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« Slingo out to dry | Main | Newsnight »

The reverse Cassandra effect

This excerpt from an old Wired article about the late, great Julian Simon is somehow very apt these days.

Simon always found it somewhat peculiar that neither the Science piece nor his public wager with Ehrlich nor anything else that he did, said, or wrote seemed to make much of a dent on the world at large. For some reason he could never comprehend, people were inclined to believe the very worst about anything and everything; theywere immune to contrary evidence just as if they'd been medically vaccinated against the force of fact. Furthermore, there seemed to be a bizarre reverse-Cassandra effect operating in the universe: whereas the mythical Cassandra spoke the awful truth and was not believed, these days "experts" spoke awful falsehoods, and they were believed. Repeatedly being wrong actually seemed to be an advantage, conferring some sort of puzzling magic glow upon the speaker.

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Reader Comments (52)

Erlich's presence in the warmist camp by itself should be enough to discredit AGW theory. He has a remarkable talent for being wrong.

Feb 18, 2014 at 2:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterBloke in Central Illinois

"The Moonbat Effect"?

Feb 18, 2014 at 3:00 AM | Registered Commentertomo

Thanks for that. Reverse Cassandra Effect indeed!

Feb 18, 2014 at 4:51 AM | Unregistered CommenterDaveW

Do you feel guilty? Well, do you?
The “Malthusians” (Simon's wager was against this crowd) have in common (1) the religious fervor to right the violations they believe their society has inflicted, and (2) the lack of imaginative minds. The first of these needs no explanation. For #2, consider that Malthusians looked at the future and saw plain old telephone service (POTS) with two wires going across the entire Earth. The sorts of “disruptive technology” (Christensen, The Innovator's Dilemma) [2G cell phones, most recently] favored by the likes of Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos are not possible in the restricted minds of the Ehrlich-types.
They must make you feel guilty and regress, rather than feel certain that things can and will change for the better. They know best how you should live, so listen up.

Feb 18, 2014 at 5:00 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohn F. Hultquist

Double thanks for the link to the Wired article. My favourite quote is "Whenever he presents any data, his practice is to present the figures going all the way back to day one, to the start of record-keeping on the parameter in question. You have to focus on aggregate trends over the long term, he insists, not just pick and choose some little fleeting data chunks that seem to support your case." Seems very relevant to the CAGW debate.

I don't think that Simmons position on extinctions is as as impressive as his other arguments. It is true that EO Wilson ended up exaggerating extinctions. Hard not to when he was a co-author of the model underpinning the estimates. There is a recent paper demonstrating that Island Biogeography models necessarily inflate extinction events, but that is post-estimate. It is also clear that most recent extinctions occurred on islands, not mainlands. Still, the more mainland habitats come to resemble islands, I think the greater the chance of extinction will be.

Puerto Rico may have been convenient for the Wired reporter, but it was not a good island to test the theory against - too close to a mainland source of colonists and right in the middle of a migratory pathway for birds. Naturally, if you create novel open habitats on an island you might expect some migrants to settle into the serendipitous new habitats.

Wilson probably also took into account that whenever a relatively large species went extinct, several other smaller dependent species would disappear. I doubt many people would be upset at the idea of 'parasites' going extinct with their hosts (does anyone care that the Dodo may have had feather mites, intestinal worms ...?), but in an objective assessment, all of these species would count. But imagine a rare wildflower whose specific pollinator went extinct. What do you think is going to happen to the wildflower? It isn't always easy to assign anthropocentric tags to creepy crawlies.

Feb 18, 2014 at 6:12 AM | Unregistered CommenterDaveW

A great piece on modern catastrophism but Julian Simon made the same mistake as Ehrlich. He underestimated human kind…or maybe it’s overestimated.

A few weeks ago I saw a comedian talking about being careful what he showed interest in for the weeks preceding Christmas and birthdays because anything he commented on was likely to turn up on the day. One year he was grumbling about the plight of some issue and a week later he got a certificate saying he’d made a donation to that concern. ‘What did you do that for?’ he asked his wife in dismay. ‘But you love [whatever it was], you were going on and on about them’. ‘NO’ he exclaimed, ‘what I love is moaning!’

And so it is with the public. They like moaning about all sorts of things and pretty much don’t care if the issue is real or not. Sometimes they go further and use the issue as a goad to get what they want (or think they want). However most whinges are just that, complaints to make the world know you’re not happy.

People also like being scared. There’s a whole entertainment industry built up around it and real world horror stories can be as entertaining for the public as Hollywood inspired versions. Ooooh, the world’s gonna end, news at 10! For a while the public can’t get enough of the latest catastrophe fad but as warmists have found, the interest soon fades if the drama of the story becomes boring or the public themselves are expected to contribute to the solution. They want the day to be saved by a plucky few scientists coming up with a revolutionary device that makes the bad stuff magically go away. A return to real austerity isn’t part of their entertainment plan.

So yeah, the public do seem to have a bemusing appetite for believing in the worst but they act like they think it’s all fiction. Whether such negativity is good for them is another matter.

Feb 18, 2014 at 8:07 AM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

There's a sort of underlying belief that if you're in any way an optimist, you're basically immature: a Pollyanna. It's the grown ups (and Yorkshiremen) who know that everything is going to end badly.

Feb 18, 2014 at 8:14 AM | Unregistered Commentermike fowle

I expect he was not talking about the public at large, just academia and the media. However the reverse is also true. It was very clear to some of us natural skeptics that prior to the financial collapse neither economic pundits nor the media wanted to hear anything remotely pessimistic. People who pointed out the problems with debt, derivatives and modern models of risk management were utterly dismissed as common sense was thrown out of the window. Never mind Cassandra, Alan Greenspan was treated as the Oracle of Delphi; in that nobody knew what the hell he was saying but they nevertheless continually reinterpreted him as saying 'let the good times roll'.

What is missing are the checks and balances between these Malthusians and the Cornucopians. What we get instead is self-confirming dogma, cliquery and tribalism. Neither side worry about facts if they want to believe in something - only when the don't want to believe it.

Feb 18, 2014 at 8:48 AM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG

One of Einstein's quotes springs to mind:

Two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not certain about the first.

Feb 18, 2014 at 8:52 AM | Registered Commenterlapogus

Remember all the 2012 Mayan rubbish, no different from AGW. Stupid thing is that the Mayans civilisation collapsed due the natural climate change reducing the food supply, and the ruling classes got murdered by the revolting plebs when their sacrifices to the Gods failed to work, much more likely prediction ;) .

Feb 18, 2014 at 8:57 AM | Registered CommenterBreath of Fresh Air

Somewhere or other I coined recently the word 'Ardnassac' to describe Ehrlich and his followers.
Seems to be a word with potential, no?
I make it freely available to anyone who wishes.

Feb 18, 2014 at 9:06 AM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

"Repeatedly being wrong actually seemed to be an advantage, conferring some sort of puzzling magic glow upon the speaker."

This is not hard to understand. It is not being wrong per se that results in the 'glow', it is transmission of the most successful narrative replicator, which rewards (and so assists replication) via satifying brain chemicals from having pushed the right psychological hot-buttons. Wherever there is significant uncertainty, replicative success will tend to triumph over verifiability (factual content). The discipline of cultural evolution has known about the growth of cultural entities via such (Darwinian) mechanisms for decades, and the 'strong' end of the spectrum is memetics. See the CAGW Memeplex for more.

Feb 18, 2014 at 9:09 AM | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

For that reason, I have long referred to folks like Ehrlich, Mann, Moonbat, etc as "ardnassaCs". How more reverse Cassandra can you get?

Feb 18, 2014 at 9:11 AM | Unregistered CommenterRadical Rodent

Curses! You beat me to it, Mike!

Feb 18, 2014 at 9:27 AM | Unregistered CommenterRadical Rodent

Aside from the endlessly popular apocalyptic 'Will this Wind be so Mighty' feeling in humans, the Warmists also exploit the guilt associated with 'being rich (as we all are now in the west).
We look around and see that others remain with less than us and think, "something should be done."

We have two choices:
1. Do something. Give what we have to others to level the playing field. This means our 'rich' lifestyle is affected.
2. Pay an indulgence (carbon tax) or say a prayer to Gaia, express concern, grandstand, look noble and concerned, point out evil businesses making 'profit', or, best of all, take someone else's money off them and give it to the less fortunate and carry on with our own rich lifestyle.

Somewhat understandably 1 is less popular than 2. Hence our staggeringly rich actors, musos, comedians, artists, pols who hang onto their diamonds and espouse 2.

Feb 18, 2014 at 9:27 AM | Unregistered CommenterStuck-Record

Mike Jackson: You beat me to it! I'd heard it was a pretty nasty Glaswegian 'ead banger: 'Ard Nassac. (Jimmy, to his mates!)

Feb 18, 2014 at 9:37 AM | Unregistered CommenterHarry Passfield

In my previous life as a teacher, I used BBC produced footage featuring both Julian Simon and a certain Sloan professor. I could not imagine that being the case today, as I bailed out of the blazing aeroplane of objectivity some four years ago I was expected to teach bizarre half truths.

Feb 18, 2014 at 9:40 AM | Unregistered CommenterTrefor Jones

Along the same lines Chapter 17, entitled "unsustainable" in David Deutsch's "The Beginning of Infinity". He appends a definition of "sustain": "The term has two almost opposite, but often confused, meanings: to provide someone with what they need, and to prevent things from changing." The book also contains a nice demolition of the pessimistic "Spaceship Earth" metaphor.

Feb 18, 2014 at 9:45 AM | Unregistered Commenteralan kennedy

An improved understanding of this 'reverse Cassandra effect' may well turn out to be one good thing to emerge from the mess of these past several decades of deliberate, ill-informed, malevolently pursued scaremongering about environmental issues. The cagw one being the biggest of the monsters conjured up. A good understanding of how and why it has had so much political success would surely help vaccinate us against being so disrupted by future waves of shoddy, but slick and astonishingly effective alarmism.

Feb 18, 2014 at 9:47 AM | Registered CommenterJohn Shade

I swear that the evidence that I shall give, shall be the sooth, the whole sooth and nothing but the sooth, so help me God!

Feb 18, 2014 at 9:51 AM | Unregistered CommenterMydogsgotnonose

Feb 18, 2014 at 9:47 AM | John Shade

John, see my comment above. The effect is well known and as old (or older than) homo sapiens sapiens. It is a 'feature' of our evolutionary path. Rather surprisingly, the mechanism via which it occurs confers (huge) benefits too, yet parasitical cultural entities (CAGW is looking like such) can live off it; essentially hijacking and living off the means via which altruism is supported in societies.

Feb 18, 2014 at 10:06 AM | Unregistered CommenterAndy West


A read of GreenieWatch is a regular thing for me, as is checking in here whenever I can.

There are, as usual, several interesting items on the GW blog.

The one that caught my attention as most relevant for this thread, is about DDT. The original post is here:

In many places you could readily replace references to DDT with ones related to climate and the piece still resonates loud and clear, e.g.

Well, there is one thing we know for sure. Anti-DDT ‘studies’ will generate grant money, and the holy grail of science is grant money, and that’s what makes them ‘magic’. They’re magic because anti-DDT studies produce gold out of nothing. This kind of reminds me of that old Grimm brother’s fairy tale about Rumpelstiltskin and spinning straw into gold, and spinning is the operative word, because they're still desperately attempting to prove the ban really has some scientific basis instead of the political decision it really was.

I also note the blog author's 'About Me' bit on the sidebar contains this:

I also believe that to be green is to be irrational, misanthropic and morally defective. They are the barbarians at the gate we have to stand against. Our greatest worry is those within who support and facilitate their misanthropic goals.

What, as they say, is not to like?

Feb 18, 2014 at 10:19 AM | Registered CommenterJohn Shade

This is actually a serious question - why is it that a theory that is so obviously flawed, has captured the great and the good? Is it just the perfect meme with something for everyone? Is it just follow the money? If the sceptic community had an answer for this they might actually start winning the argument and stop a lot of people starving because of mad policies.

Feb 18, 2014 at 10:19 AM | Unregistered CommenterLoki

One reason for not copyrighting 'ardnassac' is that I suspect it's a word whose time has come so I claim no particular credit. I'm sure there a quite a few other verbophiles (?) who have invented it on their own. I simply passed it on because I reckoned it filled a gap. RR and Harry Passfield at least obviously agree!
(I reckon Ard Nassac would be North of England rather than Glasgow myself. Glasgow would be 'awd' surely?)

Feb 18, 2014 at 10:20 AM | Registered CommenterMike Jackson

Andy (10:06 AM) - I liked your comment at 9:09 AM - although it was quite heavy-going for me. I have also taken a look at your blog, and was very pleased to see, if not fully comprehend, such work taking place. My immediate reaction was 'More strength to your elbow! ', and my next was to resolve to study it a bit more (so, I have that a bit back to front). I think I have come across your writing before, perhaps on WUWT, but I confess it is only now that I have tried to get stuck into it a little. I hope to return to it. Here's an extract for others who may be as ignorant as me about this stuff

Whatever is happening in the great outdoors regarding actual climate, inside, truly inside, in the minds of men that is, overwhelming evidence indicates that Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming is a self-sustaining narrative that is living off our mental capacity, either in symbiosis or as an outright cultural parasite; a narrative that is very distanced from physical real-world events. The social phenomenon of CAGW possesses all the characteristics of a grand memetic alliance, like numerous similar structures before it stretching back beyond the reach of historic records, and no doubt many more cultural creatures that have yet to birth.

I also liked TinyCO2's comment in much plainer language at 8:07 AM:

People also like being scared. There’s a whole entertainment industry built up around it and real world horror stories can be as entertaining for the public as Hollywood inspired versions.

Feb 18, 2014 at 10:34 AM | Registered CommenterJohn Shade

This I assume is the Wired article that played such a role in the conversion to policy scepticism of one Bjorn Lomborg:

This all began in February 1997. Lomborg was in Los Angeles and he read an article in Wired magazine by the late Julian Simon, an American right-wing thinker, trashing the eco-catastrophists. He went back to Denmark and with his statistics students set about the task of proving Simon wrong. Except for a few details, they failed. By the end of the year, he had concluded that Simon was right and the green case was a wild exaggeration. In right-on, PC, left-wing, green Denmark this was heresy. But Lomborg had been trained in heresy.

That was Bryan Appleyard in October 2007. And here's Tim Worstall in the Daily Express in February 2010:

I started out as almost all of us do – as a teenage Green. My departure from that charming naivety came in part from reading the ground-breaking book Skeptical Environmentalist by Danish academic Bjorn Lomborg. Even before it came out in 2001 there was an outcry from the environmental movement, for what he pointed out was that most of the scare stories we’d been hearing simply were not true.

And here's Matt Ridley talking of 'The global warming guerrillas' in The Spectator the same month:

Or take a book published last month called The Hockey Stick Illusion by Andrew Montford, a rattling good detective story and a detailed and brilliant piece of science writing. Montford has never worked in the media. He is an accountant and science publisher who works from his home in Milnathort in Kinrossshire. He runs a blog called ‘Bishop Hill’.

Montford came to the subject in 2005 when he read a blog post by another amateur non-journalist named Tim Worstall, a scandium dealer who lives in Portugal (I am not making this up), who was in turn passing on news of another blogger’s work: Stephen McIntyre, a retired mining consultant and keen squash player in Toronto.

Got the chain of influence there? One of my favourites. Thank you for your service to the truth in days when so few had the gumption or courage to follow, Dr Simon.

Feb 18, 2014 at 11:13 AM | Registered CommenterRichard Drake

"Repeatedly being wrong actually seemed to be an advantage, conferring some sort of puzzling magic glow upon the speaker."

Describes our own (Oz) Tim Flannery to a tee.

Feb 18, 2014 at 11:36 AM | Unregistered CommenterLevelGaze

Anthony Watts in his recent weekly roundup, posted a quotation by Epictetus, that is appropriate to the discussion: you cannot teach a man something he thinks he already knows. The green doom meme has been around so long and spread so widely in the media, that it is regarded as a self evident truth rather than a dodgy assumption, probably because it plays strongly into a sin and retribution narrative, substituting itself neatly as a secular religion for a post Christian Age. It doesn't seem to resonate as strongly in cultures not deriving from JudeoChristianity, or am I ignorant here?

Feb 18, 2014 at 11:37 AM | Unregistered CommenterLjh

It is surely part of our evolutionary make up extending right back to our earliest hunter gatherer forebears to pay urgent attention to any threat to our survival or well being. To those ancients it may have been for instance the immediate physical threat of being attacked by wild animals and any report of such animals being in the vicinity would presumably have been urgently communicated. Today the threats are usually less immediate and of a generalised nature. Any scare story implying a threat to our survival or well being will spread quickly and is guaranteed to make the news and sell media copy. Any report of good news, implying by definition an absence of threat will struggle to be disseminated.

Perhaps those who so vehemently espouse the supposed threat of CAGW who are not just doing so for pecuniary advantage are genuinely more afraid than most of us for their own survival. WRT to TinyCO2's comment perhaps it is not so much that people enjoy being scared as much as they are presented with frightening scenarios that could plausibly be a threat to their existence as 'entertainment' and are gratified and relieved to see the threat eliminated by the 'super hero'.

Feb 18, 2014 at 11:56 AM | Unregistered Commenterpw

The late Sir John Maddox, a scientist and editor, edited Science magazine and wrote several books. His most important book, in my opinion, was "The Doomsday Syndrome", an attack on pessimism in science.
He specifically shows why Ehrlich and gang are wrong....and this book was written in 1972.
The sad part of this is that the book is not still in publication.
It should be required reading for anyone doing science policy, but instead proven failures infest science policy pushing their faux policies on us.
I like the metaphor of 'reverse Casandra'. It is a nice way to point out how the social dysfunctions like AGW grasp hold of us in such destructive ways.

Feb 18, 2014 at 12:09 PM | Unregistered Commenterhunter


North of England? Not wheer I cum frae.

Sounds to me more like a village in the highlands. Useful word, though.


It doesn't seem to resonate as strongly in cultures not deriving from JudeoChristianity, or am I ignorant here?
Feb 18, 2014 at 11:37 AM Ljh

Don't blame the jews here. Their version of the Garden of Eden story is not of a 'fall from grace' but of a process of growing up. They don't do original sin. The church distorted this (in a Neo-Platonic way), and lived the life of Riley off it for 1500 years. But IMHO you are basically right about the cultural thing.

Feb 18, 2014 at 12:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterAllan M

There's an excellent book by Dan Gardner on this issue called "Future Babble". It is well worth a read.
One of his points is as posted by pw above - we are naturally attuned to any threat to our well-being. In contrast, predictions that things are going to get better do not imply any risk.
In a similar vein, Matt Ridley's book, "The Rational Optimist", is a great antidote to all of the doom-mongering.

Feb 18, 2014 at 12:14 PM | Registered Commentermikeh

Thank you so much for link to the Wired article. It's wonderful. But, depressing to think that it's very unlikely anything so critical of alarmism could get published today.

The quote by Ehrlich: "“If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”

- Paul Ehrlich, quoted in Julian Simon, The Ultimate Resource 2, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), p. 35." is an absolute doozy.

How on earth is it possible for this man to have made so much money, and achieved so much success? He really is the Von Daniken of popular science.

Feb 18, 2014 at 12:20 PM | Unregistered CommenterStuck-Record

Why people do the things they do ..


I think the term should be the Manbigot effect in this case.

After his performance on Panorama program last night I was apoplectic with rage.

He was all do as I say not as I do, with his smarmy 'I know best' attitude.

A more odious man I haven't come across.

Feb 18, 2014 at 12:37 PM | Unregistered Commenterconfused

Your Grace,

I see from a comment above that you live in Milnathort. I take it that you can see Bishop Hill from your Palace. Now it makes sense. What a lovely part of the world.


Feb 18, 2014 at 12:42 PM | Unregistered CommenterAllan M

To Allen M
Granted that Judaism moved on but the OT bits that got subsumed into Christianity are full of the Israelites being smited by JHWH for misdemeanours. As the Protestants took their Bible more seriously than Catholics or Orthodox, are historically Protestant countries keener for Thermageddon than the rest?

Feb 18, 2014 at 12:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterLjh

Yes, I'll agree with TinCO2 as well. Not least

"And so it is with the public. They like moaning about all sorts of things and pretty much don’t care if the issue is real or not."

And in the UK, I still think we're probably world champions when it comes to moaning about the weather.

Feb 18, 2014 at 1:00 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart


Try this for size:

The Christian doctrine dates back to the 2nd century. But it does not occur in Islam, so is not a necessary interpretation of the OT. There are always Cassandra-type prophets around dealing out smition (sic), and blaming everyone else for just getting on with their lives. Does this make them failed prophets? Or do ordinary people just have more common sense?

The Pope officially believes in Thermageddon (despite Antonino Zichichi), so it isn't just Protestants.

Anyway, I stopped believing in the "six impossible things before breakfast"* decades ago, but have spent much of the intervening time digging the consequences of that belief out of my head.

* Alice Through the Looking Glass: Rev. Charles Dodgson.

Feb 18, 2014 at 1:39 PM | Unregistered CommenterAllan M

Feb 18, 2014 at 10:34 AM | John Shade

Thanks John :) And indeed TinyCO2's 8:07 comment is pertinent. As is Loki's at 10:19, except one has to replace 'meme' with 'memeplex' (a co-evolutionary group of memes). The money and indeed individual aligned interests are secondary motivators, the agenda of the CAGW memeplex itself is primary (just like for religions). The memeplex is not sentient nor even agential, though similar to say, prions, it has some of the very basic characteristics we ascribe to life. It's agenda is purely a result of differential selection of the most successful narratives, e.g. scare stories, which push the right psychological buttons inside us in order to get themselves copied.

Unfortunately though, knowing 'the answer' at this mechanistic level doesn't help a lot with winning the argument, as Loki had hoped. Those working on cultural evolution have known about the evolutionary trajectories and resultant characteristics of religions for decades, but it hasn't helped them move those trajectories in cases where they are going to bad places. A fundamental problem is that humans need the mechanisms that CAGW and other negative memplexes hi-jack, in order to have civilisation at all. Likely, religion crystallised civilisation. However, understanding can only help :)

Feb 18, 2014 at 2:04 PM | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

I'm not sure about the relative acceptance of CAGW for folks from Judeo-Christian backgrounds versus other relgions, but CAGW is indeed a secular religion as you say; exactly the same underlying social mechanisms drive both, and other secular cultural entities too. A comparison of what is the same and what is different regarding CAGW / religion is included in my essay The CAGW Memeplex. Memeplexes often form 'cross-coalitions' where their interests coincide more than they clash, and there is currently a 'shall-we-shan't-we-dance' going on between CAGW and Christianity as the boundary between the two evolves. While there is indeed acceptance from some Christian camps, there is rejection from others, and the latter may grow as the two entites muscle for adherents. There are references to all this in the essay. I should imagine other religions will be going through the same process, but may simply be less impacted yet as CAGW started much earlier in the largely Christian West and has it's chief growth there.

Feb 18, 2014 at 2:27 PM | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

Over the course of many decades, I noted the same phenomenon among stock jobbers.

The worse the record of accuracy, the more prominent the notice and reporting by media. As best I can tell, "BlAbby" Joseph Cohen of Goldman Sachs and the late Barton Biggs of Morgan Stanley were rarely right about almost anything, yet the fourth estate ceaselessly broadcast their pronouncements.

In climate and environmental affairs, we're all too well aware of The Club of Rome's predictive powers, as well as the IPCC's forecasting prowess.

Feb 18, 2014 at 2:57 PM | Unregistered CommenterDiogenes

Andy, Islam regards OT stories as incorrect and heretical, describing persons and events which bear a family resemblance and deducing different principles, hence no original sin. Physical cause and effect are held to limit the power of Allah so the charms of graph drawing and computer modelling cannot be used to predict the future. The "impossible things before breakfast" is the requirement of any faith, proof of devotion being a firm belief in the absence of evidence or in the presence of evidence to the contrary. How did we get to the Church of AGW after the interregnum of the Enlightenment? Have people simply become too lazy to think critically and made scientivists the new priesthood?

Feb 18, 2014 at 3:10 PM | Unregistered CommenterLjh

I believe that the Cassandra effect is still working. What is relevant is how you view awful. Take a classic example of the Cassandra effect. Ignaz Semmelweiz found that doctors washing their hands between touching each patient reduced mortality rates. The implied "awful" truth that every experienced hospital doctor had to accept was that, due to their ignorance, they had killed people when they were in the business of saving lives.

But for environmentalists the "scientific truth" that the human race is destroying the planet confirms their beliefs. Politicians whose mission is to make a real difference to the world - an honourable motive - can now take part in saving the planet from an evil menace. Maybe not as spectacularly as James Bond, or Flash Gordon, but they can still expect to receive plaudits and a place in history. Or at least a pat on the back from green activists in Bali, Copenhagen, Cancun....

For those who believe materialism is ultimately depraved; or humankind is inherently sinful; or capitalism will collapse through its inherent contradictions; or the rich got where they are through trampling over those like themselves; - all can latch onto the cause as well. For all these people the awful truth for the world is not so awful for them.

This is why the Cassandra effect is still very much with us. The awful truth is that politicians now find themselves in the same position of those doctors in 1840s Vienna. When they thought they were saving the world, they are in fact harming the futures of their constituents. As Matt Ridley points out in the Times today, the easy way out is to insult the skeptics.

Feb 18, 2014 at 3:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterKevin Marshall

When we have been made generally anxious, we wish to have the anxiety removed or, at least, lessened. Knowing that the Huns have landed on the coast is somehow better psychologically than worrying day after day that they may land: knowledge of bad things enables you to act or adapt, whereas the fear of them has you in a paralyzed state of disquiet.

Our culture has created a constant state of tension in its citizens. We are on edge, always, waiting, as it is said, "for the other shoe to drop". We marry worried about divorce, have children worried about drug use and dilinquency. Erhlich is and has been wrong but we keep being told that he is "possibly" right ... at some unspecified time in the future. Now we are lead to be anxious not even about our own lives but that of of our grandchildren (think James Hansen).

We are inclined to believe bad things are going to happen. The state of personal insecurity determines our spending on clothes, cars and other things that determine our social status and feelings of personal accomplishment and, hence, worth. We are tilted forward on a downward inclined plan. Rejecting negativity has become a worry because we are then not prepared for the turn of fortune.

In the current world there is little security beyond about a 6 month window. Our jobs, who we are at war with, our health and that of our loved ones, appear from the media and actual events to be forever approaching the precipice. It is not true, of course - although we have many pratfalls in our lives, the number of signficant ones is generally pretty low - but that is how it feels. We have been made into nations of worriers.

The thing about being in a constant state of anxiety is that we are, as a consequence, always ready to ACT. We want to DO something. We WILL do something, actually. Whether it is get the vaccinations or vitamin supplements that we don't need or accept the politicos statements about foolish action resulting from the climate change scare, action is our preferred response to generalized anxiety. We want the feeling of powerlessness, of impending doom, to go away. The first action is to embrace the danger; the second, to embrace what actions - whatever actions - we are told in a firm and decisive manner will reduce that danger.

Accept Erhlich, then follow his instructions and we will feel better. And all because we have been preconditioned to expect tomorrow to be not as good as today and far, far worse than yesterday.

Feb 18, 2014 at 4:34 PM | Unregistered CommenterDoug Proctor

Paul Sabin on Ehrlich, Simon and the Bet

<I>The Bet is a portrait of two men, Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon, and a very interesting bet that they made. But it's more than that. It's the portrait of an era, the birth of the environmental movement and how it evolved over time. </I>

Feb 18, 2014 at 5:47 PM | Unregistered CommenterSpeed

There's a sort of underlying belief that if you're in any way an optimist, you're basically immature: a Pollyanna. It's the grown ups (and Yorkshiremen) who know that everything is going to end badly

Except when it comes to imagined "renewable" solutions to whatever the problem is supposed to be.

Then, suddenly everything is possible and it's possible now. So what could possibly stopping it other than Evil Corporations and Big Oil?

Feb 18, 2014 at 6:00 PM | Unregistered Commenterkellydown

Kellydown. Good point. Perhaps the attraction of these "solutions" is that they involve sacrifice - especially other peoples'.

Feb 18, 2014 at 6:43 PM | Unregistered Commentermike fowle

Feb 18, 2014 at 3:10 PM | Ljh

In Mutation, Selection, And Vertical Transmission Of Theistic Memes In Religious Canons by John D. Gottsch, you will find a super analysis of the OT memes that were selected by a combination of many accidents and designs over a long period, for inclusion in the NT, plus how these all aided the success of the Christian memeplex. Wonderful table layouts and summaries. See here: .

Your final question is a fundamental one, but I don't think there's any evidence to suggest folks are more lazy than they ever were. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that literacy and communication have risen very much (although this doesn't neccessarily imply folks are more thoughtful), which may mean we are handing more of the reins to potentially dominant narratives. Also, science was once too small and 'unimportant' to generate dominant narratives, so it may now be a victim of its own amazing achievements over the last 3 or 4 centuries. Hence it's maybe not a surprise that 'scientific' narratives capable of vast social drive are arising. The problem is that the very way civilisation is glued together requires there to be successful narratives, that's why we've co-evolved with religions and similar cultural entities essentially forever. To date at any rate, without them there would be no co-operation, no inspiration, no civilisation. That's why we're so sensitised to their effect. But the effect works whether they happen to be true or not (indeed no religions are 'true'). Sceptics are often puzzled by that aspect, but the mechanism doesn't need truth, it simply needs high selective value (by the pushing of our psychological hot-buttons). An ultimate confrontation with flat fact will terminate the evolution of a memeplex, but when narrative success is rewarded more than verifiability (factual content), this is near impossible to achieve. I think CAGW will fall, it hitched it's wagon to global temperature and that is a fatal error, but likely not from an ultimate confrontation, rather a moving onwards of the agenda.

Feb 18, 2014 at 7:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

Memeplexes increase their replicative ability and holding of adherents, by fostering allied memes that target our pyschological hot-buttons, so presenting disaster and concomitant salvation (Kellydown), leveraging anxiety (Doug Proctor), hijacking altrusim (Kevin Marshall & politicians saving the world), and much more, are all fair game to a major memeplex. The interesting thing about secular memeplexes is that they can't use literal salvation (e.g. a place in heaven) like religious memeplexes are able to do, so they have to use 'salvation substitutes' that nevertheless must deeply appeal to our psyches. CAGW fosters at least two, one weak and one strong, that I detail in my essay linked above.

Feb 18, 2014 at 7:16 PM | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

Yes, not reverse Cassandra, because Cassandra spoke the truth and was not believed, and the alarmists speak falsely and are believed. These two are entirely consistent, we are the Cassandras, the alarmists are those who open the gates to the wooden horse -- whatever you'd call those.

Feb 19, 2014 at 6:43 AM | Unregistered CommenterNZ Willy

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