The Nation's Pulse

Anatomy of a Hoax

Survival in an era of falling skies and climate "change."

By 2.8.07

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Some years ago, when I was freelancing at a mutual fund company, I took a break to go downstairs and smoke my pipe. On my way back upstairs, I found myself sharing the elevator with one of my co-workers in the corporate communications department.

"Ewww, smoke!" she exclaimed. "Let me out of here! I don't want you to give me cancer!"

Let's absorb this slowly. My fellow worker thought that: 1) Cancer was contagious. 2) She could "catch" cancer from the smell of tobacco smoke clinging to my clothes -- not from the smoke itself, which was long gone outdoors, but from the smell alone.

She was a dish, too. Pity.

UNFORTUNATELY, PUBLIC HYSTERIA CREATES political impulse in our ruling classes. Money may be the mother's milk of politics, but self-righteous hysteria is its drug of choice.

That is worth remembering, as the UN releases the report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and headlines begin to trumpet that global warming is "settled science" or "solid science" and that the role of human beings in creating global warming ("climate change," these days, note the change) cannot be denied.

These periodic high-flown reports from the UN or other august bodies have now become the occasion for close parsing, like the minutes of the Federal Reserve's Open Market Committee meetings. What does it mean, for example, commentators ask, that the current IPCC report has dropped all mention of the formerly sensational "hockey stick" graph developed by Michael Mann which was such a feature of the 2001 report?

The voices of skeptics on climate change seem to me to have grown stronger and more persuasive in the last year, and a good thing, too. It was getting entirely out of hand. But I do not concentrate here simply on global warming, or the phenomenon thereof in public discourse, but on the human propensity to pitch a fit. What on earth possesses us to so delight in panic and emergency?

I don't know. I don't think anyone knows. But I do say that part of growing up, a significant part of maturity, lies in the ability to resist the siren call of hysteria. You take certain steps in resisting hysteria by identifying it for what it is.

FIRST, RESIST URGENCY. If someone agitates for your attention right now, claims that some issue or other is the paramount crisis of our times, you may properly respond, "Cool your jets." Snake-oil salesmen and demagogues of every stripe seek first to create a clamor. Like a child's tantrum, the demagogue's message doesn't matter. If a movement can create enough of a fuss, it has made a start. If a persuader can make you rush, he can make you forget your senses. "Hurry, hurry, hurry!" calls the carnie barker.

Second, remember that apocalypses don't happen very often. I remember several that have been proclaimed -- Paul Ehrlich's population bomb, the coming ice age celebrated in news magazines in the 1970s, the Y2K disaster -- but none that have actually happened. The be-robed figure carrying a sign saying, "Repent! The End of the World Is at Hand!" appears in cartoons. That's where he belongs.

Third, be mindful of the mechanism of propagating panic, and the personages who do it. Beware of journalists, "activists," admen, PR flacks, and salesmen. "You can't bulls--t a bulls--tter," goes the old nostrum, but, in fact, the opposite is true. People in the persuasion business will swallow just about anything. So when the persuaders start whooping it up, back off.

In the day when I was a liberal, I helped a political friend prepare some materials in support of the Americans With Disabilities Act. I was full of our message. "There are 40 million people with disabilities in the United States," I said to some non-political, non-persuasion type. He looked at me with blank bemusement. "No, there aren't," he said. "No, there aren't." Of course he we was right.

Short form: If everybody is saying it, it's probably wrong.

Finally, keep your hand on your wallet. Proclaimers of catastrophe almost always call for expensive government studies, programs, even entire departments, to address their complaints. Government began way back in the Primatene mists when somebody threw a barrier across a road and demanded a bribe for passage. Governance, a necessary evil, starts with extortion. Resist any demand to make that extortion any worse than it has to be.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.