Beware the False Prophets

Mohit Satyanand
Opinions - IN
30 May 2011

"We are not righteous people, only they will go to heaven, the others will stay here on Earth to go through terrible sufferings."

Written in her diary by a 14-year old Russian girl, convinced that Judgement Day would arrive on May 21, 2011. According to Harold Camping, a Christian broadcaster whose 'prediction' gained wide currency, Jesus would return on this date, and the righteous would fly up to heaven. Those, like the young Russian diarist, who didn't qualify for the flight, would be subject to five months of fire, brimstone and plagues. Millions would die every day.

Camping seemed like he was channeling an earlier prophet of doom, who had said, "sea level rise, expanding deserts and catastrophic weather-induced flooding have already contributed to large permanent migrations and could eventually displace hundreds of millions."

This false prophet was the UN University, declaring in 2005 that 50 million people could become environmental refugees by 2010, fleeing the effects of climate change. The United Nations Environment Program had made the same declaration on its website. 2010 has come and gone, and the environmental disasters haven't materialised. The population in areas supposedly threatened by global warming has gone up. "It is not a UNEP prediction," a UNEP spokesman recently told SPIEGEL ONLINE. The forecast has since been removed from UNEP's website.

Prophets of Doom have been around through recorded history. Like all the others, Harold Camping's own track record is pretty dismal (or cheerful, depending on how you look at the world): he had earlier predicted Judgement Days on May 21, 1988, and September 7, 1994. Their track record seems to have no bearing on their ability to raise funds, excite the media, or raise funds. Luckily, most of us know to treat them with healthy scepticism. Not the Russian diarist:

"I don't want to die like the others. That's why I'll die now", the Russian girl wrote. They were her last written words. On May 21, she hung herself.

With all due sympathies to the girl's family, few of us will follow her alarmed response to Harold Camping. Yet, millions respond enthusiastically to prophets with equally dismal track records. Think Paul Ehrlich, one of the leaders of the current global warming scare; in the 1970s, he was at the forefront of the global cooling scare. The first 'global warmer', Svante Arrhenius, was also a key figure in the eugenics movement, which was convinced that the human race was threatened by the uncontrolled breeding of the "wrong" people.

Sounds like the kind of person who could have inspired our own Sanjay Gandhi, who went around forcibly sterilising the kind of people who lived in Delhi's slum colonies during the 1970s.

One of the more egregious of serial prophets of our times is Stephen Schneider, He "was active in the efforts to ban DDT, to get governments to act to prevent global cooling and, in recent years, to get the government to act to prevent global warming. In 2009, a filmmaker interviewed Professor Schneider about climate change for the documentary "Not Evil Just Wrong" and asked him why he had switched from global cooling in the 1970s to global warming currently. Stanford University, on Schneider's behalf, prohibited the filmmakers from using the audio and video of the interview."

These words are from "The global warming alarm", a fascinating study* of catastrophic predictions since the time of Malthus. The good Reverend was a trend-setter, and an early starter, setting off his scare about mushrooming population in 1798, but the bulk of the alarms were bruited since 1950. It would appear as if you need a good strong global economy to support doomsayers.

To qualify for inclusion in the study, such alarms needed to be:

1. based on forecasts of human catastrophe arising from effects of human activity on the physical environment, 2. endorsed by experts, politicians and the media, and 3. accompanied by calls for strong action.

The list is highly educative, and includes the supposed threat to our brains from lead in petrol (1928), famine (Paul Ehrlich et al, 1968), Global cooling (1970), Mad Cow disease (1996), and Cancer from cell phone towers (2008).

25 of these scares called for substantial government intervention, which was forthcoming in 23 calls for action. Like Camping's, "None of the alarming forecasts were accurate (but) the government programs remained in place after the predicted disasters failed to materialize. The global warming alarm movement appears to be the latest manifestation of a common social phenomenon: false alarms based on unscientific forecasts of human-caused environmental disasters." Green and Armstrong.

Whether any of these 26 false alarms resulted in suicide is not recorded, but at least one of them wrought millions of unnecessary deaths: the fear that DDT caused cancer was never proven; nevertheless, the most cost-effective insecticide against mosquitos was banned in many parts of Africa, prolonging the existence of this immiserating disease**.

I don't pretend to understand the psychology of these false prophets, but they seem undaunted by their failures. Judgement Day having failed him, Camping now says "he believed that a "spiritual" judgment had occurred on that date, and that the physical Rapture would occur on October 21, 2011, simultaneous with the destruction of the universe by God." Wikipedia entry.

"Slight reality check, guys, but the program is for real. Hang in there." Sounds just like Ehrlich, Lester Brown, Schneider, and our own Pachauri.

Mohit Satyanand is an entrepreneur and portfolio investor.