26 March 2014

The "Nasa collapse study" controversy: some thoughts

After my article on a new study of civilisational collapse part-funded by NASA went viral and global last week, the web has been afire with all sorts of controversy and debate, some useful, some not so.

Lessons learned?

Clearly, the mere mentioning of a "Nasa-funded study" of "civilisational collapse" in my headline was enough to spark massive interest, but also didn't help with the ensuing headlines off the back of my original piece, to the effect that the study - an independent research project - was assumed by many to be a NASA directed project.

As I pointed out here, the creation of the HANDY model designed to explore various scenarios of civilisational collapse, integral to the new study, was indeed pursued with NASA funding. This certainly added credibility to it in my eyes.

However, as a fellow environment journalist Stephen Leahy pointed out to me the other day on Twitter, although he agreed with the substance of my articles on this, he felt it was inaccurate to refer to the study simply as "NASA-sponsored" - he would've specified, "partly sponsored by NASA."

So while it seemed reasonable to me at the time to abbreviate this into "NASA-funded study", I recognise how not being specific on the nature of this funding allowed other outlets to conflate the story into reports about Nasa. I didn't exactly help by excitedly tweeting out all the headlines that ensued, many of which simply stated "Nasa says", or "Nasa study finds" blah blah - and a couple of times I got carried away and put out a few tweets to the same effect myself. I went back and deleted those one or two tweets I could find where I referred offhand to "Nasa study" in my own words. As of today, the original Guardian article has been amended to more clearly state the independent nature of the study and its relationship to Nasa.

Lessons I've learned. Be specific, be clear. Don't RT uncritically - just because RT's don't automatically equal endorsement, it can sure look like that to others. And don't get yourself carried away in the tidal wave of media self-replication.

Was the HANDY model newsworthy?

Of course the other issue is the credibility of the study, and of the HANDY model. I stand by the scholarly importance of the study (see my expert source cited below, a Stanford University sociologist) and in particular I stand by its news value, which some have questioned on the basis that the study is some form of 'junk science'.

In fact, a few people have been very, very unscrupulous in the way they've decided to attack me, as well as attack this article. There are lessons to be learned on a number of sides.

Keith Kloor's insertion into this, backed up by his erstwhile blogger Robert Wilson (an obscure research student of Mathematical Ecology who models Plankton), has been an enlightening experience. I've been attacked, smeared, defamed and muddied before online - so it's nothing new to me and not really a big deal. But when that sort of behaviour ends up being effectively endorsed or carried out by a journalist who writes for a reputable science publication, and someone doing scientific research at a university, it deserves highlighting and exposure.

Kloor and Wilson

Both Wilson and Kloor, together, seem to have an ideological aversion to reporting of, or discussion around, peak oil, which recognises that the plateauing of conventional oil production is in part responsible for escalating oil prices which will be increasingly debilitating for economic growth - certainly as long as we remain largely dependent on fossil fuels. Here, we find Wilson and Kloor responding in the following manner to my story based on the work of a former BP geologist, Richard Miller, who had just given an academic presentation at UCL on oil and gas supply forecasting, and had also co-edited a recently released special edition of the peer-reviewed Proceedings of the Royal Society B on oil and energy issues:

Rather than engaging with the actual arguments - arguments here which are not mine, but those of Dr. Richard Miller and contributors to one of the most prestigious journals in the world - Kloor and Wilson instead engage in some generic banter to misrepresent me as a 'doomer'. As if the mere mention of a break on economic growth due to looming energy challenges constitutes a forecast of doom (it doesn't - it's known as "risk analysis")
I cite this merely to indicate the kind of childish ad hominem attacks Kloor and Wilson routinely indulge in, often together.

Kloor then ran this piece highlighting my article on a Nature Communications study documenting declining rate of growth in crop yields in key food basket regions around the world. Once again rather than engaging with the issues raised in the paper, Kloor wrote:

Equating the thesis of my book and film with that of the Collapse movie illustrates disinterest in simple fact-checking. Even the link to my film that Kloor supplies explains further:

"The film reveals how a failure to understand the systemic context of these crises, linked to neoliberal ideology, has generated a tendency to deal not with their root structural causes, but only with their symptoms. This has led to the proliferation of war, terror, and state-terror, including encroachment on civil liberties, while accelerating global crises rather than solving them... 
The real solution, Nafeez argues, is to recognise the inevitability of civilizational change, and to work toward a fundamental systemic transformation based on more participatory forms of living, politically, economically and culturally."

Only someone functionally illiterate, plain dumb, or deliberately obtuse would interpret this as meaning that I predict unequivocal doom. And as these reviews indicate, my book, A User's Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It, is ultimately optimistic in tone.

This essentially seems to sum up how Kloor often deals with issues or subjects - or people - that he disagrees with: character assassination, scorn, mockery etc., etc., but sadly, at least in my case, not much meaning argument, or counter-evidence.

Kloor and Wilson, however, hit a record when they apparently began collaborating on a response to my part-Nasa-funded civilisational collapse story.

Faux Modellers

In his critique of this story, Kloor sets the tone by painting me as a 'doomer', and a liar: 

"Since joining the Guardian’s blogging network in 2013, Ahmed has carved out what I would call the doomsday beat...  A good example, of course, is the collapse paper he disingenuously hyped as being 'NASA-sponsored.' (You’ll soon understand why that was deceptive.)" 

Of course, Kloor isn't actually in a position to know my motives, but goes ahead and asserts a deliberate deception on my part in "hyping" a Nasa link. Kloor then cites as his basis for further scepticism of the study itself, and of my alleged "conspiratorial leanings", the following:

"There were a couple of skeptical outliers, some folks who know about mathematical models and were incredulous after reading both the study and the Guardian story. One is Robert Wilson, a UK Mathematical Ecology PhD Student who wrote up his impressions at his personal blog. Another is the U.S. science journalist David Appell, who offered his thoughts on the study’s model and (like Wilson) also took note of Ahmed’s conspiracy theorist leanings."

The first notable problem here is that, although Kloor cites Wilson and Appell as if they are independent experts whose perspectives on the credibility of the study's model is relevant, this is untrue. Although both Wilson and Appell have academic experience of mathematical modelling, neither have any clue about modelling in the context of social phenomena - see Wilson's and Appell's resumes. As said before, Wilson models Plankton, and Appell worked as a physicist decades ago.

While obviously there are overlaps, social modelling is a different ballgame, and unless you've actually modelled sociological variables, you won't necessarily get it. Attempting to model social and physical systems together is a specialised discipline that requires inputs of expertise from both social and natural sciences. Someone who doesn't understand this should simply be ignored. Kloor doesn't - he apparently seeks them out purely because they back up his desire to lambast the HANDY model, regardless of whether they actually have the relevant academic knowhow to comment.

9/11.... wtf?

Wilson's first blogpost on the subject referenced by Kloor is a highly defamatory screed replete with misrepresentations and outright falsehoods.

Like Kloor, he opens with character assassination:

"I cannot claim to know how much the Guardian pay their in house apocalypse merchant Nafeez Ahmed, but I hope it is not much. Not really a regular journalist, Mr. Ahmed runs the Earth Insight blog 'hosted' (does 'hosted' mean the Guardian get the stuff for nothing?) by the Guardian. If your idea of journalism is someone waking up each morning and then doing a Google Scholar search and credulously reporting every piece of half-baked research that backs up that journalist’s prejudices then Mr. Ahmed is your guy."

No substance here except it's clear that Wilson, like Kloor, doesn't agree with my take on things. He continues by claiming that I'm a 9/11 conspiracy theorist:

"Mr. Ahmed spent a large part of the 2000s going around concocting conspiracy theories about September 11th [update: the link to Mr. Ahmed's crackpot conspiracy theories has been removed from his website in the day since I posted this (you don't need to be a conspiracy theorist to draw a conclusion). Fortunately you can still read it using the archive.is website here.], telling us that the US government was partly behind the whole thing. Back then he was doing the rounds of 9/11 truth conferences, today, sadly, the Guardian has been foolish enough to give him a platform."

The post Wilson links to is working now for anyone to peruse at their heart's desire. After I realised that Wilson was using it to discredit my work, I archived it temporarily as a sort of sociological experiment to test how Wilson and Kloor would react, and whether either of them would demonstrate any academic/journalistic integrity. As suspected, Wilson went bonkers with rather embarrassing results, and Kloor eagerly followed him down the rabbit hole. In almost every blogpost Wilson writes about me (many cited and tweeted by Kloor), he references the "conspiracy" of the missing "9/11 conspiracy" article in an exercise of triumphant disclosure. It would be funny, if it weren't so feeble.

I was hoping that before promoting Wilson's allegations, Kloor would at least follow his own advice re: 'fact checking' and 'journalism 101' - y'know, maybe drop me an email or a call to find out the state of play. He didn't do that. Instead, he preferred to drop conspiratorial insinuations about my deceptive nature (and clearly ignored the tweet on 17th March where I'd actually publicly acknowledged deleting the post precisely to annoy them):

So, let's just get this non-issue out the way.

As long-time readers of my work here will know, the idea that I'm a 9/11 conspiracy theorist is patently absurd - whether you agree or disagree with my arguments. As an international security scholar, my first book, The War on Freedom, raised fundamental questions about the role of US-UK foreign, defence, intelligence and other policies in facilitating the activities of Islamist terrorist groups in the decades leading up to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and on the day itself in relation to the emergency response of the national security system. The book was mandatory reading for the 9/11 Commissioners, and was also used by the 9/11 Family Steering Committee to inform their lines of inquiry in demanding an independent investigation. My testimony in US Congress about my work related to my third book, The War on Truth, was filmed by C-Span and can be viewed here.

Wilson writes:

"anyone familiar with Mr. Ahmed’s approach will note that he likes to put high emphasis on credentials, in this case Nasa, as Christopher Hitchens delightfully mocked here.)"

Unfortunately, neither Wilson, nor Kloor who cites/tweets him so copiously, saw fit to do sufficient fact-checking to identify my rebuttal of Hitchens in the Independent on Sunday, which pretty much demolishes Hitchens while setting out my actual perspective on 9/11 quite clearly.

Along these lines, in a separate blog post where Wilson declares - "Fact checking however should never get in the way of a good story" - he claims:

"However trumping up credentials is something he is rather fond of. Just read the About section of his personal website. There he gives a rather lengthy resume. This includes a boast about how his work was discussed in Vanity Fair by Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens however was not exactly praising Mr. Ahmed, instead he was calling him a 'contemptible' man who concocts half-baked conspiracy theories.
Similarly he talks about how his conspiracy theorist utterings about terrorist bombings were 'used' by various investigations. By 'used' he means that he sent them a copy of his work, which anyone is free to do. Whether they used them for anything other than recycled paper is unclear."

Of course, readers of my blog will note that Hitchens' description of me is described right here on these pages on the right-hand side, six quotes down. Yes right over there. Can you see it? This website wears that quote rather proudly :) So much for fact-checking Mr Wilson (and Kloor).

The inadequacy or non-existence of Wilson's research skills are on display again when he suggests that the "use" of my work by various official investigations is a fraud. In yet another post, he describes for me this reason as an "intellectual charlatan" - that is even after someone called Gareth post in the comments the link (already on my bio) to the National Archives in DC which lists the 9/11 Commission 'Special Collection' - yes, a copy of my book is archived in DC as part of an official collection of 99 books that were "made available to members of the Commission to use during its activities." If Wilson is unclear how these 99 books were selected for 9/11 Commission investigators (no, they didn't read everything they were sent in the post by random members of the public from around the world), he should do a bit of journalism and fact-check it himself. Perhaps call up the National Archives in DC?


The main problem seems that Wilson's capacity for sociological or political analysis is rather thin. He appears incapable of recognising the distinction between asking questions on the basis of factual anomalies, and positing a theory. I've never posited a "theory" about 9/11, least of all a "conspiracy theory" - the most I've argued is that the US and the West's unsavoury geopolitical relationship with Islamists over the last three or more decades has functioned to impede intelligence agencies, and undermine national security, in quite fundamental ways that dramatically increase the risk of terrorism at home and abroad. I see no particular ideological reason why such questions shouldn't be asked, if available evidence calls for it - without, however, getting involved in spurious speculation (and indeed such questions were asked by the 9/11 Family Steering Committee in quite reasonable fashion).

Indeed, my views about the sorry state of the so-called 9/11 "truth" movement are well-known. I'm on record in a number of places pointing out that simple physical anomalies cannot be used to justify conclusions of a government conspiracy (for instance, see my observations in Channel 4's eye-opening documentary "Conspiracy - Who Really Runs the World" on the WTC collapses, about 25 min in). So I kind of end up pissing off basically everyone, 'troofers', 'anti-troofers', and a lot in between.

But this is the problem with people like Wilson and Kloor - their idea of "journalism 101" doesn't seem to involve engaging directly and fully with people's actual writing/arguments, or even speaking to them properly. If they disagree with it at face value, it must be wrong, and it must be ridiculed. Fact-checking goes out the window.

Lies and Ignorance

After smearing me - a smear which Kloor repeats with reference to my alleged "conspiracy leanings" - (which he also sources to David Appell, who however merely references Wilson's blog) Wilson proceeds to 'dissect' my article:

"There appears to be no evidence that the paper in question has been peer-reviewed. Mr. Ahmed claims it has been accepted for publication by Ecological Economics.  Yet, the paper is not on the Ecological Economics website, although it is in submission. This kind of thing should be unacceptable from a reputable newspaper like the Guardian."

Sadly, Wilson didn't bother actually speaking to the authors of the study, as I had, who had confirmed the paper's acceptance for publication and peer-review.

"... I do not model human civilization as my day job. Instead I model plankton. If you want to do a half adequate job of modelling plankton populations you will probably need more than eight equations. And I think humans are more complex than plankton, but some times I have doubts. 

A model with this few equations will always provide egregious predictions about 'industrial collapse'. Anyone who spends more than two minutes looking on Gapminder will recognise that inter-country differences are so vast that using eight equations to accurately model humanity is like replicating the Sistine Chapel using a crayon."

Here, Wilson's ignorance of the nature and purposes of social modelling is embarrassing - equally so for Kloor's uncritical dependence on Wilson as one of his sources of expert authority.

According to Dr. Deborah S. Rogers of Stanford University's Institute for Research in the Social Sciences, who is a leading expert in modelling inequality and social stratification:

"Models do not prove hypotheses, nor do they replicate reality. Rather, models are useful because they give us some insight into possible mechanisms and possible consequences. These new insights, then, feed into the iterative process of hypothesis-testing that underlies good science. 
There is no problem with models that are 'simplistic' – they are supposed to be. A model is an abstraction from – a simplification of – reality. The objective is to see if you can understand the essential mechanism(s) that drive the system, and what some possible consequences of this mechanism might be. If the model results give you valuable insights into certain real-world trends, then maybe you have managed to capture the essence of the mechanism. If not, then you probably haven't, and you will need to either revise your model or add components to it. 
There is no particular value to making a model complex...you add just enough complexity until you are convinced that you have captured the essence of the mechanisms you are trying to understand. Meanwhile, it is fully acknowledged that there are many other things also going on in reality, that are not captured by the model...
Likewise, a demography/resources model that predicts collapse given certain relationships between the population and their resource base does not need to include the complexities of political, economic and social adjustments made in response to the situation. It merely shows us the possible outcomes, and leaves it to the archaeologists, anthropologists, social scientists, political scientists, economists, and policy-makers to debate the actual and hypothetical responses to these possibilities, and how they altered (or will alter) the outcomes...
The HANDY model finds that unequal populations collapse, although they apparently attribute this to the lack of labor as the working class dies off. Again, without commenting on the adequacy of the specifics of the HANDY formulation, I find the simplicity of the model useful and the results plausible. 
If we want to criticize the HANDY model, and by the same token our Spread of Inequality model, let’s focus on the specific mechanisms that are postulated – not on the simplicity of the model, and not on the lack of exact parallels with past events."

This illustrates just how ridiculous and unscientific are the responses of not just Wilson, but also Kloor's apparently partisan effort to discredit the HANDY model. 

But Wilson doesn't stop there. He proceeds to misrepresent the paper as follows:

"Most problematic is that they only model renewable resources. Modern civilization is fundamentally dependent on the provision of non-renewable resources on a huge scale."

This characterisation of the paper is simply untrue. Either Wilson hasn't read the paper properly, or wilfully misinterprets it to make his point. The paper says (p. 7):

"In reality, natural resources exist in three forms: nonrenewable stocks (fossil fuels, mineral deposits, etc), regenerating stocks (forests, soils, animal herds, wild fish stocks, game animals, aquifers, etc), and renewable ows (wind, solar radiation, precipitation, rivers, etc). Future generations of the model will disaggregate these forms. We have adopted a single formulation intended to represent an amalgamation of the three forms, allowing for a clear understanding of the role that natural resources play in collapse or sustainability of human societies."

He then ignores the study's reservations about technology in the context of carrying capacity:

"It also assumes that there is a fixed carrying capacity for populations. Carrying capacity itself is a deeply problematic concept. Think about Britain prior to the Industrial Revolution. If Britain had attempted to power the Industrial Revolution with wood it would have rapidly run out of trees. As Tony Wrigley argued in his fine book on the subject the transition to coal allowed Britain to escape the limits of a purely organic society. This makes it clear that this model, in its current form, offers limited insights into whether civilization will persist over the twenty first century."

But the study itself takes note of the pace of technological progress against the pace of resource consumption, with respect to a concept of carrying capacity rooted precisely in our contemporary understanding of the earth's available renewable, nonrenewable and renewable stocks. The transition from wood to coal happening in the past, is no guarantee that a similar transition will necessarily occur in the future. It might do, but that all depends on the natural resources actually available, a factor the model at least attempts to account for - a matter Wilson simply overlooks.

Kloor attempts to dignify Wilson's feeble posts with the following recommendation (among many others):

Following this post, Wilson managed to generate upward of five further blog posts on the grand old topic of little ol' me (within a space of about 24 hours I imagine... scary). His last post is a slightly deranged discovery of how I have been surreptitiously deleting tweets "to cover" my "tracks." He didn't bother asking me about it - if he had, he would've learned that deleting one's tweets can actually be a way of acknowledging and correcting inaccuracies once recognised (which once again, I've acknowledged openly on Twitter).

I can't claim to fully understand their motives - one can only guess. But it appears that Wilson and Kloor are focused not on doing good journalism/scholarship to explore a controversial issue, but on muddying journalism/scholarship to score points on ideological and personal grounds. As my writing ranges over major global challenges, crises and risks which they find unpalatable for whatever reason, their approach appears to be one of simply defaming and slandering - to the point of conspiratorially turning every triviality into hard evidence of disingenuous deception. That much, it seems, has now been proven.

Yet both pontificate like authorities on the standards of journalism and academic research. Unfortunately, they seem to have little regard for either in practice.

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