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Pathfinders: Harpoons and Handy Gadgets

The definition of science was briefly in the dock last month as Australia took Japan to the International Court of Justice over its continued defiance of the 1986 whaling ban under the laughable pretext of ‘scientific research’. The prosecution argued that this whaling was not ‘scientific’ in the least, pointing to the fact that while catches fluctuated all over the place, the stated scientific aims didn’t, suggesting that the harvest was the main goal all along. The Japanese retorted in court that it wasn’t for the prosecution to say what was or was not ‘scientific’, any more than they could say what was or was not art. Unfazed by this feeble bit of sophistry the Australian team pointed out that 3600 minke whales had been slaughtered since 2005 and yet not one peer-reviewed study had been published on whale stocks, supposedly the whole purpose of the ‘research’.

Not surprisingly the Japanese case sank without trace and m’Lud ordered Japan to cease whaling in the Antarctic forthwith, a ruling which left Japanese officials ‘deeply disappointed’. But perhaps not that disappointed, given that sales of whale meat in Japan have hit the seafloor in recent years, forcing the government to pump in subsidies to keep the ghost industry afloat, a fact that might explain the curiously crap courtroom performance.  

Just as you can’t claim things are scientific when they’re not, you also can’t claim things are scientifically correct when they’re not. The story last year that a Japanese team had found a simple way to stress ordinary cells into regressing to become pluripotent stem cells made world headlines, and no wonder. However the follow-up story, that the research papers turned out to contain manipulated or falsified images, didn’t get quite so much media attention. In fact you’d be forgiven for overlooking it altogether since it has mostly appeared in the form of brief paragraphs on back pages.  The Japanese researchers are highly embarrassed by this turn of events and are now embroiled in recrimination and some unfortunate vilification. Let’s hope they don’t end up hiring the Captain Ahab legal defence team.

In the larger picture however this is an example of science working well, not badly. From original claim to exposure of discrepancies took just a few weeks and other researchers were soon loudly complaining that they couldn’t replicate the test results. Imagine if politics worked the same way. No capitalist politician would last more than a fortnight. They’d all be ‘struck off’ and the Commons would be empty. Tempting thought. But then there’d be nobody to report this remarkable state of affairs as most of the journalists would have been struck off too.

Speaking of which, what became of the rather astonishing claim, discussed in April’s Pathfinders, that a study predicting global social collapse was funded by NASA? Our sceptical enquiries got not a squeak out of the Guardian journalist who was responsible for the claim. More accommodating were the Maryland authors of the research paper, who promptly passed on the text of a NASA press release that crossed our own printing date and which disclaimed in clear and unequivocal terms any involvement in or backing of the study. So, that clears that up. It’s easy to understand why a newspaper journalist might want to gild the lily for the sake of a headline-grabber, but it doesn’t help socialists or anyone else building a case against capitalism to have people on our own side of the fence dishing out bogus information.

The researchers also kindly sent a copy of their report, from which last month this column could only quote indirectly. We can make this available on request if anyone wants to read it. It’s easy to follow for the most part, though a little heavy on equations in places. The Human and Nature Dynamics or HANDY model is based on existing predator-prey models which look at how populations oscillate around lines of equilibrium. This is straightforward enough for two variables, say wolf and rabbit. If the wolf population goes up, the rabbits go down, forcing the wolf population back down, which in turn encourages the rabbit population up again, and so on. It’s like market economics with fur and teeth.

HANDY adopts the same basic approach, using human population as wolf and nature as rabbit, but it then introduces the idea of stratification by splitting population into two independent variables, worker and elite, and also splits the rabbit into two, giving natural resources as one variable and labour-derived wealth as the other. 

You can think of the model as a bit like an Etch-a-Sketch only with 4 inter-related knobs. As you turn one knob up, others are forced down. If workers are zero, wealth must be flat or falling, because only workers produce wealth. If wealth is high, nature must be low, because the one comes from the other. If elites are high, some or all of the others must be falling, because elites are the non-producing predator.

The challenge is to get all parameters into a sustainable straight line (equilibrium) but this is only possible in certain pre-set conditions (eg if Elite is set at zero).  HANDY models four main types of scenario, equating to soft or rough approaches to equilibrium (a good or tolerable result), perpetual boom and slump (not so good), and full unrecoverable collapse (definitely bad). Collapse is due either to natural resource depletion (Type-N collapse) or the labour force dying off (Type-L), but in either case all variables return to zero, the statues crumble and the desert sand blows in over the ruins.

Setting the dials how you want, you can model what would happen if population went up and resources were exhausted in an egalitarian society with no elite (socialism, say, with its brains on holiday), an ‘equitable’ society with a modest elite but broadly equal incomes (nursery-book capitalism), and a corrosively elitist society of the type we see today. The argument the researchers are making is that the outcomes they can produce are generally descriptive of actual historical collapses and also of observable traits in the modern world, and that a model which includes social stratification can reproduce these collapses better than one without. If the model can achieve a close synchronicity to the real world it can be considered in some sense diagnostic as well as descriptive. In other words it can predict.

Are there, or could there be other ‘dials’, factors which are universal rather than historically contingent? The researchers can’t think of any and neither can we, but hey, it’s a work in progress. The equations are algorithms of ratio (eg workers also consume wealth but at a far lower rate than elites) and these may also be open to challenge or refinement. HANDY doesn’t and can’t ‘prove’ that our socialist case is correct, but what it does do is take a previously unchallenged social assumption about property ownership and elite privilege and place it squarely on the table as an item for debate and scrutiny. And that’s something everybody should be doing.