valid I could imagine it having some relevance eg what are the social conditions affecting space exploration or vice versa. Would be interesting to know amount and program whereby NASA funded this --assuming it even did.

Kenneth Silber said...

But see my update.