Radical what-ifism strikes again.
It was already a strong motive behind the push for costly and probably unnecessary responses to climate change.
And now it has helped turn the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle into a dangerous fiasco.
Practitioners of radical what-ifism work like this:
- They observe a trend.
- The make assumptions about the trend's causes and effects.
- They extrapolate from the trend and their assumptions about it with a series of what-if questions.
- They answer the what-if questions in the most alarming way.
- They demand emergency change to human behavior.
In the climate-change debate, what-if radicals reason as follows:
- Concentrations of greenhouse gases are growing rapidly in the atmosphere.
- The gas build-up might have contributed to observed warming during roughly the same period.
- If the gas build-up is causing the observed warming and if it continues, warming will continue.
- Polar ice caps will melt, sea levels will rise and submerge coastal regions, storms will intensify, and so forth.
- People should curtail their use of fossil energy and other activities that emit greenhouse gases.
Radical what-ifism requires error on the side of caution at any cost.
In the case of global warming, it further requires that the analysis ignore doubts about causes and effects of warming, even about the existence of warming induced by human activity. It further requires that the analysis ignore natural offsets to the observed trends and the potential for benefit from some increase in average temperature.
The ready surrender to radical what-ifism is the worst part of climate-change politics.
In Seattle the phenomenon surfaced in one of the issues that brought protestors into the streets and stymied the trade meeting.
The issue is biotechnology as it applies to human food. People have a natural fear of genetically altered plants and hormone-treated livestock. And agricultural interests in Europe seem determined to exploit those fears in order to avoid competition. In league with the usual activist groups, they are challenging biotechnical food products on environmental and health grounds.
Science and experience with genetically altered foods provide no evidence of harm. To this absence of reason for fear, opponents respond with radical what-ifism.
What if the damage takes years or decades or even generations to happen, they ask? What if it is too late to act when the problem becomes evident?
So humankind must act now. It must deny itself benefits such as expanded crop yields and reduced needs for the fertilizers and insecticides that environmentalists so deplore. It should sacrifice progress in the fight against human hunger to the most frightening imaginable answers to what-if questions for which science already provides answers sufficient to comfort most people.
But what if science is wrong? What if science doesn't know everything? What if a big corporation bribed a scientist somewhere into suppressing some report damaging to its products? What if..."
Thus does radical what-ifism become a potent force in politics.
So what if radical what-ifism had no natural offsets, such as the tendency of reasonable people to act rationally over time?