Bryan Caplan  

Two Types of Fear

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After reading Ehrlich's confession, I realized that there are two very different kinds of socio-political fear-mongering.

Type 1: Saying that a disaster will happen under certain conditions.  Example: "If population continues to grow, hundreds of millions will starve by the year 1980."

Type 2: Saying that a disaster may happen under certain conditions.  Example: "If we don't destroy ISIS, a nuclear bomb could go off in New York City sometime in the next 20 years."

Type 1 fear-mongering is almost always literally false, and therefore blatantly intellectually dishonest.  Why?  Because (a) disasters are extremely rare, and (b) predicting the rare disasters that do occur is extremely difficult.  Think I'm being unfair?  Then predict a well-defined, major disaster and bet me you're right at 5:1 odds.  [crickets]

Type 2 fear-mongering, in contrast, is almost never literally false, and therefore almost never blatantly intellectually dishonest.  Since virtually any scary scenario could happen, Type 2 speculations are not lies.  On a deeper level, however, most Type 2 fear-mongering remains subtly intellectually dishonest.  Why?  Because the (a) whole point of Type 2 is to scare people into action, but (b) action without probabilities is folly.  You can paint lurid scenarios about anything, but you can't "do something" about everything.  Furthermore, "doing something" is often worse than doing nothing.

My general view is that the differences between Democrats/liberals and Republicans/conservatives are greatly overrated.  Nevertheless, my strong impression is that the left is more inclined to Type 1 fear-mongering (think: the environment), while the right is more inclined to Type 2 fear-mongering (think: terrorism).  Know of any relevant data?


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Tim Worstall writes:

" Because (a) disasters are extremely rare, and (b) predicting the rare disasters that do occur is extremely difficult. Think I'm being unfair? Then predict a well-defined, major disaster and bet me you're right at 5:1 odds. [crickets]"

At some point a major asteroid will hit Earth and cause major survival problems for human beings.

We know this has happened, know that it will. It's the timing that's a bit off. Willing to offer 5 to 1 from my side if anyone can guarantee I'll live long enough to collect.....

Michael Byrnes writes:

I would call type 2 blatantly more intellectually dishonest because it cannot be proven false. (Hence Ehrlich's recent attempt to pivot from type 1 to type 2).

BTW, in the case of terrorism, the message is not just "a disaster may happen under certain conditions". It is actually "but for our actions, another disaster WOULD ALREADY HAVE HAPPENED". So the non-ocurrence of the event is used as evidence in support of the statement.

Of course this can happen with type 1 as well... Ehrlich could have said "England is still there because enough people responded to my message."

ThomasH writes:

But Type one is pretty close to "If we do not DO Something" to prevent population growth, millions will/may starve.

The difference does not seem that significant. In either case the statement has to be evaluated by looking at the evidence for the model that generated the stochastic or non-stochastic model.

Ehrlich did not have a model. Those who want a carbon tax to make continued economic growth possible over long time periods, do.

Sieben writes:

It seems at least 50-50 that the US will continue to fight unjustified wars every couple of decades or so. They might not, because I believe the world has slowly become a more civilized place, but we're always just a terrorist attack away from overreacting.

It all depends what you count as a "disaster" though. If it's really obvious and everyone predicts it, is it a disaster? Or does a disaster have to be something off the public radar that is going to catch them by surprise?

Ben writes:

"the left is more inclined to Type 1 fear-mongering (think: the environment)". Hmm. The ozone hole was real, and "fear-mongering" is what led to action that addressed that problem. The effects of DDT on the environment were real, and "fear-mongering" is what led to action that addressed that problem. Lots of other examples could be adduced, from pollution of rivers and lakes, to acid rain, to endangered species. The left actually has a very good track record of predicting looming environmental disasters and getting them solved by "fear-mongering", it seems to me. That might be worth pondering before you dismiss present environmental concerns as "fear-mongering". The actual difference between the concerns of the left and the right, it seems to me, is that the concerns of the left are generally motivated by science – and science has a way of turning out to be right in the end, to the outrage of ideologues everywhere.

Richard writes:

I think that the reason liberals are so prone to Type 1 fear mongering is because they have a naive trust in the intellectual class, which conveniently is always ready to tell them what they want to hear.

They tell us that climate change is "settled science," and although I know nothing about macroeconomic modeling, the certainty of their pronouncements about when to spend more money, etc. leaves me suspicious. Statistics on the "pay gap" between men and women, sexual assault on college campuses, and the lack of voter fraud are similarly treated with a naive reverence. I only see conservatives discuss statistics or studies when they're trying to refute liberals, i.e., showing that the pay gap is the result of choices men and women make.

In recent weeks in the midst of the Duggar controversy, I've seen liberals on TV shocked that the family didn't get professional counseling, instead relying on teachers, the community, and a certain mentor (who, in fairness, eventually went to jail for child porn). In my view, psychiatry is pretty much quackery, and people are just as likely to get over their problems without it. But to liberals, the field is science.

Mark Bahner writes:
At some point a major asteroid will hit Earth and cause major survival problems for human beings.

We know this has happened, know that it will.

I don't know that it will. According to this website:

Technology to detect near earth objects

So far, observers around the world have found and tracked more than 10,000 near-Earth objects. Astronomers have found more than 90 percent of the possibly "world-ending" cosmic objects that could threaten Earth, but tracking anything smaller than 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) across is more difficult."
NASA has not even come close to finding and tracking the 1 million smaller asteroids that might only just wipe out a city, or perhaps collapse the world economy if they hit in the wrong place," Ed Lu, CEO of the B612 Foundation, a nonprofit working to build Sentinel asteroid observatory, a NEO-hunting space telescope, said in April.
In all, less than 10 percent of asteroids measuring about 459 feet (140 meters) across have been found, whereas about 1 percent of asteroids measuring 131 feet (40 m) in diameter have been tracked. While an impact caused by these relatively small space rocks wouldn't cause a worldwide disaster, they could induce some regional issues.

I could see in the next couple decades how virtually all (say 99%) of the possible "world ending" objects could be identified. And I could see in a couple more decades how the technology to deflect those objects could be developed. In 3-4 decades, robots near or superior to humans in thinking and most physical actions could be developed and deployed to space. Imagine simply sending a couple thousand of them up to work on deflecting an asteroid.

The "willingness to pay" should be very high to deflect an object that had a high probability of killing millions of people.

John T. Kennedy writes:

https://web.archive.org/web/20061121101716/http://www.no-treason.com/archives/2006/01/03/the-dating-game-catallarch-night/

Robert writes:

well ... if I understand your definition correctly, I think we invaded Iraq because of Type 1 fear-mongering from the right...

Thomas writes:

What's your basis for saying one side is more likely to use one type of fear over another? Do you have any other examples than the ones you wrote?

I'd love to see some more data on your argument, and it'd be interesting to know which of the two cause people to be the most afraid.

Floccina writes:

So what if anything does this say about AGW? To me it NOT a call to action, which is about where I am on AGW. I believe that AGW is real but the best thing to do for now is probably nothing. Now I would vote for a straight forward CO2 tax but am strongly against cap and trade because it seems more easy for politicians to use political corruption. and I think it is OK to wait on AGW. No need to panic.

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