Thursday, January 06, 2005

Fake diamond

Jared Diamond's new book Collapse, currently ranked number 3 on Amazon, has been getting some rather skeptical reviews in the blogosphere lately. I suppose his discussion of the downfall of Easter Island and the Norse settlements in Greenland are interesting enough, although one wonders how much to trust his interpretations given the obvious environmentalist agenda behind the book. And sure, maybe we have something to learn from these failed societies, although you can't help but notice that they were pretty marginal and atypical to begin with.

But while I fully agree with all the criticisms expressed by Matt Yglesias (here, here, and here) and Tyler Cowen, they don't really express just how spectacularly bad the last part of the book is. It's just one specious argument, contradiction, or misuse of statistics after another. I almost can't believe this was written by the same man who wrote Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Coincidentally, I also received Bjorn Lomborg's book The Skeptical Environmentalist for Christmas. I'm reading it with a skeptical eye, as Lomborg would probably want me to. The litany of environmental woes knocked down by Lomborg might seem like a straw man, but Diamond really brings it to life!

There are so many problems with Diamond's arguments in the book's final chapter that it is difficult to pick one to focus on (kind of like how Diamond describes environmental problems!) Here's just one small example...on page 504 Diamond writes:

The value of one statistical life in the U.S.--i.e. the cost to the U.S. economy resulting from the death of an average American...is usually estimated around $5 million. Even if one takes the conservative estimate of annual U.S. deaths due to air pollution as 130,000, then deaths due to air pollution cost us about $650 billion per year.
First of all, I don't know where Diamond gets his "conservative" estimate. All the sources I find on the web put the number at closer to half that (for example here.) But worse, those who die are not "average Americans," they are overwhelmingly the sick and old. I'm not arguing that air pollution is good, but Diamond is grossly abusing the statistical methodology to make the problem look worse. The whole final chapter is similarly sloppy and misleading, and I'm thinking of doing a series of posts over the next days with some more examples.

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