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)
If non-B than non-A, therefore non-C (non-B implies non-A, non-A implies non-C)
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).