It was in the news off and on for the past decade, it is one of those things "everyone" knows is true, it is yet another sign of the impending environmental catastrophe, it is Colony Collapse Disorder, the sudden disappearance of large number of bees, and, it will spell the end of most bee pollinated plants, and perhaps change the face of the globe.
Except it won't.
The media loves the tale of the disappearing bees, the sudden deaths of tremendous numbers, the threat of extinction. The only problem is, it is not true. Or, rather, there is a grain of truth, but it is nothing like the story pushed by the media (and echoed by anti-pesticide activists). Nor is this akin to the questioning if Anthropogenic Global Warming, where there are a host of scientists willing to call skeptics "conspiracy theorists." In this case, the entire press tale rests on one lone scientist, not even an entomologist, and one study so bad no reputable journal would publish it, with the other side including virtually every entomologist, bee keeper and backed by every private and government study. Thus, it is not some fringe position to doubt CCD, it is fringe to believe in it as the media does.
Well, let us establish a few facts. First, the sudden disappearance of bees, or rather the discovery of empty hives, has gone on since at least the 19th century, as new articles record it as far back as the 1860s, and odds are good it probably goes back as far as human cohabitation with bees. Thus, CCD is nothing new, just a sensational new name for an old phenomenon. Nor is the cause "unknown". Yes, science cannot establish it with certainty, but most experts feel confident that it is the result of an outbreak of mites, especially as the recent (and now finished) occurrence matches well with such an outbreak.Nor is there any reason to assume the favorite villain pesticides (in this case neonicitinoids) are to blame, if anything they are better for bees than the more toxic substitutes used in Europe due to a kneejerk, and unsupported, ban on neonicitinoid pesticides. Other than the absurd study that started the media scare (which proved only massive doses of insecticides kill bees), every study shows minimal harm to, in a number of cases, some benefit, possibly due to killing those mites mentioned earlier. And finally, bees are not going extinct. In fact, their numbers are at a 20 year high. Granted, they are not at the levels of the 1940s and 1950s when US government subsidies resulted in a huge number of beehives, but for the post-subsidy era they are quite high. There have been some regional declines, but most have rebounded. In short, the population has fluctuated, but there is nothing even close to an extinction.
I mention all of this, as it matches up quite well with a number of other "crises" we have experienced, all of which resulted in media hysteria, and a few in government action, which later (or even at the time in one case) were shown to be the result of bad science, without a hint of justification.
Take DDT for example. The hype there was probably the most effective ever -- though the beepocalypse is coming close -- even today people seem to believe DDT is inordinately dangerous and cringe when hearing about lifting restrictions. But, the truth is, even when it was banned in 1970, the majority of scientists agreed there were minimal to no risks to humans, that environmental persistence was without substantial risk, and even the biggest threat touted about DDT, bird eggshell thinning, was due to environmental causes, and had no relationship to DDT. For that matter, even the very EPA that banned it admitted that the science was far from clear, but they felt the need to go through with the ban to "flex their muscles" and establish the EPA as a valid agency.
As a result, worldwide cases of malaria, which had fallen from 10s of million per year to tens of thousands (or sometimes less), rose into the millions once again, and we are even now seeing charities begging for mosquito netting to vainly try to stem the tide of malaria.
Alar was less harmful, but also had even less foundation. Again, a poorly designed study found harm, but in this case only in doses so massive that a human would need to drink tens of thousands of gallons of juice daily to match them, and yet the media, either from scientific illiteracy or desire for headlines, ignored the absurdly high dose required and presented the story as if Alar were a real threat to humans. Of course, there are countless issues with this. First, Alar is a hormone, a growth regulator, and so it is applied long before harvest and remains in the most minute of doses. Thus, the amount a human could conceivably consume would be infinitesimal. But that did not stop the researchers, or the press. And, being an example of both the much maligned "pesticides' (actually a growth regulator) and one of those "unnecessary chemicals" (as it only prevents fruits from dropping before ripe) it made for a good eco-narrative. no matter it wasn't true. The story was good enough that it pretty much killed Alar, despite there being no risk.
Saccharine is one of those rare cases where the hype actually might have been justified at the time, or at least had not yet been disproved, and, more amazing yet, when evidence pointed the opposite direction, regulators actually backed off, though, by that time, public perception had been greatly distorted.
The case against saccharine came in the form of a few studies indicating, when fed to rats, saccharine would cause bladder cancer. There were some problems with these early studies, they could only be reproduced in rats, not other test animals, and it seemed to occur only in female rats, but the results could be reproduced, so, in the spirit of "why remain calm when you can panic", the media and regulators jumped to the conclusion saccharine was a carcinogen, slapping on screaming warning labels, making it most unlikely people would buy products sweetened with saccharine.
Some time later, in the course of trying to reconcile the inconsistent results, researchers discovered that saccharine does cause cancer, in female rats, and only in female rats. Because female rats have an exceptionally high amount of protein in their urine, saccharine tends to crystallize, causing scoring to the bladder lining. Because rats are more prone to cancerous mutations than humans, the increased tissue damage increases cytogenesis which also increases the opportunities for cancer growth. As a result, in female rats, and only female rats, saccharine is a carcinogen.
Amazingly, the regulators backed off on claims of carcinogen status, and saccharine's name was cleared, at least in terms of warnings and regulations. Unfortunately, there is not much of a story for the media in reporting something is not dangerous, and so the story never really got much publicity, and much of the public still believes the original reports of saccharine's cancer causing properties.
Perhaps the most common target for contemporary fear mongers (other than vaccines and pesticides*) is GMOs. I have written extensively about this topic, in "GMO? So What?", "A Misleading 'Right to Know'", "GMO Revisited - As Well as Hormones,Soy, Phytoestrogens, and a Host of Other Food Scares", "'Better Safe Than Sorry' Usually Leaves Us Even More Sorry, And Much Less Safe", ""Better Safe Than Sorry" Revisited", "Why 'Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst' is Bad Policy", "A Bit of Support From the Skeptics" and "A Thought on Natural and Artificial", so I will not go into great detail here, but it is worth looking at the facts.
There is no difference between genetic modification done in a lab and that done by selective breeding, or caused by mutations or trans-species genetic donation in the wild. There is no record of any harm done by GMOs that is not akin to that done by unmodified foods. In fact, selective breeding of potatoes and celery have caused more problems than are recorded for GMOs.
But that has not stopped the press from pushing these unfounded worries, talking portentously of possible problems that have no basis in reality. Thanks to the same absurd beliefs behind the "organic" movement, the belief that somehow things are better if "natural"***, we are now subject to, not just tales of doom, but tales of doom founded on nothing but the fact a given activist can imagine some outcome total unrelated to real life probabilities. And on this basis, the government has considered pointless labeling laws, or possibly even bans. It boggles the mind.
Which brings me to my last subject for today, not a crisis that wasn't, but one that will never be.
For a time, there was a fascination on YouTube and internet "click bait" sites with lists of ways the Earth could "be destroyed". Among these, one of the most popular was a "Gamma Ray Burst". Thanks to these lists, and many, many people with a small understanding of astronomy and an inordinate fear of radiation (along with a love of sensational tales), it has become "common knowledge" that such bursts are capable of destroying all life on Earth, boiling off seas, destroying the atmosphere and so on. Ask on any internet answer site what will happen, and (except for one or two people who know how to look up citations and present more sensible replies) you will be flooded with dire tales -- none of which agree with each other, but no one seems to mind that detail. From boiling oceans to radiation killing all life, to global cooling and ice ages, acid rain, ozone destruction, the destruction of the lithosphere and to the formation of nitrogen compounds which are powerful enough for "one molecule to destroy a mile of ozone"**, there is apparently no limit to the potential harm gamma ray bursts can do.
Well, unless you read the scientists. Yes, there is a small minority blaming such a burst for an extinction event, but obviously they do not believe it boiled off oceans or killed all life, so even this minority has a realistic view of the power of such a burst, seeing it as responsible for changes in environment leading to extinction. Excluding that group, most scientists believe a gamma ray burst, aside from being very rare and incredibly unlikely to strike Earth, would, if the unlikely happens, largely be attenuated by the atmosphere, with the negative effects mostly limited to chemical reactions in the ozone.
But, never let it be said the internet will let reality destroy a good story. Despite the fact the internet "experts" predict wildly different and mutually exclusive outcomes, despite the fact there is zero scientific support, despite the often too credulous Wikipedia even rejecting the scare stories****, the tale remains that a gamma ray burst will wipe out all life. And the public, by and large, believes the internet hype, not the science.
No doubt, there are many other examples I could give, in most cases pushed by a media more interested in sensational headlines than accuracy, and supported by interested parties from environmentalists, to anti-pesticide crusaders, to anti-vaccination campaigners, to liability lawyers and others, all with an agenda which finds the hype agreeable. It seems, for whatever reason, our current generation has become incredibly risk averse, and, thanks to this propensity, has come to accept that even the most remote risk, demonstrated by even the most flimsy evidence, is enough to support action. As I said elsewhere, they have adopted the maxim "better safe than sorry", but in such a way that they simply cannot accept even the most unlikely threat.
I shall likely revisit this topic in the future, perhaps looking at it in some other contexts, as it is not just environmental risks that are treated in this manner. In fact, many bad political ideas are founded upon the quest to eliminate all risk of hardship. From the Federal Reserve to Social Security to Medicare/Medicaid, much of our political environment is shaped by political analogues to these environmental and dietary worries.
* It is difficult to say whether vaccines, pesticides or GMOs top the list of scare mongers' bogeymen. Thimerosal was in vogue for a while, and since it was used in vaccines, the anti-vaccination campaign gained some prominence. And the organics movement never tires of reciting a litany of dubious claims against pesticides, which are often echoed by credulous reporters and YouTube videos. On the other hand, GMOs probably have been the object of the most absurd and unfounded claims, mainly because most of the fear is founded on lack of knowledge, giving professional worries free rein to come up with absurd potential risks. On the other hand, thanks to internet videos, chain emails and gullible reporters, there is hardly a modern baseless worry -- from the "risks" of cola to the "danger" of "pink slime" -- that has not been repeated ad nauseam. And, sadly, we also seem to live in a credulous age, where the vast majority has adopted a distorted belief in "better safe than sorry", giving even the most far fetched fear mongering far too much credit with the public (and sometimes law makers). (Cf ""Better Safe Than Sorry" Usually Leaves Us Even More Sorry, And Much Less Safe".)
** Besides the fact that a mile is not a unit of volume, and thus meaningless here, I cannot imagine a compound capable of the feat this implies. Even assuming it means an area one mile thick, with a much smaller surface area, one molecule destroying that much ozone goes far beyond "improbable". I suppose if it were a catalyst, but that would require some other agent, so it still makes no sense. (And one molecule of a catalyst still seems far too little for such a massive amount of gas.)
*** "Natural" is like "fair" a term with no meaning, which can be made to suit whatever purpose the speaker wants. See "The Most Misleading Word", "Luxury and Necessity", "Res Ipsa Loquitur", "A Question of Fairness", "Protean Terminology", "One More Meaningless Word and Its Consequences", "Confucius, Aedes Aegypti, Pluto, Sub-Species, Conservatives and Republicans", "Misunderstanding Arbitrary Definitions", "Weasel Words and Hollow Words", "Semantic Games", "Misleading Terminology", "Smoking Versus Sex -- Want and Need Take Two", "Can We Ban the Word 'Scarce'?", "Government by Emotion" and "Selfishness as Reason - 'Wants', 'Needs', 'Fairness' and Other Guises for Arbitrary Decisions".
**** I am no fan of Wikipedia, but in this case it does get the science right, and refuses, quite rightly, to accept citations of unfounded internet scare stories. If only it were so sensible in other cases. For a discussion of my complaints about Wikipedia see "Misplaced Emphasis", "A Wikipedia Amusement", "Revisionism Strikes Again", "The Failure of Wikipedia", "Wikipedia?", "Wikipedia Absurdity, Or How To Create Your Own Citation", "Stop Confusing Me With The Facts!", "Mystery Quotes", "Opinion Masquerading as Fact", "Endangered Species", "Some Libertarian Analogies", "Proof Positive", "Revealing Too Much", "Why People Don't Take Academics Seriously", "Deceiving Themselves?", "A Question About Language", "Roman Legions, Hopscotch, Killer Gays, 'Got AIDS Yet', WMDs and a 'Damn Piece of Paper'", "Grind Those Axes, Wiki Editors!", "The Power of Myth on the Internet", "Why I Won't Be Contributing to Wikipedia", "The Tragedy of the Creative Commons", "A Near Perfect Definition", "The Taxonomy of Trivia", "Backwards Thinking and the Number of the Beast" and "Wikipedia, Beggars, Stray Dogs and Prostitutes".
It is interesting that those writing criticism of these worries often treat those of us who are dubious of the most extreme AGW claims as "conspiracy nuts", even though the more extreme AGW claims are closer to these sky is falling scenarios than valid science. But then again, people also lump together all criticism -- from those of us who think the models use excessive feedback, or base their findings on poorly chosen temperature proxies, to those who believe the entire AGW theory is a political plot -- as if it were the same, which is an effective way to silence dissent, but not good science. For example, is it "conspiracy theory" to point out the M & M "hockey stick" chart from the IPCC report is missing both the Medieval Warm Period and Little Ice Age? Or that M & M still will not reveal their full methodology or the way they "adjusted" their sources to get their results? It is remarkably unfair to treat all criticism as if it were the most extreme version. But that is a topic for another essay. (For a brief synopsis of my concerns, see the postscript to "Both Sides Now".)