January 11, 2004

Sing the Doom Song!

Alex Kirby at the BBC wonders about the recent spate of warnings of doom (Doom warnings sound more loudly). His main wonder seems to be that people are not taking these warnings more seriously, perhaps because the problems are so gradual.

But maybe it is because people are somewhat rational. By this I don't mean that everybody who ignores the latest climate alarm has gone through the literature, run a few simulations themselves and concluded that the alarm was wrong because it didn't take the fluorite feedback loop into account. Rather, people learn to ignore the doomsayers because 1) they have a bad track record, and 2) it is impossible to live a doomed life.

One can make a good living from being a doomsayer. People naturally orient themselves to any information that may reveal a threat (a very rational response in itself), which means that as a doomsayer you can get attention - the hard currency of modern economy, and pretty profitable in the past too. Disasters sell, and if it is something that may involve me I am extra interested to hear about it in order to figure out how to deal with it. That strategy worked well for past sects (where you had to join to get the necessary salvation), it worked for newspapers and it works well for environmentalist organisations and researchers.

The problem is of course that this has no bearing at all on whether the prediction is right or not. Some predictions may be entirely correct, but that will not give them any particular advantage compared to less correct predictions. In the competition for attention truth is not a powerful selling feature; the sincerity of the claimant, how they fit with other prejudices, what authorities support them and so on are far more important. Which leads to a plethora of bad disaster predictions, which in turn leads to many failed predictions. And people learn to take them with a grain of salt.

A real disaster creeping up on us might of course fool people into complacency. But I think people have in general been right even about the slow disasters they have in general (not) worried about - dysgenics and the population explosion are good examples. Only a few people reacted strongly to these fears, but in the end they proved largely irrelevant.

Seing a direct example of something disastrous is good at convincing us. We believe in examples, often far beyond their value as proof (just witness the testimonials that sell herbal remedies). A freak storm, and everybody blames the greenhouse effect - suddenly it seems more plausible. This causes an opposite effect, where suddenly the doomsday predictions seem more likely.

But it is very short lived. When the findings that acrylamide existed in everyday food and especially fried high-carb food like chips were published in Sweden 2002, chips sales dropped radically. For three weeks. Then they returned to roughly normal. In the meantime there had been no new findings on whether the acrylamide was carcinogenic in food, no new information. But people returned to their old habits despite somewhat diffuse warnings from the department of food that it might be a good idea to avoid it.

This is due to the second reason. It is impossible to live a doomed life. If you really had reason to believe the Earth, your nation or your way of life was doomed you would need to change everything. That is an extremely tall order due to the enormous cognitive, emotional and practical costs of following it. The evidence (as you see it) has to be enormous. Usually the best way of getting people to take a doomsday prediction seriously is to create a collective panic so that everybody reinforces everybody else. That is sometimes enough to get people to flee their homes or change their way of life. But just an everyday doomsday prediction, or a prediction with no easy way of avoiding it (the Earth is going to collide with a comet!) seldom manages that.

This is why people temporarily gave up on chips. Had results shown that chips actually gave cancer they would perhaps have avoided them more, but remember that we know the dangers of smoking, deep fried food and too much fat and still pursue them; the pleasure is worth more than the fear. But the alarm from the food board had been about all food with carbohydrates that was strongly cooked, like bread, potatoes and many vegetables. There was almost nothing 'safe' to eat. The cost of changing habits is high, the danger appeared uncertain. So people ate bread anyway. And each time they did that, it undermined the worry about the chips too. In the end the old habits won. They appear to have been right too, later research has not found any strong link between the acrylamide and cancer.

Similarly, what can we do about the greenhouse effect personally? While there are plenty of cheerful advice on it (see for instance the amazing suggestions from the Swedish environmental department, which include showering a bit shorter, using the lid of saucepans during cooking and heating less), this advice is obviously not particularly relevant. We know that the real issues involve cars, powerplants and industry and that any changes there are matters for engineers and politicians. So there is at best symbolic actions to do individually.

Kirby ends by wondering if some sufficiently dramatic event might change our complacency. Maybe, but that change is not likely to be rational either. He also hopefully suggests that people can change, and maybe some form of critical mass could bring about change. But the aspects of human nature (or rather, psychology) I have described here do not change. And again, critical mass effects that set large number of people into movement are often irrational too.

Maybe the real way of getting good at maintaining our environment is to get away from the doomsayers. As long as any environmental issue is a matter of disaster and the end of life as we know it, it is going to bring forth the worst sides of human thinking. But what if we looked at it as a practical matter, as we were trying to maintain a beautiful but weedy and junk-strewn garden? Then we would start to discuss different things to do, how we might best achieve them and why we want those particular results. We might even notice different views rather than blaming each other for ignoring the apocalypse each of us believes the most in.

Posted by Anders at January 11, 2004 06:09 AM