This short paper first appeared in the journal Technological Forecasting and Social Change 62:119-120, 1999.

Dis the Threat Industry

Jesse H. Ausubel

The CIA for decades overstated the size of the Soviet economy and thus its threat to the USA. Worldwatchers have yearly forecast a food crisis from the exhaustion of soil or oil since the early 1970s. The Wall Street Journal editorial pages daily scare entrepreneurs with multiplying regulations stifling markets. What should we make of currently touted threats such as germ warfare, global warming, and a graying population?

I answer “Dis the Threat Industry,” using youth’s short form of “Disrespect.” The Threat Industry has always done good business. Recall the 40-year career of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah beginning 629 BCE. The scale is new, and the highly developed symbiosis with experts, including natural and social scientists.

For scale, consider the endeavor to find and predict “Global Change,” especially human-induced climate change. Each year the world spends $2 billion on it. At $100,000 per person-year 20,000 people are searching full-time. Searching for something that in any case fluctuates, such battalions cannot fail.

Indeed, they dare not. Funders look the fools if they expend for nothing. The sustainability of the endeavor, that is, the jobs of the managers and the searchers, depends on finding something. And the career of a searcher flourishes with a positive result. Journals publish few papers saying “I searched for years, spent much, and found nothing.” Critics of strong assertions of discoveries of global change are marginalized as “contrarians.” In general, smiling in the face of threats and naysaying make for a lonely, impoverished career.

Diminishing a problem unemploys not only experts and their publicists. Threats beget threat removal industries. Fears about asbestos created the asbestos removal industry, which in turn needed to feed fear of asbestos. Environmental protection agencies feared to reverse themselves, even as evidence for the removal programs itself got removed. So the game continues.

Indeed, threats find curiously cooperative ways to grow. The CIA overstatements boosted the USA military, whose growth in turn justified the Soviet military’s growth, which then further nourished the budgets of its USA counterpart. The Cold War shows how hard it is to break a threat cycle. Threats can make symbiotic enemies.

Of course, the USA and USSR truly did endanger one another. And I am not saying disbelieve global warming or ignore anthrax. I do say understand the biases inherent in assessments and forecasts. Germ warfare will sustain large military budgets.

We are accustomed to filtering the words of experts receiving rich fees from private companies. We need to become more sensitive to the bias of large chunks of academia funded to document threats by government and to the growing, vocal number living from other non-profit sources and means. Television evangelists weekly prophesy an upcoming Last Judgement and wrest checks. So do environmentalists. Our governments and tax-laws have created a flourishing business in threat legitimation. Today Jeremiah would lead a large institute.

So, follow the money and the public and peer approbation. Calibrate threats accordingly. The collapse of the USSR showed the Western Threat Industry overstated by about a factor of three. Dividing by three could prove a rule of thumb.

Fortunately, many threats have simply crumbled against time. The Threat Industry will not. Society appears subject to a Law of Conservation of Concern. Editors fill the front page of the newspaper everyday. Moreover, threateners contend they must inflate their claims to compete.

And a few threats prove worse than assessed. Both supporters of slavery and abolitionists in the pre-Civil War USA underestimated its malignant, enduring legacy. We need to learn better to separate slavery from steam engines, whose dangers also made headlines in the 1840s and 1850s. And we need to separate the real, manageable problems of exploding engines from the apocrypha of witches and weak magnetic fields.

Today, I do fear that a graying population will wreck social security. But I treasure the contrarians who contest that view. Science, like democracy, can thrive only with a loyal, tough opposition. Dis the Threat Industry.