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The Unfortunate Necessity of Fear Mongering

A prominent scientist has issued a warning for governments to evacuate the west coasts of North and South America because of the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant:

Obviously governments are not going to do this. Other not-so-well known scientists have denounced this claim. And those of us who remember C1V1=C2V2 in our high school chemistry should realize that all the radioactive waste of Fukushima cannot contaminate the Pacific Ocean to the extent of being uninhabitable for humans. Why, then, would this scientist be making this kind of claim?

Let us all agree with the scientist that radioactive material should not be entering the Pacific Ocean. Some possible results are the upsetting of certain ecosystems and contamination of the food chain for humans. Plus adding radioactivity to the current waste of oil and plastics and chemicals and debris in the Pacific Ocean could have some further consequences we can’t yet fathom.

Note the words “possible” and “could” in these statements. They are tentative. The stated consequences might happen. They “could” be worse, or they “may” not be so bad. Or even they “might” yet be ameliorated by Mother Earth somehow. Who knows for sure? However, this scientist has learned that speaking tentatively on environmental issues yields a low return on political action in proactive protection of the environment: the public — and the politicians elected by the public — won’t pay attention to such tentative talk.

If the end of effective environmental action justifies the means of overstating the outcome and framing it as a 100% possibility, then all is well. The only problem is that when the sky doesn’t actually fall, a significant sector of the public becomes skeptical of future scientific claims of this extreme (though some of them may indeed be true). With enough skepticism from the public, politicians are swayed to delay effective and much needed environmental reforms.

So here’s the first of two paradoxes: sky-is-falling, fear mongering approaches have marketing appeal to get public attention and discourse. They can generate a small army of activists willing to march in the streets, write letters to politicians, and post graphics all over the internet. But such fear mongering also indirectly induces a counter force of scientific skepticism which then hinders an otherwise appropriate political movement. It becomes a case of four steps forward and three back.

The scientist could be more realistic with his statements. He could state the outcomes are only possibilities, and they may not be that severe. He could provide a thorough societal risk analysis that weighs the pros and cons of several possibilities — and looks beyond the first order of ramifications. But such talk will never make it very far in the media. The public will tune out rather readily — and the good cause goes no further.

Hence comes the second paradox: it is better for scientific fear mongering to move public opinion slowly in the right direction rather than for more realistic science to move it nowhere. We have to admit that this scientist has been one of the most influential people in the world in the environmentalist movement — even though his science is sometimes not very good. Maybe he knows what he is doing.

What a strange world we live in when we must distort the truth to find the truth!

Publish on 2014

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