All Commentary
Thursday, September 1, 1994

Science Coming Out of the Closet

The Public Is Being Misinformed about Environmental Science


Mr. Hagen, a graduate of Pepperdine University with a bachelor’s degree in biology, recently received master of arts degree in Liberal Studies at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Mr. Hagen is an editor for the Dartmouth Review, a conservative newspaper distributed on campus.

Dr. Worman is a visiting professor of chemistry at Dartmouth College and thesis adviser for Mr. Hagen. Dr. Worman has been involved in teaching and research for 27 years; his recent efforts include communicating scientific choices to the public.

Throughout history people have been deluged with warnings that the earth is approaching its final days, and unless some drastic, immediate action is undertaken, it is the end for the human race. In recent years, events such as the twentieth anniversary of the first Earth Day and the United Nations-sponsored “Earth Summit” have popularized the notion that an ecological crisis is imminent. Throughout the last two decades, many so-called experts have posited alarmist theories on overpopulation, global warming/cooling, natural resource depletion, and cancer- causing chemicals. Although such claims are nothing new, the public is frightened into thinking that their government must take draconian measures to “save the planet.” In many instances, the public has been manipulated by a news media that is too quick to accept such doomsday prophecies and pass them on to a largely scientifically illiterate audience.

Environmentalism obviously has enormous popular appeal. Nowadays, more people recycle than vote. Businesses frequently promote their products as “environmentally friendly.” The U.S. environmental lobby has become the largest political lobby in the country. Total annual budgets for these organizations are estimated to exceed a quarter of a billion dollars, and demands by such groups for government action have led to the Environmental Protection Agency imposing almost $1.5 trillion in compliance costs on the U.S. economy.[1]And these actions have not always led to beneficial results. The government has wasted billions of taxpayers’ dollars to save what amounts to one person in one million over a lifetime. Examples of bureaucratic bungling, in which good intentions only lead to disastrous results, are everywhere apparent. This squandering of funds has bankrupted the nation, and taxpayers are beginning to question whether or not they can afford the luxury of these scientific gambles.

In recent years, several scientists have come forth disputing the theories of apocalypse promoters Paul Ehrlich, Barry Commoner, Jeremy Rifkin, and others, attempting to add some common sense and rationality to the confusion and hype that too often surrounds environmental issues. Those who confront the alarmists always run the risk of being demonized by environmental activists and lobbyists, but they also realize the danger of being silent on issues that are crucial to the quality of life, the efficacy of government, and the integrity of science. Oddly enough, the technical information to challenge alarmist thinking has been provided in the peer-reviewed scientific literature for years. This information has not reached the public though because many scientists have been more concerned with their work in the laboratory and less concerned with challenging public misinformation.

A Backlash

The tide is turning, perhaps. The October 11, 1993, issue of Newsweek reported that a “backlash against environmentalism is in full swing.”[2]What began as a few scientists boldly questioning why certain policies should be implemented has evolved into a full-fledged backlash against environmental extremism. This has manifested itself in large grassroots movements, best-selling books, numerous newspaper editorials, and popular radio talk shows. Those who challenge the “popular vision”[3]of environmental doom and gloom have been labeled as “eco-revisionists,” “anti-environmentalists,” and other names that suggest their being at odds with promoting a cleaner, safer, and sustainable environment. Of course, no one with a sound mind is against clean air and water, and it goes without saying that most people want to be safe from carcinogens and hazardous chemicals.

Skeptics of the “eco-crisis” are portrayed as a serious threat when an environmental journalist, such as Sharon Begley of Newsweek, reports, “If the critics are right, the globe has little to worry about. But if they win the debate and are wrong, it will be too late for repairs.”[4]Such a statement is common among alarmists. Supposedly, dire consequences only result from inaction. No mention is ever made about the sacrificing of individual liberties and property rights, nor of national sovereignty to international treaties, and, lest we forget, the billions of tax dollars and costs on the economy, particularly to small-businessmen and entrepreneurs, that result from overreaching and unnecessary policies and regulations.

It is therefore crucial that before undertaking massive government ventures to deal with environmental concerns that people become fully informed and renew their sense of healthy, rational skepticism. This attitude must include a relentless search for the truth and a knowledge of what has occurred in the past. In order to do this, one must know what constitutes good science and what lessons history has revealed.

Philosopher of science Karl Popper once asserted that for any meaningful scientific statement or theory in the physical sciences to be credible, it must be falsifiable. In other words, it must be specific enough to be proven wrong. It need not be false—it can certainly be true—but such a hypothesis requires that it be testable. If the technical means are not available for testing, it must still be able to be tested in principle. With this in mind, it would seem odd that so many of the pseudoscientific claims (ESP, astrology, UFOs, etc.) which can never be proved wrong have so much influence on the public.[5]

Predictions that humans will soon destroy the earth stand only the test of time. Thus, skeptics are put in the difficult position of defending their ground. Since it is logically impossible to prove a negative (such as UFOs do not exist), one cannot prove that the earth will not end tomorrow. While the onus of proof should be on the one who asserts the positive, this is rarely the case. The results of past eschatological predictions can be revealed. Even so, as far off as many of these projections have been, it seems to make little difference. Original statements are revised to explain why things turned out differently, another dismal forecast is made, and the credibility of those making the initial claims remains astonishingly intact.

For example, entomologist Paul Ehrlich, in his 1968 manifesto, The Population Bomb, predicted that in the 1970s overpopulation would lead to global catastrophes of mass starvation, natural resource depletion, plus food and water rationing. The oceans would be as dead as Lake Erie by 1979. Flush toilets would be banned by 1974. Water pollution would be so bad by the mid-1970s that cases of hepatitis and dysentery would increase by 500 percent. Urban dwellers would have to wear gas masks by 1980 because of poor air quality.

A quarter century after The Population Bomb, every prediction made by Ehrlich has proven untrue. The world population growth rate has been declining since the 1960s. Human lifespans continue to lengthen. Most commodities are cheaper than ever before. The oceans, as well as Lake Erie, are alive and well, and food supplies grow ever more abundant. Unfortunately, so does Ehrlich’s rhetoric, which in 1990 was repackaged in a new book entitled The Population Explosion.

Paul Valery once wrote: “The main trouble with the world today is that the future is not what it used to be.” Perhaps Paul Ehrlich is thinking the same thing.

It is a tragedy for the reputation of science when scientific credentials are abused in such a manner. Good scientists do not claim to know anything with absolute certainty. Therefore, one must be wary upon hearing a so-called expert assert that there is no longer any question or debate over a phenomenon that has received only recent attention. All scientific truth is provisional. A particular theory may be well supported or perhaps certainly true, but it is still subject to falsification. Of course, presenting all material as provisional is usually avoided; if one is constantly inserting disclaimers, a clumsy presentation results. However, this provisional circumstance certainly does not mean that all different scientific viewpoints are equally valid. According to Dartmouth College Astronomy Professor James Thorstensen, there is “good science, bad science, and crackpot science”:

Crackpot science is generally not even internally consistent, and generally makes no useful predictions at all; it is the result of a surprisingly common mental state in which extreme eccentricity shades into a deluded belief in one’s own extraordinary genius. Bad science is more respectable, and may even be correct, but it is marred by such things as weak lines of evidence and ill-directed, woolly-minded theorizing. Good science is marked by good evidence, a good understanding of what has come before, technical competence, clear thinking, clean interpretation, and often by the unification of a variety of seemingly separate phenomena.[6]

In order to determine good science, people would do well to ask the following questions:

• Is it “good evidence” when computer models used to measure climate fluctuations rely on assumptions and simplifications that do not adequately account for the influence of clouds and oceans? These can be tremendously misleading since they are based on data from weather stations that are located near growing cities.[7]

• Is it “a good understanding of what has come before” when a demographer proclaims that civilization will come to a halt due to scarcity of a certain resource? Yet history shows us that resource shortages have existed as long as civilization, and never has a nation fallen due to the depletion of a resource.[8]

• Is it “technical competence” when a pediatrician is considered an authority on nuclear power, a butterfly specialist is an expert on population growth, and an actress gives congressional testimony on an allegedly carcinogenic growth hormone?

• Is it “clear thinking” when a leading proponent of the theory that CFCs are depleting the ozone says, “[W]e have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we may have. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest”?[9]

• Is it “clean interpretation” when a global warming advocate argues in a congressional hearing that a warming trend of a half a degree Centigrade over the course of the past century was caused by human-induced carbon emissions, and his evidence shows that the most significant climate change took place before most industrial greenhouse gases entered the atmosphere, not to mention before the big boom of the automobile industry?[10]

Indeed, there is a lot of unsound science being promoted by false prophets. Jonathan Schell, author of Our Fragile Earth, once stated: “[T]he reputation of scientific prediction needs to be enhanced. But that can happen, paradoxically, only if scientists disavow the certainty and precision that they normally insist on. Above all, we need to learn to act decisively to forestall predicted perils, even while knowing that they may never materialize. We must take action, in a manner of speaking, to preserve our ignorance. There are perils that we can be certain of avoiding only at the cost of never knowing with certainty that they were real.”[11]

Science by Press Release

Perhaps most disturbing is a trend that became popular during the 1980s known as “science by press release.” The situation had gotten so bad that in 1992 the National Academy of Sciences issued a report demanding that scientists refrain from “questionable research practices,” such as presenting conjectures as fact, and releasing results of studies to the popular press before such research has been peer-reviewed and judged valid.[12]

This assault on common sense, on rationality, and on the integrity of science could not occur without some ulterior motive. Obviously, it has a great deal to do with political ideology. It is very common for the apocalypse boosters to be very hostile towards capitalism while openly embracing socialism. They feel that the threat of an impending ecological crisis is so great that lifestyles must be radically altered with governments seizing control of private property and natural resources, individual liberties and freedoms being sacrificed, and reducing standards of living. For a movement that thrives off the motto “small is beautiful,” it seems to require a large regulatory apparatus.

Here is another area where people have failed to learn from history. Socialism has proven disastrous for the environments of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. People should realize by now that natural resources do not fare better in government hands than they do under private control. Furthermore, in the absence of a free press and democratic government, facts about pollution are hidden from the public, and without property rights, government-owned enterprises can contaminate the environment while paying no attention to citizen outrage. Political and economic freedom, not heavy-handed government control, remains the best way to ensure a clean environment, but many have failed to make this connection. Some are still willing to take the risks of experimenting with centrally planned, command-from-the-top economics while completely ignoring the devastating consequences of such actions. Pre-eminent capitalist Malcolm Forbes once observed, “Edison invented the light bulb on, roughly, his ten-thousandth attempt. If we had depended on central planners to direct his experiments, we would all be sitting around in the dark today.”[13]It is not enough to point out the follies of the professional doomsayers; an alternative strategy must be articulated. This includes not only a sound understanding of science, but of economics and politics as well. Only when more members of the scientific community come out of the closet to challenge public misinformation will more people come to realize what is at stake in this debate. []

  1.   Ben Bolch and Harold Lyons, Apocalypse Not: Science, Economics, and Environmentalism (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 1993), p. vii.
  2.   Sharon Begley, “Is the Ozone Hole in Our Heads?” Newsweek, October 11, 1993, p. 71.
  3.   Patrick Michaels, Sound and Fury: The Science and Politics of Global Warming (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, 1992).
  4.   Begley.
  5.   A 1990 Gallup poll revealed that 52 percent of Americans believed in astrology, 46 percent in ESP, 59 percent in clairvoyance, 67 percent in personal experience with psychic phenomena, and 42 percent in communication with the dead.
  6.   James Thorstensen, Astronomy 2: “Stars and Their Life Histories,” Dartmouth College, Fall 1993, p. 25 of lecture notes.
  7.   Robert C. Bailing, Jr., The Heated Debate, Greenhouse Predictions Versus Climate Reality (San Francisco: Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, 1992), pp. 33-46.
  8.   Charles Maurice and Charles W. Smithson, The Doomsday Myth: 10,000 Years of Economic Crises (Stanford, Cal.: Hoover Institution Press, 1984).
  9.   Stephan Schneider, quotedin Dixy Lee Ray’s, Trashing the Planet: How Science Can Help Us Deal with Acid Rain, Depletion of the Ozone, and Nuclear Waste (Among Other Things) (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1990), p. 167.
  10.   Goddard Institute for Space Studies meteorologist James Hansen testified before Congress in June 1988 that he had detected a worldwide warming of approximately IF since 1880.
  11.   Jonathan Schell, “Our Fragile Earth,” Discover, October 1987:47.
  12.   Ronald Bailey, Eco-Scam: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), p, 21.
  13.   Malcolm Forbes, “Three Cheers for Capitalism,” Imprimis, August 1993, p. 4