Why Christians should not have believed the Y2K crisis doomsayers
By John Baskette, Copyright 1999
The Passantinos have an article in the most recent edition of Cornerstone Magazine on Christians and Y2K. After an interval, we will feature the article here. Meanwhile, AIA research associate John Baskette offers reasons why Christians leaders like Dr. James Dobson ought to have known not to promote Y2K doom saying back in 1998. He uses data he gathered in 1998 to demonstrate the point.
Christians are often called fools for their credulity. When Paul spoke on Mars Hill, he attracted the attention of the learned people of Athens. But when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, “some mocked” Paul (Acts 17:32). Peter also talks of “scoffers” (II Peter 3:3) coming in the last days who would ridicule Christians for believing in a literal second coming of Christ.
Christians ought to expect such treatment. It is part of the reproach of Christ that we gladly bear ridicule for his name’s sake. Except for the occasional gunning down of a high school prayer group, it is about the only form of persecution American Christians get to endure.
What Christians ought not to do is bring ridicule upon themselves for no good cause. Many Christians have done just that with respect to the so-called Y2K crisis. If you have not heard, the Y2K crisis is a decisive trial facing the computer systems of the world. The majority of them were not programmed to correctly calculate dates after January 1, 2000 due to the fact that most programs only understand a two digit year. A vast world wide effort has been underway in the computer industry to “remediate” all these computer systems before the end of 1999. It is also a known fact that many systems will not be remediated in time, and many of those that are remediated will have errors. The predicted consequences of this crisis have varied greatly, but the most extreme views have come from Christians personalities predicting a virtual destruction of civilization. I know from my own experience as a programmer for 18 years that a great many of my professional associates regard the extremist predictions as a joke.
Now writer’s like Robert X. Cringley point to “survivalists” and “fundamentalist Christians” as the primary promoters of Y2K nuttiness. I have come to expect this regarding personalities like Chuck Missler, but most disappointing for me was Dr. James Dobson and Focus on the Family. I have always admired Dr. Dobson. He and his organization have done an excellent job bringing information on pro-family moral issues to the Christian community. I support his ministry, and I listen to Focus on the Family regularly. I make phone calls to my elected officials and others in response to information he gives over the airwaves. Normally, information provided in FOF fact sheets and letters from Dr. Dobson are well researched and carefully documented. But on Oct 21-23 of 1998, he devoted three of his 30 minute daily broadcasts to a discussion of the Y2K problem with five guests. To his credit, one of his guests was Steve Hewitt of Christian Computing Magazine. Steve has been one of the few voices of sanity regarding the whole Y2K challengeon the net. Steve’s perspective, however, was overwhelmed by the other four guests plus Dobson who all appear to have bought into Y2K doom mongering.
Dobson’s seemingly most esteemed “expert” was Michael S. Hyatt who … ooohhh … knows some Visual Basic and Pascal! , but who has no further background in the computer industry. In fairness to Mr. Hyatt, he does not claim to be a computer expert.  He bases whatever expertise he may have on his experience and his research of the Y2K problem. His main claim to fame is his book, The Millennium Bug, How to Survive the Coming Chaos. Unfortunately, his book dsiplays no greater knowledge than what one may acquire with an afternoon perusal of the net. In it he outlines a set of scenarios ranging from “brown-out” to “meltdown.” Here are some of the many terrors he warns us about: Massive long term power failures; planes will be grounded; telephone systems will fail to operate; military defense systems will fail; bank funds will be inaccessible; water delivery systems will fail with unsafe water and the spread of disease; two or more nuclear meltdowns; no food or gas deliveries for an extended period; worthless currency; federal anarchy; terror! Having perused the book, I find no original contribution to the Y2K debate other than his own anecdotal stories. Virtually all of his information and references are right off the net. In many cases, it is easy to see what articles he has read due to the similarity in the data and vocabulary. His work is so highly derivative and lacking in original thought that I regard his work as schlock.
In the spring of 1999, Dobson aired another Y2K broadcast with one of his original guests where he backed off from the extreme views in his earlier broadcast. At the time I thought that he ought to have acknowledged that Steve Hewitt had been right all along. That did not happen, but I was happy to see the correction regardless.
Dobson, however, disappointed me again with a new series of Y2K broadcasts about a month ago (Sept. 27-28, Oct. 4) with Larry Burkett. This series warned of dire consequences to the economy, perhaps a severe recession or a monetary collapse triggered by Y2K. Burkett warned of “life-threatening” power outages in local areas and recommended stockpiling of 10 days worth of food and 50 gallons of water to deal with outages and shortages. On the October 4th broadcast, Dobson and Burkett incongruously affirmed the US Senate’s Y2K assessment that there would be no major problems with the utilities, power, or transportation; then went on to warn about problems with the power grid and with transportation. They ended with speculation that the government was misleading the public by giving a lower bound estimate of Y2K troubles in order to forestall panic. While they were not as extreme as a year ago, they remained as alarmist and extreme as they could given the current level of knowledge regarding Y2K.
Most disconcerting about Dobson’s recent broadcast was his criticisms of people like the Passantinos who take issue with the whole Y2K alarmist hysteria. He accused such of “Monday morning quarterbacking” and of being uncharitable. At the same time he permits his guest to accuse his critics of “fooling themselves” and “doing a grave disservice” to the church. The extreme alarmists — including FOF in late 1998 — are credited with sounding the alarm and actually solving the Y2K problem!
These remarks were disconcerting because they are so totally wrong. First, how could Dobson characterize his critics as “Monday morning quarterbacks” when he had one of those critics on his show in Oct. of 1998! He had credible people trying to inform him back in the fall of 1998, but he did not listen! If he had critically examined the evidence that Steve Hewitt had for him back then, he would have — in fact should have — known that the extreme alarmists positions were completely unjustified. Second, the extremists did not react justifiably, nor did they do any service for the public. That credit goes to others, especially Peter de Jager who among others had been warning the industry about problems since 1993. It turns out that Peter de Jager no longer believes his own earlier warnings will come to pass, but he was never as extreme as Dobson or his guests were in the fall of 1998. Most large companies in the US had Y2K remediation programs going well before most of the prominent Christian Y2K extremists speaking out on the issue. The extremists have accomplished nothing constructive and have damaged the credibility of Christians.
If some of the critics appear to be coming to the table late, it is because there was no real action required in the fall of 1998. As we shall see, we knew enough back then about the Y2K problem to know that it was not going to be any worse than a winter storm — the very words Steve Hewitt used in his description to Dobson. Once credible Christians leaders like Dr. Dobson began perpetuating yet another embarrassment to the church, it came time for some careful investigative journalism by Christians to uncover and expose the errors. It is necessary to help repair the damage done to the credibility of Christians. But such investigative work takes time.
I still hold Dr. Dobson in high regard, I believe his motives were good. But he is culpable for spreading false information regarding Y2K. He ought to have known better.
What about the Millennium bug? Is it a genuine problem? I titled this article, the millennium bust, because that I believe that nothing major is going to happen come January 1, 2000. There will be no major power failures, no planes falling from the sky, no bank runs, and no nuclear meltdowns. When I say this, I do not mean that there will be no Y2K problems at all. Some companies will have real problems, but those problems will not affect commerce significantly. Many people will see no problems at all from Y2K. Other’s will experience minor nuisances like incorrect dates on bills, an inappropriate insurance cancellation, or a bad date readout on some machine. But the extremist doom and gloom predictions of Hyatt and company will fail completely.
Here is why I came to that conclusion over a year ago. As an example, let’s look at claims regarding the electrical power grid. Michael Hyatt gives three possible “Scenarios” to describe what will happen come to the power grid. He talks about a “brownout,” and “blackout”, or a “meltdown.” In his optimistic brownout scenario, only part of the power grid experiences “persistent local outages” anywhere from two weeks to three months. His “blackout” scenario has the entire US power grid collapsing anywhere from four months to three years. The “meltdown” scenario resembles something out of the Road Warrior movies.
The basis for this claim is the so called embedded chip problem. Small computing devices are embedded in many devices from elevators to medical equipment to VCRs and to giant electric generation facilities! It is said that electrical facilities are particularly vulnerable due to a ripple effect that effects power grids. Often cited is an Idaho power line that short-circuited in July 1996 due to a tree limb that was too close to a power line. That outage precipitated a cascade of failures that affected 15 states. To his credit Hyatt includes a mention of an oft ignored fact: this outage occurred during a record heat wave which was the real cause of the outages.
Does the embedded chip problem forebode a collapse of the power grid in the year 2000? Not according to Washington Water Power. An October 1998Computerworld article reports:
Washington Water Power, a Spokane, Washington based electric and gas utility, tested 540,000 embedded components and found only 1,800 that contained year 2000 date dependencies, said year 2000 communications liaison Jay Hopkins. “Of those 1,800, only 234 have needed to be remediated,” he said. Hopkins said the Bonneville Power Administration, which controls about 80% of generating capacity in the Pacific Northwest, is “finding the same thing.”
Using these figures, only 0.04% of the chips need remediation at all! The power plants are already 99.96% Y2K ready! And that is before any remediation. If the electric utilities do nothing at all to prepare for Y2K, we will still not see anything like the scenarios suggested by Hyatt. But wait! What about the ripple effect? If a single tree limb can initiate a cascade that takes out power to 15 states, what could a mere handful of unremediated computer chips do? Alan Gartner of Telegyr Systems Inc. wrote the following in a letter to Infoworld:
The facts are that almost all of the 30,000 transmission substations in the United States are controlled by a series of dumb relays; the few that use microprocessors generally don’t have date-related actions; 
The ripple effect in power grids described by the doom mongers occurs between the transmission substations, not in the power generating facilities. These substations, almost without exception, do not even use any microprocessors. Suppose, however, that a small number of substations really experience a failure? Could that produce a cascade? Such failures only occur when the power grid is being heavily taxed. Remember, the infamous 15 state failure occurred in the midst of a major heat wave. Alan Gartner explains:
So there is only a likely failure if we have a cold snap that increases demand, if we have problems with generation. . . . Most utilities can handle the utility with only a fraction of the computer power available to them if they just keep a little more generation on-line, but don’t generate that power. 
You can bet that the electric utilities will be well prepared for every contingency on New Years Eve of 1999, if for no other reason than to reassure their Y2K leery customers. This, plus the aggressive remediation efforts already underway, convince me that the odds of any power outages in the US due to Y2K issues are infinitisimal. Even less prepared utilities in third world countries are likely to have only minor problems if any. This includes nuclear power plants.
Some of the doom mongers have expressed concerns that Y2K problems could cause nuclear meltdowns. Back in 1998, Ralph E. Beedle, the Senior vice president and chief nuclear officer for the Nuclear Generation Nuclear Energy Institute answered these concerns:
. . . the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and industry moved quickly to assess the possible risk of major year-2000 issues, and both have concluded that safety systems will, if required, safely shut down a plant. . . . This industrywide effort has led to a key finding: Only about 10 percent of all items analyzed require year-2000 remediation. Today, nearly half of US plants have completed detailed testing, certification, or correction of components and systems affected by year-2000 issues. 
The above data, all gathered in 1998, is enough to show that claims about the collapse of the power grid are unfounded. Survey’s done at the time showed only a tiny fraction of 1% of computer components running power plants required Y2K remediation and that the ripple effect was a myth. Regardless, the major utilities were going ahead with major Y2K remediation programs. These facts told me that the odds of any problem at all with the power grid were extremely low.
Of course, Y2K doom sayers forecast embedded chip horrors that go far beyond the mere collapse of the power grid. They say embedded chip failures can cause planes to crash and heart pace makers to fail; that cars won’t start and elevators won’t work. But in my research any real data again showed that major Y2K problems were unlikely. An excellent article was written on this subject by Lee Gomes of the Wall Street Journal. My copy of this article comes from the Orange County Register for Nov. 22, 1998. It is misleadingly titled, “Millennium bug effect on computer chips not known.” Here are some of the more salient data from that article:
- The Boeing Co. found embedded chip problems in three on-board systems affecting 750 of the 12,000 commercial planes it has manufactured. In 700 of those 750 systems, the errors will cause the date to display incorrectly. In only 50 cases is the ability to fly affected. All these systems are now being updated.
- According to automobile manufacturers, no American car should have any Y2K problem, except for 100,000 EK and Alante Cadillacs built in 1989. These cars will likely have an oil change light flick on come Jan. 1, 2000.
- Otis Elevators reports that it knows of no Y2K problems in any of its systems. Some Y2K “consultants” reported that, when the World Trade Center was tested for the Millennium Bug, several elevator cars shut down and couldn’t be restarted — these reports are false. A World Trade center spokesman says that many of the elevators have been checked and none is Y2K susceptible.
- Thomas B. Shope of the FDA says that the notion that pacemakers will stop due to Y2K is “an urban legend.” Implanted devices do not depend on the date.
- The FDA is surveying nearly 2,000 medical-device makers on Y2K problems and has results back from 2/3’s of them. Many devices have small problems with issues like displaying the date correctly, but expensive and critical life saving devices like radiation therapy are not showing any Y2K problems.
Steve Hewitt received a letter that sheds light on the Y2K problems facing the medical industry. Martin L. Harper writes:
I am the chief information officer for the AF Surgeon General overseeing information technology in 80 hospitals clinics – 4 million patients across the system. The healthcare sector is a microcosm of the overall [Y2K] problem. My colleagues and I have to fix a) computers b) medical equipment (embedded chips) c) facilities (elevators, alarms). When I look at the data – not hype – I am very optimistic we will fix it.
a) Computers. We have over 90 “Information Systems”. 15 are mission critical. All but 2 are scheduled to be fixed and installed by Mar 1999. The last two are due to be fixed by July 1999. If repairs are late it can be done by fax and phone. The Gartner Group consultants and Congressional oversight committees are optimistic about the telephone carriers.
b) Medical Equipment. We have over 200,000 pieces of medical equipment – we are half done on the assessment. Less than 2% need a fix or replace. So we fix or replace them. If a company does not tell us the status, we take it off line. If they say the ventilator is OK, but we see it involves patient safety, we still test it. Nothing is guaranteed. But I expect you are still more likely to die from hospital contracted infection from a real bug than from the Y2K bug.
The above data is offered as an example of the simple type of fact checking that Dr. Dobson and his staff should have done before going on the air with an alarmist message. I looked into more than merely the embedded chip problem. Everywhere I looked was much the same; factual data showed only minor Y2K problems. For example, an extensive study by Merrill Lynch & Co., published in June of 1998, looked at thousands of companies worldwide and rated their level of compliance. The study showed most companies having major Y2K remediation efforts. For example, all 29 Latin American banks that were surveyed “will be compliant,” as will eight of the 10 major US pollution-control companies.
Similarly, I found the Gartner Group, the leading IT consulting firm, was describing Y2K as being like a winter storm — exactly what Steve Hewitt was saying at the time. I found that the oft quoted economist Edward Yardeni did not represent the views of the great majority of economists who did not see Y2K as having any major economic impact. I found that object oriented programming expert and Y2K alarmist Ed Yourdon was not nearly as extreme in his views as Dobson’s four guests — yet Yourdon represented an extreme within the programming profession.
This is not to say that there were not serious pessimistic views to be found in the legitimate press, but even those views were far less apocalyptic than the kind of extreme views promoted by Gary North or four of Dr. Dobson’s Oct. 1998 guests. Pessimists like Capers Jones, chief scientist with Artemis Management Systems in Burlington, Mass. forecast problems like an increase of 2.2% in the unemployment rate, a fall of 10% in the stock market, and sporadic power, water and transportation outages, but nothing life threatening. In other word’s, the worst credible pessimists of 1998 were just a little bit more optimistic than Dr. Dobson and Larry Burkett in October of 1999. This pessimism, however, is not justified by the facts as known in late 1999.
The basic errors made by Dobson and others are many. One is trust of unreliable sources. One of Dobson’s guests was Chuck Missler. Chuck Missler’s specialty is pseudo-science dressed up as “Bible Study.” Here is just a sample of some of the ideas Missler has taught through the years: King Juan Carlos of Spain or his son Felipe are descended from Antiochus Epiphanes – either one could be the Anti-Christ! The planet Mars flew close by the earth back in the days of Joshua causing the earth to stop its rotation and raining hailstones on to the enemies of Israel! The people were able to look up at Mars and see the Mars Face! President Clinton covered up the murder of Vince Foster who was a spy and a double-agent who stashed millions of dollars of US treasury money in secret Swiss bank accounts. A hidden prophesy of the assassination of Yitshak Rabin is found in Gen 15:17 when you tweak the divisions of the letters into words. The “sons of God” in Genesis 6 are the same beings as the space aliens in UFOs of today. The Great Pyramid of Egypt encodes Bible prophecy. The ideas themselves are so loony that they destroy any semblance of credibility that Missler might have had. Another questionable source is Larry Burkett who has already failed as a prophet of doom with the unfulfilled predictions of his 1995 work, The Coming Economic Earthquake.
Another basic error is accepting logical fallacies. A common one is the “either or fallacy” that computer systems are either certified as Y2K compliant or they will suffer catastrophic failures. The fact is, a great many systems will not be certifiably Y2K compliant by January 1, 2000, but most of these will not fail. Many of them will prove to have been Y2K compliant, even if not certified. Most of the others will have relatively minor problems. Only a tiny fraction will have catastrophic failures. Also common is the erroneous assertion that “no one really knows” what will happen with Y2K and that somehow justifies believing the worst possible scenarios. The fact is, we do not have to have absolute certainty about a matter in order to know something about it. We may not be able to predict exactly what will happen in the year 2000, but we can have some knowledge as to what is likely to happen.
Another basic error is excessive credulity. Dobson appears to just accept whatever certain of his associates, like Larry Burkett or Michael Hyatt tell him. Dobson would do well to carefully read Bob Passantino’s Fantasies, Legends, Heroes article. This is a particularly glaring error for Focus on the Family. When FOF addresses controversial moral issues, they have always been careful to document claims meticulously. But this procedure is ignored when speaking of Y2K. For example, the October 1999 FOF Citizen magazine spreads fear, uncertainty, and doubt in their “etc.” section which asks what Americans can expect — “A brightly lit Times Square, or terror in the darkness?“ The article describes a navy report released by Y2K author Jim Lord that said 26 million Americans would be without water, power, gas or sewer service on Jan. 1. Citizen repeats this report from Mr. Lord knowing that the Navy repudiated the data in the report — a poor practice in itself, but what concerns me is that no documentation of any kind is provided for this data. There is no reference for the original navy report, there is no reference as to when or where Jim Lord made these claims. There is no reference for the Navy’s response to Jim Lord’s claims. There is no reference as to when the studies were made. There is no reference for another “federal study” referred to in the same piece. How is the public to know if any of this is factual or hearsay? How are these claims to be checked? How do we know that the Citizen staff has checked them? It looks like Citizen is passing on claims from Jim Lord without doing any further checking.
This is an unusual article in that I have used old research. Partly that is because I had saved some of my research from 1998 with a view towards maybe writing an article about Y2K back then. I never did that, but I was telling all who asked what I believed about Y2K. The Passantino’s also have been researching and speaking on the topic for some time. My purpose, however, in dragging out and writing about old research is to prove a point. The data from a year ago was more than sufficient to show that the Y2K crisis would be a relatively minor event. It shows that Dr. Dobson should have known better.
Dr. Dobson, we are not Monday morning quarterbacks. Your Oct. 1998 and Sep-Oct. 1999 broadcasts regarding Y2K were irresponsible. I am putting out this article now — before the year 2000 — so you can see that people like myself, Steve Hewitt, and many others have been entirely correct all along and that you have been wrong. Neither was your error a noble error. It did not serve to warn people about Y2K, it was far too late for that. You were among the last to learn about the problem, not the first. Most industries already had major Y2K remediation programs in place before your broadcast. You may have been well-intentioned — I think you were, but your broadcasts were irresponsible journalism regardless. It’s principle affect was to harm the church, not help it. My prayer is that you will have the courage to openly admit that you made a mistake, and to learn from it. It would be good to have a post-mortem show and have people like Steve Hewitt back on to review the whole matter. In the greater scope of all your good works, this is a minor issue, so my good wishes, prayers, and my support remain with you. God Bless.
- Michael S. Hyatt, The Millennium Bug, How to Survive the Coming Chaos, (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 1998), xiii.
- He says, “I have never claimed to be a computer expert, and, quite frankly, I’m proud of that . . .” From The Millennium Bug, xii.
- Hyatt, p.45.
- Jaikumar Vijayan & Robert L. Scheier, “Embedded Y2K bugs rare — so far,” Computerworld, 12 October 1998.
- Telegyr is a company that provides systems with these embedded chips to the electric utility industry!
- Alan Gartner, “What Blackout?,” Infoworld, 21 September 1998.
- Ralph E. Beedle, “Y2K and nuclear energy,” Infoworld, 5 October 1998.
- Martin L. Harper, “CCMag Mail, Letters on Y2k”, Christian Computing Magazine, November 1998.
- James K. Glassman, “Going Bonker’s over Y2K”, The Washington Post, 2 December 1998.
- George Avalos. “Y2K glitch likely will disrupt life in many ways, experts say”, 1 December 1998.
- “etc., Y2K: Ready or not?,” Citizen, October 1999. p.23.