There’s been a lot of media buzz about a certain research paper that examines societal collapses and their causes in history and speculates on possible collapses in the future.
Various publications have been quick to emphasize the link between this study by applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei of the University of Maryland and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
The study uses a projection model developed with NASA funding and concludes that an economically stratified society inhibits the depletion of resources and an eventual societal collapse. Stated simply, if the gap between rich and poor continues to increase, along with the continued depletion of natural resources, there will be a point where it leads to a total collapse of the society and the economy. The study makes clear that it is "NASA-funded," the study makes that clear in its Acknowledgements section: "This work was partially funded through NASA/GSFC grant NNX12AD03A.”
While the agency did in fact fund the model used in the study, NASA does not endorse the findings of the report. NASA said in a press release Thursday that the paper “was not solicited, directed or reviewed by NASA. It is an independent study by university researchers utilizing research tools developed for a separate NASA activity.”
This caveat hasn’t stopped many online publications from focusing on the NASA link for sensational click-bait headlines. The misconception has led to numerous misleading and incorrect headlines, including National Journal's “Here’s How NASA Thinks Society Will Collapse."
The Huffington Post writes: Civilization is Doomed Warns Safe Motesharri’s NASA-funded Study.
The Daily Caller headlined their story, “NASA-funded study: The way to save Western civilization from collapse is communism” and put a picture of a nice big hammer-and-sickle above it.
And now there's even journalists battling with each other, trying to discredit one another over their takes on the HANDY study, when in reality the problem they're fighting over isn't the facts they used to inform their stories, it is their sensational conclusions.
Here’s how NASA is actually tied to the article:
NASA funded the project to create a climate model at the University of Maryland. A smaller project headed by Motesharrei within the NASA-funded project merged the climate model with a population model and developed the Human And Nature Dynamical model (HANDY).
And that’s it. That’s where the NASA link ends.
HANDY was developed as a relatively simple projection model and as an alternative to highly complex models like the World3 model. A team that included two of the authors (including Motesharrei) of the NASA-funded study compared the two and found HANDY came up with comparable data despite being considerably simpler.
HANDY isn’t perfect and plenty of experts have offered their criticisms of it. It uses four metrics, which science writer David Appell breaks down as “two that describe a predator-prey relationship between ‘Elites’ and ‘Commoners,’ one for the natural resources of ‘Nature,’ and one for accumulated ‘Wealth.’”
NASA funded the creation of HANDY, but does not endorse what Safa Motesharrei and his team concluded from their study.
The basic assumption these articles rely upon is not true. NASA had no input on this paper and implying that it did is a misrepresentation of NASA, the University of Maryland and the authors of the study.