Fear motivates us, or it should. How we react to fear may have serious consequences, even life or death consequences. Sometimes we find ourselves in terrifying circumstances, and we don’t have time to ask questions or to contemplate the deeper philosophical meaning of that danger. At other times, we may lack the knowledge or competence to judge the severity of the threat even when it is not imminent. In either case, something really bad may happen unless we do something.
History is replete with extreme examples of tyrants and despots who controlled their populations through fear. Closer to home though, parents use fear to control their children. Husbands and wives use fear to control their wives and husbands. Police officers use fear to get us to pull over when we are speeding. Advertisers use it to get us to buy their products. Insurance companies use it to get us to buy more insurance. Newspapers and news broadcasters use it to get us to read newspapers, watch news programs, and buy the products of their advertisers. Fear is part of life, we cannot avoid it, but we can learn to recognize and manage it.
Alarmism is a special case. It is the unwarranted raising of fears. It is an exaggerated call for action. If we don’t have time to ask questions, how should we react? If we lack the knowledge to evaluate the alarm, what should we do? Alarmists take advantage of these pressures of time and of our ignorance. We can learn to spot Chicken Little. It is in our best interest to know when the alarm is real or false. Our checkbooks may depend upon it, or our blood pressure, or our lives.
Last Thursday, I watched a U.S. Senate hearing of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, chaired by Senator Barbara Boxer of California. The title of the hearing was Climate Change: It is Happening Now. There were two panels of experts, one focused on the atmosphere and the other on the oceans. Most of the experts were scientists, but some were not.
One memorable testimony was offered by a representative of the insurance industry. He began with an assumption that we are facing a serious crisis as a result of catastrophic global warming caused by human activities, specifically the burning of fossil fuels. If we accept his assumption, then we should be afraid. More to the point, the U.S. Senate should be very afraid and take appropriate action to save us from the end of the world as we know it. After admitting he was not an expert on climate change nor even a scientist, the panelist presented several specific recommendations for the senators to consider. These were offered based upon his expertise in the field of insurance. Perhaps it is not surprising, but insurance companies would profit greatly from each of his recommendations, and taxpayers would pay for those increased profits.
This panelist used fear to persuade legislators to spend taxpayers dollars to increase profits for his industry. He argued for immediate action and he obviously recognized the senators lack of knowledge of the subject–few are climatologists, oceanographers, or actuaries. If you watched the hearings, that was painfully obvious!
It is also obvious that one political party is invested in the reality of the crisis, the other party is not. If you are a politically ambitious senator or representative, you must deal with the pressure either to conform to your party’s position or to change it. To change the position of a political party requires effective leadership and political savvy. Being at odds with the leadership of your own political party, is not a formula for fulfilling your political ambitions.
One of the tactics used by certain senators and panelists during the hearings was to discredit those who challenge their position or its basic assumptions. These ad hominem attacks are used when rational arguments are unavailable. Some were subtle, others not so much.
For much of the hearing, very few of the senators were actually present to hear the testimony of the expert panelists. More often than not, there was a strong correlation between which political party was present in the hearing room and which point of view was being expressed by one of the experts. It is not too surprising that Democrats invited some panelists and Republicans invited others.
The hearing was a perfect case study of confirmation bias, political ambition, ignorance, and arrogance. It was a classic demonstration of dysfunction in government.
This begs the question, which should we fear more: climate change or congress?