‘Monsters University’ is real — I work there

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“The odds are no better than 50/50 that our present civilization [i.e. humans] will survive to the end of the present century.”  –Sir Martin Rees, Professor, University of Cambridge

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  –Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt

What if those scary Halloween monsters … were real?

That’s the premise of the movie “Monsters, Inc,” where the monsters work year-round. And they don’t just extort candy. Their entire world runs on “Scream Power” — let’s simply call it “Scare Power” — and harvesting it is even more productive than fracking. We see in the more recent “Monsters University” that “it takes a University” to make the Scare Power industry work.

The heart of Monsters U. is its famous School of Scaring. All the elite students aspire to learn the art of being a great scarer. Those who succeed will become the celebrity leaders of monster society. But remove the fearsome tentacles, horns and claws, and it becomes clear that Monsters U. is more familiar than it seems. In fact, for years I’ve been working there.

I’m grateful for my permanent faculty job. Nonetheless, I have to admit that my research university could adopt the same motto as one might see at Monsters University: “Power and Glory Through Scaring.” (Neither school has enough real old-time scholars to bother translating that into Latin.) The movie points out that there are many ways to scare 21st-century humans, and not just children, but also their childlike parents, who have become more sensitized to scary stuff. Most of our leading academic thinkers have found it professionally useful to portray the world as a surprisingly dangerous, indeed toxic, place.

According to the social science experts at my university, the ordinary people beyond their gates are hardly capable of managing their own lives.

Without our experts’ guidance and supervision, most people could easily miss out on a job, education, housing, decent food and other necessities, including health care.

It’s not news that higher education, in its drive for relevance, is now deeply immersed in politics. This has not raised the average level of discourse. Academics are always useful to add a veneer of respectability to scary claims, especially those that defy experience and common sense.  The problem, however, has spread far beyond the highly politicized departments in Social Sciences.

The big growth industry in the academic research establishment has been our Departments of Scientific Scarers, who say that we are being poisoned. They claim that half of everything in your life contains traces — now detectable thanks to technical advances — of chemicals which have been ‘linked’ to cancers or other statistically scary health hazards. And they’re working hard on the other half. They have sounded the alarms about alar, childhood vaccines, PCBs, microwaves from cell phones, BPA, second-hand smoke, flame retardants, genetically modified food, et cetera.

The statistics are messy and so marginal that it takes a university PhD to judge if they have any validity at all. Calmer analysis shows that, at the actual exposure levels experienced by humans, the “risks” are hardly more life-threatening than an occasional loud roar. Although the reactions to those scares harmed more people than they helped, by then the high-flying academic establishment was readying its announcements of the next new scares. Former Stanford Professor Stephen Schneider explained: “We have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we have.”

If all those scary scenarios were not enough to make you pull the bedcovers up over your head, our university has yet more Professional Schools of Impressive Experts who have found that almost all human activity is destroying our entire planet on which life depends. In an inversion of the movie concept, power plants are our most reliably scary monsters. They emit traces of mercury! To say nothing of radiation, or ‘fine particles’ (these are considered scary by virtue of being small, regardless of what they might happen to be made of), and the notorious gas C02, which, perversely, makes life possible.

Their studies reveal who is guilty, who must be punished, and — when they are honest — how the rest of us will pay. My university has a lot of experts on that. Scarers also need to continue collecting Scare Power to guarantee the free-flowing support that fuels their successful, prestigious careers. But it is now the basis of far more than just the academic establishment.

Professor Mike Hulme, at the University of East Anglia advocates “post-normal science,” so that he and his colleagues can “trade (normal) truth for influence.”

As in the monster world, Scare Power has now become the most valuable currency in commanding the human world. Amassing and wielding such power is a team effort.  To be effective, it depends for its credibility on a mutually reinforcing alliance between our political leaders and academics trained to understand things not accessible to ordinary citizens. Although these experts, at my university and many others, receive billions of research dollars from the politicians, they are wrapped in an authoritative shield of Scientific Objectivity. Like the Scarers in the Monsters films, our governing class — mostly trained at places analogous to Monsters U. — has in effect mastered the art of heroically opening the bedroom door, and scaring the wits out of the humans on the other side. So long as the Scarers collect the power from them, the Scarers are willing to close the door and let the trembling humans go back to sleep. Until the next night.

The Scarers will always be back, to keep taking away more power. How much will we give up, in our vain attempts to escape being scared? There is a question which could keep you up at night.