Prophets of Doom vs. Scientists with a Plan

Jonathan Franzen is wildly incoherent. He’s written this terrible mess of a piece that veers between “We’re doomed, climate change is unstoppable, trying will bankrupt us” to “gosh, won’t it be great when civilization collapses and the survivors are living on love and peace?”, and it’s infuriatingly bad. All you need to know is that he explains his method for scrying the future.

As a non-scientist, I do my own kind of modelling. I run various future scenarios through my brain, apply the constraints of human psychology and political reality, take note of the relentless rise in global energy consumption (thus far, the carbon savings provided by renewable energy have been more than offset by consumer demand), and count the scenarios in which collective action averts catastrophe.

The editors at the New Yorker should have read that and realized, by his own admission, Franzen is a crank, and that publishing this crap would be an embarrassment, and they should have pulled the plug. Franzen, though, is a Famous Author, a fact that impresses the New Yorker unduly and leads to a failure of judgment.

I think I’ll get my information from real scientists who actually use data to arrive at their conclusions, like Michael Mann, who published this article, Doomsday scenarios are as harmful as climate change denial, two years ago.

The evidence that climate change is a serious challenge that we must tackle now is very clear. There is no need to overstate it, particularly when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness. Some seem to think that people need to be shocked and frightened to get them to engage with climate change. But research shows that the most motivating emotions are worry, interest and hope. Importantly, fear does not motivate, and appealing to it is often counter-productive as it tends to distance people from the problem, leading them to disengage, doubt and even dismiss it.

It is important to communicate both the threat and the opportunity in the climate challenge. Those paying attention are worried, and should be, but there are also reasons for hope. The active engagement of many cities, states and corporations, and the commitments of virtually every nation (minus one) is a very hopeful sign. The rapid movement in the global energy market towards cleaner options is another. Experts are laying out pathways to avoid disastrous levels of climate change and clearly expressing the urgency of action. There is still time to avoid the worst outcomes, if we act boldly now, not out of fear, but out of confidence that the future is largely in our hands.

There is a huge difference between “This is a huge problem, resign yourself to defeat” and “This is a huge problem, we’re going to have to work very hard to overcome it.” Who are you going to listen to, a competent and credentialed scientist in an appropriate field, or a crankypants author with weird ideas about underwear?

You know, the biggest change you can implement right now is to throw the science denialists out of political office. Get to work on that, then we can start implementing changes that would help.


  1. says

    Franz’s comment, (‘As a non-scientist…’) quoted by PZ sounds to me like a somewhat more elaborate version of Trump’s claims that he doesn’t need to learn anything because just using his Big Brain works fine, e.g. tariffs are not import taxes.

  2. stroppy says

    There are positive signs of movement on this issue. That’s a very good thing, noting that delay after delay has been and still is time wasted.

    The way I see it, speaking hyperbolically, it’s like if you were driving a firetruck to the scene of a burning building and you came upon a bunch of fire deniers blocking the road. Would you be thinking about whether to be (1) an optimist or (2) a pessimist? More likely it would be: Should you or should you not just run the bastards over…

    So third option: Fed up and mad as hell.

  3. blf says

    As a non-scientist, I do my own kind of modelling. I run various future scenarios through my brain…

    Normally a very quick process indeed, pouring in an idea in one ear, following unobstructed through the vacuum and out the other ear…

    Sometimes, there is a black hole or other obstacle in the way. This doesn’t necessarily slow the ignorance down, but can increase the emitted stoopidity.

  4. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Like driving directly toward a brick wall and instead of steering the car away, jump off the car at high speed, or say “might as hit at top speed to end it quickly.”
    Noting the brick wall is there in front of us is not [doom saying], it is [doom warning]. IE Far different.
    Slamming the brakes, to come to a full stop, is not the only option, which most people seem to hear.
    It is our new moonshot challenge, like JFK proposed, “not because it is easy, but because it is HARD”.

  5. bcwebb says

    The guardian note includes this:
    Or as one wag put it: “That Franzen climate change article could really use some – puts on sunglasses – Corrections.”

  6. gijoel says

    I can remember Terry Pratchett complaining about journalists asking for his opinion on water on the moon. Atleast he recognised his limitations.

  7. wzrd1 says

    @9, idiots of the 33rd degree?

    So, fear should never be considered during an emergency and if fear is present, mitigation of the emergency should be delayed until an economic analysis has occurred and one models in one’s head what to do when calm – all while the building you are inside is afire.
    Wonderful and utterly useful advice, he joins Bolton, totally wrong, 180 degrees away from the truth, so use the opposite of his advice as a basis on what to ask a real expert in the field in question on what to do.

    I imagine that the New Yorker would seek guidance on making a fine cake from a proctologist.

  8. rfholt says

    I think folks are missing the point of Franzen’s comment that as a “non-scientist” he [does his] my own kind of modelling…” Everyone, weather or not they’re a scientist, uses models to predict the future. Scientists who model the climate make assumptions about what factors to include, and leave out, when they construct a model. I haven’t seen a study of climate change that attempted to use political science to model the likelihood of government action to combat climate change. Cue cries of “Not my field!” Indeed, many readers of this blog will probably assert that “political science” is an oxymoron. But just because climate change models don’t analyze politics doesn’t mean the future of the earth’s climate won’t be impacted by political events! Franzen’s insight is to recognize that academic research showing what might be possible if we assume that tomorrow we will “roll up our collective sleeves” is increasingly less useful when we’ve seen the US government fail to engage in sleeve-rolling for over three decades.