October 14, 2016 3:35PM

You Ought to Have a Look: Misleading Storylines and False Beliefs Lead to Poor Policy

You Ought to Have a Look is a regular feature from the Center for the Study of Science.  While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic.  Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary. 


We highlight this week a collection of items which have a common thread—poorly informed beliefs lead to poorly formulated policy. And poorly formulated policy is worse than no policy at all.

For starters, consider this article by Cato senior fellow Johan Norberg, in support of his new book, Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future. Writing in CapX, Norberg looks at the reasons “Why are we determined to deny that things are getting better?” He points to how the media, in combination with our own psychological tendencies, lead us to the false assumption that the state of the world is declining, when in fact, trends are overwhelmingly in the other direction. Norberg points out that there is a danger in our misperception, “People led by fear risk curtailing the freedom that progress depends on.”

Here are some expects from his article:

A couple of years ago, I commissioned a study in which 1,000 Swedes were asked eight questions about global development. On average, every age group and every income group was wrong on all eight questions – because they all thought the world was in bad shape and getting worse. Large majorities, for example, thought that hunger and extreme poverty have been increasing, when they have in fact been reduced faster than at any other point in world history. And those who had been through higher education actually had less knowledge than the rest.

It’s not just Sweden. In Britain, only 10 per cent of people thought that world poverty had decreased in the past 30 years. More than half thought it had increased. In the United States, only 5 per cent answered (correctly) that world poverty had been almost halved in the last 20 years: 66 per cent thought it had almost doubled.

Why do we make these false assumptions? Many of them are formed by the media, which reinforces a particular way of looking at the world – a tendency to focus on the dramatic and surprising, which is almost always bad news, like war, murder and natural disasters.

…[P]eople led by fear might curtail the freedom and the openness that progress depends on. When Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist, is asked what he is worried about, he usually responds “superstition and bureaucracy”, because superstition can obstruct the accumulation of knowledge, and bureaucracy can stop us from applying that knowledge in new technologies and businesses.

Johan’s full article, along with his new book, are well worth the taking the time to explore. A good place to start is this Cato book series event, where you can listen to Johan talk about his viewpoint and describe his findings.

Speaking of books, another provocative one hit the shelves recently. 25 Myths That Are Destroying the Environment: What Many Environmentalists Believe and Why They Are Wrong is latest in the collection of books by environmental biologist and lukewarmer compatriot Daniel Botkin. Dan has been in the center of the issue of global warming and its impacts on the environment since the beginning and often writes about his research and observations on the inherent robustness (rather than the oft-forwarded fragility) of nature. In 25 Myths, Botkin again includes that myth along with a large collection of others.  From the back cover:

25 Myths That Are Destroying the Environment explores the many myths circulating in both ecological and political discussions. These myths often drive policy and opinion, and Botkin is here to set the record straight. What may seem like an environmentally conscious action on one hand may very well be bringing about the unnatural destruction of habitats and ecosystems.

Topics include:

- Is life really that fragile?

- Is consensus science?

- Are recent weather patterns truly proof of long term weather change?

-Are wildfires really all that bad?

-Are predators absolutely necessary to control populations of other species?

In a world awash in misleading or false information about the environment, Daniel Botkin has written a straightforward and concise examination of the biggest myths hurting conservation efforts today.

If our society is to sustain the environment around us for future generations, solving environmental problems by understanding how nature works is not just helpful, it's necessary.

Sounds like good advice!

And while we’re on the topics of myths, we’ll finish up this week with a recommendation to check out Bjorn Lomborg’s piece in the Wall Street Journal, “About Those Non-Disappearing Pacific Islands.” Lomborg takes a closer look at what’s going on in the Marshall Islands and finds, despite popular (mis)perceptions of global warming-fueled rising oceans swallowing the islands and giving rise to climate change refugees, that sea level rise is the least of their worries—in fact, the islands aren’t succumbing to sea level rise at all, and instead are gaining area. The details are in Bjorn’s article along with his identification of real problems there—poverty and government corruption.  But this doesn’t play as well to the press as global warming does.  According to Lomborg:

Telling viewers in the U.S. starkly that they’re “making this island disappear,” as a report from CNN’s John Sutter did in June 2015, makes for good, blame-laden television. But this reductionist, fact-averse rhetoric contributes to the idea that climate-change discussion should be a two-sided, cartoonish fight between those who say it is not real and those who say it is the worst problem facing humanity.

And like Norberg and Botkin, Lomborg, too, sees big problems with these misleading storylines. He continues:

Even more insidiously, doom-mongering makes us panic and seize upon the wrong responses to global warming. At a cost of between $1 trillion and $2 trillion annually, the Paris climate agreement, recently ratified by China, is likely to be history’s most expensive treaty. It will slow the world’s economic growth to force a shift to inefficient green energy sources.

This will achieve almost nothing.