How many times have I heard people predicting an impending disaster that never materialized?
1. The Big Earthquake
As far as I recall, it began when I was a small child in California. Then, people told me that the Big One was coming—a massive earthquake that would all but destroy Los Angeles. We were sitting on a fault line, you see, and were overdue for an earthquake. The longer it took, the bigger it would be. Everyone had to be prepared. We should keep emergency supplies in our houses. There were ‘disaster drills’ in school wherein we would hide under our desks and cover our necks and eyes. Someone told me that in the Big Earthquake, the streets of Los Angeles would be covered in shattered glass a foot deep.
Decades later, I’m still waiting. I assume people have stopped talking about it. I did experience an earthquake once, though. I was at UC Berkeley at the time. I felt a slight tremor in the ground one afternoon, which I ignored and went about my business. Later in the day, I turned on the television to find that every channel was filled with breathless news reporting on the utter devastation that had just taken place. A freeway interchange and part of the Oakland Bay Bridge had collapsed! Even though I lived in the area affected by this disaster, it had no detectable impact on my life apart from my television viewing experience.
2. Killer Bees
As a child, I was also warned about the terrifying threat of Killer Bees, some kind of ant that was going to be coming to America through Mexico, and of course, snakes, especially rattlesnakes. I saw a garter snake one time. The others never showed up, and I just stopped hearing about them.
3. The Year 2000 Bug
Many today no longer remember this, but during the last years of the 20th century, a lot of people were freaking out about the Year 2000 Bug, a widespread computer programming mistake that was going to induce unpredictable computer failures when the year changed over from 1999 to 2000. Apparently, during the early days of computing, a lot of programs had been written in which dates were recorded with just two digits for the year (e.g., “84” to represent 1984). As a result, they couldn’t distinguish 2000 from 1900. Many of these programs were still in use all over our society, and no one really knew how widespread the problem was. Presumably, when the date switched over to “00”, the computers would treat that as earlier than “99”, with unpredictable consequences.
It doesn’t seem real now, but many people were very seriously worried about this. Some people were stocking up on emergency supplies, in case the normal workings of society should grind to a halt due to the widespread computer malfunctions.
Eventually, 2000 rolled around, and … nothing happened. I never heard any stories about the problems caused by this computer error. No one talked about why they hadn’t happened either. We just pretended that we had never been worried about that and quietly moved on to the next impending disaster.
4. Peak Oil
Since I was a child in the 1970’s, people were warning that we were shortly about to run out of oil, which would be disastrous for our society.
Fifty years later, I’m still waiting for the oil to run out. When oil prices rose after the Iraq war, some people revived the idea that we were on the brink of running out again. I’m sure some people today think we’re just about to run out.
At some point, I learned that mine wasn’t the first generation to hear about this. In the early 20th century, some people were saying we would run out of oil in the 1950’s.
Many other times, people have warned that we were running out of one resource or another. Some guy at a conference once tried to convince me that we were shortly going to run out of food. I had no idea what the empirical evidence was that he was relying on, nor do I have any expertise about agriculture. But I immediately experienced a sense of near certainty that he was wrong. Of course, no massive food shortages have materialized since then.
Among the most famous doomsday predictors is the ecologist Paul Ehrlich, who wrote The Population Bomb in 1968. He warned that humanity was on the brink of catastrophe due to overpopulation. There was no way to stop a large increase in the death rate. If we didn’t implement strong population control measures immediately, things would get much worse. He imagined possible famines, resource shortages, wars over resources, and so on, which were supposed to start in the 1970’s.
We’ve more than doubled the world population since the time that Ehrlich thought we were dangerously overpopulated. Yet the death rate has continued to decline, and half a century later, we’re still waiting for the disasters to materialize.
Sometimes, doomsday predictors just quietly move on to the next thing when their predictions don’t pan out. Other times, they double down. Never do they reflect and try to learn something from their error.
Ehrlich is the “double down” type. To this day, he’s still predicting doomsday. He thinks his biggest mistake in The Population Bomb was being too optimistic.
6. Fifty Years of Doom
Here is a nice page with 50 years’ worth of failed disaster predictions: https://cei.org/blog/wrong-again-50-years-of-failed-eco-pocalyptic-predictions/
And a further list of 50 similar predictions: https://www.aei.org/carpe-diem/50-years-of-failed-doomsday-eco-pocalyptic-predictions-the-so-called-experts-are-0-50/
People have been raving about one impending disaster or another for decades at least. We were supposed to have famines, water shortages, another ice age, etc. It’s very weird that we’re still alive.
7. The Doom du Jour
I’ve come to see a pattern. Some of the above warnings are more doom-like than others, but the point is: people like scaring each other. Journalists, activists, and children especially love it. For journalists, it is practically their job. And we viewers eat it up.
So when you tell me about the next Doom of the Day that’s coming to get us, I don’t come to that with a blank slate. I don’t treat it as a completely separate issue from the Y2K bug and the killer bees, even if the subject matter and the evidence are on their face completely different. If I have no knowledge of the specific subject matter, my first reaction is not, “Oh my, this is frightening! Perhaps I’d better start preparing for the disaster.” My first reaction is, “Oh, the world is ending again? Cool, wake me up when it’s over.”
I have no knowledge of climate science, so you might think I can’t say anything about global warming, other than “trust the experts”. My knowledge that, e.g., the Y2K bug didn’t do anything seems completely irrelevant to climate change.
But it is relevant, because my experience with Y2K, killer bees, the big earthquake, etc., teaches me something about human nature. I use that knowledge to evaluate claims that I hear from other humans. If I know that people are constantly making false claims of kind K, then I should be suspicious the next time I hear a K-type claim, even if I don’t know anything about the direct evidence for the claim. I have good reason to think that many people have a bias that leads them to make K claims a lot more often than they should. It’s also completely plausible on my evidence that experts are just as subject to that bias as lay people.
With that in mind, when you tell me that the world is going to end in 12 years due to climate change (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oHk8nn0nw18
!), I don’t think I should take that seriously. Sorry, AOC.
By the way, notice that I’m not a “climate change denier”. It’s completely plausible to me that global average temperatures could have risen by about 1.5 degrees C since the Industrial Revolution, and that human pollution played a causal role in that. And it’s very plausible that scientists would know if that was true. Let’s not embrace either crazy extreme: global warming isn’t a hoax, but it’s not a world-ending catastrophe either. It is one among a list of moderately serious global problems that will probably kill some millions over the next century. It’s not obvious that it should take priority over other problems, such as malaria, tuberculosis, or malnutrition. (Or rather, it’s pretty clear that it shouldn’t.)
By the way, when you hear that global warming is an existential threat, as wild-eyed activists are saying, how plausible is that just on its face? Without having a background in climate science, just using very general background knowledge, how plausible is it that a phenomenon that has so far increased average temperatures by 1.5 C over a century is soon about to kill everyone?
A year ago, there was a big fire in Boulder. This MSNBC reporter seized the opportunity to explain how the fire portends the demise of everything due to Global Warming:
Now, keeping in mind that temperatures vary by much more than 1.5 C over the course of a day, or from one month to another, or from one location to another on the same day, how likely do you think it is that the extra 1.5 C from global warming over the last century was the key cause of that fire?
Keep in mind also that when people say that fires and “extreme weather” are getting more common, they’re saying this has happened over the last several years, or at least since 2000. So it must be that most of the man-made warming had no noticeable impact, but then the last half degree or quarter degree change in average temperature started causing fires and hurricanes.
I don’t have a climate model or anything. So maybe there are models that show that sort of thing happening. But I don’t think we can trust that reporter, or the news media generally, to know about that or to report on it accurately. And if there are climate models that have that prediction, I rather think that just shows that the models are unrealistic. It’s a lot more plausible that a lot of people, including some experts, have been taken over by the Alarmist Bias than it is that this is actually an existential threat.
8. Other Dooms
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that doomsaying is only for leftists. All political ideologies like to foretell doom; only the variety of doom varies. If you talk to libertarians, it probably won’t be too long before someone will tell you that the United States (or whatever society they are in) is shortly going to turn into a totalitarian dictatorship. If you talk to conservatives, someone will say that the United States is soon to collapse or be taken over by sharia law, or that the Chinese are going to take over the world, etc. I know one person who has been predicting that the U.S. is going to break up in the next few years due to the polarization of our culture.
My message: Calm down, everyone. None of that is going to happen.
Added remarks of clarification:
1. This post is not saying that no disasters ever happen.
2. It also isn't saying that no one should ever try to avoid disasters.
3. It is saying that people greatly over-predict disasters, i.e., most predicted disasters do not occur. Notice how this is compatible with points 1 and 2.
"Despite sky diving, drunk driving, playing Russian roulette, and abusing hard drugs, I have yet to die. Therefore, these risks are likely overstated and I can be calm." In this scenario, it is clear that someone is suffering from survivorship bias. A person who has died is not around to talk about deadly risks they've averted.
On the global scale, we have no other references. In fact, the lack of other alien civilizations might be a cause for concern, pointing toward a great filter we perhaps have not yet passed. If we were to imagine millions of universes that ended due to existential disaster, I think they would all claim that "nothing has yet killed everyone on earth!" I am not sure that this is a reason to remain calm.
Killer bees and Y2K might be rather silly, but there are legitimate global existential risks that we should take very seriously . Even small chances of eliminating all existing life pose a tremendously large cost to possible welfare. Fanaticism about world-ending disasters is likely much better than being calm from a moral perspective.