« Stiglitz: A New Agenda for Global Warming | Main | Global Warming Blamed for Increasingly Destructive Wildfires »

July 12, 2006


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Why Can't We Learn from our Mistakes?:


Steven Earl Salmony, Ph.D., M.P.A.

Each human culture presents its many members with knowledge of reality and also with longstanding, adamantly held perceptions that are illusory. For example, unverified cultural transmissions can give rise to widely shared distortions of the world whenever mistaken impressions are consensually validated as if they represent what is real. In these instances, humans ubiquitously emit culturally biased and scientifically unsupported communications that confuse human reasoning and often promote a certain cortical conceitedness which is not useful in acquiring an understanding of the practical requirements of reality.

Over long time periods, preternatural ideas are passed down from generation to generation, with an unintended result. Distorted perceptions of reality are shared among people, thereby, confounding the efforts of humanity to share an adequate awareness of what it is real.

When good science emerges, it is initially disturbing because the new science usually challenges well-established but unrealistic ideas about what it means to be human; the “placement” of the human species within the natural order of living things; and the requirements of biophysical reality. New scientific facts of this particular kind are uniformly difficult for people to see because unexpected data expose hubris to view by the human species. Since humans are shaped early and pervasively by a superabundance of culturally-derived transmissions in our perception of reality, it becomes an evolutionary challenge for human beings to see the world as it is and to gain knowledge of the human species as one of many miraculous creatures to inhabit so wondrous a planetary home as Earth.

When a scientist-practitioner of psychology like myself thinks a patient is suffering from mental illness, that determination is an evidence-based clinical judgment. However, cultural standards of normalcy are not carefully and rigorously developed as are clinical judgments, but instead are casually agreed upon and promulgated as social norms and conventions that include scientifically validated perceptions of reality as well as misperceptions of what is real. Because some distorted impressions of the world are valued by those who share them, these misperceptions are readily passed from member to member within a culture, among both peers and the generations.

In the cases of deeply disturbed mental patients, they distort reality so drastically that their incorrect impressions of reality do not become established by being passed along to other people. By contrast, "normal" people in instrumentalities of governance, social organizations and cultures appear not to misperceive reality so sharply, yet distortions of what aggregations of normal people perceive do remain. A term of art in psychology is useful here, folie a deux. The term means that two people share an identical distortion of reality. This understanding leads to other terms, folie a deux million for a government agency or political party, folie a deux cent million for a social order or folie a deux billion for a culture. These terms refer to misperceived aspects of reality held and commonly shared by many people of a government, a society, or a culture. At least one way to define the highest standard of normalcy for people in these aggregates is in terms of being able to adequately distinguish what is illusory from what is in scientific fact real.

Steve Salmony

Dave Iverson

Great comment Steve. e.g.: "...unverified cultural transmissions can give rise to widely shared distortions of the world whenever mistaken impressions are consensually validated as if they represent what is real."

Sigmund Freud: "...the true believer is in a high degree protected against the danger of certain neurotic afflictions; by accepting the universal neurosis he is spared the task of forming a personal neurosis". (THE FUTURE OF AN ILLUSION).

Then: "...may we not be justified in reaching the diagnosis that, under the influence of cultural urges, some civilizations, or some epochs of civilization--possibly the whole of mankind--have become 'neurotic'?" (CIVILIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS).

Of course we might punctuate your commentary and Freuds, with longer works by Erich Fromm, e.g. THE SANE SOCIETY, and ESCAPE FROM FREEDOM. But there is way too much in these books to summarize here. You are likely familiar with all if them. I only wish more people were.

Steven Earl Salmony, Ph.D., M.P.A.

Dear Dave Iverson,

The understandings expressed in your comments are rare and greatly appreciated. Thank you for them.



Steven Earl Salmony, Ph.D., M.P.A.

In newspapers worldwide, seven days a week, we find the presentation of the wealth of the world economy by means of an array of economic indicators. We can see that economic globalization is carefully tracked and watched over.

The interlocking national economies of the world economy are also significant to us because economic systems are impressive, distinctly human inventions. The global economy is not a part of the natural world per se, nor does it operate like the economy of nature, but rather is an artificially designed, human construction.

Can you think of anything on the surface of Earth that could be even more important than the success of the economy? There are some things that come immediately to my mind: the integrity of the living Earth, the preservation of its biodiversity, and adequately functioning ecosystems. There can be no such thing as successful economic globalization if there is not a healthy planet from which it can derive resources and services.

Our children are taught that the economy is supported by the natural world in the sense that it and living things depend upon nature for existence. They learn that the human species depends on the Earth for its survival, too. There cannot be a healthy economy without natural resources and ecosystem services.

In light of these understandings there is an unmet need for data to be provided daily by the mass media regarding environmental health, such as ecologic indicators that give humanity reliable ideas about the health of the world in which we live.

If there can be no such thing as a successful economy without a healthy Earth, then more economic investment in ecologic indicators is timely and makes good sense. Let us invite the captains of economic globalization to make direct investments in the development and use of ecologic indicators that do as much to monitor and assess the health of this small planet as the economic indicators do to measure the value and status of the human economy.

Steven Earl Salmony

Dear Dave,

A "thought experiment" follows to which I would like very much to have comments.

IMAGINE for a moment that we are looking at an ocean wave, watching it move toward the shore where it crashes finally at our feet. The wave is moving toward us; however, at the same time, there are many molecules in the wave that are moving in the opposite direction, against the tide. If we observe that the propagation of the human species worldwide is like the wave and the reproduction numbers of individuals or certain countries are like the molecules, it may be inaccurate for the latter to be looked at as if it tells us something meaningful about the former.

Abundant research indicates that most countries in Western Europe, among many other countries globally, have recently shown a decline in their rates of human population growth. These geographically localized data need not blind us to the fact that the absolute global human population numbers are skyrocketing. The world’s human population is like the wave; the individual or localized reproduction numbers are like the molecules.

Perhaps a “scope of observation” problem is presented to everyone who wants to adequately understand the dynamics of human population numbers.

Choosing a scope of observation is a forced choice, like choosing to look at either the forest or the trees, at either the human species (the wave) data or reproduction (molecular) data. Data regarding propagation of absolute global human population numbers is the former while individual or localized reproduction data are the latter.

From this vantage point, the global challenge before humanity could be a species propagation problem. Take note that global propagation numbers do not vary with the reproduction data. That is to say, global human propagation data and the evidence of reproduction numbers of individuals in many places, may be pointing in different directions. The propagation data are represented by the wave; the reproduction data are represented by the molecules moving against the tide.

In the year 1900 world’s human population was approximately 1.2 to 1.6 billion people. With the explosive growth of the global human population over the 20th century in mind (despite two world wars, ubiquitous local conflicts, famine, pestilence, disease, poverty, and other events resulting in great loss of life), what might the world look like in so short a period of time as 43 years from now? How many people will be on the planet at that time? The UN Population has recently made its annual re-determination that the world’s human population will reach 9.2 billion people around 2050, and then somehow level off. No explanation is given for how this leveling-off process is to occur.

Whatever the number of human beings on Earth at the end of the 21st century, the size of the human population on Earth could have potentially adverse impacts on the number of the world’s surviving species, on the rate of dissipation of Earth’s resources, and on the basic characteristics of global ecosystems.

For too long a time human population growth has been comfortably viewed by politicians, economists and demographers as somehow outside the course of nature. The potential causes of global human population growth have seemed to them so complex, obscure, or numerous that a strategy to address the problems posed by the unbridled growth of the human species has been assumed to be unknowable. Their preternatural, insufficiently scientific grasp of human population dynamics has lead to widely varied forecasts of global population growth. Some forecasting data indicate the end to human population growth soon. Other data suggest the rapid and continuous increase of human numbers through Century XXI and beyond.

Recent scientific evidence from Russell Hopfenberg and David Pimentel appear to indicate that the governing dynamics of absolute global human population numbers are indeed knowable, as a natural phenomenon. According to their research, the population dynamics of human organisms is essentially common to, not different from, the population dynamics of other organisms.

To suggest, as many politicians, economists and demographers have been doing, that understanding the dynamics of human population numbers does not matter, that the human population problem is not about numbers, or that human population dynamics have so dizzying an array of variables as not to be suitable for scientific investigation, seems not quite right.



The comments to this entry are closed.

Want Email Updates?

Your email address:

Powered by FeedBlitz


  • This is a personal web site, reflecting only the opinions of its authors. It was built and is manitained in occasional spare moments. Statements on this site do not represent the views or policies of anyone other than the person offering up the views.


  • Our Ecological Economics web-log is designed to daylight and refine economists’ and ecologists' views, agreements, and disagreements on current environmental and natural resource issues. We also hope this blog will help ecological economics ideas gain traction in social and political discussion and policy making.


Ocassonal Contributors

Would-Be Contributors

Strategic Thinking Blogs

Blog powered by Typepad