Julian Simon’s Book Masterfully Explains Flaws of Alarmism

Published August 1, 2009

Hoodwinking the Nation
Julian L. Simon (Cato Institute, 2007)
140 pages, ISBN 1-56000-434-7

I was fortunate to have known Julian Simon well in the last 10 years of a life cut far too short. He was an eternal optimist and scholar who cut through popular doom-and-gloom attitudes to prove conclusively that man’s resourcefulness has always improved the human condition, often slowly and methodically, but consistently.

The “good old days” were not superior to the present, Simon noted. P.J. O’Rourke, a prominent political satirist, put it well: “Julian Simon had a brilliant insight into the economics of doomsaying. … The business of environmentalism has fouled the marketplace of ideas to the point where truth is an endangered species.”

Facts Contradict Scare Claims

Hoodwinking the Nation was the last book Simon wrote. It was published in 1999, a year after he died. Happily, it is now available again, thanks to the Cato Institute, which republished this 140-page must-read in 2007.

The opening chapter presents facts about population growth, natural resources, and the environment and provides survey evidence of the public’s view of these topics. The discrepancy between the facts and the public’s view sets up the puzzle the remaining chapters explain. Simon explores how and why misleading and indeed false bad news is produced, citing the poor credibility of government reports as the frequent catalyst for environmental news scams and doomsday analysis.

Simon examines the intellectual basis of concepts that lead to scares about resource depletion and population growth, and he explains why biologists in particular tend to become overly alarmed about mythical environmental scares. He follows with an explanation of how the false bad news is disseminated. Journalists, he notes, know little about statistics and science, and thus gather data in ways that lead to inaccurate conclusions.

Moreover, Simon observes, politicians misuse statistics in service of their own policies and political goals. Simon argues psychological and cultural mechanisms make people more receptive to bad news than good news and give most people an overly positive view of the past and an overly negative view of the future.

Antidote to Misinformation

If every misinformed but open-minded person on this planet read Simon’s book, the terror wrought by environmental zealots would quickly come to an end. But environmental reporters are quick to believe reports about negative environmental trends issued by government agencies and environmentalist organizations and discount reports about positive trends.

When shown the facts, these journalists usually say cries of environmental dangers contain a germ of truth even when they’re exaggerated. Meanwhile, most serious scientists recognize alarm as overblown in their own fields but don’t easily recognize exaggeration outside their own fields.

Simon castigates Al Gore for his 1991 book, Earth in the Balance, which contained fallacies piled upon fallacies. Simon observes, “The book is as ignorant a collection of clichés as anything ever published on the subject, and there is much tough competition.”

Simon must surely be rolling over in his grave now that Gore has received a Nobel Peace Prize for his alarmist fabrications, not to mention the enormous wealth he has accrued by cashing in on his false alarms.

Message Holds True

Simon’s message that human well-being is constantly improving holds true even in our current economic recession. Over the past 25 years, by every measure of human welfare, all trends in standards of living, public health, and the environment have improved, yet every day we hear market capitalism has failed. The same positive trends and negative media coverage hold true regarding environmental issues.

Simon identifies a vicious cycle here. The media carry stories about environmental scares, people become frightened, polls show people are worried, the worry is cited as reason for policies to address the scares, and these policies raise the level of public concern further.

The media say, “We don’t create the news; we merely deliver it.” That is not true, and Simon does a masterful job of explaining it all.

Jay Lehr, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is science director of The Heartland Institute.