Prophets of doom on dodgy ground

Last updated at 17:34 18 March 2005

The catastrophists are having a good run, warning us of ultimate volcanic eruptions and tsunamis, apart from the usual run-of-the-mill environmental disasters. They may be right, we may all be doomed.

But there is so much dodgy science around that it is hard to tell who to take seriously. This problem is manifest in The March Of Unreason by Dick Taverne, once a very bright Treasury Minister under Harold Wilson, now a Lib-Dem peer.

He was converted to enthusiasm for Greenpeace and Friends Of The Earth in the 1970s - and is still a 'pragmatic environmentalist' - but he now regards these movements as enemies of science, which has brought such benefits to mankind.

However, he also has the zeal of the convert (or re-convert), now extolling DDT, nuclear power and GM crops. Few of us find it that easy to know who to trust.

Sometimes it can be easy. Taverne reminds us of the bogus scientific forecasts from the Club Of Rome which arose in the 1960s, predicting doom and disaster: soaring populations were liable to run out of food; oil and other resources would be exhausted within a few decades.

It always puzzled me that the media lapped up nonsense which could be detected by any reasonably informed layman. Petroleum surveys in the 1960s may have shown that 'only' 25-30 years of oil supplies remained, but so did forecasts a century ago.

The key was in the survey's footnotes, which explained that known resources meant identified reserves which could be extracted profitably

at existing levels of technology and at existing oil prices. If the technology of extraction improved (as it always does) or if the price rose making it worthwhile to explore further, the picture would be quite different.

As to other raw materials, the point these 'experts' missed was that if some 25-30 years of supplies have been identified at any one time, it makes little economic sense to rush out and scour the globe for more.

As for food shortages, the missed factor was that improved seeds - without going as far as GM crops - could massively boost yields. What we have come to suffer is not shortages but food surpluses from subsidised production on a scale which disrupts world trade.

The problem about dodgy science is the psychological motivation of its 'experts' and its potential audience. With their gleaming eyes, these people weave away at hair shirts for a public which craves accusation. 'Oh, what have we done to this planet?' they moan.

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