This is why the most subtle insult one economist can hurl at another is, "I guess I don't really understand your model...." The retort normally reveals what the modeler fears and loathes the most, not the state of the art of modeling.

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When I was a teenager, travelling to England for the first time with my parents, we happened on an obscure plaque in the entranceway to Bath Abbey, honouring the man I had just learned about in high school, as follows:

“Sacred to the memory of the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus

Long known to the lettered world by his admirable writings

On the social branches of political economy

Particularly by his ‘Essay on Population’

One of the best men and truest philosophers of any age or country

Raised by native dignity of mind

Above the misrepresentations of the ignorant

And the neglect of the great

He lived a serene and happy life

Devoted to the pursuit and communication of truth

Supported by a calm but firm conviction of the usefulness of his labours

Content with the approbation of the wise and good.

His writings will be a lasting monument

of the extent and correctness of his understanding,

The spotless integrity of his principles

The equity and candour of his nature

His sweetness of temper, urbanity of manners,

And tenderness of heart.

His benevolence and piety

Are the still dearer recollections

Of his family and friends

Born 14th Feb. 1766. Died 29 Dec. 1834

Based on this profile, numerous similarities and differences with your portrait of Ehrlich spring to mind:

* both were convinced that they were in the business of pursuing and communicating truth

* both were so supremely confident in their convictions that disagreements or disconcerting facts were merely evidence of the lack of understanding (or other virtues) of their opponents or in other words, the misrepresentations of the ignorant

* neither seemed interested, by contrast, in scientific discovery or testing their hypotheses or asking what alternative explanations might challenge their thinking or better fit their data

* both were people of charming personal qualities matched with certainty (that attracted support from people drawn to that sort of packaging)

Differences included:

* Ehrlich was a trained “scientist”, whereas Malthus was a ‘’man of the cloth’, a calling given a similar respect in his era to scientists in ours, albeit neither field being treated as oracular then or now

* Malthus did not exactly live to see his predictions repudiated by events so thoroughly as has Ehrlich, although if he had, one suspects he would have not altered his opinions much at all

Your article makes the wonderful nuanced Gardner sort of argument that we can learn so much from people who are only partially right or even mostly wrong. Thus embodying the spirit of the scientific method, if not building on its highest attainments!

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I think the “prophet” description is quite apt. This reminds me of reading James Howard Kuntsler’s 2005 book “The Long Emergency” about the coming of peak oil and inevitable decline of society. What I was struck by was how liberally he salted the text with “what I call the Long Emergency” to make sure he would be credited with it if it came to pass. They seem obsessed not so much with finding truth, but being found to be the source of Truth.

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Fascinating read and something to keep in mind while examining policy decisions by politicians , are they going the “triage” route or are they Swaminathans.

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