Matt Ridley had an interesting piece on his blog last month entitled “Bad News Is Sudden, Good News Is Gradual“. It’s about the timing of news, as stated, and it’s about our bias toward bad news more generally. There is no question that bad news tends to be more dramatic than good news. But with steadily increasingly lifespans, growing prosperity, and world poverty at an all-time low, surely good news must come as much or more frequently than bad. But good news can be inconvenient to certain narratives. It is therefore often ignored, and some other purported disaster is found as a substitute:
“Poverty and hunger are the business Oxfam is in, but has it shouted the global poverty statistics from the rooftops? Hardly. It has switched its focus to inequality. When The Lancet published a study in 2010 showing global maternal mortality falling, advocates for women’s health tried to pressure it into delaying publication ‘fearing that good news would detract from the urgency of their cause’, The New York Times reported. The announcement by Nasa in 2016 that plant life is covering more and more of the planet as a result of carbon dioxide emissions was handled like radioactivity by most environmental reporters.“
Tales of bad outcomes can be alluring, especially if they haven’t happened yet. In fact, bad things might even happen gradually, but dark visions of a world beyond the horizon impart a spooky sense of immediacy, and indeed, urgency. Ridley notes the tendency of people to regard pessimists as “wise”, while optimists are viewed as Pollyannas. And he recognizes that risk aversion plays an important role in this psychology. That brings me to the point I found most interesting in Ridley’s piece: the many vested interests in disasters, and disasters foretold.
Risk management is big business in an affluent society. There is a lot to lose, and a squeamish populace is easily cowed by good scare stories. The risk management and disaster-prevention narrative can be wrapped around any number of unlikely or exaggerated threats, serving the interests of the administrative state and private rent-seekers. One particular tool that has been most useful to this alliance is the precautionary principle. It is invoked to discourage or regulate activities presumed to pose risks to the public or to the environment. But there are three dimensions to the application of the precautionary principle: it provides a rationale for public funding of research into the risk-du-jour, for funding projects designed to mitigate its consequences, and for subsidizing development of alternative technologies that might help avoid or reduce the severity of the risk, often at great expense. The exaggeration of risk serves to legitimize these high costs. Of course, the entire enterprise would be impossible without the machinery of the state, in all its venality. Where money flows, graft is sure to follow.
Well-publicized disaster scenarios are helpful to statists in other ways. Risk, its causes, and its consequences are not distributed evenly across regions and populations. A risk thought to be anthropomorphic in nature implies that wealthier and more productive communities and nations must shoulder the bulk of the global costs of mitigation. Thus, the risk-management ethic requires redistribution. Furthermore, wealthier regions are better situated to insulate themselves locally against many risks. Impoverished areas, on the other hand, must be assisted. Finally, an incredible irony of our preoccupation with disaster scenarios is the simultaneous effort to subsidize those deemed most vulnerable even while executing other policies that harm them.
Media organizations and their newspeople obviously benefit greatly from the subtle sensationalism of creeping disaster. As Ridley noted, the gradualism of progress is no match for a scare story on the nightly news. There is real money at stake here, but the media is driven not only by economic incentives. In fact, the dominant leftist ideology in media organizations means that they are more than happy to spread alarm as part of a crusade for state solutions to presumed risks. There are even well-meaning users of social media who jump at the chance to signal their virtue by reposting memes and reports that are couched not merely in terms of risks, but as dire future realities.
Mitigating social risks is a legitimate function of government. Unfortunately, identifying and exaggerating risks, and suppressing contradictory evidence, is in the personal interest of politicians, bureaucrats, crony capitalists, and many members of the media. Everything seems to demand government intervention. Carbon concentration, global warming and sea level changes are glaring examples of exaggerated risks. As Ridley says,
“The supreme case of unfalsifiable pessimism is climate change. It has the advantage of decades of doom until the jury returns. People who think the science suggests it will not be as bad as all that, or that humanity is likely to mitigate or adapt to it in time, get less airtime and a lot more criticism than people who go beyond the science to exaggerate the potential risks. That lukewarmers have been proved right so far cuts no ice.”
Other examples include the “beepocalypse“, genetic modification, drug use, school shootings, and certain risks to national security. Ridley offers the consequences of Brexit as well. There, I’ve listed enough sacred cows to irritate just about everyone.
In many cases, the real crises have more to do with government activism than the original issue with which they were meant to reckon. Which brings me to a discomfiting vision of my own: having allowed the administrative state to metastasize across almost every social organ and every aspect of our lives, a huge risk to our future well-being is continuing erosion of personal and economic liberties and our ability to prosper as a society. Here’s Ridley’s close:
“Activists sometimes justify the focus on the worst-case scenario as a means of raising consciousness. But while the public may be susceptible to bad news they are not stupid, and boys who cry ‘wolf!’ are eventually ignored. As the journalist John Horgan recently argued in Scientific American: ‘These days, despair is a bigger problem than optimism.'”