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The madness of warming

Philosopher Martin Cohen finds an explanation for the global warming phenomenon in the madness of crowds.

Is belief in global-warming science another example of the "madness of crowds"? That strange but powerful social phenomenon, first described by Charles Mackay in 1841, turns a widely shared prejudice into an irresistible "authority". Could it indeed represent the final triumph of irrationality? After all, how rational is it to pass laws banning one kind of light bulb (and insisting on their replacement by ones filled with poisonous mercury vapour) in order to "save electricity", while ploughing money into schemes to run cars on ... electricity? How rational is it to pay the Russians once for fossil fuels, and a second time for permission (via carbon credits) to burn them...? And how rational is it to suppose that the effects of increased CO2 in the atmosphere take between 200 and 1,000 years to be felt, but that solutions can take effect almost instantaneously?

H/T Jonathan in the comments


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Reader Comments (23)

Hi Bish a story on MARK WADSWORTH BLOG

story emerging out of Britain suggests "follow the money" may explain the enthusiasm of the United Nations to pursue caps on carbon emissions, despite doubts surfacing in the scientific community about the validity of the underlying global warming hypothesis.

A Mumbai-based Indian multinational conglomerate with business ties to Rajendra K. Pachauri, the chairman since 2002 of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, stands to make several hundred million dollars in European Union carbon credits simply by closing a steel production facility in Britain with the loss of 1,700 jobs...


Dec 12, 2009 at 11:02 AM | Unregistered CommenterPeter Whale

Global warming is now a device for global redistribution of wealth. The experiment that has proved economically suicidal in countless nations is now to be applied globally. The apocalypse will be economic, not climatic.

Dec 12, 2009 at 11:29 AM | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Charles Mackay's "Extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds" is an excellent illumination of human nature. Although there are conspiratorial elements to the AGW saga, I have been viewing this as an extraordinary popular delusion more than a conspiracy ever since I read the book.

Dec 12, 2009 at 11:37 AM | Unregistered CommenterWasp

"And how rational is it to suppose that the effects of increased CO2 in the atmosphere take between 200 and 1,000 years to be felt, but that solutions can take effect almost instantaneously?"

No rational at all, given that all you have to do is look at the figures to see it isn't true. CO2 emitted into the atmosphere varies with the economic cycle, atmospheric CO2 goes up in a smooth exponential curve.

No indication at all that atmospheric is responding to output, instantaneously or otherwise.

Dec 12, 2009 at 11:52 AM | Unregistered CommenterRoue le Jour

I've now witnessed two debates on TV this week (the second one this morning on Sky News) during which a sceptic and warmist "scientist" debated AGW, and in both cases the AGW proponent totally lost their cool. The extreme agitation and anger displayed by the establishment scientists, to the extent that facial expressions were distorted, voice raised, and all reasoned argument abandoned, struck me as a demonstration of a psychosis. I can't recall seeing such behaviours from scientists before. A scientist, presumably well grounded in logic and the scientific method, and who should be intelligent enough to practice reasoned thought and capable of debating the evidence is perhaps the last type of person one might expect to descend to these levels.

What gives?

I agree that the wider public are experiencing the madness of crowds over the AGW issue, but I suspect that their priests and prophets are driven by different emotions. Greed, self gain and the exercise of power for the politicians (this of course goes without saying for anything these charlatans are involved in), and extreme anxiety caused by cognitive dissonance in the scientists. The latter are fully aware of the shenanigans that are routinely practiced in their profession (I'm an ex-R&D scientist of 30 years standing myself so I know all of the tricks), and must surely be torn apart mentally by the prostitution of their calling that they must practice to survive.

Dec 12, 2009 at 3:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterJohn East

follow the money, always follow the money . . .

"Fast-forward to today. It's early June in Washington, D.C. Barack Obama, a popular young politician whose leading private campaign donor was an investment bank called Goldman Sachs — its employees paid some $981,000 to his campaign — sits in the White House. Having seamlessly navigated the political minefield of the bailout era, Goldman is once again back to its old business, scouting out loopholes in a new government-created market with the aid of a new set of alumni occupying key government jobs.

Gone are Hank Paulson and Neel Kashkari; in their place are Treasury chief of staff Mark Patterson and CFTC chief Gary Gensler, both former Goldmanites. (Gensler was the firm's cohead of finance.) And instead of credit derivatives or oil futures or mortgage-backed CDOs, the new game in town, the next bubble, is in carbon credits — a booming trillion dollar market that barely even exists yet, but will if the Democratic Party that it gave $4,452,585 to in the last election manages to push into existence a groundbreaking new commodities bubble, disguised as an "environmental plan," called cap-and-trade."

Dec 12, 2009 at 3:07 PM | Unregistered CommenterFred

Charles Mackay's "Extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds" might also be called the Law of unintended consequences. Our sound bite politicians being unable to see or comprehend the "big picture" focus on things that 'sound good' or are being pushed by skilled lobbyists. The clipa bove refers to the banning of filament light bulbs - a classic case of unitended consequences where the polution issues are ignored, as are the increased disposal costs and the failure to address the "carbon budget" for the full product lifecycle. The latter issued might actaully show that at best the compact fluorescent bulbs are neutral acrosss their lifecycle, but given the cost of handling/recovering the mercury and other toxic chemicals in the bulbs they may actually be less energy efficient across the lifecycle.
As with all of the AGW scare - where is the evidence to support the banning of one product and its replacement with a more complex and poluting substitute.

Dec 12, 2009 at 3:17 PM | Unregistered CommenterNot Surprised

With regard to John East's comment, the following video shows how a true professional handles himself when ambushed:

Stay calm; smile; listen to the question; make your case... and some. The poor lad behind the camera never knew what hit him. He was obviously hoping for a groveling apology.

Would Al Gore be able to give such a reasoned response, in the street, and on-the-fly?

Dec 12, 2009 at 4:36 PM | Unregistered CommenterPops

Among the elite AGW proponents not madness but jealous defensive anger and some shoving at the trough. For the crowds, a standard mimetic contagion, now perhaps fading a bit. Though among the true believers not actually at the trough AGW retains a sacramental status.

Dec 12, 2009 at 4:38 PM | Unregistered CommenterMartin McPhillips

Judging by the last time there was a millennium (see Norman Cohn or Tom Holland) the madness lasts until a year or two after Christ's supposed death. So we're in for another 30 years of this tripe.

Dec 12, 2009 at 4:42 PM | Unregistered Commenterjames

While the insights of Charles Mackay and even Michael Crichton (in one of yesterday’s blogs) are quite good, they are not really new at all. Indeed, I can trace the concepts expressed back to1951, when I was just a lad. And indeed they undoubtedly go back much earlier. (Anyone have an Aristotle reference?)

Back in the 1950’s we had an ex-longshoreman/philosopher named Eric Hoffer. In 1951 he published his first of many insightful philosophical books, called The True-Believer

As far as I can tell, he had very little formal education, but spent much of his time reading. He was the classical self-educated man. We need more like him today

In this book, as I remember it, Eric believed that some of us are attracted to mass movements because the movement promises a wonderful and joyous future, and that as one mass movement fails to deliver the promise, they simply join another. In short, they have a deep-seated psychopathological need to “belong”. They are basically very, very insecure. This may well explain why the AGW refuse to debate in a reasonable manner and use such childish tactics as ad hominem attacks.

I find it interesting that Schneider, that great satan of warmism, was -- as pointed out by dearieme yesterday -- once the leading champion of the New Ice Age in 1971, and -- choke, choke, choke -- it was being caused by Carbon Dioxide!

Schneider S. & Rasool S., "Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide and Aerosols - Effects of Large Increases on Global Climate", Science, vol.173, 9 July 1971, p.138-141" (as quoted by dearieme yesterday. Since my copies of Science [I am a life time member] that old were left behind in a move years ago, I can’t verify it. But perhaps someone still at a university can).

If it weren’t for the trillions of dollars that will be wasted by the AGW movement, I would laugh at it. However, AGW is no laughing matter.

Dec 12, 2009 at 5:23 PM | Unregistered CommenterDon Pablo de la Sierra

The madness of warming

"We used ti think that climate change was caused by evil spirits living in clouds, or demons inhabiting trees, but now we know it caused by an evil dwarf living in the stomach of an alchemist in East Anglia."

Theodoric, Medieval Climatologist.

Dec 12, 2009 at 5:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterR Dunn

Richard North on EU Referendum describes it as more like a mental illness that has spread like a virus:-

"...the behaviour is symptomatic more of a disease, a mental illness. However, rarely is mental illness infectious, yet the plague which is affecting Brown shows signs of having spread so widely that it has become an epidemic, leading many otherwise rational people to obsess endlessly over an issue without substance, without good evidence to sustain it, and of a nature that – even if it was a problem – is insoluble by the means which are being devised to counter it.

Perhaps these people are being attacked by a new kind of virus, one which rots the particular part of the brain which controls judgement and perspective, leaving them prey to any wild passing notion, causing them to indulge in the irrational behaviour we are seeing.

If the disease was not so damaging to the common weal, one could almost feel pity for those afflicted, but such is its malign effect that the healthy are damaged to as great an extent as the victims."

And that is the BIG problem. These people will affect us as well as themselves in their rush for a "cure" for the ills of the planet.

One of Richard's solutions though drastic would be "....Ironically, if this was an animal disease, a selective cull might be in order" Unfortunately we aren't that lucky so maybe we need to find something else to counteract this madness.

And his post on the total irrelevance of the Western countries in the Copenhagen agreement is even more to the point. Clearly we in the West have to take our medicine while others in the East are immune to it all.

Dec 12, 2009 at 5:38 PM | Unregistered CommenterRossa

Found via

Richard Feynman's Commencement Address at CalTech in 1974 on 'Cargo Cult Science':

P 3/4 of the pdf tells how successive scientists paid too much attention to earlier experimental results (Millikan) and p 4/4 tells how later scientists ignored earlier work (Young).

'these things happen all the time.' (probably Douglas Adams)

Dec 12, 2009 at 6:06 PM | Unregistered CommenterDP

Don Pablo, Schneider's paper does not say what you imply: the abstract is publicly available and says

Effects on the global temperature of large increases in carbon dioxide and aerosol densities in the atmosphere of Earth have been computed. It is found that, although the addition of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere does increase the surface temperature, the rate of temperature increase diminishes with increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. For aerosols, however, the net effect of increase in density is to reduce the surface temperature of Earth. Because of the exponential dependence of the backscattering, the rate of temperature decrease is augmented with increasing aerosol content. An increase by only a factor of 4 in global aerosol background concentration may be sufficient to reduce the surface temperature by as much as 3.5 ° K. If sustained over a period of several years, such a temperature decrease over the whole globe is believed to be sufficient to trigger an ice age.

So yes, he discusses cooling, and yes, he discusses CO2, but he does not ascribe the cooling to CO2.

Dec 12, 2009 at 6:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterJonathan


Thank you for the clarification. As I indicted, I did not read the paper. However, I believe my point that he was once a leading advocate of global cooling is true.

The point of my post was regarding "true believers", which I believe is germane to the point being discussed in the blog.

Dec 12, 2009 at 9:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterDon Pablo de la Sierra

@Don Pablo: "I find it interesting that Schneider, that great satan of warmism, was -- as pointed out by dearieme yesterday -- once the leading champion of the New Ice Age in 1971.." Yes, I thought I had pointed it out but it seems to have vanished.

Dec 12, 2009 at 9:54 PM | Unregistered Commenterdearieme

While I'd agree with a lot of Cohen's points, both individually an about the flock mentality (This seems to be a Gore-ist iteration of "the politics of meaning"),

I think we do a great dis service to our selves and grossly under estimate the Anthropogenic warming believers, if we apply our own version of The Frankfurt School of Marxist Sociology's: "The Authoritarian Brain" to them.

That particular piece of pseudoscience paved the ways for the views or observations of anyone who disagreed with the true church of Marx's teachings to be dismissed as the rantings of a person with identifiable mental illness or who was born mentally deficient and was actually incapable of understanding the enlightened teachings of his mental superiors.

Yes, collectivist ideas still appeal to some people (even after the hundred and however many people who were murdered in their name last century, by marxist, fascist and national socialist varieties of collectivists alike) perhaps it really does "take a village [idiot]" for some people to feel happy with themselves.

Those useful idiots aside, we also have some well connected and very dangerous cynics and true believers at the head of this, and apparently some very serious financial and political rewards to them if they succeed.

Do not under estimate them, by applying a be-littling label, but do not take the counsel of your fears, their success is not "inevitable".

ok, minor sermon over

Dec 12, 2009 at 11:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterKeith

Booker is onto the Steel story today:

Dec 12, 2009 at 11:50 PM | Unregistered Commenterukipwebmaster

I don't think it's 'madness of the crowd', which is a short-term phenomenon which starts, acts then stops over a short space of time.

It's because people are social animals and the need to conform to a common view of reality, be it right or wrong, is built into our genes. We are also genetically programmed to obey our leaders.

Over the last 30 years in the western world science has become the new 'religion', and the belief in CAGW was easy to foster by politicians using the alarmist MSM.

This phenomenon is dangerous as it can last a long time, and dissonance will result when the CAGW house of cards is finally down. I wonder what the next fad will be?

Dec 13, 2009 at 7:13 AM | Unregistered CommenterTenuc

"Over the last 30 years in the western world science has become the new 'religion',

My personal take on it has The State as the new false god, ever since Bismark found that he could avoid political reform and openess by "giving" "public services" from taxation.

"Science" only gets used when a dog is needed to put the sheep into a pen for further shearing or slaughter.

Dec 13, 2009 at 10:31 AM | Unregistered Commenterconcerned

@Jonathan: I guess in that extract you quoted, you will not have failed to notice the sentence:

It is found that, although the addition of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere does increase the surface temperature, the rate of temperature increase diminishes with increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

So, now that he believes in overall warming and not overall cooling, I wonder if he still agrees with his own comment above, i.e. that the CO2-induced increase is essentially self-limiting?

Dec 13, 2009 at 7:37 PM | Unregistered CommenterMikeE

Well, if we are talking about the madness of crowds, Ben ("Bad Science") Goldacre has a word to say on the psychology:

Climate change? Well, we'll be dead by then

Goldacre has a slavish fan-club of groupie followers on his own website. He appears to position himself as a slightly radical, edgy commentator on the world of science. His main qualifications (and he's a well-qualified chap, I'll give him that) are in medicine, but he regularly speaks outside his area of expertise, and indeed admits in this piece that he is no climate science expert. His favourite theme is to have a go at alternative medicine. However, for all his slightly hip following, he cannot help revealing himself as a follower of the scientific mainstream in most areas, and it came as no surprise to me that he would side with the warmist cause.
The typical "denier" digs are couched with his particular brand of right-on smugness.

Dec 13, 2009 at 7:47 PM | Unregistered CommenterMikeE

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