The Cassandra Syndrome: Prediction, Uncertainty, and Fear of (Climate) Change, Part One

The first installment of a ten part series which considers the warnings of climate scientists in the context of historical revolutionary scientific theories that met strong resistance from guardians of the status quo…

by: Arthur Hoyle


This series of essays considers climate scientists as descendants of the sibyl Cassandra, whose predictions, always accurate, went unheeded. They aim to place the forecasts and warnings of climate scientists in the context of previous historical revolutionary scientific theories that met strong resistance and denial from guardians of the status quo. These essays survey the relationship among fixed belief, uncertainty, and humanity’s reasoning faculty, as expressed in science, across a broad span of history, looking for patterns that expose enduring human tendencies of resistance to change. The destination of the essays is contemporary climate science, where these tendencies are once again playing out, this time in a high-risk environment. Along the way the essays visit ancient Greece during the times of oracles and Aristotle, the Renaissance in Europe during the Copernican revolution, and England and the United States as they responded to Darwin’s theory of evolution.

We live in a time of extremes and uncertainties — ideological, political, economic, and social. Another extreme our planet has just begun experiencing, and about which people are uncertain, is our changing weather and climate. Though the evidence for climate change is steadily mounting, we are resisting appropriate responses, preferring instead doubt, denial, and delay. We want certainty, but when certainty arrives in the form of unshakeable evidence, climate change will have overwhelmed us. We need to act now even though many uncertainties about climate change remain—how soon? how extensive? how extreme? What is certain is that it is happening, and that we are contributing to it. We need to change and adapt.

Social scientists have been studying the relationship between uncertainty and extremism. They’ve found that uncertainty creates a need for fixed belief that propels the doubter towards extremism and rigidity as he seeks stabilization of his sense of place in the world. Uncertainty is experienced within the self as a feeling of aversion. It is a state of mind that people wish to escape. If the uncertainty is experienced as a challenge to be overcome, it can lead to positive action. But if it is experienced as a threat, people are inclined to run from it, to become defensive. If the threat comes in the form of an idea — the Sun, not the Earth, is the center of the universe, the climate is changing — flight will take the form of cognitive denial. The response will be to cling to an existing ideology that resolves the uncertainty, and to exclude information that contradicts the ideology and so disturbs certainty. The sense of certainty is strengthened if the individual allies himself with a group — a political party or religious faith — that upholds a rigid orthodoxy of belief and banishes dissenters. The more extreme the uncertainty, the more extreme the remedy. We can see in the extreme polarization of opinion about climate change the clash of opposing certainties.

Since climate change has been presented as an existential threat to human civilization, the impulse to denial has been strong. Those most vulnerable to its effects are also those most susceptible to campaigns of disinformation and denial, such as have been waged by the fossil fuel industry against climate science. But climate change can also be experienced as a challenge to human ingenuity, cooperation, and adaptability, rather than simply as a threat to “business as usual.” In the past, mankind has moved forward by accommodating radical new ideas about the physical universe and by shedding outworn ideas that have lost their usefulness as practical guides for navigating life. As a species, we are once again in one of those times, with our very survival at stake. Can we meet the challenge?


Part One: The Fall of Troy — A Cautionary Tale

Most of us are familiar with the story of the Trojan War — how Paris, a prince from the city of Troy, visited the Greek King Menelaus of Sparta and violated his host’s hospitality by running off with Menelaus’s beautiful wife Helen. And how Agamemnon, Menelaus’s brother and King of Mycenae, led a Greek army across the Aegean Sea and laid siege to Troy in order to recover Helen. How after ten years of warfare, during which many legendary warriors, including the Greek Achilles and the Trojan Hector, were slain, the Greeks decided, on the advice of the seer Calchas, to take the city by stratagem rather than by force. The wily Odysseus, King of Ithaca, proposed that the Greek army make a show of leaving, burning their tents and appearing to sail away, but leaving behind a large wooden horse as an offering to the goddess Athena to ensure a safe voyage home. The horse would conceal in its belly numbers of Greece’s finest warriors, including Odysseus himself and Menelaus. Another Greek warrior, Sinon, would remain outside the horse, pretending to have been abandoned, and would explain to the Trojans the significance of the offering.

The Greeks assented to this plan, burned their tents, and sailed out of the harbor. The Trojans, believing they had won the war, brought the horse inside the city walls, garlanded it with flowers, and set about feasting in celebration. When night fell, the Greek warriors lowered themselves from the belly of the horse and opened the gates of the city to admit the rest of the Greek army, which had hidden out of sight of the citadel. The invaders slaughtered the Trojan men in their beds, took captive their wives and children, and sacked the city.

One of the most poignant threads in this legendary tale belongs to Cassandra, the sibyl who warned the Trojans that the horse contained enemy warriors, but whose warning was ignored. Cassandra was the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, the king and queen of Troy. As children, she and her brother Helenus were left overnight in a temple of Apollo. Apollo, amongst his other duties, was also the god of prophecy. He took the form of two serpents, which entwined themselves around the two children, and flicked their tongues in the children’s ears. This overtly sexual act transmitted to the children the gift of prophecy.

Years later, as an adult, Cassandra, now a beautiful woman, again spent the night in Apollo’s temple. The god appeared to her, and made known his desire to lie with her. When she rebuffed him, Apollo punished her with the curse that her prophecies would always be accurate but never believed.

Cassandra foretold many of the pivotal events of the Trojan War. When she learned that her brother Paris intended to visit Sparta, she warned him not to go there, but her warning was ignored. During the course of the war, she made predictions of doom that unnerved her father because they jeopardized the morale of the warriors. He confined her to a locked chamber watched over by a guard. The Trojans came to regard her as deranged, her warnings the ravings of a madwoman.

When the horse was brought into the city, Cassandra frantically warned her countrymen of impending doom, but she was met with scorn and mockery. Desperate to expose the Greeks’ plot, she attempted to set the horse on fire, but was restrained. After the city had been sacked, Agamemnon took Cassandra captive and brought her back with him to Mycenae as his concubine. Once arrived, they were both killed by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, a fate Cassandra had also foreseen.

The story of the Trojan War is a legend featuring the exploits of mythical people aided by gods. It was composed sometime during the eighth century BC by several bards collectively known as Homer. It is a work of imagination, a fantasy, that expresses the aspirations, beliefs, and values of the ancient Greek people.

But there was an actual Troy, and there were city-states on the Greek mainland that in all likelihood interacted with the people who inhabited Troy across the sea in Anatolia, now known as Turkey. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Trojan civilization flourished from 3,000 BC to 1,200 BC during the Bronze Age. Troy was destroyed and rebuilt numerous times during the course of its history—sometimes by war, sometimes by earthquakes and fires. Its strategic location at the entrance to the Dardanelles made it a trading center between East and West and brought it the wealth that attracted invaders. The city eventually died not from war but because its harbor filled with silt, snuffing out its trade. The legendary Trojan War that “Homer” wrote about in the eighth century BC may have been a composite of many stories about the turbulent history of the city that were handed down orally before being committed to writing.

Regardless of the historical truth or fiction of the tale, the moral of the story resonates with another kind of truth—a truth about human nature. People do not like hearing predictions that contradict or threaten established certainties around which they have constructed a coherent and reassuring world-view. Cassandra was cursed because her purity led her to defy a god. Gods are figures of authority who demand obedience and subservience. As such, they embody entrenched and inflexible ideas, the unquestioned and unalterable norms and assumptions on which societies rely for order and stability. The Trojans prevented Cassandra from exposing the danger that awaited them in the belly of the horse because they regarded it as sacred, an offering to Athena, one of their immortal goddesses. To break it open would be an act of impiety, a taboo. Though the story of Cassandra and the Trojan horse is a fiction, history reminds us that resistance to unpopular ideas that question received wisdom is a human constant that has persisted across the ages.

To Be Continued


Arthur Hoyle is the author of The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur, published in March 2014 by Skyhorse/Arcade. He has also published essays in the Huffington Post and the zine Empty Mirror. His second non-fiction book, Mavericks, Mystics, and Misfits: Americans Against the Grain, will be published later this year through Sunbury Press.

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