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Tuesday, February 1, 2000

Hoodwinking the Nation by Julian Simon

Why Have Pernicious Falsehoods about the Environment Spread Like Wildfire?

Transaction Publishers • 1999 • 140 pages • $29.95

Julian Simon was an energetic, irrepressible, and effective champion of freedom. His untimely death in 1998 silenced a voice—arguably the foremost voice—of reason on the subjects of population, resources, and the environment. The word “irreplaceable” comes to mind when one thinks back over his career as an opponent of faddish nonsense.

I had occasion to speak with him only once. Back in 1997, I asked him if he would like to review a book for this magazine. He recommended his wife, Rita Simon, as a better reviewer for that particular volume, but we then got to talking at length. What an optimistic, engaging, and friendly man he was. His books mirrored him—brimming with life, full of insight.

In Hoodwinking the Nation, Simon analyzes the various reasons why the crusading doomsayers who want Americans to believe that we are running out of resources, polluting ourselves to death, and overpopulating the planet have succeeded as much as they have (which, to judge from public opinion polls, is considerably). This book is not a debunking of pernicious falsehoods but rather an attempt to understand why they so often spread like wildfire.

The news industry is the principal villain. Incompetent or ideologically motivated reporters are the dry kindling in the forest through which scientific and economic disinformation spreads fast. Bad news sells, so reporters are naturally drawn to predictions of calamity and frequently fail to check out reports before putting dubious material before the public. Moreover, even after a bit of scaremongering has been utterly refuted, reporters have little interest in setting the record straight.

Simon provides the “vanishing farmland” panic as a case study. The story began in Illinois in 1979, where he was teaching at the time. Farmland was supposedly being lost to urbanization at an “alarming” rate. The basis for the assertion was a report by the Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District that 30,000 acres of farmland had been lost between 1960 and 1978. Simon sensed the impossibility of the figure and did some checking. Agricultural acreage that had been shifted to other uses was far less than claimed, and he eventually got the Illinois Department of Agriculture to admit that the numbers tossed around by Champaign County were “grossly inaccurate.” But no matter. Reporters had swallowed the report whole without scrutinizing it. If there were any stories written to correct the false impression that our ability to produce food is in danger from greedy suburban developers, they were buried where no one would see them.

Journalists also come in for criticism because, Simon observes, they use their “standard reportorial methods of interview and adversarial discussion of facts” when dealing with difficult policy issues, although these issues call for different methods. Usually reporters, when writing about population, pollution, or resource economics, employ the same methods they use for everyday phenomena, such as trials or tornadoes, when what is needed is the scientific method. Simon writes, “Scientific discipline is necessary when the chunk of the world you wish to understand presents a complex, varied, off-again-on-again picture that includes data dispersed over time and geography.” Unfortunately, few journalists know the scientific method and therefore write stories when there is really no story at all.

Suppose that an “environmentalist” group, let’s call it the Coalition to Save Our Planet (CSOP), releases a “study” purporting to show that microwave ovens are disturbing the migratory instincts of merganser ducks and calling for a ban on the production of microwaves. Fuzzy-minded reporters are the main targets of the study. CSOP knows that at least some will write about it, cranking out a “dueling experts” piece that will quote first the report and a spokesman for CSOP, then get a response from someone from the microwave oven industry denying the problem, and finally coming back to CSOP for a “what would you expect from those greedy capitalist pigs and shouldn’t we err on the side of safety” clincher. Thus is the public led to further believe that technology is a threat. To write anything at all about such reports is a victory for the technophobes, but reporters often do so because they aren’t able to filter out junk science.

Simon was optimistic that the fast-moving revolution in communications would help to blunt the rapier of scientific disinformation. “The more competitors in the news marketplace, the better. The greater the number of firms, the more it will be profitable for at least a few of them to show how others are scandalously misinforming the public,” he wrote.

This is a witty, readable, and most valuable book. It’s sad that we shall have no more from the pen of Julian Simon.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.