A Thought Catastrophe

January 1, 2010

Aw hell. I sit down at my computer for a millisecond, nursing my hangover, only to read in the New York Times an inane snippet of garbage from a self-promoting windbag in my own discipline. Here, enjoy this preposterous goody-sack of bullshit to welcome in the New Year. It’s written by Denis Dutton, philosopher (AOS, aesthetics) at the University of Canterbury. You probably know him better from his editorship of the otherwise very nice Arts and Letters Daily, an online clearinghouse with links to good reading.

I won’t bore you with the boring stuff (which is most of it), but the gist of the essay is that, oops, Y2K was ridiculous. Isn’t it ha-ha funny how worried people were about the end of the world back in 1999? We were so dumb and gullible back then.

Now that Y2K has been shown to be a farce, it only stands to reason that all other worries about the end of the world are similarly ha-ha funny. Dutton’s reasoning, I submit, is impeccable. Catastrophes simply don’t happen. Y2K demonstrates this.

All that worry about a nuclear winter? How dumb. Didn’t happen, wasn’t going to happen. The 1980s anti-nuke activists were a tittering cabal of sissies. Chatter from Central Asia about planes and buildings got you concerned? Never you mind, it’s idle hysteria. Nothing could ever happen. Catastrophism is an elixir of the masses. Bell-ringers in Louisiana scaring your children with fables of impending hurricanes and floods? Don’t sweat it. That’s just a few self-interested fraidy-cats drumming up fear. There’s never been a catastrophe ever at all in the world. Never will be. Y2K tells us everything we need to know about periods of public hysteria. Evidence be damned.

And yes, you know where this is going.

As if on cue, in the last few paragraphs of his asinine mental flatulation, he throws an elbow into “climate catastrophism,” though he doesn’t elaborate much. That’s probably a good thing, because he doesn’t seem to have much to elaborate on. What you get is just “his view.”

Don’t get me wrong, I think the calamity frame is a serious problem for the climate debate. That’s not what bothers me about this essay. What bothers me is his stupid fracking hasty generalization that somehow Y2K serves as an extrapolatable case study in catastrophe hysteria. If you haven’t yet gotten the picture, this is a very weak argument.

(Yes, I have a hangover and yes, I’m cranky.)

UPDATE: Looks like Joe Romm sunk his teeth into this piece a few hours before I did.


  1. Yeah, but you called it better than Joe Romm… thank you for refreshingly frank language.

    I usually like the NYTimes, but when they support such idiotic toadies like Dutton and stoop to delivering such rotten pandering crap, they taint themselves with a bad smell.

    And BTW the Arts and Letters people also fund the scam propaganda site of http://climatedebatedaily.com/ which pretends to offer a “balanced debate” of global warming. Heavily financed by denialist ideologue industrialists. Their coal is to sustain doubt. But to me it looks like high treason sell out of our future.

    Oh gawd, I need a drink now. Just what is the carbon footprint of vodka?

  2. Dutton has been at this game for years, as evidenced by his Climate Debate Daily project.

    Re the calamity frame, see my comments over at CP. The problem is that there is an all-too-plausible calamity lurking in the weeds.

  3. Actually, Y2K wasn’t a farce, because a lot of highly talented multilingual software archeologists busted their asses for the years, months, weeks and days preceding the event, reading, analyzing and modifying utterly ridiculous legacy code to limit the problems, and isolate any mission critical from the phenomenon.

  4. I was amazed by that editorial–especially the ending. I had no idea Denis Dutton was climate change-challenged.

  5. Some of Y2K wasn’t a farce, some was. Journalists claiming airplanes would fall from the sky was farce, but a lot of financial software would have screwed up if not for the effort that Thomas Elifritz mentioned.

    However, a properly constructed Y2K metaphor would actually support a high level of concern over global warming. The proper comparison is: If you asked a cross-section of (software) experts what would happen, and you asked them in 1991, 1992, 1993, etc., and tracked their answers, you would have gotten pretty good answers starting with “Well, civilization won’t fall, but we’ve got a lot of work to do if banks are going to calculate interest correctly…” and winding up in 1999 with “It’s going to be a total non-event. A few glitches will be found in non-important systems but almost no one will notice.” (I can attest to having given that answer in late 1999 to an in-law who wanted to know if she should run up her credit cards.) So, experts (not journalists) were generally right about Y2K. And guess what? Experts, like the thousands of researchers summarized by the IPCC, are almost certainly mostly right about AGW.

  6. Somehow the philosophy connection to climatedebatedaily has completely escaped my radar. What’s astonishing to me about the essay is that it’s such an elementary error in reasoning — logic 101 stuff.

    I’ll be sure to check with them more regularly.

  7. It’s a newspaper. They use it to wrap fish.

    • That and line bird cages.

  8. Is there a reason my on-topic comment with no links or spam-like language doesn’t appear? It definitely submitted because WordPress says it’s a duplicate if I try again. And Ben’s been online, so it’s not some sort of moderation thing … I don’t think.

    • Not sure what happened. Both of your comments went into my spam filter, which I usually don’t check. Comments here aren’t moderated in the slightest. I let everything through.

  9. Y2K aside, Dutton does have a point that apocalyptic scenarios are counterproductive. Dr. Vicky Pope, Pope, head of climate change advice at the Met Office, agrees:

    “Having to rein in extraordinary claims that the latest extreme [event] is all due to climate change is at best hugely frustrating and at worse enormously distracting. Overplaying natural variations in the weather as climate change is just as much a distortion of science as underplaying them to claim that climate change has stopped or is not happening.”

  10. Catastrophism is really a very interesting issue. I came onto it when learning about the repeated humungous floods that hit my home region (the Columbia River Gorge) at the end of the last Ice Age. My home is 600 feet above the Columbia, but the floodwaters reached hundreds of feet above my house. That was a catastrophe for anybody or living thing in the area.

    Science refused to accept the theory for many decades after it was proposed. They has some good reasons to be skeptical. But as evidence increased it was accepted. A similar process followed the theory that an asteroid killed off the dinosaurs.

    Anti-catastrophism followed the early years of Euro-based science when the raison d’etre of science was to find proof of the events in the bible. And the bible did not suggest that the Grand Canyon was carved by a little river (If you live next to the Columbia, the Colorado is little).

    As we learned that many things evolved very slowly in time scales that were in those days inconceivable, science came to see catastrophes as unscientific and sloppy. Just because we didn’t know why something happened doesn’t mean that God (or mother nature) did it instantaneously. That was a good lesson but the pendulum swung a bit too far.

    It is now widely accepted that an asteroid hit 65 million years ago and the Bretz Floods of 10,000 years ago are also accepted. Science has not had an easy time figuring out the proper balance of acceptance vs resistance to catastrophes. Y2K is indeed a bad example, mainly because it dealt minimally with processes of nature. I don’t think there was much peer review involved.

  11. “What you get is just “his view.””

    Were you expecting something else from an editorial?

    • Not particularly. It’s just that “his view” can be a screen for very stupid ideas masquerading as sensible ideas.

      I’d prefer my editorials to be somewhat more rooted in reason.

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