Two Types of Fear
By Bryan Caplan
After reading Ehrlich’s confession, I realized that there are two very different kinds of socio-political fear-mongering.
Type 1: Saying that a disaster will happen under certain conditions. Example: “If population continues to grow, hundreds of millions will starve by the year 1980.”
Type 2: Saying that a disaster may happen under certain conditions. Example: “If we don’t destroy ISIS, a nuclear bomb could go off in New York City sometime in the next 20 years.”
Type 1 fear-mongering is almost always literally false, and therefore blatantly intellectually dishonest. Why? Because (a) disasters are extremely rare, and (b) predicting the rare disasters that do occur is extremely difficult. Think I’m being unfair? Then predict a well-defined, major disaster and bet me you’re right at 5:1 odds. [crickets]
Type 2 fear-mongering, in contrast, is almost never literally false, and therefore almost never blatantly intellectually dishonest. Since virtually any scary scenario could happen, Type 2 speculations are not lies. On a deeper level, however, most Type 2 fear-mongering remains subtly intellectually dishonest. Why? Because the (a) whole point of Type 2 is to scare people into action, but (b) action without probabilities is folly. You can paint lurid scenarios about anything, but you can’t “do something” about everything. Furthermore, “doing something” is often worse than doing nothing.
My general view is that the differences between Democrats/liberals and Republicans/conservatives are greatly overrated. Nevertheless, my strong impression is that the left is more inclined to Type 1 fear-mongering (think: the environment), while the right is more inclined to Type 2 fear-mongering (think: terrorism). Know of any relevant data?