April 6, 2009 by Shawn Smith
Q: How do you account for what seems to be a worldwide mass delusion regarding the belief in something like “global warming” despite the existence of opposing scientific views and data? –Shar Z.
Your phrasing betrays the wicked brand of a global warming skeptic. I am also a skeptic, though I’m far from certain about my position. My knowledge of the earth and its atmosphere could barely fill a pamphlet. I suspect that is true of most people in the global warming debate, including Al Gore.
As you point out, there is more than one tenable position on global warming. Yet, despite divergent viewpoints, incomplete data, and sound arguments to the contrary, some global warming proponents – who probably possess no more knowledge than I – can be violently strident.
We’ve seen this sort of thing before, Shar. Collective fears are nothing new. Neither is mass panic, which I think characterizes most organized responses to global warming. A thought is only delusional if it is wrong, but panic is destructive regardless of the facts.
Global warming rhetoric is not characterized by measured tones. Al Gore has warned of a “string of terrible catastrophes.”Greenpeace proclaims that “the time to stop global warming is now,” as if the veracity of anthropogenic global warming is a forgone conclusion. Respectable, mainstream media outlets refer to skeptics as “global warming deniers,” imbuing them with a tinge of vileness previously reserved for deniers of the holocaust.
I’m not interested in arguing against global warming. Others have done that. (See for example this U.S. Senate Minority Staff Report.) Rather, I’m interested in the capricious and irrational behaviors carried out under the banner of saving the planet.
Consider last week’s “earth hour,” during which we were all supposed to dim the lights. At the risk of sounding derisive, what a splendid way to achieve the illusion of effectiveness while accomplishing nothing.
Not all reactions to global warming are so harmless. Some of the responses – based on little more than the possibility of a problem – are irrational, dangerous, and ill-founded.
Take my profession, for example. Some prominent people in the American Psychological Association would make it their business to get your mind right about global warming despite the range of educated opinions on the matter. As I discussed previously, they even appear to endorse censorship of opposing viewpoints.
The APA’s authoritarian stance is characteristic of governments and private groups willing to focus immense resources on a problem that may not exist. It’s all in the name of “doing something” about a perceived problem. Wild, arbitrary reactions are characteristic of a panic response and I believe we are in the midst of global warming mass panic.
We’ve seen it before, sometimes to amusing effect. Have you ever wondered what chipped windshields and global warming have in common? Read on.
The Seattle Windshield Mystery
In 1954, radio and newspaper reports in the Seattle area began covering a strange epidemic of automobile windshield damage. Two sociologists later studied the chilling phenomenon:
“Beginning March 23, 1954, Seattle newspapers carried intermittent reports of damage to automobile windshields in a city 80 miles to the north. Police suspected vandalism but were unable to gather proof. On the morning of April 14, newspapers reported windshield damage in a town about 65 miles from Seattle; that afternoon cars in a naval air station only 45 miles from the northern limits of the city were ‘peppered.’ On the same evening the first strike occurred… 242 persons telephoned the Seattle Police Department reporting damage to over 3,000 automobiles” (Medalia & Larson, 1958).
The damage was described as “pitting marks that grew into bubbles in the glass of about the size of a thumbnail.” Conjecture ran rampant. People speculated about falling meteoric dust, sand fleas hatching in the glass, a shift in the earth’s magnetic field, and fallout from an H-bomb test conducted earlier that year. The cause remained a mystery, and the Mayor of Seattle eventually made an emergency appeal to the Governor and to President Eisenhower for help.
As you might guess, there was no nuclear fallout, pole shift, or sand flea infestation. A study ordered by the Governor found no evidence of pitting that could not be explained by ordinary road damage; and the amount of pitting on any given car correlated directly with its age. As the authors suggested, rumor of the mysterious pitting may have simply caused people to examine their windshields for the first time, rather than looking through them.
The researchers also noticed that the mass delusion was fueled by radio and print media, who feverishly covered the “phenomenon.” Not surprisingly, the height of the hysteria coincided with the height of media coverage.
But perhaps as interesting as the delusion itself was the reaction it inspired, what the authors call “magical practices” which accompanied the epidemic:
“…calling the police, appealing to the Governor and President for help, covering windshields and cleaning them – all these activities served to give people the sense that the were ‘doing something’ about the danger that threatened.”
“Doing something” without a plan or a solid understanding of the situation is the equivalent of thrashing about in the hopes that a lucky jab or random gyration will make the problem go away – or at least let us feel as if we have accomplished something. It is the very essence of a panic response.
Of course, panic can look quite sophisticated when the people thrashing about have titles or advanced degrees. Let’s fast forward about 15 years to the overpopulation panic of the early 1970s. Despite themselves, the APA keeps demonstrating that they should stick to psychology and leave social engineering to the experts (whoever they might be).
APA and The Population Dud
Those of us who survived the 1970s will recall that we were all supposed to be dead by now.
In his 1968 book The Population Bomb, Paul Erlich predicted that the human population would increase exponentially, outpacing agricultural growth and causing a grim end to our comfy way of life. Using inappropriate and inaccurate modeling, he predicted that famine and industrial factors would kill most Americans before the turn of the century.
Obviously, Erlich was wrong. Nevertheless, mass panic ensued. Not glass-breaking panic in the streets, mind you, but high-minded flailing among erudite, would-be social engineers. The APA, one of my favorite ideological pincushions, is full of ‘em. They were among the first to unquestioningly jump on this bandwagon to nowhere.
During the late 1960s – coinciding with the delusion of the times – psychologists began producing a spate of studies on the effects of overcrowding (they had to study rats, since most humans have plenty of elbow room). Some of it was valuable research that remains applicable to ghettos, space travel, other crowded situations. But the APA, never to let a good collective delusion pass them by, went several steps further and decided to enter the population control business.
The January, 1972 edition of American Psychologist (the official journal of the APA) included a series of four articles promoting psychologists’ involvement in population control efforts. The articles unabashedly endorsed “the population problem” and the need for “zero population growth.” They suggested that psychologists could save the world through activism.
Other mental health experts had more radical solutions to overpopulation. One article touted the virtues of “therapeutic abortions” carried out, in part, to prevent overpopulation (Levene & Rigney, 1970). No matter which side of the debate you cotton to, promoting abortion to prevent an imaginary disaster is the height of recklessness.
Back at the APA, professional do-gooders had established a Task Force on Psychology, Family Planning, and Population Policy whose aim was to help the ignorant masses (that’s you and me) understand the desperate need for zero population growth. Their specific objectives involved things like creating psychological tests “useful for predicting responses to sterilization, abortion, unwanted pregnancy, or childlessness” (APA Task Force, 1972).
Their vision of the future must have resembled a bad Charlton Heston movie. Not much has changed. As I’ve written elsewhere, the APA’s response to the perceived threat of global warming is just as panicked and imperious. Only time will tell whether they’re right about this particular armageddon.
I’m not picking on the APA simply because we are philosophical opponents. (Even I can admit that they do some useful work.) The APA’s response to the overpopulation delusion and global warming fears, I think, are good examples of mass panic. Even though they may appear to be high-minded, the reactions tend to be unscientific and extreme. The APA is obviously not alone in their panic. They may be simply following the crowd, as panicked people are prone to do.
If we are witnessing panic, what purpose might it serve?
Firstly, there is the obvious opportunity to advance political agendas. As Rahm Emanual recently said, “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Even if they are imaginary, crises like overpopulation and global warming certainly provide capital for political opportunists.
But let’s set that topic aside for now. I believe that mass panic may serve a useful evolutionary purpose: to overcome complacent inertia and get groups moving in an emergency. Humans can be notoriously apathetic during crisis. When an emergency arises, we tend to look to others to help us determine our own response (see for example Darley & Latane, 1968). No one, it seems, wants to be the first to respond, or even the first to follow the first responder. Getting groups to move toward safety is a difficult task – just ask the Captain of the Titanic.
There has been a good deal of study regarding how and when the individual chooses to defer to the judgment of the crowd (see, for example, Leoni, 2008). Without getting bogged down in complex theories, they typically boil down to this: when enough people adopt an idea, that idea takes on the appearance of value. And when an individual is unsure in a risky situation, he’s likely to defer to majority judgment. “There are more of them than there are of me,” he might reason, “so they must know something I don’t.”
Following that line of reasoning, if everyone is running toward the cliff, then running off the cliff might be better than the alternative. And there you have it: mass panic. It punctuates our history. We have panicked over witches, UFOs, mass satanic abuse, and various doomsday predictions. The panic over global warming will not be our last.
As to whether or not the fear of global warming is delusional, we’ll have to wait and see. We can hardly call it a delusion if it turns out to be correct. My guess: this too shall pass.
APA Task Force on Psychology, Family Planning, and Population Policy (1972). Population and family planning: Growing involvement of psychologists.American Psychologist, 27(1). 27-30.
Buckhout, R. (1972). Toward a two-child norm: Changing family planning attitudes. American Psychologist, 27(1). 16-26.
Cato Institute (2008). With all due respect Mr. President, that is not true. Downloaded March 30, 2009 from:http://www.cato.org/special/climatechange/alternate_version.html.
Darley, J.M. & Latane, B. (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: Diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8(4). 377-383.
Leoni, Patrick (2008). Pack behavior. Journal of Mathematical Psychology, 52. 348-351.
Levene, H.I. & Rigney, F.J. (1970). Law, preventive psychiatry, and therapeutic abortion. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 151(1). 51-59.
McCarthy, Michael (September 11, 2008). Cleared: Jury decides that threat of global warming justifies breaking the law. The Independent. Downloaded March 26, 2009 from http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/cleared-jury-decides-that-threat-of-global-warming-justifies-breaking-the-law-925561.html.
Medalia, N. Z. & Larsen, O.N. (1958). Diffusion and belief in a collective delusion: The Seattle windshield pitting epidemic. American Sociological Review, 23. 180-186.
Newman, S.H. (1972). Support for psychologists in the population and family planning areas. American Psychologist, 27(1). 31-36
Russel, George (March 27, 2009). U.N. ‘climate change’ plan would likely shift trillions to form new world economy. Fox News. Downloaded March 30, 2009 from: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,510937,00.html.
Smith, M.B. (1972). Ethical implications of population policies: A psychologist’s view. American Psychologist, 27(1). 11-15..
U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (2008). U. S. Senate Minority Report. Downloaded March 26, 2009 fromhttp://epw.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Minority.Blogs&ContentRecord_id=2674E64F-802A-23AD-490B-BD9FAF4DCDB7.