The World Health Organization is spreading fear. It is suggesting that a flu pandemic could kill up to 150 million people, despite the fact that there has not yet been a single case of bird flue being transmitted from one human to another. It did the same with SARS, claiming that it would kill 50 million – SARS actually killed less than 800 people. While we should take precautions against the pandemic threat, we shouldn’t be panicked by wild stories, whatever their source.
This is not the only example of wilful exaggeration or “puffery” shaping public policy and social behaviour. The threat from terrorism is another. Despite political rhetoric, deaths from terrorist attacks is actually in decline and has been for some time. Its is also the case that the number of armed conflicts in the world has been in steady decline for some time. Those that promote the idea of a growing, menacing threat are usually in pursuit of budgets, equipment or resources. Annual world military spending now stands well in excess of $1,000 billion (Canadian), of which at least 60 per cent is by NATO – countries with which Canada is in alliance. This is why approximately one in twelve of the world’s workers work in defence and security related industries – they have a lot at stake in promoting fear.
Another example is the threat of global warming. Allegedly caused by man-made greenhouse gases, global warming is usually presented as a gloomy catastrophe that will induce the mass extinction of animals and plants, epidemics of contagious and parasitic diseases, droughts and floods, and even invasions of mutated insects resistant to insecticides. Melting glaciers are predicted to raise sea level by 3.67 meters, flooding islands, densely inhabited coastal areas, and great metropolises. There will be mass migrations and a host of other social and environmental effects – always detrimental, never beneficial. We have to remember that a lot is at stake for these doom and gloom scientists. The amount spent on climate studies worldwide has now reached the astonishing level of about $5 billion per year. In North America alone, more than $2.5 billion is spent annually for climate studies, not including the costs of satellites, ships, and laboratory construction. Climatologists have obtained this immense amount of funding by creating the vision of a man-made planetary climate catastrophe. According to one American climatologist, the "scare-them-to-death" approach seems to be the best way to get money for climate studies. Dr. Stephen Schneider, a leading prophet of man-made climate warming (who used to suggest that we were facing a new ice age), stated this bluntly: "To capture the public imagination... we have to... make simplified dramatic statements, and little mention of any doubts one might have.... Each of us has to decide the right balance between being effective and being honest". So much for the scientist as an objective observer. The fact is that we don’t know if global warming is occurring and, if it is, what is really causing it. There is no scientific consensus – science doesn’t work by voting.
One last example. It is often reported that one in four women will experience rape in their lifetime. Just one incident of rape is too many, but one in four is a very big number. The real number is much lower, depending on the definition of rape used. Most scientific analysis suggests it is nearer 1 in 20 – a very different figure, but any number above zero is unacceptable. The data also shows that there are significant regional and ethnic variations in the incidence rate, but the 1 in 4 number keeps on appearing despite the fact that it cannot be justified. Fear again - this time to support the work of feminist organizations, police, and related support services.
We seem to have forgotten Paul Ehrlich’s 1960s’ prophecy that a population explosion would lead to starvation in America by the end of the 1990s. We have forgotten Thomas Malthus’s 1790s’ predictions that European famine was an absolute certainty. We have forgotten all those pundits claiming that the world would experience prolonged and serious disruption, starting on January 1, 2000, as the millennium bug struck.
We seem to like fear and doubt and uncertainty more than we like truth.