A Landscape of Ignorance and Deceit

By David L. Brown

One of the discouraging facts about climate change debate is that too much of the “conversation” takes place beyond the bounds of informed awareness or even common sense.

For example we often hear statements such as “Well, it’s (fill in temperature) here at (fill in place), so there can be no global warming.” Such ignorant remarks are so common that they have become part of the general commentary about the weather that serves as a substitute for conversation in our increasingly barren intellectual landscape.

On the other side of the great divide of ill-informed opinion about climate change are the empty-headed “environmentalists” (a.k.a. “tree huggers”) that flock to demonstrations, make vacuous public statements, and otherwise display their ignorance. A recent segment on the Penn and Teller television series “Bullshit” illustrates this gulf of stupidity. In it they set up a situation in which they film a young woman at an environmental rally who approaches participants with an invitation to sign a petition to ban “dihydro monoxide” (H2O). She accurately describes this as “a chemical that is found in rivers and reservoirs,” that is used by the makers of styrofoam and the nuclear industry, that is present in our food and even baby formula and so forth.

The “pitch” deliberately mimics the kind of environmental hysteria these people are used to hearing. And it works: Hundreds of people, hearing these alarming facts (but being completely clueless that the “chemical” in question is common water) gladly sign the petition to ban this horrible substance. This is ignorance, trusting credulousness, and stupidity all wrapped up in a single example.

Tree huggers in general are the latest incarnation of the hippie culture born during the 1960s, and as many of them see it the “solution” to environmental problems is for all of us to return to nature. In other words, we should all live in the forest in happy hippie communes while subsisting on mushrooms and pine cones. Hmm, not very practical and especially in a world with more than 6.5 billion people. I think these people grew up watching too many Disney cartoon movies and think that the world really is like that.

Sadly, the discussion from both sides generally ignores the large and growing body of hard evidence being built by scientists who are studying the subject and who really know what may be happening to our planet’s environment. The reason most people don’t listen to informed voices is most likely related to the fact that learning about and understanding the actual science involved is hard work, and impossible for individuals who were denied a sound basis in the sciences during their so-called educations. Another factor is that scientists in general are not very good at communicating to the public in terms that are easy to understand. In fact, those who do address the “great unwashed” are often shunned by their colleagues. (As an example, Carl Sagan was blackballed from the National Academy of Sciences because of his popularity with the general public; see footnote below.)

Now I admire Al Gore for having brought the problems of climate change into the public eye. His book and movie simplify the issues, but that has made him a lightning rod for debate on the subject. Ill-informed hippie tree huggers flock to worship at his feet in a way reminiscent of those mindless followers of Jim Jones or David Koresh. This does not add credibility to Gore’s message, and I would guess that he is less than elated about the nature of his highly visible followers because they give climate nay-sayers ammunition to ridicule and denigrate both Gore and his message.

The media for its part follows the tried-and-true formula for producing “balanced” reporting on the subject: Find two talking heads with the most extremely differing opinions and give them equal coverage (balanced, you see) while ignoring the vast majority of fact and opinion in the middle. And nevermind that the person taking position A may represent 99.9 percent of informed opinion, the media morons will search until they find that special individual to speak for the opposing position B and who represents the remaining 0.01 percent of opinion on the subject. (In the case of climate change, that person is probably receiving financial support from ExxonMobil or other companies that think they might be harmed by action on global warming; in other words, his or her opinions likely are bogus to begin with.)

In short, the media does not do much to distinguish between informed sources, idiots, and charlatans, and in fact has a particular fondness for the latter two because they are generally a lot more interesting. The rule is not to let mere facts get in the way of a good story. The mainstream media no longer exists as a purveyor of truth, but as an entertainment industry with the purpose of earning profits. Tabloid journalism is no longer confined to the grocery checkout lane, but has taken over the entire industry. Perhaps that is why newspaper readership is plummeting like a condor in a hailstorm and mainstream television news is being watched by a rapidly diminishing number of Americans who are unwittingly becoming more and more biased and ill-informed by their “trusted” news sources. The term “opinion journalism” has recently arisen to herald the fact that reporters no longer even try to give balanced reports and feel free to lace their “news” with their own beliefs and biases.

And as all this confusion, stupidity, and misinformation boils and stirs the environmental pot, our “leaders” in Washington stand by and let it happen. Worse, the Bush administration has deliberately muzzled government scientists who have tried to shine a clear light on the subject. How much difference would it make if our “leaders” were to “tell it like it is” to the people of America, relying on actual scientific facts? Would those who scoff at global warming and dismiss it as a myth change their tunes? Would tree huggers realize that the issues go far beyond their dim bulbed focus on returning the world to a natural state in which everyone lives in a hippie commune among the friendly animals?

This landscape of ignorance and deceit distracts from any true awareness of what is at stake for our planet and human civilization. There are some positive signs, because the evidence is growing stronger and it is less possible to ignore the fact that glaciers are disappearing, deserts are spreading, species are becoming extinct and climate patterns are changing in ways that bode ill for the future. And yet the gulf between those on the one hand who are ignorant and those who would deceive us for corporate gain is so great that it will take more than scientific evidence from the far corners of the Earth before ordinary people will stop declaring that a cool day in August in their particular place is proof positive that climate change could not possibly exist.

FOOTNOTE: Following is an excerpt from an online biography of Carl Sagan by David Morrison, who was a colleague of the late star of the TV series “Cosmos”:

The next year Sagan was nominated for membership in the National Academy of Sciences. Academy membership requires distinguished research scholarship, but that is rarely sufficient to ensure membership. Considerable weight is also given to public service, as well as more political factors such as where a nominee works and whom he or she knows. Most colleagues agreed that Sagan’s research record was more than adequate (Shermer 1999), and that his additional journal editorship, government service, and contributions to public understanding of science should have ensured his election. But Sagan was blackballed in the first voting round, requiring a full debate and vote by the Academy membership. In the final vote he barely received 50 percent yes votes, far short of the two-thirds majority required for election to membership.

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