A former student recently sent me a fascinating article from the LA Times. Titled “The Cultural Production of Ignorance,” it centered on the work of Robert Proctor, a Stanford Professor who teaches the history of science. Proctor studies intentional efforts to sow disinformation, especially about science.
The tobacco industry pioneered this sort of propaganda; when science demonstrated the link between smoking and various diseases, Big Tobacco’s tactic (outlined in a Brown and Williamson memo) was not to attack the evidence outright. Instead, they chose to “sow doubt and establish a controversy.”
Sound familiar? It should; the same approach is used by vaccine opponents, climate change deniers and those who reject evolution, among others. The tactic is a staple of Fox News (Proctor says that he “watches Fox News all the time.”)
Ironically, in the “information society” we inhabit, it has become easier to propagate ignorance. As issues become more complicated, they also become easier to confuse. And in the place of accuracy–what used to be called “the journalism of verification”–today’s media has substituted “balance.” Rather than objectivity, we get “both” sides of issues that may actually have six “sides” or only one. In place of real reporting, we get stenography–“he said, she said.”
This is an ideal environment for liars and propagandists.