Friday, January 15, 2016

The Age of Ignorance

In a world of easy access to factual information, it has never been easier to disseminate lies as truth, to mislead, confuse and obfuscate. The ability of anonymous organizations to post “as fact” mythologies that support their special interest constituents has never been simpler. Flooding the universe with “too much information,” literally false claims and manufactured data, makes it increasingly difficult for the already gullible to avoid being sucked into a world of lies that either caters to their specific fears or resonates with their own distorted view of the world.
That so many only glean their information about “reality” from their narrow, preselected sources – sources “vetted” by their peers but often slanted and inaccurate to serve different goals – often prevents them from even being exposed to accurate facts. When something contradictory surfaces, it is marginalized, characterized as emanating from unreliable or unpopular sources lacking appropriate peer-granted credibility and ignored. Thus, falsehoods become “truths,” and facts that contradict such “truths” are dismissed. Today, we have highly-educated specialists trained to confuse and spread ignorance in support of political, economic and religious mandates.
Trust me, ISIS followers only look to ISIS-approved sources for their “truth.” Religious adherents of many faiths follow only those sources approved by their religious leaders and peers, a fact that is very apparent even in the United States. As much as politicians have always been able to promulgate convenient lies-masquerading-as-facts to promote their political agendas, the modern profession of creating confusion on controversial issues was born in the late 1960s as tobacco companies battled the flood of medical evidence linking smoking with cancer.
“In 1979, a secret memo from the tobacco industry was revealed to the public. Called the Smoking and Health Proposal, and written a decade earlier by the Brown & Williamson tobacco company, it revealed many of the tactics employed by big tobacco to counter ‘anti-cigarette forces.’… In one of the paper’s most revealing sections, it looks at how to market cigarettes to the mass public: ‘Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.’”, January 5th.
This revelation led Stanford University science historian, Robert Proctor, to come up with a word to describe his study of this deliberate attempt to promote ignorance on a given subject: agnotology. This practice is alive and well in contemporary American politics. “Agnotology is as important today as it was back when Proctor studied the tobacco industry’s obfuscation of facts about cancer and smoking. For example, politically motivated doubt was sown over US President Barack Obama’s nationality for many months by opponents until he revealed his birth certificate in 2011. In another case, some political commentators in Australia attempted to stoke panic by likening the country’s credit rating to that of Greece, despite readily available public information from ratings agencies showing the two economies are very different.
“Proctor explains that ignorance can often be propagated under the guise of balanced debate. For example, the common idea that there will always be two opposing views does not always result in a rational conclusion. This was behind how tobacco firms used science to make their products look harmless, and is used today by climate change deniers to argue against the scientific evidence.
“‘This ‘balance routine’ has allowed the cigarette men, or climate deniers today, to claim that there are two sides to every story, that ‘experts disagree’ – creating a false picture of the truth, hence ignorance.’… For example, says Proctor, many of the studies linking carcinogens in tobacco were conducted in mice initially, and the tobacco industry responded by saying that studies into mice did not mean that people were at risk, despite adverse health outcomes in many smokers.” Hmmm, where have I heard the words “fair and balanced” reporting before? This balance argument seems to apply to scientific matters ranging from global climate change to evolution. More often than not, it is simply a tool intended to confuse… with an agenda.
“Proctor found that ignorance spreads when firstly, many people do not understand a concept or fact and secondly, when special interest groups – like a commercial firm or a political group – then work hard to create confusion about an issue. In the case of ignorance about tobacco and climate change, a scientifically illiterate society will probably be more susceptible to the tactics used by those wishing to confuse and cloud the truth.
“Consider climate change as an example. ‘The fight is not just over the existence of climate change, it’s over whether God has created the Earth for us to exploit, whether government has the right to regulate industry, whether environmentalists should be empowered, and so on. It’s not just about the facts, it’s about what is imagined to flow from and into such facts,’ says Proctor.”
The problem, of course, is that planet earth does not care or weigh in over matters of truth and mythology. Nature just is. The laws of physics and science just are. The most passionately-held belief does not alter these basic rules in the slightest. And to the extent that mankind operates in defiance of these immutable facts, preferring to rely on special-interest-created/supported mythology (do you really think polluting industries want to pay to clean up and sacrifice a few years’ of growth in the process?), the underlying issues and potential for increasing damage simply increase. The piper is always waiting to be paid.
In this modern era, the panoply of complex issues has led too many of us to throw our hands up in disgust and outsource our opinions to those, supported by our designated peer group, who have comfortable-sounding “solutions” to these very uncomfortable problems. History has taught us repeatedly that when hard times push us to find scapegoats and too-easy-to-be-real “solutions,” those are never the right paths to the desired end. NEVER! The 2016 presidential campaign is one of history’s best examples of the promulgation of easy and, to anyone willing to drill down to the facts, unworkable solutions to deeply complex, life-altering problems that go to our very survival.
By the way, Erik Lawson (pictured above and the face of Marlboro cigarettes in the 1970s) died in 2014 from respiratory failure due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He was the third Marlboro man to die from a smoking-related illness.
I’m Peter Dekom, and unless Americans relearn how to discern fact from fiction, we are destined to slide down from our glorious perch and join those other fallen political powers that built their future hopes on false realities.

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