“Is X making you sick? Find out after the break . . .” There’s a reason the news references an outrageously scary story before going to commercial break: fear grabs the attention like little else. This gives news directors an incentive to promote sensational stories over the more mundane. One consequence of this incentive is the rush to publicize spurious scientific claims, provided that their conclusions are sensationalist enough. One week, studies show that coffee causes cancer. The next week, it’s the cure. This problem is perhaps nowhere more damaging than in environmental science and policy. Sober analysis of a moderate problem that will be costly to fix doesn’t make headlines—or excite academic publishers. Predicting doom and gloom, however, is big business. The incentives reward the boy who cried wolf, rather than discrediting him. Last week, a study went viral (by scientific study standards) predicting a global extinction crisis brought on by human population growth. This sensational conclusion was widely reported with apocalyptic headlines, including India’s Statesman newspaper which highlighted the story with a “representational image” of a post-apocalyptic city. To its credit, The Atlantic questioned the study’s hyperbolic claims in its report and ran a separate article criticizing the alarmism of studies like this. In the second article, a reporter asked Doug Erwin, an expert on a global extinction event more than 200 million years ago, whether the earth faces anything like that now.
Erwin says no. He thinks it’s junk science. “Many of those making facile comparisons between the current situation and past mass extinctions don’t have a clue about the difference in the nature of the data, much less how truly awful the mass extinctions recorded in the marine fossil record actually were,” he wrote me in an email. “It is absolutely critical to recognize that I am NOT claiming that humans haven’t done great damage to marine and terrestrial [ecosystems], nor that many extinctions have not occurred and more will certainly occur in the near future. But I do think that as scientists we have a responsibility to be accurate about such comparisons.”It should surprise no one that Paul R. Ehrlich was one of the study’s authors. Ehrlich, a Stanford biology professor became a celebrity in the environmental activist community when he published his book “The Population Boom” in 1968. It proclaimed that “[i]n the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now” because the human population would exceed the earth’s capacity to feed us. 40 years later, his doomsday prediction seems laughable. Ehrlich completely failed to account for what Julian Simon called the ultimate resource, human ingenuity. Evolutionarily, we’re problem solvers. Time and again, we’ve invented our way out of predicted doomsdays...more