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The scare phenomenon
on 7 December 2007
Booker and North posit a "scare phenomenon" by analysing a series of scares, starting with HIV/AIDS and salmonella in the 80s, though BSE, the Y2K bug and passive smoking amongst others, to the global warming scare of today. They identify a pattern that starts with scientists making exaggerated claims based on inadequate evidence, becoming so obsessed with their theories that they manufacture evidence to support them while excluding consideration of contradictory data, and then actively suppress those who oppose their "new orthodoxy". The media, finding such scares make good copy, further hype them up, often finding scientists to speak in support of them whose own areas of research were quite different. Politicians, unable to distinguish between good and bad science and reliant on officials who have in many cases become members of the new orthodoxy themselves, and faced with media hysteria, overreact under cover of the "precautionary principle" by implementing policies that are scientifically suspect and economically damaging.
I purchased the authors' first joint book, "The Mad Officials", some dozen years ago after hearing Richard North speak, very entertainingly, on the excesses of environmental health officers. I was greatly entertained by that book's humorous, "if you didn't laugh you would cry" style. This is a much more scholarly work, although, thankfully, still flavoured by a wry sense of amusement at the irrational behaviour of many of those who would tell us how to live.
The book's longest chapter is on global warming, the biggest of these scares and one that is still gaining momentum. The authors provide a short history of the development of the theory of the "greenhouse effect" (from 1827) and some alternative theories, reminding us that many of those who expounded the theory of man-made global warming in the 80s had, ten years previously, been warning of a coming ice age. They analyse the development of the IPCC and how as early as 1989 scientists whose research did not support this "new orthodoxy" were having their funding withdrawn and were, in due course, lumped together with "holocaust deniers". Al Gore comes in for much criticism. Much of material will not be new to those interested in the global warming debate, but it is summarised concisely and clearly. You would be correct in deducing that Booker & North are somewhat sceptical of MMGW; what they add to the debate is explaining the current furore over global warming as another example of the "scare phenomenon".
In the epilogue they suggest that subscribing to movements like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth in some way satisfies a human "need for religion" in a secular age. While there may be something in this, here Booker & North appeared to be moving out of their own area of expertise, the ideas were only lightly sketched out and there were, unusually, no references to those whose ideas were culled - e.g., Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens? They also betrayed their British orientation: the statement that, by the end of the C20, "the prevailing values of the West were as completely secularised as those of any society the world had ever known" may be true of the UK, but not, I would have thought, of the US. These criticisms aside, I would heartily recommend "Scared to Death" as a critique of contemporary western societies' tendency to indulge in "scares" and as a call to arms for a more intelligently sceptical approach.
Booker & North conclude cheerily by warning us that this century will probably deliver us a "real crisis" soon enough, and that there will then be little time, or need, for imaginary ones.