Dangerous to silence sceptics

KARL DU FRESNE
Last updated 06:45 11/07/2014
deepwater Horizon
REUTERS

NOT SO APOCALYPTIC: Even when terrible things such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill have happened the eventual outcome has almost invariably been less apocalyptic than the prophets of doom foresaw.

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Karl du Fresne

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OPINION: For almost as long as I can remember, experts have been warning us to brace ourselves for catastrophe.

For decades it was the Cold War and the threat of nuclear obliteration that threatened us. In the 1970s we shuddered at the prospect of a nuclear winter, in which soot and smoke from nuclear warfare would condemn the planet to decades of frigid semi-darkness.

And who can forget the alarm generated by predictions that acid rain would denude vast areas of forest, kill marine life and even cause buildings to collapse? Other recurring doomsday predictions revolved around over-population and famine. As it turns out, the world now has more obese people than malnourished - a fact that has given the experts something new to harangue us about. There have been other scares, too, including Aids and the Millennium Bug. It was seriously predicted that the latter would create universal chaos the moment the clocks ticked past December 31, 1999.

We're still waiting for the grotesque mutations foreseen by opponents of genetic modification. And then there was peak oil, though the dismalists seem to have gone quiet on that too.

There are always experts loudly predicting the worst. But none of the above predictions came to pass, either because they were scientifically unsound or greatly exaggerated to start with, or because human ingenuity and good sense intervened.

Even when terrible things have happened - such as Chernobyl and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill - the eventual outcome has almost invariably been less apocalyptic than the prophets of doom foresaw.

In the circumstances, is it any surprise that people tune out when they hear the shrill cries of the global warming alarmists? The words "boy" and "wolf" come to mind.

The most worrying thing about global warming proponents is that many want to silence the other side - always a danger sign. They argue that because scientists who believe in climate change outnumber those who don't, newspapers shouldn't give space to sceptics.

The science is settled, the warmists cry. But back comes a quietly insistent reply: science is never settled. Scientists have got it wrong before. There was a time when the overwhelming weight of scholarly opinion was that the Sun revolved around the Earth. You challenged that consensus at your peril, as Galileo learned.

For decades, physicists believed the expansion of the universe was slowing down. Now they have concluded it's actually accelerating. So we need to leave open the possibility that experts can get things wrong, and we need sceptics to challenge established wisdom. The more we are panicked into believing we are at imminent risk from some existential threat, the more willing we are to allow "experts" and zealots to save us. And that's the scariest scenario of all.

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A nostalgic article in this paper recently reminded readers of how Rongotai Airport was built in the 1950s.

It involved flattening a substantial hill, moving 160 houses and bulldozing three million cubic metres of fill into the sea. Look at a photo of Evans Bay in the pre-airport era and it's almost unrecognisable. It was a massive undertaking that completely reshaped the landscape. I wonder how far the promoters of a project like that would get today. Not far, judging by the interminable delays faced by projects such as Transmission Gully, the Kapiti Expressway and the Basin Reserve overpass.

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Few people would argue for a return to the development practices of the 1950s, when the Ministry of Works was all-powerful. But you have to wonder whether the pendulum has swung too far the other way, to the point where public interest considerations routinely get swamped by the cries of objectors.

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Im ,u local medical centre recently I saw a sign in the men's toilet reminding people to wash their hands. That makes perfect sense, except for one thing - it was in Maori.

Does this imply that only Maori need to wash their hands, or perhaps that only Maori need to be reminded to wash their hands? In either case, Maori would be entitled to take offence.

If neither of those explanations applies, then what's the purpose? According to recent figures, only 9 per cent of Maori speak the language fluently.

The rest wouldn't have a clue what the notice says, were it not for an accompanying picture.

Virtually everyone, on the other hand, can read English. So wouldn't it make more sense to have a notice in the language that everyone understands?

My medical centre shouldn't be blamed for this patronising, expensive tokenism. My guess is the signs were issued by some useless but well-meaning government agency.

It's reassuring to know our taxes are being put to such good use.

- The Dominion Post

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