Bad News Bearers
Ecoscam: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse, by Ronald Bailey, New York: St. Martin's Press, 256 pages, $19.95
One of the defining moments of 1992 was the NASA press conference held on February 3. At that conference, scientific experts predicted that ozone depletion had become so severe that an ozone hole (like that which looms over Antarctica during its spring) would appear over the Northern Hemisphere. Since ozone blocks ultraviolet radiation coming toward the earth, there was an increased chance, reporters were told, of cancer caused by that radiation.
An immediate flurry of media activity followed, epitomized by a Time magazine cover depicting the sky with a gaping and flaming hole in the center. Prompted by perceived public reaction to the NASA briefing, President Bush signed into law a ban on those chemicals deemed responsible for ozone destruction. A self-righteous Sen. Albert Gore (D–Tenn.) chastised the president for dragging his heels on such a ban until there was a threat of an ozone hole developing over the president's vacation home in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Little media attention was given to NASA's follow-up press briefing of April 30. At that conference NASA reminded the reporters that the predictions made at the prior press conference were based solely on preliminary information and that subsequent research failed to show the existence of any ozone hole in the Northern Hemisphere. The panel of experts at the April meeting continued to warn, however, about the dangers of ozone depletion.
Kent Jeffreys of the Competitive Enterprise Institute stood up during the question-and-answer period and noted that ultraviolet radiation naturally increases the closer you get to the equator. He then asked the NASA scientists to estimate how far south you would have to go to get the level of radiation to which you would be exposed if the current predictions of ozone depletion came true. While the rest of the panel refused to answer the question directly, Robert Watson, one of the leading scientific advocates of the dangers of ozone depletion and of global warming, admitted that the increased radiation exposure from the predicted depletion of ozone would be the equivalent of what you would get from moving 100 miles south (about the distance between Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia).
Only one article, an editorial in The Washington Times, mentioned that answer, which put into perspective the relatively benign nature of ozone depletion. While currently dormant in political circles, the apocalyptic vision of ozone destruction continues to be taught in schools and described in the popular press.
This account brings to life the main theme in Ronald Bailey's persuasive and meticulously researched Ecoscam: Theories of impending doom are always with us, in defiance of today's information and tomorrow's virtually certain disproof.
Long concerned with the abuse of scientific information, Bailey is currently the producer of the national weekly television series TechnoPolitics, which deals with science-policy issues. His thorough book recounts example after example of past fears of worldwide catastrophe that, in retrospect, seem childlike in their naiveté but which appeared as ominous to their generation as certain environmental doomsday scenarios appear to ours. Some of these disastrous predictions are embarrassingly recent.
Only 21 years ago the famous study The Limits to Growth predicted that the world would run out of gold by 1981, tin by 1987, and petroleum by 1992. During the Cold War, pundits repeatedly said that the mere possession of nuclear weapons by the superpowers would ensure their imminent use in a worldwide holocaust. In 1968, Stanford University's Paul Ehrlich predicted in his acclaimed The Population Bomb that food shortages would result in famines engulfing the planet, killing off "hundreds of millions of people" in the 1970s alone. While occasional famines have continued to plague the Third World, they are the result of government policies in those countries and the disruptions of civil war. Bailey observes, "The problem is not a lack of food, but inadequate distribution and poverty."
Most of Bailey's 10 chapters describe past and current predictions of doom and the facts that belie them. Among the parade of horribles that Bailey deals with and dismisses are the threats from biotechnology, global warming, overpopulation, atmospheric ozone depletion, and nuclear winter. As Bailey observes, even when there is an element of truth to these scares, their negative features are vastly exaggerated and their positive dimensions overlooked. An example is the benefit to plant life from increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—something rarely acknowledged when people call for curtailing carbon-dioxide emissions to combat the dubious problem of global warming.
In this connection, the supreme depth of irony is reached in the chapter entitled "The Refrigerator Effect." From the late 1950s to the late 1970s, it was common for climatologists and others who sought public attention to declare that a new ice age appeared to be upon us. Quoting a member of the World Meteorological Organization, Science magazine reported on March 1, 1975, "The cooling since 1940 has been large enough and consistent enough that it will not be soon reversed, and we are unlikely to quickly regain the 'very extraordinary period of warmth' that preceded it." (This quote, sadly, is not in Bailey's book.) The problem was considered so severe that drastic measures were urged, one being a deliberate attempt to warm the oceans.
One of those riding the wave of the apocalypse of global cooling was Stephen Schneider, who now seeks fame as one of the chief trumpeters heralding the apocalypse of global warming. Even though his predictions of disaster are the exact reverse of what they were less than 20 years ago, his proposed cure has not varied: worldwide redistribution of wealth and governmental planning.
Schneider, in a rare admission by a scientist-cum-advocate, declared in 1989, "[W]e are not just scientists, but human beings as well. And like most people we'd like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we have to get some broad-based public support, to capture the public's imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have….Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest."
Although buttressed by a wealth of interesting factual information, Bailey's profound message is, at times, lost in his glib prose. In addition, at least one of the doomsday predictions considered in Bailey's book (nuclear war) seems to be a genuine and continuing threat (the dissolution of the Soviet Union notwithstanding) and does not deserve the somewhat cavalier treatment that it receives here. These shortcomings, however, are minor and do not mar the significance of the book.
The first and last chapters in Ecoscam are the most important. They concern the tendency of people to foresee the worst. One is reminded of Theseus's line in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream: "Or in the night, imagining some fear, / How easy is a bush suppos'd a bear!" Danger and disaster fascinate, and far from calming people's fears by encouraging the dissemination of impartial factual evidence, the government, through funding and special-interest politics, and the media, through their preoccupation with sensationalism, have driven those Bailey calls "apocalypse abusers" into greater heights of irresponsibility. He provides a convincing analysis of how these forces shape our perception of the world.
Bailey closes by cautioning the press and the public to be skeptical of every "prophet of doom." He encourages us to see beyond the headlines and recommends that reporters seek out, as much as possible, disinterested scientific opinion and data. He is probably unrealistic in thinking that any more than a handful of those in the "fourth estate" will follow his prescriptions. But his cautionary book gives us grounds for urging that skepticism on others.
David A. Lips is a program officer at Liberty Fund Inc. in Indianapolis.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Bad News Bearers".