Business Day column: Enduring myths are impervious to facts

LAST week’s column reported that chimpanzees get better scores on tests of facts than the best-informed people on whose ignorance government policies are based. It gets worse. Chimps change their behaviour when proven wrong; humans faced with failed policies, such as our labour and energy policies, intensify their efforts.

That the established view about supposedly rising poverty, inequality and overpopulation is nonsense is not the subject of informed debate. The puzzle is why such beliefs endure after being disproved. The phenomenon is explained, in part, by vested interests. Such architects of twaddle as Al Gore and Thomas Piketty ride waves of beneficiaries intoxicated by power, fame and wealth. They follow a simple formula, which so resembles religion that these movements, the most recent being "inequality", are essentially religions. Blind faith renders them impervious to disproof. Critics are considered heretics and excommunicated by quasi-high priests.

One of the few people whose intellect I hold in high esteem, Moeletsi Mbeki, was flabbergasted when, in a radio discussion, I challenged his belief that European colonisers brought slavery to Africa. His view is not racially motivated; it is the established view taught in schools and universities.

In Black Rednecks and White Liberals, another black intellectual, Thomas Sowell, explains that slavery occurred throughout history on all continents, and that more whites were enslaved in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe than blacks in the US. Instead of facts eroding the myth, time renders it impervious.

Walter Williams, who also happens to be a black intellectual giant, has conclusively debunked inequality, poverty and overpopulation mythology. He points to 50 years of declining population growth and the trend towards stasis by 2050. It offends him that alarmists such as Al Gore and Thomas Friedman want fewer people. "Population control" demonises the love of children, especially among people of colour.

That Friedman’s fears are widely believed renders them plausible: "Population growth and global warming push up food prices, which leads to political instability, which leads to higher oil prices … and so on in a vicious circle." Factually, population growth does not coincide with instability, and long-term inflation-adjusted food prices tend to fall.

Because more people can afford more food, the world has never known less hunger, living standards have never been higher, and rapidly rising life expectancy is tending towards convergence between rich and poor at about 80.

Health is another area where myths dominate. Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, relies on World Health Organisation mantras to justify his assault on lifestyle freedom. He believes, for instance, that alternative health, traditional healing, liquor, salt, sugar, fast food, fatty meat and smoking have no benefits.

The ultimate myth is that the world is running out of water. As water covers most of the earth’s surface, we could, if determined to wallow in misery, lament excess water and insufficient land. Either way, the quantity of water has been and will remain essentially the same for billions of years. Water does not differ significantly from anything else. The quantity and quality of whatever people want anywhere is a matter of cost. There is so much water, and such good pumping and purifying technology, that more people than ever have access to free or cheap safe water.

As enduring myths are impervious to facts, exposing them may be fruitless. Error correction needs myth-busters to rectify erroneous climates of opinion. Traditional and social media are primary determinants of what people believe. Unfortunately, we are in a Catch-22 situation in that most journalists are, like intelligentsia generally, victims of flawed beliefs.

• Louw is executive director of the Free Market Foundation.

This article was first published in Business Day on 18 March 2015

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