My plan was to return to this today — the claim that the human population of the Earth is substantially less than 7 billion. Before we get to the main course I learnt something that was only a little surprising: the crypto-fascist and terrorist-supporter Vox Day is into moon-landing conspiracy theories. The links are at the bottom of the post for reference. The first is a recent link to a video by a guy called Owen Benjamin. Vox has been pushing this guy’s videos recently because he was a former supporter of Jordan Peterson who has since decided that Peterson is satanic. The video is rambling and poorly argued — not worth watching as there’s nothing new there and its interspersed with homophobic tangents. Vox’s scepticism about the moon landings is older though and he links to a position he’s had on them since at least 2006.
“I tend to support the faked Moon landing theory myself, not because of any particular detail, but simply based on the theory that if the Official Story is that we landed there, then we probably didn’t. This mysterious disappearance tends to support that… it’s intriguing to see how tapes, videos and recordings never seem to survive whenever an Official Story is questioned by the public.”
I’ll concede one point in Vox’s favour: he very neatly encapsulated the core fallacy at the heart of his thinking and in Sarah Hoyt’s position on the population of the Earth. I’ll generalise his argument as follows:
The fallacy of denial: If the official story is one thing then this a lie and the truth is in a specific other direction.
As a fallacy, it is a species of the genetic fallacy that treats the source of the argument as determining the truth of the argument. There are instances where similar arguments are not fallacious, for example, if we are evaluating the reliability of evidence from a particular source and that source is known to be unreliable. However, an unreliable source doesn’t contaminate all the other surrounding evidence nor is it rational to conclude that an unreliable witness/source must be lying without additional evidence.
Additionally, there is a fallacy of unreliability here. The fallacy is that if a source of data is unreliable and that all we know about it, then the unreliability can only be in one direction. For example, Vox contends that NASA are obviously lying about something but then doesn’t contemplate whether they are hiding extra moon landings etc. If if you grant that somebody is lying to you, you need other evidence or arguments to conclude even vaguely the nature of the lie.
Back to 7 Billion
Returning to the denial that the population of the Earth is 7 billion, we can see the same fallacy in operation here:
“I don’t think we’re 7 billion or whatever number the UN claims, and frankly I can’t understand why ANYONE believes the UN on this. They can’t be trusted on anything else, pretty much taking the word of dictators and totalitarians for proven facts, but you trust them on this? Really?”
Hoyt argues that the official story is 7 billion and that the official story can’t be trusted and therefore the actual population must be significantly less. She doesn’t say by how much but presumably enough that people would be less concerned about the population of the Earth. It is essentially the same argument as Vox’s but on a completely different subject.
The claim is fallacious even if we can regard some parts of it being credible. To wit, these are reasonable points:
- Census data can’t be wholly accurate in general.
- Census data will be even less accurate in less developed countries.
- Authoritarian regimes do sometimes (or even often) lie about national statistics.
However, none of those points address either the size or the direction of any errors that apply to the 7 billion figure. What they tell us can be summed up as:
Population of the Earth = 7 billion +/- some error
That error is not zero but we knew that already and nobody is claiming it is zero. Hoyt’s argument requires the error to be both negative and substantial, neither of which can be derived from “you can’t trust the UN”.
Denial versus conspiracy
The basic claim we are looking at (i.e. that the population of Earth is substantially less than 7 billion) is best described as denial. By itself, it is simply a claim that something with substantial evidence behind it isn’t true. That’s not the same as a conspiracy theory but it is the seed of one.
The move from a simple denial to conspiracy comes from when further evidence is presented.
In the case of the Earth’s population, we do not need to use the UN figure at all. Instead, we can use the USA’s Census Bureau estimate or we can use an estimate by a private organisation The Population Reference Bureau.
For 2015 these estimates were according to Wikipedia:
[Links take you to sources. For UN and USCB these are interactive sources and the figures vary to some degree from what is quoted on the Wiki page but confirm 7 billion + ]
So different groups come to similar figures. Maybe the USCB is lying as well and in the same way as the UN? Well, that’s a definite move into conspiracy theory territory.
A less conspiratorial source of skepticism is that national governments lie. It’s a fair point and if each of those estimates above used the same raw data and that raw data was false then maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the figures are similar. After all, a billion+ of that 7 billion is from China and there is no particular reason to assume that the Chinese government would be honest.
However, that assumes that all these estimates are is simply adding up some top level numbers. It ignores that these numbers are just part of a wider discipline of demographics. Behind the figures are estimates about population density and population growth. These estimates aren’t perfect either but they do make lying about population figures substantially harder.
The estimates are also part of a historical record of estimates and hence would require a government to not just lie but to do so consistently over decades. It might be plausible to believe that the Chinese government would lie but during the years of the much vaunted one-child policy, in what direction would the government lie? To bolster the policy initially a cynical government might inflate population growth but overtime a cynical government would start exaggerating the degree to which the policy had worked. Lying plausibly about such things would be quite a challenge but not impossible in a relatively closed society. While modern China is still under one-party rule, it’s relatively easy to visit and see the size and scale of Chinese cities. That’s not enough to confirm the accuracy of Chinese census figures but it does limit the degree to which they can be inflated.
For other nations unintentional inaccuracy in census figures cuts both ways. There are reasons that some people may be over-counted and reasons why some people might be under-counted. USCB estimates for the population of China in 2015 were 1,367,485,000. Let’s say the ‘true’ figure was HALF of that then the world population would be 6,652,692,500 — less than 7 billion but still 7 billion when rounding to the nearest billion. To get the figure down to 6 billion requires both accidental over-counting and intentional lying from multiple nations.
Such lies might work in a sufficiently rural population where the impact of people is harder to observe but much of the growth in the world is in cities, cities that are observable by satellite. Again, hard to get exact population figures from such data but its not hard for demographers to use economic data, land use data and other sources to provide corroboration.
Put another way: population figures may be ‘wrong’ but there’s a limit to how wrong they can be.
Motive is insufficient
Now imagine the 7 billion figure is a hefty 2 billion people out and in one direction i.e. the actual world population is 5 billion. That figure would require not just huge lies from both China and India but the active collusion of demographers in multiple countries and the governments of hostile nations going along with the deception. But let’s grant that and imagine it’s all part of a plan to frighten people by the spectre of over-population. Is 7 billion seriously that much scarier than 5 billion to be worth all of that effort? And the effort to shave 2 billion off those figures would be significant.
Critical thinking versus credulous thinking
I mourn the word “skeptical” but unfortunately it’s not up to the job of the modern world. “Critical thinking” isn’t much better because what ever word we might use, it will then be misused by flim-flam You-Tube “philosophers” like Stefan Molyneux. However, for the time being at least I can use it to point out a distinction.
It can seem paradoxical the extent to which some people we encounter (not all on the right but increasingly concentrated on the right) can be both so sceptical and credulous at the same time. While doubt and belief look quite different, the “scepticism” is routed in their credulousness. The core issue is not a capacity to believe or disbelieve but rather an unwillingness to interrogate their own beliefs (or disbelief for that matter).
It’s not unlike the very basic advice given to people learning how to do maths or physics problems. It’s not enough to churn through calculations and plug numbers into calculators because small errors can lead to big mistakes and misunderstanding the problem can lead to correct methods to the wrong problem. Adept problem solvers take a step back and ask the question “does this answer actually make sense?”
“Now, I have not said that the Moon landings were a hoax, I have only observed that I do not believe the Official Story concerning them. I don’t know what people are lying about or the full extent of their lies and deception, I only know that the Official Story is not entirely true. That does not mean it is entirely false.”http://voxday.blogspot.com/2018/12/skepticism-required-here.html
“I tend to support the faked Moon landing theory myself, not because of any particular detail, but simply based on the theory that if the Official Story is that we landed there, then we probably didn’t.”http://voxday.blogspot.com/2006/08/fortuitous-loss.htm
“As with all things for which there is no clear historical consensus, I remain entirely agnostic on the issue. To the extent that I lean one way or the other, I tend to assume that the landings were faked due to the means, motive, and opportunity heuristic and because I am a confirmed cynic when it comes to Official Stories narrated by the U.S. government”.http://voxday.blogspot.com/2018/12/no-one-went-to-moon.html