Learning to think like a researcher

At some point along the way, with some very important help from R.G. Collingwood and others, I learned to think like a researcher. When presented with a newspaper story, a "fact" from a friend, or a seemingly plausible argument, I learned to treat it like a witness to be interrogated*, instead of a truth revealed.

As I was walking to the store tonight, an example struck me. I just saw an envelope on the floor from Con Edison bearing the inscription, "I used to be a tree." (I think there was something urging customers to switch to online billing involved.)

I then recalled an argument from, I think, P.J. O'Rourke, one that seemed quite convincing to me for many years. O'Rourke said something to the effect, "It is ridiculous to try to save trees by conserving paper, since the trees that are used to make paper were grown for that use, and would not have been grown otherwise."

The plausibility of this argument arises from this: yes, the particular trees and particular forest that were used to make the Con Edison envelope might not have been grown if the demand for paper were less. But lumbering operations are usually not located on prime real estate: they exist on land that is often not in demand for much besides hosting a forest. If the demand for paper fell, it is true that the lumber company would probably cease planting as many trees as it does today and would need less land. What is not necessarily true is that that land would no longer host a forest: it might be bought by a hunting club, or used as the site for a number of vacation homes in the woods, or be bought by the Nature Conservancy. (And any of those uses would likely result in a healthier forest than one used for a lumbering.)

How often would lumber lands remain forested if our demand for wood products dropped? To answer that question, you would need to do a bunch of research (and some educated guessing afterwards), and not merely make wisecracks that will draw chuckles from a right wing audience.

* At least if I am wearing my researcher hat: if I am, say, in a casual conversation at the dinner party, I have also learned to let many things that have the whiff of nonsense about them pass by without remark.


  1. I do not really really want to contradict your point, but when I was young, my father and I used to hunt public lands in East Texas that were / are used for growing trees. I can tell you that, at least in Texas most 'public' land is put to use this way. (If it will grow trees, anyway.) There are thousands and thousands of acres of forest like that. I do not really know what would happen to it if demand for wood and paper dropped. But I do not think the paper companies are competing against real estate developers. There is so much land, and it is really cheap. If the developers wanted it, they could probably get it pretty easily.

    Another note - - I went to a university with with a rather large forestry program, and many of that 'school of thought' were of a mind that it was their job to 'save the forests from the environmentalists.' I think what they meant was that it was their job to take care of the forests (from forest fires etc., I suppose.) East Texas supposedly did not have much in the way of forests until people started planting them and taking care of of them. It is too dry; Even though the trees will grow, the fires will periodically destroy them unless they are contained, so that that area was historically Prairie.

    Anyway, that is what I have been told. Perhaps I should be more interrogative...

    1. "But I do not think the paper companies are competing against real estate developers. There is so much land, and it is really cheap. If the developers wanted it, they could probably get it pretty easily. "

      That is kind of my point: much of this land would be forest anyway.

  2. Yes, I guess that would probably be the key observation.

    I guess my main point is just how complex the particulars of the real situation are (and I only know a very little bit about it from an old hobby) . The O'Rourke quip makes a sweeping generalization that imagine the situation rather simplistically. I'm pretty sure that most timberland is public, and most people think of public lands as being like Yellowstone, where you don't just show up and start shooting the bears and cutting down trees (at least, that's what I used to think was meant by by words like National Forest or 'wildlife preserve.' It was 'for the animals' and more or less off-limits for people, except maybe for visiting. I wouldn't know any better except that I've actually been on a number of these places, and once you've seen a bit of it, you realize that approach probably wouldn't work very well anyway. ) . The real situation is I think probably more like a giant medieval Commons than either a market or some kind of set aside. And the government isn't necessarily managing things to maximize income.

    There are a lot of people using those lands in different ways, and many different groups of people who consider themselves 'friends of the trees,' but with different ideas about what that looks like. It at least isn't entirely obvious what would happen if the price of paper dropped. My guess is that you are mostly right. But each particular situation would be different.


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