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Surprising Science

New Evidence That “Scared Straight” Doesn’t Work

Fear, guilt and shame often push people into coping behaviors, which ease the momentary pain, even as they hurt long-term. Smoking, for instance. Or binge-drinking. And one path to fear, guilt and shame is to hear that your smoking and drinking will make you ugly, sick and dead. Hence the surprising results of recent studies on ad campaigns aimed at scaring teen-agers away from binge drinking.

Instead of reducing the behavior, a recent Northwestern University study found, the ads made it increase. Similarly, dire health warnings on cigarette packages are also associated with more smoking.

All of which is on my mind because I’m attending a conference on the links between our little everyday behaviors and climate change here at the Garrison Institute. “Scared straight,” as a strategy for getting Americans to reduce their carbon “footprint,” has been a failure. When people hear the planet’s doomed, they don’t go start compost heaps; instead, they jump at invitations to avoid the whole subject.

And there’s evidence that gloom-and-doom hasn’t even worked to motivate the faithful—post-Copenhagen, many dedicated environmentalists are discouraged and perplexed.

Hence, I was deeply impressed last night when I heard the ecological entrepreneur Paul Hawken say a couple of things I never hear at meetings about global warming.

First, he said, Copenhagen was a great success. It brought 50,000 people, including most of the world’s heads of state, into talks about addressing the climate crisis. If people didn’t keep hearing about what wasn’t achieved there, they’d realize how much was.

Hawken’s other point made me feel as if a millstone had been removed from around my neck: No one knows how the future will turn out. We have no crystal balls. Instead, we have models and projections, which are tools that help estimate the probabilities of future events. By describing the uncertainties we face today, these models are supposed to help inform decisions that have to be made now, with incomplete information. They aren’t predictions; they aren’t sure to come to pass.

Forgetting this leads to scientific infantilism: The belief that science can be more sure than reality permits. And in a public arena full of claims that climate change is a hoax, scientists and their allies are under enormous pressure to pander. They don’t give themselves permission to say “we don’t know.” They really should.


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