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Challenging Alarmism: John Maddox (1925–2009), RIP

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- April 21, 2009

It was nice to see John Tierney in his blog post, The Skeptical Prophet, pay tribute to John Maddox, the scientist and revered long-time editor of Nature. “He debunked the catastrophists, most notably in his 1972 book, The Doomsday Syndrome,” noted Tierney, “in which he argued that Spaceship Earth had more carrying capacity and ecological resilience than environmentalists realized.”

Tierney adds: “His book was denounced at the time by John P. Holdren, who is today the White House science advisor. In a 1972 article in the Times of London, Dr. Holdren and his frequent collaborator, the ecologist Paul Ehrlich, dismissed Dr. Maddox as ‘uninformed’ and clearly unable to understand ‘simple concepts’ of population theory.” Stated Ehrlich/Holdren (as quoted by Tierney):

The most serious of Maddox’s many demographic errors is his invocation of a “demographic transition” as the cure for population growth in Asia, Africa and Latin America. He expects that birth rates there will drop as they did in developed countries following the industrial revolution. Since most underdeveloped countries are unlikely to have an industrial revolution, this seems somewhat optimistic at best. But even if those nations should follow that course, starting immediately, their population growth would continue for well over a century-perhaps producing by the year 2100 a world population of twenty thousand million.

But Maddox was right, and Ehrlich and Holdren were wrong, as Tierney’s post goes on to explain.

And on the specific subject of anthropogenic climate change, Maddox was no alarmist, as documented by Lawrence Solomon in his Financial Post tribute, “John Maddox, skeptic, 1925-2009″.

William Grimes in the New York Times’s obituary failed to mention how John Maddox was a lonely, powerful voice against Malthusianism in general and climate alarmism specifically. In that sense, Maddox of ahead of his time and a name to be remembered with Julian Simon’s. And the obituary in Nature itself only alludes to this essence of Maddox by stating: “Others recall controversial decisions and opinions that wer event offensive to some but which, to others more detached from the fray, ‘added to the gaiety of nations.'” (Huh?) What if Maddox is right, which would make a lot of current Nature editorials on climate-change wrong?

Alarmist Not

I chuckle whenever I read the opening lines of The Doomsday Syndrome:

Prophets of doom have multiplied remarkably in the past few years. It used to be commonplace for men to parade city streets with sandwich boards proclaiming “The End of the World Is at Hand!” They have been replaced by a throng of sober people, scientists, philosophers, and politicians, proclaiming that there are more subtle calamities just around the corner.

And so it is today. A recent headline by Joe Romm at  Climate Progress states without equivication:

Yes, the science says that on our current emissions path, we are projected to warm most of US by 10–15 F by 2100, with sea level rise of 5 feet or more, and the SW will be a permanent Dust Bowl.

And how many times in Romm World have bad weather events been related to this perceived unfolding crisis? Yet as Richard Kerr, the climate-change writer of Science, has warned:

Worldwide temperatures haven’t risen much in the past decade…. If you are a climate-change activist pointing to year after year of mounting climate crises, you might want to rethink your approach.

Yet the alarmists march on with their exaggerations and deceptions, trying to get the attention of a world that is more interested in economic progress and real day-to-day problems than Malthusian gyrations.

A little humility is in order for the “prophets of doom,” as Maddox called them. In the introduction to Global Ecology (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), Ehrlich and Holdren mentioned (p. 6):

We have been warned by our more cautious colleagues that those who discuss threats of sociological and ecological disaster run the risk of being “discredited” if those threats fail to materialize on schedule.

But discredited they have not been. There seems to be a  negative, not positive, correlation between the accuracy of prediction on the one hand and respect and power on the other. But this is an anomoly that will be corrected as good science drives out bad and the wider public wakes up to excesses of the current orthodoxy in (political) science. Let’s hope it is sooner rather than later.

One Comment for “Challenging Alarmism: John Maddox (1925–2009), RIP”

  1. Andrew  

    As usual, Tierney has written a great article.


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