Friday, February 12, 2010

Extrapolation without Bounds

If this goes on….

“The world has been chilling sharply for about twenty years. If present trends continue, the world will be about four degrees colder for the global mean temperature in 1990, but eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age.” - Kenneth Watt, Ecologist -1970

This is not a post about the global warming controversy. This is about what happens when data is analyzed and a line is drawn erroneously into the future. Just for size if we look at the statistics for average height in industrial countries over the last 100 years and draw a line through the data we will find that the average person will be 6’-4” at the end of the century. This is big news. Mattress manufacturers and car designers will need to prepare now for larger humans. You don’t want to be left behind when a trend takes off.

I’m being facetious (I can’t help it, facetious is my middle name). This type of scenario really happens. In the 80s and 90s natural gas production looked like it was going through the roof. This was a byproduct of the trend that said we would run out oil. (We will never actually run out of oil. Oil will just become the new gold or diamond market. I’m thinking about stockpiling some 10W40 now for my future anniversary gifts.) The industry said, “Look, with all that natural gas we are going to need a shed load of tankers.” Tanker production went into high gear to try to match that future extrapolated natural gas data point. Well, natural gas didn’t follow the projected trajectory and the tanker industry was caught napping. They over produced. Let’s just say that you could probably get your hands on an LNG tanker fairly cheap if you were in the market.

All trends are unsustainable. I’ll reference my last post – the trend that job creation causes more job creation. Higher demand for limited resources causes inflation and that will kill the trend. We exist in a finite system and resources will be the governor. What about population growth? Population cannot continue at previous rates, we will either run out of room or food first. (It may be time to try to reverse the average height trend – if everyone were smaller we could fit more people and eat less food, hmmm…) With many trends all that needs to be done is announce that there is a trend. The last thirty years have produced a variety of ominous population reports. To some degree that is all it took. The population of most industrialized nations have leveled off and Japan has been going negative for a few years. Current estimates has the world population reaching a plateau of about 9 billion. (Still way too many, but nothing a nice plague won’t fix. Fortunately or unfortunately the planet has self-healing capabilities. Go Gaia!)

Look at the Internet stock surge of the late 90s. All that was needed was for one federal reserve chairman (I won’t name names) to announce that the trend was all just an illusion. He might as well have said ‘the emperor has no clothes’.

Beware of the trend. Nothing is certain but death and taxes (and I have my doubts about taxes).

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