Midweek Catchup: The Natural Advantage Of Doomsayers

Micro-economics of the End of the World

As I sit contemplating my under-employment and its various causes, it became clear to me that my natural sunny disposition has hampered me. Too much sunshine has always been known to be harmful, incidentally.

Consider the doomsayer, a man who leads a charmed life in our culture. The doomsayer has a natural advantage over his more sanguine colleague. If he is, like most are, an academic, he writes a grant with the title, “The Calamity That Awaits Us When The Climate Changes.” The granting agency is skeptical, but they reason: “Although the probability of calamity is low, if it does occur the effects will be calamitous. Therefore, our doling out this meager sum is nothing compared to what it would cost us if the calamity occurred.”

Meanwhile, the other man writes a grant entitled, “People Worry Too Much: Life Is Pretty Good” which attracts no funders.

The doomsayer, sitting in his newly appointed office, writes his speculative papers which, when joined with the output of his nervous brothers, become authoritative because of their sheer number, just like ghost stories.

Worse, when it comes time to promotion the doomsayer can point to his steady stream of grants (which employ administrators) and papers, while the other man can only point to failures in these areas. The effect on the system is obvious.

Job Interview

“What is your ideal job? In the best of all worlds, tell me me what you see yourself doing?”

“I see myself winning the lottery.”

Pause. “Do you know the odds of that happening?”

“It’s because I know the odds that I’m sitting here!”

We’ll see if I get a call back.

Bot people

49erDweet points us to Patriot Action, which details one of the revelations from the HBGary hacking (see Sunday’s post).

The US government is offering private intelligence companies contracts to create software to manage “fake people” on social media sites and create the illusion of consensus on controversial issues.

The contract calls for the development of “Persona Management Software” which would help the user create and manage a variety of distinct fake profiles online.

The call for proposals, issued by the United States Air Force of all places, is found here ( or here; solicitation number RTB220610).

Jerry Pournelle writes that “I recall that in China there is the ‘fifty cent party’ of some 200,000 paid bloggers and commentors whose job is to make up a consensus of approval of the government and Party.” Various companies pay marketers to do similar things here, like touting for snack crackers, but with little success.

The Persona Management Software is not this, and is instead meant to be an Eliza-like system which will fool real people into thinking they are talking to other real people and not bots. The bots will feed real people whatever propaganda its masters deem important. The system must be opaque, so that if suspicions are cast on the bots, it can offer “powerful deniability.”

Given the context and content of the vast majority of on-line communications between real people, particularly through Facebook, Twitter, and the like, the influence of any such software package is likely to be minimal at best.

The Patriot Action Network is rightly worried, but I see it as the computerized equivalent of dropping leaflets, a practice that has almost never worked, except in the rare instances the leaflets announced that your house is right under the planned bombing route.


  1. Person of Choler

    You’re probably right about the minimal influence of the govbots.

    But is it not just a bit creepy that that our government of, for, and by the people even thought of such a project?

  2. Nomen Nescio

    Mr. Briggs,
    You’re right of course that doom sayers have certain advantages in the world. But remember, they have to bear the burden of belief in their dire predictions. Just imagine walking around all your life shouldering the weight of the certain knowledge that the end is near!

  3. Briggs

    Nomen Nescio,

    Would that you were right. Being wrong, and wrong successively and over a long period of time, has been no bar to the success of Paul Erlich, etc., etc.

  4. “Just imagine walking around all your life shouldering the weight of the certain knowledge that the end is near!”

    You don’t need much in the way of imagination, unfortunately. We are all specifically, individually, personally doomed. Every day we walk a little further along the plank, not knowing when the drop will come. As Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) pointed out to his coy mistress,

    But at our back we always hear
    Time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near,
    And yonder all before us lie
    Deserts of vast eternity.

    Nowadays death is less capricious but no less certain. This is perhaps the reason why we are susceptible to the doomsayers. No matter how wrong they are, they speak a profoundly personal truth to us.

  5. Will

    liamascorcaigh: but the models says I should keep on living.

    My simulation of mortality (which uses a variety of forcings) gives me a 1/16830720 chance of dying. The numbers prove it. How could I be wrong?

  6. I like Will’s numbers. They also work for me. I’ve [to all extents and purposes] cheerfully woke up every morning for all of my life, ergo I am now almost positive I shall live forever. At least for awhile. Ain’t statistics grand?

    To counteract the government’s “Persona Management” scheme I’ve created four additional persona’s of my own, and shall devote a significant amount of my time managing them effectively. Don’t tell anyone, though.

  7. 50ish Dweet

    Wow, that 49er is brilliant?

  8. 51st Dweet

    Pay no attention to 50ish. He’s a dolt.

  9. 52nd Waldo


  10. Ray

    “The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s, the world will undergo famines. Hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. Population control is the only answer.” – Ehrlich’s book, The Population Bomb (1968)

    Julian Simon used to debunk doomsdayer Paul Ehrlich, but Ehrlich still got all the awards even though he was consistently wrong. Even worse, Julian Simon died young from a heart attack and Ehrlich is still alive. There is no justice.

  11. DAV

    “… I see it as the computerized equivalent of dropping leaflets”

    Except, of course, leaflets rarely convey the feeling of large numbers in agreement and are seen as propaganda from a single source. This may be the end of blogging as we know it. Imagine: carpet bombing with trolls.

  12. Mike B


    I was struck by your first clause, “As I sit contemplating my under-employment and its various causes,” because it seems to imply that under-employment is necessarily a bad thing.

    About 25 years ago, I had a colleague who held a reasonalbly well-paying “9-5” job that was not particularly challenging for a man of his experience and education. I asked him once why he had taken the gig, and he explained that he had turned down offers for several other better paying jobs with more interesting work at more prestigous firms because they would have required longer hours, extensive travel, and work on weekends. And he wanted to live in a small town, coach his son’s baseball team, and go see his daughter’s dance recitals.

    I thought he was nuts.

    But later finding myself in a similar situation, I too opted for under-employment, and have been proudly so for nearly 8 years now. I’m much happier seeking fullfilment from my family and my hobbies than from what’s left of my “career” (not that it’s been a catastrophe, just not quite what I imagined when I was 25).

    So wear your under-employment proudly, Matthew. Some of us have worked hard to get there. 😉

    P.S. Thanks again for your blog. I get great enjoyment from it.

  13. stan

    Julian Simon — ” You can always make news with doomsday predictions, but you can usually make money betting against them”

  14. Briggs

    Mike B,

    All that is swell, but under-employment doesn’t pay so well.

  15. Mike B

    Yikes! Didn’t know you meant THAT kind of under-employment. Sorry.

  16. Doug M


    To contrast Simon there is Taleb. Don’t bet on any particular doomsday scenario, bet that something beyond prediction will happen.


    There are 6 billion people who have never died. As a fraction of those who have ever lived, I am sure that it must be a reasonably large percentage.

    We love to scare our selves to death. There is always a coming plague, imminent disaster, environmental collapse, divine vengeance, or Karrillian death ray that threatens to destroy all life on this planet.

    The end of the world is coming soon. I have an elastic definition of soon.

  17. Briggs

    Doug M,

    Various calculations show that, to this date, about 100 billion people have ever lived (order of magnitude), including those still standing. So the nearly 7 billion we have with us is only about 10% of the total.

  18. a jones

    Now is the winter of our discontent.

    Alas I have no glorious summer to offer you.

    Kindest Regards

  19. Sera

    @ Will-

    Your timescale must be too short. However, like the 49er, if my personal trend continues forever then I will live forever. And this works for me.

  20. tehag

    OK, I visited solicitation for persona management software. Apparently, the designers wish the software to have the realism of the average internet commentator:

    ” technically, culturally and geographacilly consistent.”

    Either that or “geographacilly” is a new word to me.

  21. One wag at a gaming site listed his interests as “living forever.”

    His favorite saying was, “I’m gonna live forever or die trying!”

    Not too bad for one of the dumb massess…

  22. stan


    Totally OT — Judy Curry has dredged up the hide the decline weasel for everyone to throw mud about. Made me remember a question I had for you about statistics, climate science and competence.

    One of Steve Mc’s regular themes is “sloppy”. Time after time, it sums up another screwup by the hockey team (operating under the assumption that the error was not deliberate misleading). The statistics aspect is just one of a long series of topics which seem to spell out incompetence — thermometer siting, lack of quality control of databases, failure to replicate or audit, failure of transparency, software disasters, etc.

    I thought I recalled you writing something to the effect that a large percentage of scientific studies misuse statistics and climate science studies are particularly bad. Could you write out something that you would be willing to have people use as a quote on this subject? Are there other stats guys you can point to who have similar opinions?


  23. read a book

    These are the first two lines from the OMG conspir@cy link (from the Patriot Action Network, no less! The most believable and not insane right wing news generator…):

    The US government is offering private intelligence companies contracts to create software to manage “fake people” on social media sites and create the illusion of consensus on controversial issues.

    The contract calls for the development of “Persona Management Software” which would help the user create and manage a variety of distinct fake profiles online.

    I shouldn’t have to point out that the accusation in the first does not follow from the facts stated in the second

    but I do

  24. David

    Frankly, I prefer Midweek Catsup. Or, was that Ketchup? Now I’m confoosed.

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