March 17, 2007
Scientific Gloom Driven By Desire For Status?

Benny Peiser (and Wikipedia), a social anthropologist at Liverpool John Moores University in England, writes on catastrophism and large scale threats both natural and man-made. On his CCNet list (which I read) he covers news and analysis on asteroids, global warming, volcanoes, and anything else that has the potential to cause massive damage to humanity. Benny recently interviewed physicist Freeman Dyson (and Wikipedia) on an assortment of topics including the gloomy pronouncements of many Western academics and why they are so pessimistic.

Benny Peiser: Britain's leading cosmologists seem to be particularly gloomy about the future of civilisation and humankind. The so-called Doomsday Argument seems to have had a significant influence on many Cambridge-based scientists. It has induced among them a conviction that global catastrophe is almost imminent. Martin Rees, for instance, estimates that there is a 50% chance of human extinction during the next 100 years. How do you explain this apocalyptic mood among leading cosmologists in Britain and the almost desperate tone of their pronouncements?

Freeman Dyson: My view of the prevalence of doom-and-gloom in Cambridge is that it is a result of the English class system. In England there were always two sharply opposed middle classes, the academic middle class and the commercial middle class. In the nineteenth century, the academic middle class won the battle for power and status. As a child of the academic middle class, I learned to look on the commercial middle class with loathing and contempt. Then came the triumph of Margaret Thatcher, which was also the revenge of the commercial middle class. The academics lost their power and prestige and the business people took over. The academics never forgave Thatcher and have been gloomy ever since.

Has rising status for commercial middle and upper classes made academics feel slighted and lower in status? Have some of them responded by generating more arguments about looming disasters as a way to boost their own importance and status in the eyes of government leaders and general public?

I find the argument plausible because the desire to raise one's status seems an obvious basic human instinct. The desire for higher status can be seen as a motivation for everything from the drive for wealth, political power, and fame. The desire for higher status may well be the biggest driver of large scale philanthropy by the famous and wealthy..

What I'd like to see: A survey of academic scientists at various levels of ranking (untenured, tenured, members of elite societies such as the US National Science Foundation, Nobelists) and see if the higher status scientists are more or less gloomy about global warming and other potential problems. Also, compare all the academic scientists to scientists who left academia and used their scientific ability to acquire large amounts of wealth. Are the wealthy ones less pessimistic about the future?

Could survey questions on how each scientist feels about his or her status identify those who have stronger and weaker desires for higher status? In other words, which bright scientists feel the least need for higher status and hence are more likely to provide rational analyses on potential threats?

Do scientists suffer from business envy?

Benny Peiser: Your sociological reading raises the question whether the current fashion of issuing doomsday predictions could be interpreted as the revenge by leading academics against the business community? After all, their very activities, success and societal role are blamed for impending catastrophe. Could it be that the scientific prophets of doom are trying to regain some of their lost influence by portraying themselves as saviours who, at the same time, provide governments with strong incentives for increased state power and intervention?

Freeman Dyson: I agree with your diagnosis of the academic disease. The academics are suffering from business envy, in the USA as well as in Britain. And of course there are companies like Halliburton that it is reasonable to hate, enjoying political power in the Bush government and profiteering from the war that they encouraged Bush to start. Opposition to the war is mixed up with opposition to the business community. But I agree with you that there is a longer-lasting envy of the business community that has nothing to do with the war. The academics preaching doom and gloom are indeed hoping to take their revenge on the business community by capturing the government.

The problem with excessive doom mongering is that it ends up eliciting a popular reaction of "The boy is crying wolf yet again. So we should ignore him." and then the real wolf might show up. This is understandable but unfortunate.

Scientists and engineers have knowledge that equip them in a variety of ways to hazard predictions about the future. Yet, being humans, they have assorted desires and needs that can bias their predictions away from the most likely future courses of events. Can we develop techniques that will let us more easily detect causes of biases in expert predictions?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 March 17 11:02 PM  Dangers Tech General

rsilvetz said at March 18, 2007 12:47 AM:

What I find fascinating is that anyone listens to these nutjobs. From global warming to extinction-level events, these folks are all out to lunch. As a member of the business community they so malign, let me add -- serves you right! But for folks like me you wouldn't have the tax base for your almost useless academic positions. (There, how's that bias for you!)

In all seriousness: Yes -- there is a technique -- it's called burden of proof. The burden of proof is on the person making an assertion. If some Cambridge nutjob decides that the human race has a 50% chance of extinction let him bring forth the evidence. Otherwise, reputable papers should start the headline as: "Cambridge Cosmologist finds Vast Void between his Ears -- Thinks Human Race has 50% Chance of Extinction" and should properly proceed to tear him to shreds.

We do that to a couple of these folks and nobody will dare put up their head to say such nonsense.

Similarly, why Gore wasn't laughed out of the theatres or properly given an Oscar for science fiction is anybody's guess. Then again, I do expect my fellow man to think...

cancer_man said at March 18, 2007 4:50 AM:

The funny thing is that Bill Joy will say in horror "Humanity has only 50 percent chance of making through this century!" while Kurzweil is far more cheery: "But the good news is that we probably have better than even odds we will pull through this century."

wcw said at March 18, 2007 8:54 AM:

I find Dyson's argument unpersuasive. Millenarianism has a long history. That its appeal is not rooted in either the British class system or in the envy of wealth would seem facially obvious.

Randall Parker said at March 18, 2007 10:17 AM:

Robert Silvetz,

But how can the scientists prove global warming even if it is really happening?

Unless you know how to travel between parallel universes and have time machines to travel into the future in each universe it is hard to tell whether a given intervention will cause a specific effect 50 years hence.


Certainly disasters have broad appeal and relieve boredom. Look at all the disaster movies. There's a continuing desire to hear stories about severe changes in fortune and divine judgment. But haven't we seen more and less of this in different eras? Haven't intellectuals been more optimistic in some eras than other eras?

Cancer man,

It is the old "half full or half empty" argument. Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

I tend to be an optimist: Even if global warming is happening we can stop and reverse it with technology. Technologies of the mid 21st century will make solutions to many problems trivially easy. I'm sure the nanobots who rule the Earth then will easily fix the climate to suit their purposes. ;>

rsilvetz said at March 18, 2007 3:07 PM:


You just threw all of science out with one sentence! By that standard I can't prove the sun will rise tomorrow. Of course it will, and Bayesian inference puts the probability of it an infinitesimal shade below 100%.

There is such a thing as induction and it is reliable. If you look back at the last half-million years, with the data we have on hand, it is starkly clear that orbital parameters and solar output, are the two driving variables for Ice Ages on Earth. That's the real, ignored evidence. Period. End of Story. The rest is co-opted bs about CO2 from when we were trying to explain why Venus is so warm.

If the political jackasses weren't going off half-cocked with treaties to compel global governance, no-one would be losing any sleep over this. For crying out loud -- Greenland -- which is covered in ice right now, was green 600 years ago. We used to make wine in England during the Roman Empire. We are nowhere near as warm now. This IS evidence. Not what somebody's crazy ass simulation suggests. In a repeating system, which the Earth is, what went before is infinitely better evidence, Bayesian inference evidence, than anyone's computer model. Based on history alone, we have much more to fear from cool-down than any amount of global warming.

It is absurd "to do something" or "predict what an intervention will do 50 years hence" when you don't even know there is a problem let alone what the cause is. Imagine a doctor saying "You don't have a fever, but I'm not sure you won't get sick, I don't even know what the pathogen is, but I'm going to put you on antifungal medicine just in case." You would toss his ass out on the street and sue him for malpractice. But the same standard of common sense doesn't seem to apply to global warming or any other extinction-level event scenario. In incredible irony, the one threat which we do have inductive evidence for is asteroid impacts, but we worry about global warming. Go figure.

And lastly, as an example, if I say "The U.S. dollar is doomed so long as it is a fiat currency." and then point to the several hundred issuances of fiat currency that have died, including the uber-example of the Hungarian Pengo, I have made a prediction based on an inductive generalization -- and provided evidence.

If Chicken "Greenhouse Gore" Little goes screaming that "the last 10 of 15 years on record are the hottest ever and we have to do something about it", never mind the fact we aren't as warm as either the Romans or the Medieval folk were, never mind we are talking climate that operates on near-geologic time, never mind planetary and solar science that established this 30 years ago, never mind the U.N. purposely mislaid data to support their conclusions (data that would wipe out the "hockey-stick" rise in temp), never mind random simulation shows their models to be useless, -- I am supposed to (by their standards) cut Gore some slack, worry that we are going to cinder up (something that hasn't happened in 1 billion years of geologic record incidentally), and wring my hands, and hope .gov does something? WHY? This whole global warming debate was over, scientifically, the moment the UN threw out inconvenient data and the moment their standard bearer's simulations gave the same results with random noise (how's that for a stacked deck!).

In simplest terms, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence -- and properly so.

David Smith said at March 18, 2007 3:12 PM:

There seem to be a number of highly qualified retired (emeritus) academics who are comfortable discussing the science about climate change without following the herd into rash policy recommendations or apocalyptic predictions. Might that be because, having established their reputations and no longer driven by the need to constantly win new funding, they are less susceptible to political pressure by their peers -specifically their peers who have chosen to pursue political power by taking leading positions in guilds like the Royal Societies, AAAS, NSF, etc.?

bee said at March 18, 2007 3:14 PM:

Great Post!

The challenge facing academia is that knowledge no longer resides in the halls of those great institutions they inhabit (Many fail to realize that they never did hold an exclusive title to knowledge). It (knowledge) now has the ability to move to who ever is willing to learn and publish. Profs who believe that they hold a special place because they helped educate many of those out in the world fail to grasp that all they did was assist in the learning process. Many of us continue to learn and reason without our profs assistance. We now possess the skills independent of their titles. The gloom and doom spewed by these old men and women is nothing but the despair of those who feel jilted.

Garson O'Toole (formerly Poole) said at March 18, 2007 9:16 PM:

Bill Joy is one of the most well known and interesting modern pessimists. He wrote the influential quasi-apocalyptic article “Why the future doesn't need us” that appeared in Wired magazine in 2000. The subtitle provides an accurate summary :

Our most powerful 21st-century technologies - robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech - are threatening to make humans an endangered species.
If we strictly adhere to the Dysonian thesis we would conclude that Bill Joy is an embittered academic enacting “revenge on the business community”. Of course this conclusion is humorously absurd because Bill Joy left academia with an M. S. degree (and not a doctorate) to co-found a commercial enterprise called Sun Microsystems. This business has been remarkably successful and it made Joy into a multi-millionaire. Currently he is running a venture capital fund called HighBar Ventures. Is this anti-business behavior?

Consider another doomsday scenario in which the Earth is struck by a large asteroid causing planet-wide devastation. The article “NASA faces funding crunch in hunt for killer asteroids” describes scientists who are requesting more money to track nearby asteroids that could hit and damage Earth. NASA has been attempting to obtain full funding for the Spaceguard Survey for many years. Arthur C. Clarke coined the name “Spaceguard” in his novel “Rendezvous with Rama” back in 1972. Admittedly some of the scientists involved probably think that identifying and deflecting deadly asteroids is a noble task worthy of high status. Yet the rigid interpretation of the Dysonian thesis is strained when we ask: Is this really a nefarious a plot to exact “revenge on the business community”?

Perhaps one should distinguish between the scientists proposing different apocalyptic scenarios when attempting to perform psychoanalytically analysis of the “true” underlying motivations. Perhaps for entertainment purposes one should also offer half-baked psychological evaluations for those who are skeptical of apocalyptic scenarios.

Ken said at March 19, 2007 3:55 AM:

The work of thousands of scientists reduced to a grab for attention? I think not. Their work is constantly scrutinised and only if the criticisms are accepted without scrutiny is the science in real doubt. If alternate explanations haven't gained currency it's because they don't stand up to the scrutiny - it's not for a lack of support from powerful, wealthy and self-interested people and organisations as those are plentiful. Perfect and absolute knowledge? No, but it's essentially sound and given the complexity of climate, past,present and future, the current state of Climate Science is a remarkable achievement. I'll go on taking my climate science from scientists working at the world's most prestigious research institutions.

dave tweed said at March 19, 2007 5:34 AM:

I'm having a philosophical problem with rsilvetz methodology (though not necessarily his conclusions): applying inductive methodology one has to be aware that if the underlying system is changing you can't use a huge backlog of observations on the new system. For instance, there's thousands of years of records of cattle not being subject to neurological disorder, but that doesn't mean that BSE is a piece of hype that doesn't exist. I'm sure there are lots of examples (volcanic erruptions, superconductivity, etc, where some circumstance changes the behaviour of the system). What you need is some well-foundationed argument why a 40% increase in atmospheric CO2 can't have a big enough magnitude to change the behaviour of the system, not just decreeing scientists work to be "crazy-ass simulation". Likewise, you can argue anything by picking a loose analogy: "You're seem much more quiet and unmotivated than you were; I think it would be a good idea to cut down on the amount of ecstasy tablets you're taking at the weekends." But this kind of "so-loose-its-useless" analogy doesn't actually add anything to the understanding of the situation.

Finally, I think you're using "Bayesian" without it actually being germane to the point under discussion; if anything it undermines your position as you seem to be putting such a strong prior on "there is no anthropogenic component to climate change" that you can downweight any amount of non-conforming experimental data. So, if there is a precise sense in which you're using Bayesian that's relevant, please clarify.

To clarify my own position: I'd love to have a convincing argument that anthropogenic climate change isn't happening (which I believe it may indeed not be), but I'm only going to be convinced by credible scientific evidence and analysis. I'm a research engineer and I know many scientists and whilst they tend to be socially leftist, their primary motivation is to be successful by actually _correct_ about things; acheiving status with something they know is flawed doesn't appeal. So it needs more than just back-of-the-envelope-philosophy to counter their research; I hope someone decrying it all as a conspiracy is actually doing that.

Randall Parker said at March 19, 2007 8:19 PM:


Just because ideas have stood up to scrutiny does not make them correct.

We have a problem: There's no way to verify the correctness of the global climate models. We know the models can't predict well over shorter periods of time. Look at weather forecasts. But errors in them.

Maybe the world is on a sustained warming trend. Maybe most of the warming is caused by burning fossil fuels. But I do not see that as proven.

My position is that there's a decent chance that the global warming is real and due to CO2 and other human-caused emissions. So we should not dismiss the possibility outright. The prudent course seems to me to do something about our fossil fuels usage. But I get worried when people pronounce on it as an enormous certainty. The climate is too complex a system with too many factors influencing it to warrant such confidence.

Some of the warming could be due to the continued warming since the last ice age. Curiously, if that is the case it brings up an important question: Should we do more to stop warming if it is human-caused than if it is naturally caused?

Another possibility is that the warming is due to the sun. That is consistent with research published recently showing that other planets in the solar system are also warming.

Ken said at March 19, 2007 11:06 PM:

Randall, I think it's the best we have , with the preponderance of emerging scientific papers on Climate Science supporting the AGW hypothesis. I don't see the Science as absolute and unassailable, however there aren't any serious contenders for alternative explanations of the growing body of data. The Science community has looked at and answered the criticisms levelled at their work yet the same arguments keep getting thrown about as if their merit was absolute and unassailable. It's not like variations in solar output for example are not considered - the best estimates are included in attempts to explain past climate as well as predict future climate.
Sorry but I just don't see the doubts as that strong, or think the best scientific institutions of the world are taken in by hype and BS. AGW may not be "absolutely" but it's "very likely" true.

Michael Anissimov said at March 21, 2007 8:55 PM:

You don't need to be a pessimist to be concerned about existential risk nowadays. You just need a clue.

Randall Parker said at March 21, 2007 9:48 PM:


What do you rank as your top existential risks?


- Nanobots.
- Robots.
- A huge volcanic eruption. I'm thinking Deccan flats or Toba.
- A gamma ray burst from a star.
- A genetically engineered pathogen.

I figure a terrorist nuke wouldn't even kill 1% of the human race.

Bob Badour said at March 24, 2007 6:08 AM:

What I saw of Gore's presentation was pure sophistry.

Some folks built houses right on the fucking beach in the Aleuts and, lo and behold, a storm washed them away. John Stossel tried the same thing in Long Island -- twice -- and finally concluded building houses on beaches is just a dumb thing to do. Even though the John Stossel example was very close to NYC, we didn't predict the flooding of Manhattan when his beach house was storm damaged.

Environmentalists found drowned polar bears recently. I live in Canada. I have found all sorts of dead things floating in the water. Cows, deer, birds, lots of fish. I have stumbled across a bear skeleton in the woods. And I don't even venture all that far from civilization. Gore claims the polar bear drowned because ice flows receded to 60 miles from shore. But there is no shortage of polar bears on the mainland and never has been. If receding ice flows cause the deaths, natural selection will deal with the so-called problem.

But I have other concerns about the polar bear thing. Athletic humans frequently swim longer distances than 20 miles and some swim longer distances than 100 miles. Yet, Gore asks us to believe that an animal adapted to water drowns because the ice flows receded 60 miles from shore. Unlike a human marathon swimmer, a polar bear can bob around effortlessly in the water and has its normal food supply readily available. A polar bear is like a marathon swimmer on massive steroids wearing a wet suit and flippers who has pre-arranged meals along the way.

Gore is a professional liar and a sophist. I wish humans weren't so fucking stupid, which brings me to my top existential risk.

Smith said at August 8, 2007 2:57 PM:

Do you people fly in airplanes, use cell phones? Hell, I know you use the Internet because I just read most of the backslapping bullshit here.
What discipline do you think allows you to do all that?
I cant hear you. Say it again.
Yes that's right. Science.
That discipline has been measuring the gases in the atmosphere and monitored killer heatwaves in Europe and watched islands drowning in the Pacific and sadly watched the ice of Greenland and the snows of Kilimanjaro melt. And then it had the same A-ha moment that made chunks of metal fly and electrons move so you can talk to your stockbroker.
I ended up on this site following a link for the Deccan Flats in India but I couldn't pass up commenting.
Republican businessmen, stick to stealing. Don't comment on what you don't know about.

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