Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Why I shall not read Steven Landsburg

I had to read, recently for school a fragment of Steven Landsburg's "Why I am not an environmentalist" (The Armchair Economist, chapter 24).(note 1). I realized that the article is widely used for educational purposes and I am wondering now :why?
For me the lecture was annoying at best, for the tone and argumentation made more sense in a paper article than a serious economics book that should be used for teaching purposes at this level. Now, I had not read the whole book, but the article in question, as quoted by my textbook, irritates me enough to set my interest level below zero.

Let's take this passage, from page 225:
"The hallmark of science is a commitment to follow arguments to sheer logical conclusions. [...]I am sure that if we found a way to recycle, the population of cattle would go down, not up. If you want ranches to keep the cattle, you should eat a lot of beef. Recycling paper eliminates the incentive for paper companies to plant more trees and cause forests to shriek".

My problem is that he first states that science should be based sound arguments, and than he supports his point with an argument that is more doubtful than the environmentalist interpretation of statistical results.

Landsburg's argument has the following structure:
"We need cattle because we eat beef, therefore we grow cattle.
If we did not need cattle for beef, we wouldn't grew cattle
or using symbols:

A because B, therefore C.(B implies A, A implies C)[1]
If non-B than non-A, therefore non-C (non-B implies non-A, non-A implies non-C)[2]

For an argument to be sound when it holds this logical structure , one cannot have B with an 0 value (false) and C with a 1 value.

He applies the same structure to the recycling issue:
"We need trees to make paper, thus we plant trees.
If we did not need trees for paper, we wouldn't plant trees."

He also goes further to make a parallel between the two arguments: The “tree” argument stands because the” beef” argument is true. His premise that we do plant more trees because we use them to make paper is grounded in the soundness of the “beef” argument.

The problem is that I can point out a situation for his “beef” argument in which C is true but B is false, i.e. Indian Hindu States where people grow cattle but do not eat beef. Thus, the “beef” argument does not stand. Because the way he built his own argument, since I proved the “beef” argument is unsound I can raise enough doubt about the soundness of his “tree” argument to be able to question it without having to prove it unsound.

And here is where I got lost: if Landsburg did expect me to take him seriously and consider his argument to be sound, he did assume that I lack the logical competence to asses it and I do not read an author that does not respect his readers. If he meant to mock the environmentalist approach to argumentation, than the textbook selection does not get that message through ( note 2 ), and I do have to little time at my disposition to waste it trying to find out by reading the whole book.

And, if I were not interested by the environmentalist point of view until now, I'd start showing interest as soon as I finished this lecture. If this the best anti-environmentalist argument someone was able to come with, this is for stupid people and I do not consider myself that stupid. This is why I do not see why would the text make it in this form as an argument against environmentalism.

(note 1) Landsburg, S. (1995) The Armchair Economist: Economics and Everyday Life ,Free Press
(note 2) Which will not surprise me , these are the same authors who discussed Kant's categorical imperatives (with a stress on the plural).


Paul said...

The anti-envirnomentalist argument is for stupid people, I couldn't agree more.

Julie said...

What a strange argument he makes. Could he be trying to make a point about a broader concept? I am an idiot when it comes to economics:) But I agree with you about the reasoning. It seems very odd.

I think it's okay to not be part of a political movement, but every human being should care about the environment. I've never in my life heard anyone argue against recycling.

Ana said...

@Paul :)

@Julie. Maybe he wants to point out that we should not mix envirnomentalism as a political movement in economics...but it is not clear from the fragment I had to read from my textbook.

Anonymous said...

Paul, what a deep and profound use of reason and argument to engage in a discussion. So stupid people recognize that all resources are scarce, even environmental ones? So stupid people recognize that intentions do not translate into outcomes - check out the history of the Endangered Species Act for one good example, So stupid people understand that there are bootleggers taking advantage of the political process when given cover by environmental baptists? Really?

Julie, do you outright reject lines of argument just because you never heard them before?

Professor Landsburg is asking serious questions, and his argument about trees is only illustrated by the rhetorical cow question, it is not intended as a proof- he is trying to help his readers think about the nature of conservation. Do you know that the North American forests are more populous today than they were 50 years ago or 100 years ago? Do you know how much of that was due to conservation efforts (hint, we have more forest cover today, and virtually none has been due to government protection).

Environmental quality is not costless, nor is pollution evil. Pollution is a cost, and it comes from us doing other things that we like. Zero pollution is not an option. I despair for your professors, in all your classes. Do you really not try to engage the material? Do you really not understand logic and reason?

Landsburg forces you to be honest and ask questions like, "Is there any evidence I can be show to make me reconsider my belief or position?" And from your little rant it appears that you can offer no such evidence. That then enters the realm of religion and not reason.

Ana said...

Dear Anon (anonymous?)

I suggest using a nick, it will help me address the reply.
If you had read my blog more carefully you’d realize that I actually had done some research into the issue before. There is more beyond recycling paper than saving trees (in terms of economic growth I mean). And you’d probably realize that this blog was not meant to advertise my “serious approach to the science of economics and the world of business”, but it is a creative space and a space for little personal rants like this one…
Now, another thing I need to clarify before we can start an amiable dialogue. I do not like to be patronized. I almost have an allergic reaction to being patronized. So if you want an intelligent dialogue do not lament and do not say “you do not get it”. Help me “get it”.
Of course there is no zero pollution. And yes pollution is a cost and I do have to pay it, but I may choose not to pay for the whole bundle just because yinz like to do what you like to do…

And if there is evidence to make me reconsider my belief, well I’d like to see it. Give me the numbers, the facts…
As for me providing you some evidence: but I have no intention to do so…
(1). because I do not have the slightest intention to change your beliefs. I have no idea who you are and what beliefs you have. I also think each is entitled to its own beliefs.
(2) I am still not reading Professor Landsburg’s book , unless someone convinces me it is worth to be read –so your evidence first.

P.S. And if you want to receive the respect and attention due to your comments, please do pay the same respect to my readers. This is not an open discussion forum, this is my blog…

Ana said...

Anaïs: Why I shall not read Steven Landsburg(II)

Anonymous said...

I really like when people are expressing their opinion and thought. So I like the way you are writing

vt said...

The argument is pretty easy to understand: The forests are owned and those who own them use them as a resource for earning money. Now they are making money from the forest by using the trees to make paper and the owners are careful to keep the forest from being over-harvested (they do this by adjusting the price with which they sell the wood).

If, however, you have more recycled paper, the value of the forest as a resource declines, therefore the owners find different uses for their property. The most lucrative alternative use is for agriculture, which implies cutting down the forest.

This is the mechanism by which recycling paper leads to a *decline* of forests. The mistake on which your intuitive conclusion is based is that the forests are not owned by anybody. In fact they are and the forest has value to the owners only inasmuch as it generates enough revenue. Recycling paper cuts their revenue and so it creates an incentive for they to find alternative uses for their property.

Ana said...

Your argument has a different logical structure than Landsburg’s and my intention was to point out the flow in the mere logic of his argument. Now your argument says:

We need trees to make paper, thus we plant trees.
If we did not need trees for paper, we wouldn't plant trees.
All forest owners shall make a profit from their land.
If they cannot sell trees to the paper industry they will cut down the trees to cultivate the land

Of course the second part, the one you state explicitly in your comment is implicit for Landsburg. But the suppositions on which you built the second part of the argument –humans being only motivated by profit, the only profitable alternative use is agriculture. What about construction? –that has to cut and replant a lot of trees, hunting and tourism –they don’t even have to cut the trees, crazy billionaires that’ll just want to preserve the land and so on… But this takes the discussion in a realm that is neither logic, nor science but sociology, psychology nor ethics. And there is another post on this blog about my different “final vocabulary”, “values” and so on…
And I’ll say I do not debate scientifically the supposition that all humans are greedy, stupid animals motivated by short term financial gain. I don’t even deny that there are people who look at their land as it were a cash bag and nothing more… I just reserve my right to have a different set of beliefs when all humanity is concerned.