Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it. Andre Gide

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A History of Hysteria

An interesting recurring fact of human history is the endless supply of doomsayers. One would think that this large supply would drive the price (wages) of these prophets of doom to zero. But from Isaiah to Al Gore, we see that this is not so. We are left to conclude one of two things: either economic theory is wrong; or there exists a large persistent demand for doom and gloom. Naturally, I prefer the latter interpretation. But if so, then evidently, we like having the shit scared out of us. I'm not sure why this is the case, but if so, the phenomenon deserves study.

Most of you are likely too young to remember the hysteria created by the Club of Rome in their 1972 report The Limits to Growth. Not sure what ever happened to these bozos.

I remember my grade 3 teacher announcing to my class that at current rates of air pollution, the world was destined to run out of oxygen in 10 years (1980). I spent the rest of that afternoon trying to design an oxygen tent that might save my family from this impending disaster. Today, I'm sure that students would be well-versed in the technique of sequestering government "stimulus money" to finance the endeavor.

But then my attention was turned to a more pressing issue: the coming ice age; see Newsweek 1975 The Cooling World. Back then, meterologists (aka the experts) were convinced that the globe was cooling; and that disaster loomed on the short horizon. While no one was sure of what was causing the cooling trend, there was a strong suspicion that industrialization (aka capitalism run amok) had something to do with it. All that pollution blocking the sun's rays; and so on.

Fortunately, we didn't have to worry about global cooling for long; it was soon supplanted by a much more pressing concern: Acid Rain. The culprit? You guessed it: industrialization. Never heard of acid rain? Don't worry about it.

The latest, of course, is global warming...oops, I mean "Climate Change." The climate changing...imagine that. The culprit? Do I even have to ask?

How are we to understand all of this? H.L. Menken had this to say:"The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."

One of my colleagues (Charles Crawford) had this to say: "Why is there such zeal for belief in global warming? I think that it taps into many different sources of the desire for power. Some think it will allow regulation of the evil capitalist system. Others see opportunities for new capitalist opportunities. Some feel it will put a crimp in the style of rising economics, such as China. Others with Puritan sentiments find it satisfying. It would be interesting to explore the desires for power that encourage belief in global warming."

Another one of my colleagues (John Heaney) offers this: "Guilt, as a feeling merited or unmerited, reduces a natural inclination to oppose bogus authority. It is amazing that more or less random unwarranted associations suffices to produce this feeling with effect.Climate justice, climate debt, climate reparations, climate colonialism.Almost certainly, these slogans, will be the permanent legacy of Copenhagen. So why worry about the science?"

I like this letter to the editor of the Economist Magazine, Dec 12, 2009 by Paul Reiter: "Sir-- Passion is the root problem in what you term 'the modern argument over climate change'. ('A heated debate', November 28th). You state for instance, that the 'majority of the world's scientists have convinced themselves' that human activity is the cause of climate change. I know of no poll that confirms this, but your choice of words is telling. In science, our interpretations of nature are based on observation, experiment and evidence, not self-conviction. Those of us who are dismissed, often derided, as sceptics have waited a long time for the chicanery behind the global-warming movement to come to light. But we should not blame scientists --however unprincipled--nor UN organizations, nor national governments. The true culprits are latter-day Nostradamuses, who, under their icons of cuddly pandas and polar bears, have misused science to stoke fear, guilt and a craving for atonement in the minds of the public. Governments have been browbeaten to respond to these catastophists, and some scientists, dependent on public money, have fashioned their behaviour accordingly. Nikolay Semyonov, a Soviet scientist and Nobel prize winner in chemistry, wrote that: 'There is nothing more dangerous than blind passion in science. This is a direct path to unjustified self-confidence, to loss of self-cricalness, to scientific fanatacism, to false science. Given support from someone in power, it can lead to suppression of true science, and since science is now a matter of state importance, to inflicting great injury on the country.' Semyonov was referring to the ruthless manipulation of Soviet science by Trofim Lysenko and other opportunists. In a similar vein, it is time we recognize that we are becoming prey to a new fanaticism, a religious fervour that runs contrary to rational society."

Leigh Palmer notes that "It should be noted that Paul Reiter (of the Pasteur Institute in Paris) is a respected scientist and a former lead author for the IPCC assessments. He left the process and had his name removed as an author because the IPCC had published scientific misinformation regarding malaria in the second and third assessment reports. He had quite a battle with the officials of the IPCC over this and his story bears listening to. You can hear him tell this story in his own words here. His story is not entirely unique, as other lead authors and lead reviewers* have resigned from the IPCC process for very similar reasons.The IPCC has a mission. It was formed by the UN pursuant to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to gather evidence linking anthropogenic atmospheric carbon dioxide to harmful effects on the world's human population. In effect the IPCC is a prosecutor in a criminal proceeding with copious resources at its command to prove carbon dioxide guilty. The prosecutorial metaphor fails, however, because there is no institutional defense. Carbon dioxide is being tried by a modern Inquisition."

I am inclined to agree with these assessments. Not that this makes me feel any better. I think we can all agree that we would prefer to live in a cleaner world; and that it is desirable that society takes steps toward meeting this worthy goal. Why do many influential people feel the need to resort to scare tactics and bullying to achieve this goal (assuming that this is their goal)? And why do so many of us fall for it, time and time again?

PS. Just came across this fun read: History's Hysteria


  1. "Most of you are likely too young to remember the hysteria created by the Club of Rome in their 1972 report The Limits to Growth. Not sure what ever happened to these bozos." -DA

    I remember. Bozos? Aren't you being a little harsh and perhaps premature?

    Malthuse's predictions may not have been realized at the global stage yet but we can point to local Malthusian crises that often lead to horrendous violence: the Rwanda genocide attempt, civil war in Eastern Zaire, Horn of Africa.

    These and other regions have experienced 'limits to growth' given the technological accomplishments of the residents.

    Of course, the USA is in the unique position of being able to respond to 'limits to growth' by reigning down terror from the skies. It is not entirely clear that the strategy is cost-effective. I suppose that provides further support for the notion that we can keep bungling along with little fear of serious consequences.

    Take nuclear proliferation. The club keeps growing and so far no global disaster. Besides Carl Sagan was probably exaggerating. In the event off regional nuclear war, will the result be a Nuclear Winter? Nope. More like Nuclear Autumn. Lots of people will get sick but rich people should do OK.

    Indeed, there is no point in getting too worried.

  2. I agree that this is a good explanation but Why influential people do not tell that “the situation of world’s climate is becoming better but for a big jump, world needs peoples help. In other words, world’s people should behave a little bit better in order to have a much cleaner world“.
    I think if the reason is peoples concern about having a cleaner world, these statement should work as well as the common statement “world is in disaster and we should be worry about it”

  3. Westslope:

    You've slipped a notch here. I called them Bozos for their hysterics; not for their Malthusian views (Malthus was not an hysteric, for example).

  4. David:

    1) How did you conclude that the Newsweek article on global cooling was actually the consensus opinion of the scientific community?

    If you can't, I suggest that you read this:

    2) On what basis do you claim that, with respect to acid rain, we should not care about it? Here's just one problem as cited by the EPA:

    "Acid rain causes a cascade of effects that harm or kill individual fish, reduce fish population numbers, completely eliminate fish species from a waterbody, and decrease biodiversity. As acid rain flows through soils in a watershed, aluminum is released from soils into the lakes and streams located in that watershed. So, as pH in a lake or stream decreases, aluminum levels increase. Both low pH and increased aluminum levels are directly toxic to fish. In addition, low pH and increased aluminum levels cause chronic stress that may not kill individual fish, but leads to lower body weight and smaller size and makes fish less able to compete for food and habitat."

    3) How much do you understand about the science of climate change? Are you basing your opinions about its validity on past examples of "hysteria", or are you basing your opinions on scientific knowledge? If the latter, show us what you know to counter-argue the conclusions of the IPCC.

  5. NW: I'm afraid that you misread and misinterpret the point of my post.

    [1] I never said that global cooling was the "consensus opinion of the scientific community." I did, however, imply that it was the consensus among meteorologists (and I think the evidence backs this up). In any case, regardless of whether global cooling was or was not a concern in the scientific community, my point is that the phenomenon was portrayed with hysterics in the popular media, much the same way global warming is today. My essay is a critique of the hysterics; not of the underlying science.

    [2] On acid rain, I did not mean to imply that we should not worry about it (although I agree that my flippant statement could be interpreted this way). If you read my concluding paragraph, you'll see that I say that we should be concerned with any harm we might be doing the environment. This does not, however, imply that we should let hysterics govern how policy is formulated.

    [3] I understand very little about the science of climate change. However, I do know quite a bit about scientific methodology in general. I know, for example, that when someone proclaims that "the science is settled," that they are full of BS. People like this have no interest in reasoned scientific debate; they are only interested in implementing political agendas. Do you care to argue with this?

  6. David,

    1) General comment: Hysterics provide their input on every major social issue, and their voices are often louder and heard more than the honest people, no matter what sides they are on. BUT SO WHAT? The impression of your blog post is that you base your view points about the validity of these environmental issues on how wrong the hysterics were in the past. Your previous blog posts suggest that you are a smart and articulate person, so I suggest that you convey your message in both tone and words. If you only talk about the hysterics, but neglect to include the honest scientists who do show good evidence for all of the environmental problems that you talked about, then you are not contributing anything worthwhile to the conversation - you're just pointing out how frustrated you are with hysterics. WE (those of us who care about these issues) ALL ARE FRUSTRATED WITH THE HYSTERICS, but, in order to advance the dialogue with INTELLECTUAL HONESTY and PRODUCTIVITY, there are those of us who choose to focus on the facts, instead of what the hysterics say in the mainstream media.

    2) Re: Global cooling. Who annointed those meterologists as "experts"? As the link that I showed documents, a majority of the experts between 1965 and 1979 thought that the world was warming. You also neglect to mention that scientists have a well supported explanation for the cooling (partially by sulfate aerosols); this neglect casts the impression that the "experts" don't know what they're doing, and are just making things up as they go along.

    3) Re: Acid Rain - I'm glad that you agree that your statement was misleading. I hope that you'll be more careful with the way you convey your messages from now on.

    4) Re: "Settled Science": The scientists whom I rely on don't say that the science is settled, either.

    By neglecting to mention the intellectual honesty with which many scientists approach the certainty of their conclusions, you cast the impression that climate scientists in general are claiming that the science is settled.

    5) In conclusion, I hope that I've demonstrated how the neglect on your part to include the honest scientists who work hard to contribute to understanding and solving environmental problems in your rant paints the impression that the scientific community are hysterics. It's like if someone started to rant about the economic problems as if they're not a big deal or that they're exaggerated, base their claims on the errors of non-economist pundits who don't know what they're talking about but spread doomsday messages, and cast the impression that economists are stupid because these pundits are somehow "experts".

  7. NW: Thank you for your "counter-rant." ;)

    Look, I'm not sure that we disagree on anything fundamental. It sounds like your main complaint regarding my original post is the impression that climate research is bogus. I did not mean to leave this impression. For example, I am a big fan of Malthusian theory. I am not a fan of how this theory was, for a time, hijacked by morons and used to scare me when I was 10 years old.

    I see the same thing happening today. My kids have been forced to watch "An Inconvenient Truth" several times in school. You and I both know that this is not an attempt to educate children in science.

    As for the IPCC, I am sure that there are many thoughtful and careful climate scientists in that organization. But you have to admit that some of its members (and especially its media arm) have behaved less than ideally. I say this primarily on the basis of what I glean from Ross McKitrick and Steve McIntyre; see

    You may be interested in reading this Toronto Star article too:

    Michael Mann may be a good scientist and he may even be correct. However, his (alleged) behavior against those who dare question his views is appalling.

    McKitrick and McIntyre may be entirely wrong in their criticism of the Hockey Stick and so on; but I believe they are sincere in their quest to understand. Why does a large branch of the scientific community treat them like pariahs?

    It just makes me wonder.

  8. David,

    You're wrong - I fundamentally disagree with you in tone and in words.

    In tone, I ignore the hysterics and focus on the facts, and I do think acid rain and climate change are serious environmental problems deserving serious action. Instead of ranting about how wrong the hysterics have been, I've taken the time to examine the research by honest scientists and the consensus of the scientific community, and I've communicated those findings to this blog's readers - you have not, and I've demonstrated in my last comment that you left out serious holes that irresponsibly paint the broader scientific community as hysterics, even if you didn't mean to. While I acknowledge that science is never settled on anything, I do think that enough certainty has been attained by the scientific community to warrant serious action on climate change - as it does on numerous other things, like obesity and smoking. Ambivalence is no virtue when you don't do the homework on the facts.

    In words, I do think that AIT is educating the science. From what I gather, it does make a few minor mistakes and does exaggerate a few things, but it got most of the important things right, and in good detail.

    Given the errors and exaggerations, however few and minor, I do think that it is questionable to show it to school children, who generally don't have the curiosity, skepticism and open-mindedness to critically cross-examine secondary sources. I also prefer positive rather than normative science being shown to kids. On the whole, I would still show it to kids, because it gets most things right, because it's accessible to non-scientists, and because its conclusions are endorsed by the broader scientific community.

    I don't know enough about Mann to comment. I don't disagree that hysterics exist in academia, and that some academics are unfairly ostracized for disagreeing with the mainstream idea; there's plenty of that in economics, as well, but that should not be an excuse for politicians and the mainstream media to ignore the advice of economists as a whole on so many of the low-hanging fruits of economic policy changes.

    If you really want to cast an impression that you care about these environmental problems, then communicate about the facts, fill in those holes that I talked about in my last comment, and show us some brilliant insight into the economics of environmental problems that we so desperately need from a smart man like you. Your talent and your capability of rigorous research are miserably wasted on talking about the stupidity of hysterics.

  9. NW: You miss the whole point of my original post.

    My post DOES present a series of interesting facts: History is replete with doomsayers; their hysterics command a positive price in the market; and it is a puzzle (from the perspective of conventional economic theory) why this should be so. As I said in my post, I am not sure why this is so; the phenomenon deserves study.

    I then went on to use, as examples of this phenomenon, the hysterics that have been used in the past in relation to the earth's environment (population growth, acid raid, global cooling, global warming, etc.). Again, these are facts meant to support my assertion (of the recurrent phenomenon of hysterics). I suppose I should have presented other "non-environmental" examples too.

    These facts, which were presented in relation to the subject of my post, were in no way meant to be construed to conclude that the broader community of scientists (climate scientists or otherwise) are hysterics. That you choose to interpret my post in this way is up to you; I respectfully disagree with your interpretation.

    I also disagree with your concluding statement. I believe that hysterics are an interesting social phenomenon; as a social scientist, I am well within my right to comment on it. I chose to do so on my blog to generate discussion and elicit opinions from an educated audience, such as yourself. I think you have made many excellent points and that my readers appreciate this; I do not view this as a waste of time.

    Thanks for taking the time to make your views known! And good luck in your research.

  10. oops! It can be a good TED talk

  11. As always an excellent posting.The
    way you write is awesome.Thanks. Adding more information will be more useful.


  12. You really need to do your homework before pontificating. Ask Germans about "Acid Rain" and they'll show you photos of the Shwarzwald in the 1970s and 80s. The Club of Rome was early days in computer modelling and very important to that field - remember science is iterative; Global Cooling, well never underestimate John Gribbin's ability to jump on band wagons.

  13. I think your Menken quote says it all. This is how politicians/governments operate - "scare and control". Take the current body scanner issue for example, or the biometric chips in passports, etc. Liberty is dead (again).