Ecologists vs Economists

There was an interesting Four Corners last night on a CSIRO report forecasting a range of possible outcomes for the year 2050. It was basically the author of the report, Barney Foran and another ecologist, Ted Trainer, against three economists, Warwick McKibbin, whom I’ve mentioned previously, Chris Murphy (a leading macroeconomic modeller) and Rod Maddock (a policy economist, once leftwing, but now decidedly rightwing).
I thought the economists had decidedly the best of the argument. Although I haven’t read the CSIRO report, it seems to be, in essence, an updated version of the (in)famous Club of Rome modelled published as Limits to Growth. The economists pointed out that the Club of Rome model contained no prices and no adaptation to scarcity and was therefore proved woefully wrong on most counts (for example, it predicted that reserves of most minerals would be exhausted before 2000). The response of the ecologists, at least as reported on Four Corners was “we have faster computers than did the Club of Rome”, to which the obvious rejoinder is “garbage in, garbage out even faster”.
Still to viewers unfamiliar with the debate it’s pretty clear that the ecologists came out looking like the good guys. In his blog, Ken Parish said he thought the whole thing was biased, but I didn’t see any evidence of deliberate bias. The ecologists were decidedly more telegenic than the economists, but, speaking as someone who knows most of those involved, I don’t think this was the product of manipulative editing. Guys in suits don’t make good TV in general, whereas Barney Foran came across just right.
More importantly perhaps, the economists selected, although prominent in the debate, weren’t really representative of the economics profession in general, and they were quoted on the issues where their stance is most extreme. For example, Warwick McKibbin attacked the Kyoto Protocol, a policy supported by the majority of Australian economists – McKibbin himself is the only opponent of Kyoto with any real credibility in the profession. Similarly, Rod Maddock was quoted as taking an ultra free-market line on land degradation which is very different from the position of most economists who have examined the issue in any depth (a group in which Rod is not included). This was unfortunate, but I don’t think the Four Corners crew went out looking for extreme viewpoints. It’s just that strongly stated positions make better TV than subtle nuances.
In summary, even though I don’t think the show was biased in the usual sense of the term, TV as a medium is inherently biased in quite complex ways. In this case, as is allegedly true of the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates, the TV audience got a misleading picture.