Apocalypse Suckers

The September issue of Scientific American has a bunch of interesting articles, including this introductory essay on why humans always seem to be fearing one doomsday or another. Here’s the irony:

You might think that the enterprise of science, with its method and its facts, would inoculate us against the most extravagant doomsday obsessions. But it doesn’t. If anything, it just gives us more to worry about.

And who are the biggest worry warts? You guessed it:

Some of the most fervent and convincing doomsayers, after all, are scientists. Bill Joy, co-founder and former chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, has warned that of out-of-control nanobots could consume everything on earth. Astronomer Royal Martin Rees has publicly offered a bet that a biological catastrophe””accidental or intentional””will kill at least one million people by 2020 (so far, no takers). Numerous climatologists sound the alarm about the possibility of runaway global warming. They all stand on the shoulders of giants: British economist Thomas Malthus predicted in the 19th century that the rise in population would lead to widespread famine and catastrophe. It never happened, but that didn’t stop Stanford biologist Paul R. Ehrlich from renewing the warning in his 1968 book The Population Bomb when he predicted that global famine was less than two decades away. Catastrophe didn’t arrive then, either, but does that mean it never will? Not necessarily. Still, people often worry disproportionately about disasters that are unlikely to occur.

Now we come to the objective of the article:

Science may be a culprit, but it also offers some explanation for why we can be so fearful. Some researchers think that apocalyptic dread feeds off our collective anxiety about events that lie outside our individual control.

There’s more to tease you, but it’s just a web preview. To read the whole thing (as well as other articles with titles such as, “The Brief, Eventful Afterlife of a Human Corpse“), I suggest buying a print copy. Seems like perfect beach reading as we wind down summer.

11 Responses to “Apocalypse Suckers”

  1. harrywr2 says:

    You left out the most important reason, the need for purpose in life.
    I.E. Religion traditionally tells us our purpose is to serve the the omnipotent being.
    Once religion is removed then what is our purpose? Wine,woman and song sounds fun but a bit empty. Maybe we need to save someone from something, that sounds better. Humanity has managed to save itself from virtually everything except humanity itself. Saving humanity from humanity sounds like an important purpose to life. Lot’s of trouble with that…I’m not very polite to people that show up at my front door offering to ‘save me’. How about saving nature from humanity, that’s the trick. Now I have a purpose.

  2. Pascvaks says:

    Inquiring minds make good scientists, but alas, science does not satisfy all who search for life’s answers. They frequently find it too binding and restrictive to their needs. Isaac Azimov a fair case in point. The more imaginative among us are frequently the most dissatisfied. Many reside at the far sides of the Bell Curve, everything in the middle is, to them, passe and boring. Joe Romm is one who appears very dissatisfied with everything, and everyone, not sure if he fits the ‘good scientist’ category –he seems quite dissatisfied with the pace science moves in the realm of reality and has been assuming more and more “˜facts”˜ not in evidence.

  3. Pascvaks says:

    Have to add – If, as they say, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” might not  a little more knowledge be more dangerous?  Seem to be.

  4. Steve Koch says:

    Scientists have more detailed knowledge in their discipline and thus realize potential problems before anyone else.  It is not crazy that they would let everyone else hear about the potential danger, more like due diligence.  Science is necessarily obsessive, you focus all your energy on a quite narrow area.  That obsession tends to distort one’s perspective. That is why the scientific method is so important (to maintain perspective) and why post normal science is such a bad idea (because the step from activist to hacktivist is a short step).

  5. John Whitman says:

    First Keith, welcome back.

    aaa – Apocalypse/doomsday is a tactical ploy by a person or group to enlist support for some social/political/religious/financial ulterior motive.  The news media have often, with popularly and to their advantage, road with the waves of hysteria.  And as hysterias decay, as CAGW seems to be doing, the media then play along with the “it was nothing to be excited about” wave, as they appear to be starting to do in case of CAGW.  The media will pick up on the next wave of hysteria as it starts to appear over the horizon.  I am not critical of what I just described, it just happens.
    bbb – Human nature is to try to understand.  (Thanks Aristotle)  This is the counterbalancing force to hysteria.

    ccc – Argumentative society is the greatest society, bar none.  Where there is extremely intense argument there is intellectual health.  The intense argument on the CAGW topic is exactly what a healthy society should do.  I think we are very health. I am not stressed.

    Thought:  There is no problem with what has played out so far with climate science.  When a dominate position weakens then an independent (skeptical if you will) position fills the void, as it is currently doing.  It is the nature of science.  Long live science.

    Note: I was privileged to see it play out on the blogosphere.  Thanks all those bloggers for the wonderful experience of participating in the key event of our time.  : )


  6. Lazar says:

    … so we have two guys speculating about things outside their expertise… being tied to… climate scientists alleged to be worrying about something which in fact they’re not, quite the ‘opposite’
    not impressive

  7. Hector M. says:

    The Scientific American article cites, among other apocalyptical (and usually failed) prophesies that “Numerous climatologists sound the alarm about the possibility of runaway global warming”. But the link they provide through the words “global warming” sends you into a flurry of New Scientist previous articles sounding the same alarm without any warning from the journal about not giving credence to such apocalyptic claims.
    That sounds either contradictory, or as a signal of Scientific American perceiving a change of wind regarding alarming predictions of upcoming catastrophic global warming.
    BTW. the link or the article itself do not provide any reference to the recent IAC report where international academics conclude that many IPCC claims (also on basic science but especially on impacts) were based on scant evidence, and more uncertain than acknowledged by its authors.
    I find this Scientific American piece very interesting. It may be expressing possible ongoing shifts in conventional wisdom about climate change.

  8. Hector M. says:

    Sorry, the mention of New Scientist at the fourth-fifth line of my previous comments was a mistake. Please read “Scientific American”.

  9. AMac says:

    For context, Scientific American‘s longtime editor-in-chief John Rennie was a passionate proponent of the Consensus position on AGW; he garnered some complaints for moving the magazine towards advocacy on this point.  Like most magazines, SciAm had/has troubles with falling advertising revenue; that probably had more to do with his June 2009 departure than content-related controversies.
    Still, for the September ’10 issue to discuss AGW in the context of other apocalyptic predictions is quite a turnaround of the magazine’s stance.
    Here is a podcast transcript from December 2009 where Rennie reviews his position on AGW.

  10. Eli Rabett says:

    Ah yes, those <a href=”http://www.hieronymus-bosch.org/The-Last-Judgement-%281%29.html”>fearful scienitifical types</a>

  11. Yarmy says:

    Why Malthus is still so popular is beyond all reason given that he was so emphatically wrong. He was also deeply, deeply unpleasant, blaming the poor for their own poverty and rejecting any notions of welfare or mass relief since it would only make them even more feckless. As for the Irish, ‘a great part of the population should be swept from the soil.’
    His misanthropic spirit lives on through Ehrlich and the other modern day population doom mongers.

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