Information Technology and the World

The name of this blog, Information Technology and the World, may seem grandiose. It probably is, but then my plans for it are also grandiose. I want us – you and me – to explore three issues: (1)the impact of information technology on business and society; (2) the impact of society on information technology; and (3) the lessons that each domain can teach the other, including both the possibilities and the limits of what technology and society can accomplish.

Location: Chicago, Illinois, United States

I have worked in construction, petroleum, software and consumer electronics. Professionally, I am a physicist, and engineer, and an IT professional.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Very Worst Identity Theft

“Who steals my purse steals trash; ‘tis something, nothing; ‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands. But he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him but makes me poor indeed.” Shakespeare, Othello, Act III, Scene 3.

The worst kind of identity theft is the theft of reputation. The purpose of most identity theft is to enable the thief to steal money or merchandise that is the equivalent of money. This is important to the victims but it is small in the larger scheme of things. The smooth functioning of our complex society depends on trust and trusted relationships. When this trust is compromised, bad things often happen.

There are many examples in the marketing arena. False trademarks on fashion goods “steal” the identity of the owner to enable the counterfeiter to sell his goods for more that they are worth.

A slight variant of this is common in the IT world. Marketers change the names of their products to associate them with some new fad. A recent example is in the field of knowledge management (KM). When this became a hot topic a couple of years ago, some vendors of document management systems suddenly discovered that these systems were knowledge management systems – which of course they were not – and proceeded to market them under that banner. Who suffered? Some naïve customers were taken in by the propaganda, but more important, the discipline of knowledge management is degraded by these distortions and false promises. In the end we all suffer from this debasement of what will become an important part of our business activities.

The very worst identity theft of our time is the rampant theft of the identity of Science. This theft will be much more damaging in the long run than monetary fraud. The identity of Science is regularly and shamelessly stolen by social activists, politicians, marketers., and others with some axe to grind and weak justification for their positions. They pretend that their ideas are supported by the kinds of objective observations and analysis that are the core of the scientific enterprise. The example of current interest is the debate over global warming. Much of this debate depends on pseudo-science at best, and cynical distortions and misrepresentations at worst.

It is useful to set the debate about global warming and the related apocalyptic predictions into the larger context of models of the world, of which the global warming model is merely the latest.

Models of the World – Thomas Malthus

In 1798, Thomas Malthus created one of the earliest models of society in his paper “An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society”. [You can find it at htttp:// Read the first chapter or two to get a sense of the argument and the data with which he supports it.] He says:

I think I may fairly make two postulata.
First, That food is necessary to the existence of man.
Secondly, That the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state.

He argues that the rate of increase in food production will be arithmetic – it will grow by a constant amount each year as limited amounts of new land are turned to agriculture and as improvements are made in agricultural practices and tools.

He goes on to assert that the passion between the sexes will cause a geometric growth rate in population unless checked by famine, disease, war, or natural catastrophe.

Based on these arguments, he reaches the inevitable conclusion: population will outrun food supplies until some limiting event, such as one of the catastrophes listed above, occurs. He further suggests that there will be cyclical oscillations between a condition of too much food and not enough food, and that the brunt of the hardship will fall on the urban working (lower) classes.

Malthus’ work was (and still is) enormously influential, so much so that to this day the term ‘Malthusian’ refers to the idea that human population and welfare are limited by available land and other resources, and that we are nearing the limits.

Malthus’ model was not a model in the sense that we use the term today. It is verbal, not mathematical. (Babbage did not begin work on his Difference Engine until 1833.) It relied on the personal observations of Malthus and a few others. But, given the postulates and the data, the analysis and conclusions are faultless.

One of the beauties of Malthus’ paper is the clarity of thought and exposition that he provides. He starts with the purpose of the model – which is to study whether it is possible to improve Society. He describes his assumptions and methods clearly, and argues forcefully for his conclusion, which is that Society cannot be improved very much.

Malthus’ predictions proved unfounded. What did he miss? He missed the possibilities of innovation, invention, and huge amounts of new land available for agriculture. What he saw as the arithmetic rate of increase in agricultural productivity has turned out to be geometric, with production rising at a much faster rate than population growth.

Let’s not fault him for these omissions. Hindsight is about 20/20 after a couple of hundred years. He did a first rate job based on the science of his time.

Models of the World – The Club of Rome

174 years later, The Club of Rome revisited the issue. The Club is a global think tank, a non-profit, non governmental organization (NGO). Its basic premise is precisely the opposite of Malthus’ conclusion. In the words of its Web site, “it brings together scientists, economists, businessmen, international high civil servants, heads of state and former heads of state from all five continents who are convinced that the future of humankind is not determined once and for all and that each human being can contribute to the improvement of our societies.”

But its most prominent work, the report “The Limits to Growth” (1972), reaches precisely Malthus’ conclusion, although by a different route. The report is based on the outputs of a large scale computer-based model of the world and its economy. It includes representations of natural resources – renewable and non-renewable – human resources and behavior, and it incorporates elaborate feedback mechanisms that describe the interactions among these factors.

It also includes Malthus’ two assumptions. The first assumption, in slightly more general terms is that all resources – not merely agricultural land – are finite in quantity and even with increased productivity and capital investment, we will still run out of one or another in a rather short time, 100 years or so. Malthus’ second assumption, “That the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state” is included intact, although expressed in much less charming terms: population will grow geometrically, unless restrained by natural catastrophe or human planning.

The Malthusian assumptions inevitably led the Club of Rome to the Malthusian conclusion, restated in “The Limits to Growth”: population growth and economic growth are limited and the task of man is to guide the world to live within these limitations. The main point where the Club of Rome diverges from Malthus is that Malthus thinks that no long range improvement is possible, whereas the Club thinks that the elite can guide us to a constrained and limited future. Market forces are seen as inadequate to the task.

We are still within the time frame of the Club of Rome’s predictions, so it is difficult to prove that they are wrong. But the trends are clear. In many parts of the developed world, population is decreasing rather than increasing. The green revolution, advanced plant genetics, and improved methods of cultivation have turned the world from a place of chronic food shortages to a place of chronic food oversupply. (There are plenty of food supply problems, but they are almost all in the area of distribution and political constraints, not in the area of production.)

What about shortages of other resources, copper, iron, coal, petroleum? While these materials are essential to life as we know and want it, the proportion of our wealth and productivity used in the production of physical goods decreases year by year (12% of GDP in the USA last year), as services and intellectual property become more important in our lives. There is no shortage of mental resources, and there never will be until every brain cell of every human being is fully occupied. Even this may not turn out to be a limit. See Sharon Begley’s recent book “Train Your Mind, Train Your Brain”.

Models of the World – Global Warming

The latest incarnation of the Malthusian disaster scenario is the specter of global warming. The models are too complex to analyze here. You can find them described on many web sites; I just Googled “global warming” and got 70,400,000 hits.

The important point is this: the people who predict that global warming will happen claim Science as the basis for their conclusions, and as the justification for the social and political changes they propose ‘to save the earth.’ This claim is dubious at best. Let me count the ways.

1. It is widely asserted that the consensus of scientific opinion is that global warming is occurring and will continue. This is simply false. The assertion is often based on a report several years ago by the National Science Foundation that collected the significant papers on the topic and published them in one volume to facilitate discussion of the issue. But the introduction/summary of the report (which is all that most people read) commented favorably on the papers which supported the global warming hypothesis, and completely ignored all the papers in that volume that took contrary views.

And anyway, since when is scientific truth decided by a vote? Check with Galileo.

2. Many of the advocates of the warming-is-inevitable position are attempting to stifle debate on the issue, contending that it is “settled”. A couple of weeks ago Senators Jay Rockefeller and Susan Collins sent an open letter to the CEO of Exxon/Mobil demanding that it stop supporting groups that don’t believe in global warming. A couple of weeks later, Exxon/Mobil bowed to the threat of federal punishment, and changed its position.

Putting aside the First Amendment to the Constitution, this is not the way science is conducted. Anyone who has a strong scientific position welcomes debate because history has shown that scientific truth can only be discovered through the filter of controversy.
3. The whole global warming argument is based on the results of a number of different large-scale computer models of various aspects of climate – atmospheric trends, oceanographic studies, sunspot activity, and others. These in turn are supported by other related data: the fossil record, studies of volcanic activity, and so forth.
There are two separate but related problems here. One has to do with the reliability of large scale computer models in general. These models are hard to build and even harder to validate. In the end, the only reliable validation is by comparing the results of the models with what happens in the real world. This validation has not been achieved with the global warming models.The second problem is related to the data required by the models. All of the data about the future is derived essentially from extrapolations of prior trends, modified according to the preferences of the modeler. Any errors in extrapolation for year 1 and magnified in year 2 and more in year 3. By year 50 or 100, most of the data has lost all relation to reality. Meteorologists have been developing computer models of the weather for three or four decades, and they have reached the point where their predictions are pretty good for three or four days in advance. I am not denigrating their work. It constitutes a major scientific advance. But what does this imply about models that purport to look 50 years into the future?

Why Worry?

My purpose in writing this diatribe is not to defend one or another position on global warming. It is to defend Science from the cynics and opportunists who attempt to hide their social and political agendas behind a shield of Science and who if left unchallenged, will undermine the Scientific enterprise which is at the core of our prosperity and our culture.


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