David Sirkin

May 4, 2008

In “The truth about denial” (Newsweek, Aug 13, 2007), Sharon Begley quotes former senator Tim Wirth as saying that the industry-organized efforts to cast doubt on human-caused global warming “patterned what they did after the tobacco industry.”

There are other examples of organized efforts to persuade people into denial about inconvenient science.  In my own field of psychiatry, big pharmacy has been carrying on a well-orchestrated campaign to discredit, cast doubt on, and minimize the importance of recent government-funded studies that have shown that the newer antipsychotic medications are not significantly superior to older medications that are available as generics for a small fraction of the price.  They use armies of field representatives (known to doctors as “drug reps”), networks of doctor speakers who are paid generous fees to present the companies’ messages to other doctors at fine restaurants (the drug companies pick up the dinner tabs), and with numerous carefully edited free magazines, which flood the mailboxes of all psychiatrists, pretending to be merely helping us doctors keep up with the latest research in our field.

Sometimes, it is religious zealotry, not greed, that motivates organized efforts to persuade people to deny science, as in the large movement to discredit the theory of evolution.

In all of these cases, the result of the mass denial has costs for society.  And in no case has the cost been greater than in the denial of Malthus’s conclusions about the obstacle to prosperity that population growth represents.  Our planet is half destroyed, and more people than ever before are living in miserable poverty, exactly as Malthus predicted, because not only the world business community and fundamentalist religious groups opposed to contraception and abortion, but practically the entire field of economics has been encouraging leaders of governments all over the world to believe that the future will be brighter and brighter without us having to worry too much about population growth.  Not much longer, perhaps.  Today, I heard Daniel Schorr on National Public Radio supporting Malthus in the context of the growing global food crisis.

In past decades, economists have laughed at anyone or any group who suggested there were limits to growth: The Club of Rome, Paul Ehrlich.  Paul Ehrlich lost a bet that certain commodities would rise in price over a certain period of time.  He chose the wrong commodities and the wrong time period.  It gave support to the economists who would deny not only Malthus, but the finiteness of the planet’s resources.  Like Ehrlich, I am a biologist, not an economist.  And like Ehrlich, I am tempted to try to be an amateur economist (see, for example, “A surprising fact …”), because the professionals are asleep at the switch while the planet and all the people on it head for a train wreck.

The economists have betrayed us.  They have encouraged us to focus on economic growth, with little concern that it is increasingly fueled by population growth.  They have avoided the important task of discovering how to make a non-growing economy healthy.  This because they are in denial that economic growth ever need come to an end, or that preferably it should be brought to an end before it can no longer continue.  Fools.  And those who believe them are also fools.  Enough fools, especially in powerful places, and they can destroy the world.