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Doomsday Postponed

Years of apocalyptic prophecies have scared Americans into the belief their world faces imminent meltdown. But don't sell the farm yet: The bad news is not true.

By Timothy W. Maier

The world will end this year. True, the tabloids predicted that last year, but maybe they were right and we all are in hell. Maybe. And maybe the doom sayers are crazy.

Doomsaying certainly is popular enough. Public-opinion surveys show Americans believe the environment is dirtier, natural resources are scarcer and the population is exploding. No wonder taxpayers seem willing to reach deeply into their pockets to fund every new "Save the World" crusade that comes along.

[blank graphic] [blank graphic] [Earth Day protesters vs. the chemical industry] Earth Day protesters vs. the chemical industry: No tolerance for the industrial age.

Of course the doomsayers were wrong as recently as October, when the Cassini space probe safely blasted off for Saturn with its 72 pounds of plutonium. In case you missed it, the launch didn't kill everyone on the planet, as some environmentalists predicted. They were as wrong as when they projected during the seventies that the population would explode and produce global famine. That same decade they warned that soon there would not be a single tree left standing in the United States and Europe, a prediction belied by increases in forested area.

Even pesticides turned out not to be the world-ending danger portrayed in Rachel Carson's 1962 book Silent Spring. And today, operating on similar doomsday propaganda, the world's leaders have just met in Kyoto, Japan, to save the world from global warming --yet another scare about which there is no scientific consensus, just as there was no consensus on the global-cooling scare of several years ago.

The good news is that most of the bad news is wrong, with predictions of world-ending disaster proving to be premature -- by a billion or so years. But for some, assured that the sky was falling, panic set in about DDT. alar, cellular phones, irradiated foods, nuclear power, high-voltage lines, radon, asbestos, deforestation and much more. Why are we so vulnerable to what might be called the superstition of the movement experts?

Blame the propagation of unfounded fears on disinformation campaigns brought and paid for by special-interest groups; accepted by politicians anxious to expand the power and authority of government, and perpetuated by editors looking for a doomsday headline. Or perhaps the New England Journal of Medicine is correct. It suggests that much of this unsubstantiated fear can be traced to "chemophobia," which is the unreasonable fear of chemicals.

Ronald Bailey, author of Eco-Scam, says the media deserve part of the blame because "If there is no problem, there is no news. Why do people focus on bad news) Because bad news is the stuff that can kill you right now and good news you can think about tomorrow." But nationally syndicated columnist Alston Chase says too much blame is placed on the media: "Rather than blame journalists, editors and television producers for persistent refusal to confront reality, perhaps we should consider that these folk would not be hyping doomsday if it didn't sell."

Many experts trace the birth of doomsdayism among political liberals to Stanford economics professor Paul Ehrlich's world view touted in his bestselling 1968 book, The Population Bomb. The premise expanded on theories proposed in 1798 by the Rev Thomas Malthus who, without allowing for the industrial revolution and its effects on agriculture, warned that according to his calculations the human race was about to reproduce faster than the food supply In his 1990 follow-up book, The Population Explosion, Ehrlich was still at it, declaring: "Any more stuff in the world should not go to the likes of us. The world can't afford more Americans. Rich nations will now have to pay for their greed."

His solutions? Make government bigger, expand regulation, increase foreign aid, encourage abortion, restrict family choice, double the price of gasoline, etc If these measures were not taken, Ehrlich predicted famines, wars, an end to growth in poor countries and ever greater human misery. As he said so many times as a frequent guest of Johnny Carson: "The cancer of population growth must be cut out or we will breed ourselves into oblivion."

Twenty years after Ehrlich's dire forecasts, there has been no universal famine, poor countries such as India are flourishing and peace among nations is greater than ever. In fact, without federal policing of the bedroom, recent evidence suggests that fertility rates are dropping. So what does the population guru have to say now?

Here's Ehrlich: "Unless we have a big increase in the death rate, all of the projections, even the most optimistic, show us adding another two-and-a-half billion people," he tells Insight. "It is slowing, but we are already in a situation of near disaster. And the concern within the entire scientific community is, of course, that unless we do a Lot of things right, and start pretty quick, we're going to be in deep trouble."

Not true, says Ben J. Wattenberg, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, moderator of the PBS program Think Tank and author of The Birth Dearth. He says generations of schoolchildren have been taught the wrong lessons about population, and even the State Department has been duped. And Ehrlich? "He has never been right," Wattenberg says. What is most frightening about Ehrlich is the support he receives.

Wattenberg observes that Ehrlich's 1990 book was promoted by Al Gore, who wrote for the book-jacket blurb: "The time for action is due, and past due. The Ehrlichs have written the prescription...." That may prove to be a poor choice of words for the presidentially ambitious Gore, considering one of the prescriptions Ehrlich advocates is dumping chemicals in the water supply to control population, Wattenberg says.

"Look, the country with the most rapid population growth and the most economic growth is the United States -- and it became an economic superpower. Generally if a place is growing it is getting wealthier," Wattenberg says. The major problem with Ehrlich's theory is that he doesn't take into account that fertility rates are declining dramatically, Wattenberg adds.

From 1950 to 1955, the average number of children born per woman per lifetime was five. By 1975 to 1980, fertility had fallen to four children per woman and, by the 1990s, the rate fell to about three and now sits at 2.8, and sinking. Wattenberg attributes the decline to more education for women, legal abortion, higher incomes, greater acceptance of homosexuality, improved contraception and later marriages.

[blank graphic] [blank graphic] [blank graphic] According to professor Ehrlich, the world can't afford more Americans. Rich nations will now have to pay for their greed. [Paul Ehrlich] Ehrlich: The population bomber said that unless he was obeyed the world would starve amid war and pollution.

What about the prediction of food-supply shrinkage? "Listen, I don't think there was a food-shortage problem even under the old projection," Wattenberg says. "For the new projections It is a piece of cake. There won't be a food shortage. The famine cases we had were political famines."

Decreasing birth rates reduce the threat of global warming, he adds, because scientists projected a population of 11.5 billion when determining the threat of global warming. Wattenberg calculates that the population actually will decline by the middle of the next century.

The threat may be balderdash but that is not comforting to Ehrlich and environmentalists such as recent Zero Population Growth award winners Ted Turner and Jane Fonda, who advocate limiting parents to just one child and never miss an opportunity to ring the tocsin against global warning. But no doubt Ted and Jane can be forgiven for being taken in by the scientism of some of the credentialed naysayers. Their predictions, after all, are horrific.

For instance, Ehrlich says of the alleged population bomb, "There's maybe a 10 percent chance we'll get away with it and maybe a 10 percent chance that it will essentially destroy civilization. And the issue for the public is, what kind of insurance do you want to take out against maybe a 10 percent chance of your grandchildren not having a prayer?"

Compare the tone of that "10 percent chance" with the declaration of Warren Leon of the Washington-based Union of concerned Scientists, a left-wing interest group, who says, "The chances of global warming happening are quite high. And because of this serious threat, and the high chances of it happening, we should take action to do something about it."

Alan Caruba, founder of the Maplewood, NJ-based National Anxiety Center, criticizes such groups for distorting scientific fact and creating mass hysteria. Caruba publishes a guide to bogus environmental claims with this advice: "The Earth is Fine. Save Yourself." Each year he presents "Chicken Little Awards" to honor individuals and groups who have scared the living daylights out of millions of Americans. including the Sierra Club, the Environmental Protection Agency, Worldwatch Institute and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

"Many of the most commonly accepted threats to Earth and humanity have very little basis in scientific fact," Caruba tells Insight. "The result is that buzzwords like acid rain, global warming and ozone loss have a credibility that lacks scientific accuracy. cost of legislation based on inaccurate or nonexistent scientific merit is incalculable."

That doesn't matter to polemical doomsayers who are convinced the world is headed for a major crash. And for years they have been able to grab the ear of the highest office m the land. Consider this authoritative assessment prepared by some of the world's most celebrated (and politicized) scientists almost two decades ago. Their 1980 Global 2000 Report to President Carter states:

"If present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in now. Serious stresses involving population, resources and environment are clearly visible ahead Despite greater material output, the world's people will be poorer in many ways than they are today."

Could we find someone who would wager that this doomsday prediction is right on the money? There would be no takers, says University of Maryland professor Julian L. Simon, who studies population and economic issues and is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute Why not? Because those predictions are bunk, says Simon, who recently finished editing the book, The State of Humanity, in which scholars challenge many of the doomsayers' scare scenarios. Simon says those who claim the world was far better off a century ago are mistaken, and he is so sure of it he is willing to bet $100,000 that the doomsayers' predictions are off target.

"You pick any place in the world and any date in the future and I'll bet you the world shows improvement rather than deterioration," Simon tells Insight. "The doomsayers won't put their money on the table. They find every excuse not to bet me." Nearly a decade ago, Ehrlich did take him up on a $1,000 wager involving the prices of world raw materials. Simon won.

Ehrlich still is fuming. He calls Simon "the professor of mail-order marketing," and adds, "You can always search the world, as for instance the Western Fools Association has, and find someone willing to say 'We're going to stave off the next lee age,' or as Simon once said, 'The population can grow for 7 billion more years.' That's more time than the Earth has been in existence. You can always find somebody to say something like that."

Lester R. Brown, director of the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, is another who professes not to take Simon's bet seriously. Brown consistently predicts impending ecological doom and has forecast multiplied doomsday scenarios based on social and political problems for which he offers legislative solutions. He also has predicted that government policies of which he disapproves will lead to widespread hunger and insists the Earth is deteriorating on almost every front. Brown's doomsday scenarios are quickly passed on by gullible media.

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'You pick any place in the world and any date in the future and I'll bet you the world shows improvement rather than deterioration.'
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Finally, however, this sort of thing is starting to become an embarrassment to reputable scientists, who more and more have found their voice. Elizabeth M. Whelan, president of the American Council on Science and Health, or ACSH, has published a Facts Versus Fiction report which identifies the "20 Greatest Unfounded Health Scares of Recent Times." Consider:

  • In 1959 the "Cranberry Scare" prompted the secretary of health, education and welfare to announce just before Thanksgiving that cranberries from Oregon contained contaminated aminotriazole -- a weed killer -- which when fed to rats produced thyroid cancer. Some cities quickly banned cranberries. The risk from aminotriazole turned out to be infinitesimal at best. Meanwhile, the scare had forced an amendment to the federal food, drug and cosmetic act propounding the false supposition that any substance which causes cancer in rodents at extraordinarily high doses also will cause cancer in humans at moderate doses.

  • In 1962 the "DDT Scare" often credited for launching the environmentalist movement, resulted in banning that pesticide because it was discovered mice who were fed the chemical developed higher incidences of leukemia and liver tumors and that it caused eggshell thinning in birds. Several states banned the chemical. and in 1970 the US. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, announced a plan to phase out DDT The facts, however, showed that DDT had been used for quarter-century with no increase in liver cancer in any of the populations among whom it had been sprayed It also had been credited for saving 500 million human Ines worldwide by reducing malaria in such countries as Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) from 2.8 million in 1948 to 17 in 1963. After spraying ceased, in 1964, malaria rose to 2.5 million cases in 1969. In 1978, a new study by the National Cancer Institute showed that DDT is not a carcinogen.

  • In 1969 the "Cyclamates Scare" centered on allegations that the sweetener contained a by-product that caused chromosome damage in male rats. The sweetener was removed from the market. Further studies showed cyclamates are not carcinogenic. It still is banned in the United States but not in Canada or Europe.

  • In 1977 the "Saccharin Scare" resulted from claims that the sweetener that replaced cyclamates caused bladder cancer in mice. Many diabetics responded by buying up the product, expecting congress to ban it. Under public pressure Congress imposed a moratorium that required products containing saccharin to carry a warning label, which expired last year. Further studies showed the tumors found in the rats probably were related to two proteins in the urine of male rats which are not present in humans.

  • In 1989 the "Alar Scare" concerned a growth regulator for ripening apples. It was fueled by a CBS 60 Minutes episode that claimed the chemical caused childhood cancer, citing a Natural Resources Defense Council report as proof A hysterical reaction erupted as schools and parents dumped millions of apples. Under pressure from a spooked marketplace, alar no longer was used on edible products. The result, Apple growers lost about $250 million and apple processors lost another $125 million. The USDA purchased $15 million of leftover apples. Eventually scientists found the polemical report was wrong. Great Britain declined to ban alar noting that, unlike the EPA, England doesn't always assume that animal data are transferable to humans. A UN. panel of scientists from the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization now has concluded Alar does not cause tumors in humans.

  • In 1993 a New York City "Asbestos Scare" began when an independent contractor faded to perform asbestos inspections in city schools. Most did no open for two weeks and a few had to wait longer because of fear that the asbestos would cause lung disease. The EPA had banned asbestos in 1973 and subsequently issued a plan of action which consisted in some cases of removing the insulation even though children had a greater chance of being struck by lightning than contracting cancer from asbestos in their schools In fact, an EPA report showed that postremoval levels of asbestos often were significantly higher than preremoval levels and removal actually could increase health risks.
  • To this day, the alar debate often is the yardstick journalists use when checking with scientists to find if this "is another alar." The problem, ACSH president Whelan say, is that journalists still don't get it. "The alar backlash was false," she insists. "The alar scare was so extreme and so emotionally charged because it involved children. This was not a health problem but became a psychiatric event. I think the problem is that the media define news as bad news that scares people," she adds. "Journalists need to be skeptical and ask, 'What do you mean by carcinogenic in animals or in man? Or what new risks do you assume when you ban the chemical?'"

    Nonetheless, 60 Minutes has never backed down from its alar story, even though executive producer Don Hewitt said during an interview concerning the controversial ABC News/Food Lion case last year that if 60 Minutes erred it would acknowledge it.

    "I asked Hewitt if I could get the National Cancer Institute to say that alar did not [cause tumors], would he issue a retraction," says Whelan. "He replied that he would, and when I got the NCI to say that, Hewitt said it wouldn't be up to him but Ed Bradley. So I asked Ed Bradley, and he slammed the door on me."

    60 Minutes spokesman Kevin Tedesco tells Insight, "We are not going to get in a debate with them. We believe we conducted responsible journalism and the courts agree with us. (The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a defamation lawsuit in October 1995 filed by Washington state apple growers.) In a subsequent interview, Tedesco declined to provide Insight with tapes of the alar show, saying, "It's an old story and Insight is a small publication, I don't have the time nor inclination to help you."

    Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the watchdog Media Research Center in Alexandria, Va, says the mainstream press, including the network-news shows, fall into the trap of fear mongering. "The media say this story is so important that balance is not required," Graham says.

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    'The alar problem was not a health problem but a psychiatric event.... The media define news as bad news that scares people.'

    That certainly appeared to be the case in the 1980s when the mainstream press bought the Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, message that everyone was equally at risk for catching the deadly AIDS virus. The CDC campaign kicked off in 1987 with an advertising blitz that presented a Methodist minister's son and others stating, "If I can get AIDS, anyone can." The ad failed to mention that the minister's son is gay, nor did it disclose evidence known by the federal agency that certain identifiable groups homosexual men, intravenous drug users and their sexual partners are at much greater risk than others In 1996, the Wall Sheet Journal published a story reporting the CDC had bombarded the public with a terrifying message to gain financial support from the Reagan administration that may not have been forthcoming if the truth had been told.

    The risk of AIDS among most heterosexuals is relatively low and statistics from the CDC show that the federal campaign may have inflated numbers by more than 50 percent, according to Forbes Media Critic magazine. In 1995 there were 4,694, which is about one-tenth the number killed in car accidents, according to the CDC.

    In 1990, Michael Fumento wrote The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS: How a Tragedy Has Been Distorted by the Media and Partisan Politics. Critics blasted him as "irresponsible, mean-spirited, homophobic and sexist," but it turns out he was right. In 1991 Albany Times Union columnist Dan Lynch put it in perspective: "Ultimately a newspaper person has to be concerned with truth -- not with political implications of that truth, not with who the truth will make unhappy and not with the uses to which that the truth may be put by bigot and small-minded hypocrites."

    The same type of reporting occurred during the "crack-baby epidemic" in the 1980s, which conservatives used to help fight the war on drugs. In 1985 CBS quoted a social worker as claiming a crack baby might grow up with an IQ of 50 and barely be able to dress or live independently. By the 1990s we were supposed to have all these crack babies who were mentally disabled, but it hasn't happened.

    Studies highlighted in Jimmie L. Reeves' and Richard Campbell's book Crack show that there were no developmental differences between so-called crack babies at two years of age than those of other children. A commentary in the Journal of the American Medical Association blasted the media and politicians for labeling children as crack babies to promote social and political issues. "Why is there today such an urgency to label prenatally cocaine-exposed children as irremediably damaged?" the Journal asks. "Even more damaging is the difficulty finding adequate homes for such children since potential foster or adoptive parents are often concerned about assuming the care of cocaine-exposed children because of their perceived impairments."

    Whelan say scientists and doctors should continue to speak out against the polemicists. As for the public, she offers this advice in her Facts Versus Fear report: "The next time such an alarm flashes across your TV screen, you might just want to mutter, 'Been there; done that'--and switch the channel."

    One longs for Cassandra's curse that whatever she predicted was doomed not to be believed

    Sean Paige contributed to this article.

    used by permission from Insight on the News (January 5, 1998, cover story, pages 8-11)

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