Sunday, 9 April 2017

Freak Out! - How "Science" Caused Mass Hysteria in the Past

 “To capture the public imagination . . . we have to . . . make simplified dramatic statements, and little mention of any doubts one might have. . . . Each of us has to decide the right balance between being effective and being honest.” - Stephen H. Schneider, 1989, in an interview in Discover.

To people who believe in climate change, science is something truly unique in human history - infallible and incorruptible. The reality is that science has got things wrong in the past or perhaps a more accurate statement is that doubts in scientific theories have been suppressed
producing a false or incomplete picture to an unsuspecting public. The people doing the suppressing of selective information are not usually scientists but eco-loons, politicians and the media. Most scientists will likely agree that doubt is a good thing.

The more physicists discover about distant galaxies (e.g. accelerating away from us) the more they find out that current physics models, as good as they are, are incomplete. They have no choice but to invent new theories such as dark matter to fit new information. The doubts remain and are acknowledged by physicists. The media and other propagandists have found no reason yet for reporting that as a result of accelerating galaxies and dark matter our planet is in grave danger.

The mass hysteria that accompanied the Acid Rain theory in the 1980s is a good example of where suppression of scientific doubts lead to rash and costly policy changes.

Acid Rain Mass Hysteria by Pat Swords

While one should not generalise, one also has to acknowledge that there are cultures in organisations and countries, which strongly influence behaviour.

Company cultures are like country cultures. Never try to change one. Try, instead, to work with what you've got. • Peter Drucker - Austrian-born American management consultant, educator, and author 

For instance, Irish people have a near pathological obsession with being seen ‘to be nice’ and wanting to be liked, such that when something goes wrong, they are often unable to challenge and confront it; often for fear ‘that they might upset somebody’. The former US Ambassador to Ireland, Jean Kennedy Smith put her finger on it, with her famous statement about the ‘Irish lacking a proper sense of outrage’. On the other hand if one takes the Israeli culture, which is brash and somewhat confrontational, when Irish people come up against such behaviour, it ends up ‘freaking out’ many of them. Germans on the other hand have always suffered from a collective ‘Angst’, in which doom and dread is predominant. They just can't help being gloomy. Instead of sitting back and accepting simply that what will be, will be, not to mention getting on and enjoying it, they agonise. As a result there is a collective fear of the unknown. Mad cow disease, swine fever, bird flu, nuclear plants, global warming - who on the planet is most alarmed? That’s an easy question to answer isn’t it? Neither do Germans learn well from history; they started one world war with devastating results and did the same again by starting another world war less than twenty one years later.  
• Die Geschichte wiederholt sich – history repeats itself
Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it. Edmund Burke - Irish statesman, author, orator, political theorist and philosopher

Understanding history and culture is very important; it does and will influence us. 
'Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.' • Machiavelli

The late 1970s and 1980s in Germany was characterised by growing public concern over damage to forests, the so called ‘Waldsterben’ or dying forests, a circumstance which was referred to as ‘acid rain’ in the English speaking world. In hindsight we can learn a lot from this issue, such as is documented by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). The hype and ‘frightening scenarios’ got out of hand, it was the central ‘dogma’ in Germany that an unprecedented decline in all tree species in central European forests was occurring, as a result of a complex disease of forest ecosystems triggered by air pollution. However, the results of a decade of research are not compatible with the central dogma of the Waldsterben concept. As the FAO concluded in relation to this research, it “rather confirmed the occurrence of non-synchronous fluctuations of forest conditions and recurrent episodes of clarified as well as unsettled species specific declines”. In other words impacts related to natural variations and plant diseases. 

As to the main lesson to be learnt: 
• Waldsterben may be understood as a problem of awareness: forest conditions that were believed to be "normal" in earlier times suddenly became a symbol of the growing fear of the destructive potential of human activities on the environment. However, holistic concepts such as the Waldsterben hypothesis are of little help in solving problems. Rather they raise emotions and lead to premature conclusions. To gain a real understanding of the multitude of decline phenomena in our forests, we must continue to analyse symptom by symptom, species by species and site by site, according to the classical principles of phytopathology and forest science in general. 

You could substitute the ‘weather’ for ‘forests’ in the above and it would become very much ‘up to date’. However, the political fall-out from the above was that draconian legislation was introduced in West-Germany in 1983, which meant that 70 large coal fired power stations were in a short period of time retrofitted with emissions controls for sulphur dioxide, amounting to some 14.3 billion DM in investment (€1 = 1.96 DM). However, this was rushed, equipment suppliers were overloaded, etc. such that it was later the opinion of one analyst, that if this investment had been done later, as was the case in other Member States, it could have been done a third cheaper. While the political impetrative for completing it, namely the ‘Waldsterben’ was false, fortunately it did lead to a benefit in terms of human health, which is why such pollution control is now essentially standard for new coal plants globally. 

Many people think that Germany is very rational. As a German speaker and as somebody who has worked there regularly, there is no doubt that individually their technical people are highly rational, but collectively the country is anything but, in particular when ‘Angst’ gets a grip. There is also the undisputable fact that ‘Made in Germany’ is a big brand and there is a cultural tendency in Germany to be ‘technology forcing’, such that it is foreseen that their industry will then become the resulting ‘technology providers’ elsewhere. They also use this ‘perceived benefit’ to regularly dismiss the ‘inconvenient truths’ associated with some of the policies they have adopted. 

This is important, Germany is not only the economic driver of the EU, but has been also driving EU policies, particularly in the area of environment and energy. If these are being driven by ‘Angst’ and not what is rationally evaluated as beneficial for the EU-28 as a whole, then ‘Houston we have a problem’. 

Currently, these problems are increasingly glaring. The German ‘Angst’ over nuclear energy and the resulting mad rush into renewables (Energiewende) was justified that Germany would be the manufacturing power house for wind turbines and solar panels, for which there would be a huge market place, as other countries followed suit. It didn’t happen that way, cheap Chinese solar panels and turbines flooded the highly subsidised German market, while on a global basis the demand for such technology collapsed. Other countries did not follow the German ‘Energiewende’ – expectations that ‘they think like us’, when clearly they don’t and never had, is a very dangerous premise, but often repeated as people do not learn from the past and different cultures. 

Ireland is of course in the back seat of EU energy policy, but if you are in a motor car speeding along with the doors shut, you really should understand the behaviour of the driver and as to where he or she is taking you.  


  1. The question has occurred to me that if the European Union had been formed and developed in the absence of Germany, how would it change matters? Would there be such opposition to the EU and would there be Brexit? If you pick any member state (excluding Germany) and try to imagine how ranker, strife and discord could develop, you stretch your imagination.
    How could you entice the British and Italians into a row? The Irish and Greeks? The French and Finish? Spanish and Poles? etc etc. There is not the will or motivation in these national governments.peoples to sustain a fight. It would never come to blows.

    That same attitude could be blamed for the weakness of financial controls which lead to so much inflation over the post war decades. We had leap frog pay claims, paid for by printing money leading to currency devaluation and lack of competitiveness. Not in Germany! The Euro is actually a very sound currency, some was printed, but this was government lead, (strictly controlled) not trade union lead. This can be seen from the handling of the National bus strike in Ireland, no money there to pay for a settlement. Germany is the school master of Europe's class room, which struggles with the incompatibility of previously undisciplined national governments with the straight jacked of the Euro. Unfortunately, it does not end there. Germany's discipline is fueled by a huge ambition to dominate. It took two world wars and over 70 million deaths to contain them in the 20th century alone.

    After the 1st and 2nd world wars, the victors put in place harsh measures to prevent them rising again, culminating in a divided Germany. Pat swords put his finger on it, individually, Germans are a delight of good cheer, good beer, quality products and even more tolerant than we Irish, but collectively they are dangerous and fundamentally undemocratic. It's state rule or no rule.

    In 2014, a war started by Germany claimed the life of my Grand Uncle Owen Martin, reared right where I now write this. He was fighting with the British Army when killed at the Somme. In 2009, German hysteria over alleged climate change and the Germany knee jerk solutions of building useless wind farms took a sizable chunk of my precise time, money and effort when I should be enjoying my retirement. I am stuck in the courts trying to stop such madness. 5 X 126 meter high turbines within 550 meters of my home. Huge pylons running through my parish. Several hundred (if not thousand) terrified rural dwellers. (sounds familiar)(Polish Jews in 1940). My government blames the EU and who runs EU energy policy, "Germany".

    The leopard does not change his spots, given enough time the Germans will turn the rest of Europe into "Greater Germany", one where environmental/social/legal protections dating back to Magna Carta will disappear. I know the British are no angels either, but the citizen is equal before the law and Runnymede is their pride and joy, perhaps all our pride and joy. Money is only paper after all, 23rd June, 2016.freedom is a bonny thing!

  2. Amazing, isnt' it, that Germans and the EU fail to see that this much ado about nothing much - Europe’s self-destruction will be just a footnote in this century’s world history. Easter Greetings from Warsaw - Pawel

  3. Most of Ireland problems are caused by the large and badly to corruptly managed state. Enabled by alliances of common cause with certain business and agricultural interests. Which are only motivated by greed and access to EU subsidies. They have got so fat and lazy and their appetite so voracious that all they are interested in is more subsidy based programs. As they are incapable of earning a living making money in any market based activities. So do not expect a return to economic rationality while these corrupt alliances persist. As they do not know what it is. We are running out of track and they will continue to promote their agenda.

  4. I presume the opposite of "mass hysteria" is "mass euphoria". In small degrees it is recognized in economic and political studies. The Irish Celtic Tiger was a classic example. Those who had or could get money invested it in Bank shares and property and some made money if they sold before the collapse in 2008, and if they put the money on deposit. They gained. If they held on, they lost. The trick is to identify the real situation and that is not easy. One thing I learned from campaigning against renewable energy is that those affected by mass euphoria can continues to become its victims even when it is painfully obvious they are being conned. The secret is that its only painfully obvious to to a few. Master that, get in that bracket, cast away your conscience and you will be rich.