Friday, April 3, 2015

Why doomsday prophecies tend to fail

Recently, I read a very well-written article by Philip Iglauer in 10 Magazine, which was about a team of young scientists here in Korea who are currently developing a new plasma technology that could potentially convert carbon dioxide and methane into hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which could then be sold at a hefty profit. If you have not read it, I highly recommend for you to do so.

I study economics, and am about the furthest thing from a climatologist. As such, like most people in the world who have not studied climatology, which is a very rigorous and difficult discipline, I have no choice but to rely on second or third or fourth-hand information. So I cannot say for sure whether or not I think climate change is man-made or if it will be as deadly to all humankind as some people say that it will be.

Of course, due to the fact that the information that people receive are second-hand information, one of the problems with the debate behind climate change is that confirmation bias often comes into play. Therefore, as most people cherry-pick the data and evidence that conform to their own points of view, people on both sides of the argument can and do honestly believe that the existing evidence supports their views. Perhaps not so oddly enough, this also applies to other disciplines, such as economics.

Image Source

But I digress. Assuming that these young scientists will not pull a Hwang Woo-suk, regardless of whether climate change is human-induced or caused by natural phenomena, this new technology could turn carbon dioxide, the gas that is causing so much consternation among people all over the world, into just another natural resource that humans can exploit for commercial purposes. Who knows? Carbon dioxide and methane, which some people are convinced will bring about the downfall of humanity, could even become a future fuel source!

(I wonder how this might affect the cap-and-trade market?)

Though it is possible that I am being far too optimistic about this new technology, as I read about it, it occurred to me yet again that the one constant thing in this universe is change. And because of this constant state of change, as the old saying goes, prediction is hard, especially about the future.

Doom! Doom, I tell you!
Image Source

Of course, that has never stopped doomsday prophets from attempting to predict the future.

For example, Paul R. Ehrlich predicted in his 1968 bestseller, The Population Bomb, that millions of deaths would occur per year throughout the 1970s. He also insisted that the only way to avert this catastrophe was through mass population control “by compulsion if voluntary methods fail.”

The following is a portion of the prologue from Ehrlich's book:

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970's the world will undergo famines – hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate, although many lives could be saved through dramatic programs to “stretch” the carrying capacity of the earth by increasing food production. But these programs will only provide a stay of execution unless they are accompanied by determined and successful efforts at population control. Population control is the conscious regulation of the numbers of human beings to meet the needs, not just of individual families, but of society as a whole.
Nothing could be more misleading to our children than our present affluent society. They will inherit a totally different world, a world in which the standards, politics, and economics of the 1960's are dead. As the most powerful nation in the world today, and its largest consumer, the United States cannot stand isolated. We are today involved in the events leading to famine; tomorrow we may be destroyed by its consequences.

Thankfully, Ehrlich's prognosis never had to be heeded due to the arrival of Norman Borlaug.

Another example of a failed prediction can be found in this article from 2007 in the Daily Telegraph. Back in 2007, Yvo de Boer, a former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the current Director General of the Global Green Growth Institute said, “the number of environmental refugees – from deforestation and desertification as well as climate change – is likely to exceed the number of traditional refugees by the end of the decade.”

He also added that “it could lead to 50 million people, the equivalent of the population of England, becoming environmental refugees by 2010.”

Both Ehrlich and de Boer called for sweeping economic, political, and social reforms, which would have made the world unrecognizable (and horrifying) by many of us today had world leaders actually listened to them.

Of course, these are not the only examples of apocalyptic predictions that have failed to come true. There are many more examples of failed predictions here. So, why do so many people still keep preaching doom and gloom?

Image Source

Professor Bryan Caplan took the concept of confirmation bias a step further and calls his theory pessimistic bias. To explain, Caplan says that one of the biggest mistakes people make is that people have a tendency to overestimate society's troubles and underestimate its progresses. That is because, as Caplan says, people tend to dwell on problems and failures and take solutions and successes for granted.

Doomsday predictions have been around for nearly as long as humans have been around, it seems. So, they should be par for the course that we call humanity. However, the big problem with gloom-and-doom predictions is that many of these doomsday prophets hold influential positions in academia, the media, governments, non-governmental organizations, and inter-governmental organizations. And one common feature that these prophets share is that they always project today's problems into the future, despite the fact that most people can never tell what the world will look like in just a few years, much less in a few decades.

Today's supposedly man-made problem is carbon dioxide. And people who believe that excess carbon dioxide will lead to the downfall of humanity operate on the premise that carbon dioxide will continue to be a problem in the future. But going back to those young Korean scientists, it is possible that carbon dioxide might not be a problem at all, but rather a boon, in the future.

Or in the case of people who fear the continued use of fossil fuels, many of them operate on the premise that fossil fuels will continue to be used in perpetuity. They do not consider that the decreasing costs and increasing efficiency of solar energy will likely make people less willing to use fossil fuels in the future.

Bryan Caplan might just be right in his theory that pessimistic bias colors far too much of people's predictions of the future. Perhaps it might not be such a bad idea for people to step back for a moment and smell the roses.

Image Source

No comments:

Post a Comment