What does “The Secret”, “The Da Vinci Code”, Jesse Ventura’s “Conspiracy Theory”, “1421: the Year China Discovered America”, the syndicated radio show “Coast-to-Coast” and “Ghost Hunters” have in common with climate change denial?
They are all examples of “infotainment”. They wrap misinformation in a tasty pop-culture burrito and sell it as “fact”.
That the facts they push have nothing to do with what genuine science, history or medicine actually have to say is beside the point.
They are what journalist Damian Thompson calls “counter knowledge“:
“We are lucky to live in an age in which the techniques available for evaluating the truth or falsehood about science and history are more reliable than ever before. Yet, disturbingly, we are witnessing a huge surge in the popularity of propositions that fail basic empirical tests. The essence of counter knowledge is that it purports to be knowledge but it is not knowledge. It claims can be shown to be untrue, either because there are facts that contradict them or because there is no evidence to support them. [counter knowledge]… misrepresents reality (deliberately or otherwise) by presenting non-facts as facts.”
– Counterknowledge: how we surrender to conspiracy theories, quack medicine, bogus science and fake history.
In my mind Thompson’s book is an important one, detailing how many of our major news outlets and publishers have surrendered their responsibility to present accurate, reliable information and replaced it with counter knowledge.
All that matters now is sales figures and advertising revenue. It’s not a case of “The truth is out there”, it’s a case of “The truth be damned, does it sell?”
The important thing is that books fly of the shelves, eyeballs are brought to cable and mainstream television programs and web site traffic grows for a greater share of the advertising dollar. The mantra of today’s media companies and publishers seems to be “If we publish it, they will come.”
Combine this trend with declining numbers of journalists at major news organisations and you have a recipe for disaster.
A perfect storm of misinformation
There are now too few journalists who have the time to seriously investigate an issue and present it with any real depth of understanding. Science journalism in particular has been hit hard, as major news organisations cut down on the number of journalists and the column space dedicated to science:
“If you watch 5 hours of cable news today, expect to see just 1 minute devoted to science and technology. From 1989-2005, meanwhile, the number of major newspapers featuring weekly science sections shrank from 95 to 34…”
Time poor and rushing to met deadlines, journalists fall back on the press releases and information kits distributed by vested interests, PR firms and think tanks for their copy.
Can you blame the journalists?
Yes and no. But it now happens with alarming regularity, so much so that many of us shrug our shoulders and say “So, what else is new?”
Nor does it help that the purveyors of counter knowledge package their message up in an attractive, faux-rebellious package. The denial movement has excelled at designing, producing and disseminating counter knowledge.
They construct brilliant memes and redefine language in a chillingly Orwellian fashion.
Let me entertain you: climate change denial as a entertainment genre
Climate change denial is both an anti-science movement and a form of popular entertainment. Through its various blogs, YouTube videos, Op-Ed pieces and think tank studies it delivers a steady diet of counter knowledge in perfectly packaged sound bites and memes:
Hide the decline! ™ Follow the money! ™ Climategate! ™
In this it mimics other pop-cultural phenomena as “The Secret” and “The Da Vinci” code. It’s slickly produced, packaged and marketed counter knowledge.
And our mainstream media is complicit in its dissemination; either actively through the work of journalists as the HUN’s Andrew Bolt, or by attempting to be balanced and giving credibility to the movement in interviews and guest spots in the opinion pages of major dailies.
Most of us are familiar with the messages of the denial movement: they are simple and are repeated again-and-again.
We may complain it’s a case of wack-o-mole every time we disprove yet another false claim, but the deniers have worked out that repetition is what makes propaganda truly effective.
“Tish-tosh!” says the denier, “…did I tell you they hid the decline again!”
[Note: this is "Part 1" of a two part essay]