Thursday, January 19, 2017

Catastrophes and catastrophism

Chernobyl disaster
From time to time catastrophes occur, usually unforeseen, sometimes causing tremendous damage. Let's look at some relatively recent ones:
  • July 28, 1976: Tangshan Earthquake (China), intensity 7.5 on the Richter scale. The official death toll was 249,419, though some say it was actually three times as big.
  • December 3, 1984: Bhopal disaster, a leakage of methyl isocyanate from a pesticide factory that caused some 20,000 deaths and affected about 600,000 people.
  • 26 April 1986: Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Disaster, which caused 31 direct casualties. It is estimated that the number of deferred deaths due to the effects of radiation could approach 80,000, although the estimates may not be reliable.
  • December 26, 2004: Indian Ocean Tsunami, which killed about 250,000 people (figures vary) in 14 countries (especially Indonesia).
  • August 29, 2005: Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The official death toll was 1464, plus over one million people displaced.
  • January 12, 2010: Haiti earthquake, one of the most damaging catastrophes in history, with 200,000 to 300,000 dead and over one million people affected.
  • March 11, 2011: Tohoku Tsunami, which caused the disaster of the Fukushima nuclear power plant and between 15,000 and 20,000 victims.
Something quite different is alarmist catastrophism, the prediction of future catastrophes that often never occur. Here are a few recent examples, all of them due to a (bad) use of science:
  • During the 1990s, many scientific and journalistic articles were published on the year 2000 effect, a global computer catastrophe that would take place on January 1 of that year, when almost all the world’s computer applications would cease to function due to the fact that they used just two figures to specify the year, and it is clear that number 00 (corresponding to the year 2000) does not follow 99, as it should. Among the catastrophic predictions was a total collapse of banking services (which would leave us without any money) and major problems for airlines (we would be unable to travel, and many accidents could happen as a consequence of this effect). The reality was quite different, with just a few negative effects, for the software of almost all major applications had been corrected before that date.
  • In late 2000 and early 2001, a panic wave spread throughout Europe about bovine spongiform encephalopathy, a disease better known by the name of mad cow syndrome. Alarmism was caused by the media, which asserted that the disease was about to become a pandemic, with hundreds of thousands humans infected. Also in this case what happened was very different: the total number of persons affected by this disease was 229.
  • Another pandemic that never existed was avian influenza (caused by the H5N1 strain), which when transmitted to humans (in very rare cases) causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Between 2003 and 2005, the media and some scientists became alarmist, warning that a series of mutations would lead to the appearance of a strain of the flu virus as deadly as that which in 1918 caused the so-called Spanish flu. Such mutations have not happened, and as for SARS, the total number of deaths worldwide in the years of its boom was 78.
  • In 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared for the first time in its history a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), the so-called swine flu, caused by the H1N1 strain. The WHO was heavily criticized for having given rise to a worldwide panic. The pandemic was officially declared finished in August 2010, and the WHO estimated that the total number of fatalities because of this strain in over one year amounted to 284,500 people. As a comparison, the number of yearly worldwide deaths from influenza is estimated at between half a million and one million people.
  • Stephen Hawking has been predicting that we are about to destroy ourselves, and that our only solution is sending colonies to planetary systems other than our own, so that, if we self-destruct, a few will be saved.
  • As I mentioned in another article on this blog, the UN has been making catastrophic forecasts for the increase in world population, especially in Africa, despite the fact that the turning point in the population increase was crossed in 1985. To justify these predictions, some of the estimates assume that the number of children per woman in Africa, which is high, but has been reduced from 6.7 to 4.8 since 1950 (the replacement level is at 2.1), will remain at its present value until the year 2100 without further reduction.
 Next week we’ll speak some more about the future.

The same post in Spanish
Thematic Thread on Popularization of SciencePrevious Next
Manuel Alfonseca

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