Magazine article The Spectator

Apocalypse Now?

Magazine article The Spectator

Apocalypse Now?

Article excerpt

The BBC's Horizon is, amazingly, almost 50 years old and this week, in its The End of the World? Guide to Armageddon (BBC4, Thursday), it looked back at some of its scariest predictions. The media have always loved frightening us to death, and there are plenty of scientists ready to help.

The most recent, of course, is the greenhouse effect, and man-made global warming. I find myself an agnostic, lacking the absolute certainty possessed by many Spectator writers and, on the other side, the equal certainty of various scientists, politicians and activists. I know little about the science, but I do know a bit about human nature, and that makes me a part-time sceptic.

Mankind has always wanted to blame itself for the weather. Noah's Flood, for example. Primitive tribes who thought that an exploding volcano meant that the gods were angry. Even a few years ago some bonkers Anglican bishop insisted that our floods indicated God's anger at gay marriage. Might man-made global warming be simply a more sophisticated, post-enlightenment way of blaming ourselves again for our wicked, wicked ways? The scandal of the suppressed data at UEA fitted into this religious mould: like the Inquisition, some believe if the data doesn't prove what faith requires, then it must be hidden.

Second, with irrational beliefs such as astrology, invariably the more data there is, the easier it is to prove what you already believe. Climate research produces millions of statistics every day. Simply select the ones that prove your point. The rest can be discarded as 'irrelevant' or 'anecdotal'.

Third, scientists are as liable to peer pressure as anyone else. When a theory is held with total confidence by all one's colleagues, then it takes a particularly brave and stubborn person to suspect the opposite. And such people are easily accused of heresy. Scientists are great at telling us what's happening now. Their computer predictions are just that: predictions, and not always necessarily more reliable than Russell Grant's.

They may be right. I wish I knew. But Horizon was fascinating about the need we have to petrify ourselves. A meteorite, of a size which wiped out the dinosaurs, could crash into us at any time, wiping out almost all species. Blow it to bits with a nuclear warhead before it hits us? Don't be daft; the very smithereens would only make things worse. …

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