The silver lining of fake news

What exciting times we live in! The UK is stockpiling food and medicine as it charges willingly into a catastrophe of its own choosing. The next Australian prime minister is likely to be a man who has committed crimes against humanity. And America has descended so far into dystopia that it can’t even be summed up in one pithy sentence.

I spend a lot of time wondering how future generations will look back upon this period in history. Will there be memorial museums on Nauru and at the US-Mexican border, pledging Never Again? Will the UK’s years in the European Union be heralded as a golden age for the country? And what will the history books say about Donald Trump?

When I imagine these future historians, giving their seminars and writing their books and assigning their students essays, there is one overarching theme I’m sure they will focus on. One puzzling phenomenon is at the root of so much of the madness we face today. Our future historian might title such a seminar “Widespread public rejection of facts in the early 21st century”. Or, if you wish to be so crass, “Fake News”. A distrust of experts, and of the very idea of facts, now permeates almost every part of public life – from science to economics to medicine to politics.

Climate change used to be the sole target of this. I’ve been wrestling with fake news on climate change for more than ten years now. And I used to get so frustrated, because my friends and family would read dodgy articles in respectable newspapers written by fossil fuel executives and believe them. Or at least, consider them. Reasonable people heard debate on this issue and assumed there must be some merit to it. “Both sides of the climate change debate have good points to make,” they would reasonably say.

It’s different now. Denialism has spread into so many topics, and received so much attention, that reasonable people are now well aware of its existence. “You guys, did you know that there are people who don’t believe in facts?!” is the gist of so many dinner conversations around the world these days. And the exhausted climate scientists sit back, twirl their spaghetti around their fork, and say “Yes, yes we know. So you’ve finally caught on.”

This is the weird silver lining of fake news: reasonable people now take climate change more seriously. When they read bogus stories about global cooling and natural cycles and scientific conspiracies, they just say “Aha! These are the people who don’t believe in facts.” It’s like the dystopia of 2018 has inoculated many of us against denialism. More and more people now understand and accept the science of climate change, even while those who don’t grow louder and more desperate. Climate change deniers still exist, but it seems that their audience is shrinking.

(Of course, this doesn’t mean we’re actually doing anything about climate change.)

***

PS I am now Twittering, for those of you who are so inclined.

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10 thoughts on “The silver lining of fake news

  1. You should take a good look at Nazi Germany. What is happening now is hardly new or unprecedented. Read the “The Rise and fall of The Third Reich” by William Shirer. Then read “Physics and Beyond” by Werner Heisenberg. Shirer provides a detailed account of how the Nazis gained control of Germany. Heisenberg gives the viewpoint of the scientific community in Germany during the thirties and forties. You will find much that is familiar. After you’ve digested what these two scholars have to say read “While England Slept” by Winston Churchill. Then read “Why England Slept” by John F. Kennedy. They explain the social dynamics of what was going on then, and why the people who should have seen the Nazi horror coming and could have stopped it did not. Human nature has not changed one bit during the intervening years. Global warming should be easy to accept and understand. But so is evolution and it is still rejected by the majority of Americans. Don’t expect anyone outside the scientific community to really grasp what we’re faced with. Look out for yourself and your loved ones. Gook luck.

    • Millions of Americans voted for Trump for basically the same reason millions of Germans voted for Hitler; they didn’t know any better. Hitler promised to ‘Make Germany Great Again.” Sound familiar? Hitler made Germany the most powerful nation in the world, and he reduced unemployment to nearly zero. Thirty-two years ago I spoke with a German, the youngest of eight brothers. His seven brothers were killed in WWII, he being too young for conscription. The sad part is that his family and all their neighbors had been starving peasants and farmers, so how could they not vote for Hitler?

  2. Thank you SO much for this thoughtful, important essay. Yes, and if it were not for the suffering, this would be a fabulously interesting time. The geology of earth is changing radically – especially so if we think of ice as a form of rock, now crumbling into liquid and vapor, just like stone crumbles to sand. Everything is speeded up.. and we are here to witness (cough, cough)

    And thanks to modeling – we can predict using scenarios that civilization has NEVER been able to do before. We have not yet grasped that gift. The physical laws of thermodynamics dictate an inevitable future. You are doing work that makes finer descriptions of the future. Thanks for all that you do.

  3. Before Global Warming there was tobacco and DDT. Each generation has their own set of “fake news”, some sponsored by those with economic interest to hide the truth, others more grass root conspiracy theories. One of the first uses of the printing press was to mass produce pamphlets spreading hatred that helped start the thirty years’ war.

  4. I think it becomes more and more important to hold our elected officials accountable, to prevent special interest groups affecting policy making.

    The ruthless way in which some “SIGs” has lobbied against eg regulations and taxes, no doubt has helped mobilize climate activists , but unfortunately probably also contributed to the rise of the anti vaccine movement,

    And when it comes to eg GMO’s and “processed food” there’s a huge amount of bad information out there, probably also patrly a result of peoples disdain for certain companies.

    Ps was positively surprised that this blog still existed. Hadn’t been reading it for about ten years

  5. “What you can’t see won’t hurt you.” Climate scientists have only themselves to blame. It’s not enough to yell out that the sky is falling; people must be told what to do, and that’s not happening.

  6. No, you need to check history.
    As soon as climate studies became a significant force, scientists were told by PR manipulated media and by academic policy, told explicitly – NOT to mess with public policy – to leave that to politicians. AND within the university system they were brow-beaten and warned NOT to comment outside of their respective specialties. i.e. no scientific “collusion’ So geologists and climatologist retreated to their specialty corners. It took a good while for them to fight back. And painfully. the field was made strongly bulltet-proof after a campaign to challenge every bit of climate data. I invite you to read all about it – via decades of climate science talk and presentations found in http://www.realclimate.org/
    Now, most climate science grad students get SOME training and exposure to media literacy. The barriers were significant until just a few years ago.
    And today. if you listen and read the presentations by climate scientists – there is always a line like “all this unless we halt all carbon emissions immediately” And quite often, specific recommendations.

  7. An accelerating ocean level rise of 0.65m by 2100 is predicted. Not only are ocean levels rising but also many coastal land levels are falling because of underground water and mineral depletion. In addition, increasing amounts of densely populated land mass is becoming uninhabitable because of rising heat indexes. Who is more qualified to propose meaningful solutions to these problems? What are meaningful solutions?

  8. “It’s different now. Denialism has spread into so many topics, and received so much attention, that reasonable people are now well aware of its existence.” – Dr. K

    I never thought of it that way, but it is a good way to look at it.

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