This great article by Kathryn Schulz (formerly an editor with Grist) raises the question of what environmentalists have gotten wrong.
Schulz, who wrote BEING WRONG: ADVENTURES IN THE MARGIN OF ERROR (a book with an impressive Amazon rank, I might add), has become something of an expert on wrongness.
When someone suggested she write about incorrect environmental predictions, she agreed. However, as she writes "rather than look outward toward all the wrongheaded beliefs we've fought against, I thought: Why not look to our own mistakes? Justly or otherwise, environmentalists are already associated with self-righteousness, and that's hardly a reputation that I (or Grist) want to fan. Moreover, and perhaps more to the point, environmentalists are no more immune to error than the species as a whole."
Schulz poses a number of questions, to which readers can respond by email or in comments (which they do -- read them). The questions include the following:
"How do we know if our predictions were truly wrong, or if the predictions promoted actions that then averted feared outcomes? When the stakes are as high as they often are in this domain, is it more important to be careful than to be right -- that is, to 'err on the side of caution'? Is it legitimate to say (as many do with respect to the Ehrlich bet, among other environmental issues) that however wrong we seem now, we are simply off on the timing, and will be proved right in the long run? (And if so, why are we generally unimpressed when others use that 'long march of history' excuse?) Do we weaken our cause if we publicly acknowledge our mistakes? After all, while scientists, including environmental scientists, are often models of epistemological modesty, activists are often models of pragmatism -- willing to streamline or simplify the facts (and sometimes even obscure or distort them) in the interest of sending a compelling message."
Well, someone had to ask.