Environmental Scientists Must Stop Crying Wolf

There is a crisis emerging in the scientific community. The ideals of science are being sacrificed to the god of political expediency. Environmental scientists are becoming so obsessed with the righteousness of their cause that they are damning those who wish to use science as an objective tool in public policy decisions. The latest example comes in a Science article* that advocates nothing less than promoting alarmism over environmental hazards, on the basis that the end justifies the means. The article uses economic analysis to argue that the benefits of environmental alarmism outweigh the costs. Yet, as well as endorsing the political reasoning of Niccolo Machiavelli, this paper offends against the ethics of science itself.

The argument goes like this. Our society balances risks and benefits. In the area of the environment, these decisions are informed by environmental science. Many possible disasters have a very low risk of occurrence, which means that many warnings from scientists will turn out to be unfounded. When this happens, skeptics such as Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, will argue that we should ignore similar warnings in future. The authors contend that this would be a mistake. The potential benefits of averting disaster are so great that scientists should continue to issue what they know may be false alarms.We have heard this argument before. Stephen Schneider of Stanford University, who provided “helpful comments” on a draft of the paper, told Discover magazine in 1989 that “to capture the public imagination, we have to offer up some scary scenarios, make simplified dramatic statements and little mention of any doubts one might have. Each of us has to decide the right balance between being effective, and being honest.” The latest study is essentially that statement dressed up in fancy economic terms.

Despite its academic pretensions, it is still unprincipled nonsense. It is nonsense because it exaggerates the benefits and underestimates the risks of alarmism. The authors argue that each life saved is worth $3m-$6m (£1.9m-£ 3.8m), suggesting massive benefits for environmental programmes that have saved lives, such as those that deal with air pollution. Yet those values of life pertain to whole lives, not to the average of about eight months by which life has been extended for those benefiting from pollution controls.

In contrast, the authors assert that needless environmental programmes have “highly uncertain marginal costs”. This ignores the opportunity costs of spending on needless programmes, and the fact that alarmism could delay access to technologies that make life-and labour-saving products and procedures widely available.

The argument is unprincipled because it ignores the basic idea that there are certain things that we do not do in public discourse. The public does not take kindly to being misled, even with the best of intentions.

Yet the argument is even more offensive to science than it is to democratic principle. For science is founded on an objective search for truth. As Richard Lindzen of Massachusetts Institute of Technology has said: “Science is a tool of some value. It provides our only way of separating what is true from what is asserted. If we abuse that tool, it will not be available when it is needed.” The tale about the boy who cried wolf is of particular relevance to scientists. Without objective truth, science and scientists have little value to society.

Why, then, is the scientific community so intent on going down this self-destructive path? We should remember Thomas Kuhn, the philosopher of science, and his characterisation of the ruling paradigm, which scientists are almost required to subscribe to and defend. Sadly, environmental alarmism has become such a paradigm, with consequences similar to those described by the great thinker C.S. Lewis in his dystopian novel That Hideous Strength. A good young scientist goes to work for a research institute that requires him to lie to gain more powers for the institute. He ends up seduced by “that intimate laughter between fellow professionals, which of all earthly powers is strongest to make men do very bad things before they are yet, individually, very bad men.”

Scientists who argue for alarmism, on the whole, are not very bad men but the course of action they propose is very bad indeed – for science, for scientists and for society as a whole.*False Alarm over Environmental False Alarms, S.W. Pacala et al, Science, Vol. 301, No. 5637.