San José State University
Department of Economics
Thayer Watkins
Silicon Valley
& Tornado Alley

The Political Pursuit of a Doomsday Scenario

Many years ago I began investigating the issue of global warming. I presumed that the threat was real. In order to understand the field better I started taking courses in the Meteorology Department at San Jose State University. This department is quite extraordinary. It is not a Ph.D. level program but in national competitions for weather forecasting it has come in second, surpassed only by M.I.T.

At SJSU I took three graduate theory courses and two upper division courses on global warming. The theory courses did not touch on the global warming issue. The instruction was excellent and I came away with a high respect for meteorology as a science. Weather forecasting constantly tests theory by comparisons with the natural world. Climatology I had less confidence in, but initially I thought that it was inevitable that climate science would be less tested empirically.

However as I pursued the issue of global warming on my own I found that there was much of it which was not based on real science. I think the light dawned when I followed the saga of the hockey stick graph. This was an attempt to construct a time series for temperature going back centuries using tree rings as surrogate measures for temperature. The graph purported to show that the global temperature had been unchanging until the Industrial Revolution and then it began to sharply rise. According to the hockey stick graph the Medieval Warming Period had not existed. The hockey stick graph was publicized by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It turned out that the man who was in charge of a chapter of the IPCC report selected his own work for inclusion in the report. When some were skeptical of the hockey stick the creator of the work refused to provide his data. Two intrepid investigators managed to locate the data and found that the hockey stick was based upon a technical error. When done correctly the Medieval Warming reappeared and the effect of the Industrial Revolution was not so drastic.

After the exposé of the hockey stick, I became a lot more skeptical of the studies concerning global warming. I found that the real science was on the side of the skeptics. The climate models were not validated and were accepted because they seemed to be based on hard science. I realized that the climate models were in error not from what was included in them but because of what was left out. I also found that physicists creating computer models were remarkably naive concerning statistical issues.

I soon became perplexed at the extent of political support for global warming policies when the scientific foundation was not there. I realized that there was something quite different that was the basis for the political movement.

A week or so ago I was going through some old books and found an issue of Horizon magazine from 1975. Since Horizon had articles of timeless interest I started looking through it. There I found an article that is incredibly pertinent to current developments. It was written by a Labour Party member of Parliament, Brian Magee.

Here are a few pages of the article.

Getting Along Without Doomsday

by Bryan Magee

Summer, 1975
Volume XVII, Number 3

Many of our leading pundits these days [1975] are determined to persuade us that we must give up our liberties and submit to some central authority if we hope to save civilization from the catastrophes they say are at hand. Here is a reply to those doomsday fanciers.

When we look back over the history of mankind, we see certain beliefs cropping up again and again in different societies and different centuries, each time being proved wrong by events yet, in spite of that, retaining perennial appeal. One is the belief that society is about to be made perfect. Another is the belief that mankind is about to be destroyed. In spite of their falsification in the experience of each generation, these beliefs go on being held widely in each new generation. How is this to be explained? The answer, I suppose, is obvious in general terms - though in the case of each individual believer there may be endless complications and qualifications. The beliefs in question (and the ones I have given are only examples) must meet a common psychological need that goes so deep as to insist on satisfaction regardless of the evidence.

The matter is not one of historical interest only, for beliefs of this kind, including both my examples, play a conspicuous role in our own society. In this article I want to look at just one of them: the belief that mankind is about to be destroyed.

The idea is by no means only a Christian one, or only a religious one. In the first few pages of the Old Testament we read that "the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them" (Genesis 6:7). In the twentieth century the belief is more lively and popular than ever before, though among us --ours being an irreligious age-- it assuuuummes some entirely secular forms. And because of the rapidity of change in our society, and the voracity of the media, these forms are liable to supersede one another in rapid succession.

Consider what a parade of them there has been in the short period since the Second World War. First there was the conviction, held quite widely, that mankind was about to plunge into a nuclear holocaust that would destroy all life on this planet. That expectation eventually lost support to the different and longer-term conviction that man- kind was going to destroy itself by overpopulation. That had a good run, but had to yield to the belief that man was poisoning the world with chemical waste products and was going to destroy himself that way. This in its turn was replaced by the doctrine that, since the physical resources of our planet are finite, the wherewithal to sustain life was bound to run out, so that mankind would either die of deprivation or destroy itself in a struggle for survival. And only the other day I came upon the following in a London Times review of a book published by the BBC: "Mr. Calder concludes that a new ice age cometh. What is more, it could come quickly; that is within the lifetime of most of us."

Having lived in the period when these views were popular, I am struck by several peculiarities about them. First, although most of them are logically unconnected, and some are mutually contradictory, they were all accepted and promoted by roughly the same people. And--this may be merely a comment on the circles I happen to move in, but I do not think so--their appeal seemed to be preponderantly to people of a certain left-wing persuasion. Many of my acquaintances moved from one to the next as each in its turn became fashionable. Some em- braced two or more simultaneously. A few heroically muddled individuals tried to believe all of them at once.

This element of modishness was another striking characteristic of these beliefs. In some circles, both in Europe and the United States, it was intellectually stylish to embrace these attitudes: it showed you were up on the latest ideas and concerned about what was going on in the world. It put you ahead of the people who didn't believe them, and in an elusive but important way marked you as superior. As each of these attitudes in its turn approached the height of intellectual fashion, it became the subject of national and international conferences,, articles in "aware" journals, best-selling; books by marketplace academics (some of whom showed great skill in extracting funds from big foundations to set up special study projects), and, during the overripe phase, television documentaries. Each gave rise to a jargon and a rhetoric that left deposits in the language. And the fact that they displaced each other so quickly as intellectual fashions no more weakened the intensity of people's addiction to them than changing of fashions does in the case of clothes.

If these attitudes had a common characteristic even more dislikable than the assumption of moral and intellectual superiority, it was fanaticism. A lot of devotees became strident bigots incapable of rational discussion. Anyone who disagreed with them was denounced as a criminal fool endangering the survival of the human race. Many never seriously listened to opponents, and in consequence misrepresented them drastically yet sincerely. As individuals they responded to even the mildest dissent in aggressive, disturbed ways, and when taken to task for-their hysteria, defended it on the grounds that it was a natural human response to the impending holocaust and the obtuseness of their fellow men.

As an activist in left-wing politics I have been touched by each of the modern doomsday movements I listed earli- er, except for the ice-age movement, which, as of this writing, hasn't had time to catch on yet. In each case the basic pattern of my experience has been the same. First, by their campaigning and persistence the movement's advocates caused me to look with new urgency at a familiar danger and evaluate it afresh. In the course of doing this I listened to the movement's main speakers and read its main books. Naturally, I also developed a new interest in the arguments of its opponents. And in each case (so far) I found myself pushed eventually to the same conclusion: although the danger to which the movement was drawing attention was real and serious, the doom that so many of its members proclaimed as inevitable was not inevitable at all, and because of this the panic measures they advocated were usually irrelevant and often socially destructive.

Of course, one must distinguish between the intellectual content of these various beliefs, which is what their merits have to be judged by, and the emotional needs that believing them satisfies. If what a man believes is true, then it is true whatever his motives may be, and criticism of his motives can do nothing to invalidate that truth. So before we come to grips with the needs doomsday beliefs satisfy, we must take their arguments seriously.

A prominent feature of doomsday arguments is that in spite of the obviously "religious" character of the peo- ple they appeal to and the cults they nourish - they present themselves as rational and scientific. Lavish reference is made to nuclear physics, biochemistry, the ecosphere, population statistics, meteorology, or whatever. Figures, measurements, and calculations are bandied about. Chains of logical and practical reasoning are called upon to demon- strate that certain future effects must inevitably follow from certain present causes. It is in order, then, for us to examine the conception of science on which the arguments rest.

A scientific theory about the world is distinguished from unscientific ones by the fact that it is falsifiable. We can specify what experimental observations or results would disprove it and then subject it to these tests. If a theory cannot be tested in this way it is not scientific. That is not to say that it is untrue, or nonsensical, but only that we cannot provide anyone with compelling grounds for believing it. I suspect most of my readers already assume something of the sort, even if they are not able to explain why. For instance, most would agree, without needing to reflect, that the statement "God exists" is a meaningful statement, and that it could conceivably be true, but that it is not a scientific statement. By this criterion statements about the future can be scientific only if some time limit is put to them. "Sooner or later it will rain in Death Valley" can never be falsified; but "it will rain in Death Valley before the end of this year" can be, and at the end of the year we shall know whether or not it has been. The important thing to note about statements of the first kind is that they can be settled, but only one way: they can be proved true, but they can never be proved false. (They are thus the logical opposites of scientific laws, which can be proved false but can never be proved true.) If I choose to utter a statement of this form, and you dispute it, the issue between us will either be settled in my favor or it will never be settled at all; the one thing that is logically certain is that it can never be settled in your favor. Little wonder, then, that fanatical beliefs whether religious, political, or of any other kind have a tendency to be couched in this form. As Karl Popper has shown in the cases of Marxism and psychoanalysis, it is the impossibility of those thought-systems ever being proved wrong that constitutes their most powerful appeal to their adherents and at the same time rules them out of court as scientific theories.

By this criterion everyone no longer living who held that the world or mankind was going to come to an end in his lifetime believed a historical theory that was scientific, falsifiable, and that has now been falsified. Living believers can say, "Ah, but the fact that they have always been wrong in the past does not prove that we are wrong now." Of course it does not. But it would make any reasonable man highly skeptical about holding yet another version of this perennially falsified belief.

The article in full is available at

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