Wisdom of Kilgore Trout


Predictions Revisited, Updating Magic Universe, and Climate Change: News & Comments

The Wisdom of Kilgore Trout

While checking a reference for yesterday’s posting I came across an epigram concerning human behaviour that I declared, back in 1983, should rank with Einstein’s E=mc2 in physics. I quoted it in 1984 and After, but it really ought to be written on every blackboard in the world.

Who said so? None other than Kilgore Trout, the imaginary science fiction writer invented by the real-life science fiction writer, Kurt Vonnegut. In Breakfast of Champions, Vonnegut re-caps a Trout story called Plague on Wheels.

A space traveller called Kago told the Earthlings about the self-reproducing automobiles on a dying planet named Lingo-Three.

Kago did not know that human beings could be as easily felled by a single idea as by cholera or the bubonic plague. There was no immunity to cuckoo ideas on Earth.” Within a century of Kago’s arrival the Earth was dying too, littered with the shells of automobiles.

Getting an interview with Vonnegut was never easy, but when I managed it my key question was whether Kilgore Trout’s epigram expressed his own opinion. He said, Yes it did.

Before this accidental prompt, I wasn’t going to bother to comment on a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, no less. Anderegg et al. claim that scientists convinced about man-made global warming are cleverer and better respected, as well as much more numerous, than scientists who are unconvinced.

Now I’ll say that it’s scary but not surprising that the National Academy of Sciences should permit a division of experts into an ingroup and an outgroup, and an evaluation of them by arbitrary tests that have nothing whatever to do with the inherent substance or merit of their research. Unsurprising because it accords with Kilgore Trout’s insight into human behaviour, which has been well verified in psychological experiments.

Alec Nisbett of BBC-TV filmed one experiment called Klee-Kandinsky, executed for real with unsuspecting schoolboys, for our documentary “The Human Conspiracy” (1975).  I also summarize the experiment in Magic Universe, in the story “Altruism and aggression: looking for the origins of those human alternatives”.

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Malthus with a computer


Predictions Revisited

Malthus with a Computer”

Take a model that purports to predict the future and just run it back to the past. The result are sometimes salutary. Ross McKitrick of Guelph (celebrated for his role in trashing the warmist’s Hockey Stick) has done that with a model from the Canadian Medical Association.

The model predicts a shocking loss of life from air pollution. As reported last week by Peter Shawn Taylor in Canada’s Financial Post, McKitrick put 1960s levels of air pollution into the model and found that the deaths it attributed to pollution in the Toronto area reached more than 100% of all the people who actually died. As McKitrick said, “It just doesn’t make sense.”

The story rang a bell with me, about a famous computer model of the early 1970s, which spawned the best-seller The Limits to Growth from Donella H. Meadows and her colleagues at MIT. It predicted industrial pollution growing out of control and a global population crash in the 21st Century. That may sound familiar, but four decades ago the pollution wasn’t greenhouse gases but good old-fashioned smog and poisonous wastes from industry and agriculture.

Here is the “standard” projection in The Limits to Growth 1972. It runs from 1900 to 2100. You can see the global population climbing and outstripping food production, so that food per capita falls, bringing the population down with it. Meanwhile natural resources, starting high in 1900, are being rapidly exhausted at the end of the century, and converted into steadily rising industrial output and accelerating pollution. Everything unravels in the early 21st Century, with agriculture and industry collapsing, and billions of people dying.

As I noted in my book 1984 and After, Sam Cole and Ray Curnow of SPRU (the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex University) ran the Limits to Growth model backwards. It told them that, before 1880, the world’s population was infinite. Again: “It just doesn’t make sense.”

A book of essays rebutting The Limits to Growth, produced by SPRU (see the Cole reference),  pointed out that a moderate rate of discovery of new resources, combined with slow progress in pollution control, would completely avoid the predicted disasters. Chris Freeman, SPRU’s director, called his own critique ‘Malthus with a computer’.

There’s a sub-plot in this story, about the Club of Rome that funded the original Limits to Growth study. Aurelio Peccei, an Italian industrialist, and Alexander King, a British scientific civil servant, founded it in 1968. King tried hard to seduce me with the idea that international technocrats should rule the world. I’m sorry to say I can see some influence on my writings in the late 1960s. But Limits to Growth brought me to my senses. What if the technocrats’ expectations are completely wrong?

Nowadays the Club of Rome is seen by some as the spider that spun the web of authoritarian environmentalism, which then promoted the global warming scare two decades later. I leave that as a googling exercise for the readers to pursue if they wish. Better to end, perhaps, with a limerick that I learnt from Chris Freeman of SPRU.

A trend is a trend is a trend

But when and how does it bend?

Does it rise to the sky,

Or lie down and die,

Or asymptote on to the end?


Shawn Taylor’s article in the Financial Post is here: http://opinion.financialpost.com/2010/06/15/junk-science-week-the-missing-smog-dead/

Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L Meadows, Jørgen Randers and William W. Behrens, The Limits to Growth, New American Library, 1972

Nigel Calder, 1984 and After, Century Publishing, 1983.

H.S.D. Cole, Christopher Freeman, Marie Jahoda and K.L.R. Pavitt, Thinking About the Future: a Critique of the Limits to Growth, Chatto & Windus for Sussex University Press, 1973

predictions intro



As we all should be held accountable for predictions published in the past, in the future tense, the time seems ripe for new check-ups on my own and other people’s.

My first venture into the “futures” game was in 1964 as editor of New Scientist, when I asked almost 100 scientists and scholars to state their expectations for “The World in 1984”, the year already made fictionally notorious by George Orwell. When the time came, I checked those predictions against the outcome, with some remarkable hits and misses, in 1984 and After (called 1984 and Beyond in the Viking US edition). Meanwhile other future-oriented books and TV programmes of mine dwelt particularly on military matters, on food production, and on space travel.

My main writing and editing on predictions

  • 1988 Future Earth – a contributing editor, for Croome Helm, etc.
  • 1986 The Green Machines – author, for Putnam, etc.
  • 1984 “1984” – storyline for an exhibition on future technology at the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago
  • 1983 1984 and After / 1984 and Beyond author, for Century and Viking
  • 1979 Nuclear Nightmares – author for BBC, Viking, etc. (& BBC-TV programme, same title)
  • 1978 Spaceships of the Mind – author, for BBC, Viking, etc (& BBC-TV series, same title)
  • 1970 Living Tomorrow – author, for Penguin Education
  • 1969 Technopolis – author, for McGibbon & Kee, Shuster, etc.
  • 1968 Unless Peace Comes – editor, for Allen Lane, Viking etc.
  • 1967 “The World in a Box” — script for live show BBC-TV, 50 min.
  • 1967 The Environment Game – author, for Secker, Holt, etc.
  • 1965 The World in 1984: the Complete New Scientist Series (2 volumes, editor) for Penguin etc.
  • Plus various book chapters, articles. lectures, etc.