April 8 2008
Carrie L. Lukas
It's well known that bad news sells more papers and attracts more viewers than good news. Something works even better than bad news: A story about a threat with the potential to harm our families and society.
As Christopher Booker and Richard North detail in "Scared to Death: From BSE to Global Warming: Why Scares Are Costing Us the Earth," recent decades have witnessed a flurry of scares that have gripped the public. These scares exact high costs: Wrong-headed policies are put in place that make us more vulnerable instead of less; costly measures are taken that disrupt economies and the public needlessly worries and changes their lives to response to the latest media bogeyman.
Mr. Booker and Mr. North identify a dynamic through which a marginal public concern mushrooms into a full-blown scare - from salmonella and mad cow disease to DDT and asbestos, and focus on what may be the greatest, most costly scare of all: Global warming.
Competing factions drive a scare's progress. There are pushers "whose interest is to promote the scare and to talk it up, such as scientists for whom it provides the promising of winning public attention or further funding," and blockers whose interest is to downplay it. The lay reader is unlikely to be surprised at the role that the media and politicians play in sensationalizing a threat.
More jarring is the role that the scientific community plays. As the authors write: "At the heart of every scare we have looked at has been a group of scientists or technical experts making a wrong or exaggerated guess on the basis of what eventually turns out to be inadequate data."
The most compelling example of this dynamic and the misuse of science is global climate change. Mr. Booker and Mr. North caution readers by exploring how the current "consensus" came to be, the political forces that have pushed these conclusions and the competing explanations for the warming trend that have often been suppressed by those vested in human-caused climate change.
Emblematic of the bungled science and politics that has helped fuel the climate change scare is what they call "The Great 'Hockey Stick' Fiasco." A young scientist published a paper with findings that radically diverged from previous estimates of the earth's climate history, generating a graph that was essentially flat with a strong tick up at the end, suggesting unprecedented warming in recent years.
This graph was highlighted prominently by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and in the media, fueling the perception that urgent action was needed to avert this historic danger. Yet analysis of the methodology that produced this graph revealed fundamental flaws. The IPCC quietly excluded this graph from recent publications, but the damage was already done.
In addition to the use of faulty science, competing scientific explanations of climate change (such as changes in the level of solar activity) are shortchanged by the scientific community. At a minimum, these competing theories suggest that the rush toward a "solution" premised on a faith in carbon-based warming is premature at best.
In particular since, as the authors note, even if one accepts the carbon-based warming explanation, the proposed solutions aren't a logical response: "Even if the terms of the Kyoto Protocol were all met to the letter, its most fervent advocates have been unable to deny that its effect on global temperatures would be totally insignificant."
With other scares detailed in the book, there are obvious victims and easily quantified costs: Farmers and shop keepers driven out of business because of hyped food-related scares, families torn apart by overactive social workers in the grips of a scare and taxpayers paying the costs of huge unnecessary government programs enacted to avert the latest threat. Mr. Booker and Mr. North call the implications of the global warming scare "immeasurable."
Their exhaustive account of the development of a scare - from the first news stories and the interplay between various politicians to the misstatements that make their way into the press tipping the incident into a full-fledged scare - has a feel of a forensic analysis. The details, at times overwhelming, become convincing, compelling and at times dramatic. In total, the book is a fascinating analysis of a modern phenomenon that has broad implications for our culture and our public policy. Its overarching message resonates: Be skeptical of those who would scare us to death, or, more accurately, ask us to give up our freedoms in response to a scare.
Carrie Lukas is vice president for policy and economics at the Independent Women's Forum.