Why We Love Scary News Stories

By Larry Kummer – Re-Blogged From Fabius Maximus

Summary: A new chapter has begun in the climate wars. The reason why reveals something about America – about us – that we must know if we are to steer America to a safe and prosperous future.

“I want doomster news stories in this newspaper, and plenty of them!”


In 2017 a new phase in the “debate” about the public policy response to climate change began with publication of “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells in New York magazine – “Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak – sooner than you think.” It is typical alarmist propaganda – exaggerations, misrepresentations, with little context about the odds of these horrific things happening.

This has been the Left’s primary method of influencing Americans since the early 1970s. They have predicted the end times from pollution, resources running out, global famine, and other dooms long forgotten. The Right also uses this tool, with their scary stories about crime, national bankruptcy, evil minority groups, and terrorism. Why do they do it? This new chapter of the climate wars shows the answer. NYMag published a follow-up article that opens with what is most important to journalists, and explains why they love doomster stories.

“We published ‘The Uninhabitable Earth‘ on Sunday night, and the response since has been extraordinary — both in volume (it is already the most-read article in New York Magazine’s history) and in kind.”

So they expanded it into a book: The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. This was followed by many others. The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink by journalists Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank (2018). “The five ways the human race could be WIPED OUT because of global warming” by Rod Ardehali at the Daily Mail, a promo for Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by Bill McKibben. “Planet Earth Is Doomed. How Do I Go On?” by Liza Featherstone at The Nation. “Where our New World Begins: Power, politics, and the Green New Deal“ by Kevin Baker in Harper’s, May 2019 (debunked here). The latest is “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency” in Bioscience (a friendly outlet for climate doomsters).

These are weakly sourced, and have only a slight resemblance to anything published by NOAA or the IPCC. But science be damned. Fear sells. What counts in the real world are clicks, and the advertising dollars and political power that flow from them. Today editors across America are banging on desks, demanding that their reporters write stories about the very certain death to everybody coming very soon. Special interest groups from coast to coast are preparing press releases about the looming disasters requiring that we give them money and power.

Today climate activists are popping Champaign corks, convinced that the public’s interest in climate doomster stories means more support for their political agenda. Are they right?

Janet Leigh in "Psycho"

Why we love doomster stories

“The key to a great story is not who, what, or when, but Why?”
— Eliot Carver, media magnate in Tomorrow Never Dies.

These stories have seldom succeeded in changing US public policy (see Focusing on worst case climate futures doesn’t work. It shouldn’t work). But why do we love alarmists propaganda, yet not act upon them? Peter Moore gave a clue in the March 1987 issue of Playboy (yes, it also had great pictures): “The Crisis Crisis”. The opening tells the tale.

“America today is suffering an epidemic of nation-sweeping events unseen since the Biblical plagues in Egypt. In the attack of the killer trends, we are terrified on Monday by a crisis we scarcely knew existed the previous Friday, and Monday’s dark portent, in turn, gives way to the next week’s hysteria.

“In horrific succession, herpes anxiety is overtaken by the plague of AIDS, which is followed by the shocking specter of Third World debt. After a brief but chilly nuclear winter, we are threatened by our own national-debt crisis and devastated by starvation in Ethiopia; then it’s back to our leaky ozone layer. Terrorists are suddenly in our midst, then the homeless – until all is swept away by crack mania.

“The problems appear, the alarms sound, the cover stories and the special reports proliferate. Then the media lose interest, and it’s on to the next disaster. The phenomenon is so pernicious, it’s worthy of a cover story all its own. Call it the Crisis Crisis.”

This shows the key to understanding these outbreaks of fear: we don’t change our behavior in response to these crises because they are entertainment to us.

This explains American’s odd disinterest in experts’ past record of failed predictions and bad advice (e.g., Paul Ehrlich on the Left, Larry Kudlow on the Right). We do not care if what we read about the world is accurate, since we have no intention of using this information. A collector of maps doesn’t ask if the maps are correct; they want pretty old maps – with colorful dragons on edges. Only those navigating to a destination demand accurate charts.

Most media firms target America’s outer party – the large body of Americans interested in current events and with the income to attract advertisers (e.g., professionals, managers, business owners). They understand what we want, and so provide a mirror in which we can see ourselves. We want simple exciting stories that provide entertainment and catharsis. Horror stories does this well, whether about natural disasters, man-made disasters, or disasters caused by supernatural evil. We love them all!

So special interest groups manufacture visions of doom, hoping to gain attention to their cause. Journalists turn them into exciting stories for our entertainment. The 1% watch and laugh. Politically ineffectual, we want to believe ourselves engaged. So we read this “news” to become well-informed and write posts or comments (21st C letters to the editor) — fun, easy citizenship! See details about this process here. Look to the past to clearly see it how it works.

Visions from 1971 about the wrecked world of today

"Los Angeles: AD 2017" by Philip WylieAvailable at Amazon.

On 15 January 1971 Americans watched the TV show “L.A. 2017”, an episode of The Name of the Game. Directed by the 24-year old Steven Spielberg, it described a horrific world 46 years in the future (2017), after pollution destroyed the Earth’s ecology and forced the remnants of humanity underground. For more about the plot see this. It was written by Philip Wylie, who novelized it as Los Angeles: A.D. 2017. See a review here.

In 1971 we read about our horrific future of 2000 AD in a serious journal, the New Scientist: “In Praise of Prophets” by Bernard Dixon.

“If current trends continue by the year 2000 the United Kingdom will simply be a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people, of little or no concern to the other 5-7 billion inhabitants of a sick world. …If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.”

— Paul R. Ehrlich speaking in London at the Institute of Biology.

Ehrlich also predicted worldwide plague, thermonuclear war, death of the seas, “rocketing” death rates, and ecological catastrophe. Dixon reported that “the audience loved it and gasped for more”. Just like today, as we applaud and cry for more doomster stories about the climate armageddon.

These scare tactics accomplished nothing. The first of great laws regulating air and water pollution were enacted in the 1960s, before these tactics became widespread. The EPA was created in 1970. These stories seemed powerful because they extrapolated past trends into the future, ignoring countermeasures that had already begun. Just as today’s climate doomsters ignore the replacement of coal by cleaner sources and the even better sources under development (details here).

Then and now, scary stories are fun. But a people who take them seriously, even as guides to public policy, are to be pitied.

No Fear


Special interest groups manufacture propaganda to fool us. We fool them by enjoying it, furiously debating it amongst ourselves, crying in fear – but not acting upon it. This is a pitiful story. It is the behavior of peons, not citizens. The solution lies in our hands, becoming citizens interested in truth and assuming responsibility for America. Rationally assessing threats and acting on them as boldly and decisively as needed.

  1. Important advice: Learning skepticism, an essential skill for citizenship in 21st century America. About “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof”.
  2. We live in an age of ignorance, but can decide to fix this – today.
  3. Remembering is the first step to learning. Living in the now is ignorance.
  4. We face too many threats. Let’s respond rationally! – A simple first step.


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