For the Record, Carl Sagan was brilliant

Common sense teaches that the world would be a better place if people were more informed about it. Scientists with the fervor of corner preachers exhort anyone who will listen to take an interest in scientific matters. Astrophysicist Carl Sagan wrote in The Demon Haunted World, for example, that:

the consequences of scientific illiteracy are far more dangerous in our time than in any that has come before. It’s perilous and foolhardy for the average citizen to remain ignorant about global warming, say, or ozone depletion, air pollution, toxic and radioactive wastes, acid rain, topsoil erosion, tropical deforestation, exponential growth….How can we affect national policy… if we don’t understand the underlying issues?

Certainly everyone wants to overcome ignorance in the world, but notice that the passage does not just complain about ignorance. Rather, it argues that it is “dangerous,” “perilous,” and “foolhardy” to be ignorant of environmental issues. Passages like these rarely create “average citizens” who become experts on environmental policy, particularly when these issues barely warrant a mention in the rest of the book. Instead they create average citizens who become experts on caring about environmental policy. They tell the reader that it’s “perilous and foolhardy”  to ignore these issues. After all, they’re scientific.

The Experts on Caring then go out and flood politicians and bureaucrats with questions about the environment. What will you do about this or that new catastrophe? Overpopulation, global famine, pesticide induced cancer epidemics, desert expansion, nuclear fallout, ebola, swine flu, mad cow disease, pandemics, acid rain, oil spills, resource depletion, falling sperm counts, genetically modified killer foods, sea level rise: what will “we” do?  Those who ignore such calls are labeled as “anti-science”–if only they understood the science.

One such Caring Expert told me recently that “all our wealth has a downside. Think about global warming. We are responsible for that. Hurricanes and floods kill people.” Statements like these encapsulate the major problem with Experts on Caring: even if they’re right about a problem, their sense of proportion has been totally distorted by the Carl Sagans of the world who tell them it’s “dangerous” not to care.

But knowledge of a problem gives you no conception of the relative risk it poses. As Matt Ridley points out: “The Four Horsemen of the human apocalypse, which cause the most premature and avoidable death in poor countries, are and will be for many years the same: hunger, dirty water, indoor smoke and malaria, which kill respectively about seven, three, three, and two people per minute.” The level of human suffering these problems cause is not slightly more significant, but rather several dozen orders of magnitude more significant than global warming.

Creating Experts on Caring does science a disservice–it emotionalizes the issues from the outset. Worse, it ranks these problems as more important a priori–that is, (ironically) without any empirical or scientific support. Yet these are the most important issues, we’re told, because they’re scientific. The things I care about on the other hand–energy prices, employment, human freedom–aren’t “scientific.” This artificial ranking inflates the importance of certain problems at the expense of other more pressing ones.

This blind caring about “scientific” issues has another perverse consequence. Since the Experts on Caring aren’t really experts, they simply demand action NOW (always in capitals) without any real understanding of the consequences. Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was correct to conclude based on their research that CO2 emissions will cause significant economic damage by 2100. Does that scientific finding demand immediate political action? Or does it demand immediate and continuous replication, as science requires?

Even if we conclude global warming is a problem, does that imply what the political solution might be? No, not at all. Rushing ahead with any and every policy, with CAFE Standards, Cap & Trade, Renewable Energy Standards, Feed-in Tariffs, Renewable Energy Subsidies, Carbon Energy Taxes, Coal Carbon Capture and Storage, and a host of other policies without the slightest idea if they will help globally, or what their effect will be in combination, or what the trade-offs are, isn’t scientific, but it’s exactly the sort of policy-making blind caring encourages. “Act NOW,” chant the Experts on Caring, “Not in proportion to the problem, but in proportion to my fear.”

I’m sure Sagan truly wants people to become truly informed, but the effect of his exhortations are quite different. Vague statements that environmental issues are critically important is a recipe for creating Experts on Caring. There’s no doubt that the world would be a better place if people knew more about it, but time and resources are scarce, and everyone faces choices. It’s one thing to care about climate change (or as most of his book is about, pseudoscience). It’s quite another to moralize the issue claiming that people should care about these particular issues without any clear understanding why these and not others.

Such over-the-top rhetorical exuberance biases the would-be environmental seeker from the outset. The Expert on Caring trying to become a real expert must overcome a huge psychological hurdle thrust on him by Sagan and many others—that these issues are of vital importance to the survival of our species. It’s no surprise then that the Experts on Caring only lend credence to alarming research. They care—that must mean the issue is important.

[This post was updated slightly]

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2 Responses to Experts on Caring about the Environment

  1. phillychuck says:

    You do know Carl Sagan is long dead, right? That would be said and liked, not says and likes, then…

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