Wolf, The Fallacy of the

(Argumentum ad lupum)

The fallacy that, since previous warnings of a problem’s arrival have been wrong, or premature, or misunderstood, the problem can safely be ignored.

One of Aesop’s Fables is the story of the boy whose job was to look after the sheep but, having a nervous disposition, he was forever crying “wolf” when no wolf was there. One day the wolf really did come, and he cried “wolf” again, but nobody believed him, and the wolf was able to dine off the sheep, and the boy, at leisure.

There are two morals to the story. The first is: avoid giving false alarms. The second is: in the end, the wolf came, so do not be misled by previous false alarms into thinking that the latest alarm is false, too. Of these two, the second one is more significant—it highlights a key logical fallacy. Believing false alarms wastes time, but it can lead to some helpful advice for apprentice shepherds; disbelieving all alarms can lead to a local lad being eaten, for starters.

We have an example of the Fallacy of the Wolf in the case of supplies of oil. A century or so ago, there were some false alarms about how little oil remained; the art of forecasting oil supplies earned a bad reputation. However, estimates of the quantity remaining in the world—and of the turning point (the “peak”) at which oil production would start to decline—steadily improved and, in the 1970s, estimates of the easily-accessible liquid oil which had been in place at the start of the industrial era settled at, or around, 2,000 billion barrels, and that estimate has held.

The expected peak was estimated to be around the year 2000—later extended into the new century thanks to the slower growth in demand following the oil shocks of 1973–1979. The “2000:2000” warning, starting with a report by Esso in 1967, was independently confirmed by official sources, such as the UK’s Department of Energy (1976), the Global 2000 Report to the President (1980), the World Bank (1981), and by numerous independent studies such as Hubbert (1977), Petroconsultants (1995), Ivanhoe (1996), Campbell (1997), Bentley (2002), and so on through the first decade of the new century. Analysts have also pointed to the regrettable consequences of a breakdown in oil supplies on a global market which has neglected to make any serious preparation. Here is a wolf that gave more than forty years’ notice of its arrival, and has been thoughtfully issuing reminders ever since (for detail, and more recent studies, see Energy Prospects).W32

It is, however, the sceptics that tend to carry the day. “There is always a series of geologists who are concerned about imminent depletion of world supplies”, an energy economist reassured a House of Lords Select Committee on Energy Supply in 2001. “They have been wrong for 100 years and I would be confident they will be wrong in the future.”

So that’s all right then: the anguished warnings are nothing more than that new kid trying to draw attention to himself. Aesop might be tempted to revise his fable slightly. Here we have the apprentice shepherd growing mature and experienced in the job. He has been giving precise fixes of the wolf’s approach for as long as anyone can remember. He is specific and credible about the action that must be taken to save the village. And still he is disbelieved.W33


Related entries:

Unknowable Future Fallacy, Sedation, Spiking Guns, Transition.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was a cultural historian and economist, based in London, England. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a pioneer of post-growth economics, and a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, 'Lean Logic' and 'Surviving the Future', published posthumously in 2016. These in turn inspired the 2020 launches of both BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong's feature film about Fleming's perspective and legacy - 'The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation?' - and Sterling College's unique 'Surviving the Future: Conversations for Our Time' online courses. For more information on all of the above, including Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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