Lies, Inc.

By James Hoggan23.09.2014Economics, Media, Science

We know that climate change is a reality, but an army of deniers led by business interests and supported by the mainstream media makes us believe that warnings of a climate calamity are overblown.

Just as we can pollute the natural environment, we can pollute public conversations and turn healthy public discourse into something noxious and damaging. This is what is happening in today’s dialogue about climate change. Industry PR has polluted the public square with polarization, mistrust and denial.

I stumbled across this problem in 2005 when I wanted to add a community service element to my public relations company website. Someone suggested a section on global warming. I liked the idea because it was controversial and I thought my Canadian firm might guide readers to the credible science and an objective viewpoint. I expected to find a scientific debate in my research, but instead I found complete agreement among the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Royal Society, the Royal Society of Canada, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the American Meteorological Society, NASA, and more.

Outright lies that ring true

I also discovered highly skilled publicists working hard to confuse people and a compliant mainstream media recycling misinformation and a controversy that simply didn’t exist. This pollution of the public square is the most immediate environmental crisis we face today, and it’s backed by revenue-dependent governments, big business, the hard right, and an oil industry scrambling to protect power and profits.

This questionable PR involves a myriad of distortion tactics, using unqualified scientists, fake science, and front groups to create doubt about climate science and polarize concerns so they can be turned into partisan issues.

Other devices include Astroturf, which involves setting up phony grassroots organizations to look like concerned citizens or independent experts, and Echo Chambers, where a coalition of information sources repeats a dubious message or outright lies so often they start to ring true.

The more these untruths are repeated, the more deeply they are embedded in public opinion. This propaganda acts like a microchip implanted in the brain, explains Bryant Welch, who chairs clinical psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies.

Half-truths and distortions about climate change are endemic, and I doubt the general public has the faintest idea how much energy, intelligence, and money is poured into these alarmingly deceptive techniques, which is why I am writing a book about it. In the last three years I have interviewed more than 60 leading analysts and experts — oceanographers, geneticists, NASA scientists, religious and thought leaders, behavioral and brain researchers — who agree we are witnessing an ideologically motivated, industry-funded attempt to mislead and stall action by polarizing the public.

New cognitive science research tells us that outlandish allegations and twisted meanings are strategies that confuse and conceal: Throw out enough misinformation and people stop believing what they hear. If you cannot criticize climate science research or scholarship, then undermine and discredit a scientist’s character. As the great American linguist Noam Chomsky told me: “If you can’t answer somebody’s argument, shriek at them. Rant. Call them names. Anything to undermine the argument that you can’t respond to.” Co-opting vocabulary is another strategy, as when energy companies refer to “clean coal” or “ethical oil” or when George Bush talks about “a just war.” When everything is mislabeled, conditions for debate and democracy evaporate.

These sophisticated strategies, manipulations, and mind games are based on a new understanding of how the brain works, and they are highly effective. We now see a yawning gap between what scientists are telling us and what the public believes. “The big truth is, this planet is at risk of extinction, and the big lie is that ice is building up,” says Mark Crispin Miller, a New York University expert on propaganda.

Based on current evidence, more than 97 percent of the world’s top climate scientists are convinced that human-caused climate change is happening. Unequivocal evidence from atmospheric, marine, and life science experts points to catastrophic warming trends, ecosystem collapse, and the unprecedented loss of biodiversity.

In 2013, the first large freighter transited the historically icebound Northwest Passage; Australia sweltered in the hottest year since records began and added a new color to its weather map to reflect the extreme heat; Earth’s atmosphere passed 400 parts per million of greenhouse gases; droughts and wildfires ravaged parts of America, China, and Russia; the biggest typhoon in history shattered thousands of lives in the Philippines; and we lost roughly 25,000 species, based on data from 39 models in a dozen different countries.

Doing bad things for good reasons

French philosopher Bruno Latour calls climate denial the “science of deliberate ignorance” and likens it to that of the Holocaust. Deniers don’t even have to convince people climate change isn’t happening. They simply cut off debate by exaggerating the uncertainties or the cost of solutions.

What should be done about the misinformation and corrupt conversations that pollute public discourse and debate?

We can all stop stirring up more partisan polarization. We can begin clearing the air by recognizing, as Vanderbilt Law School’s Roger Conner says, that good people sometimes do bad things for what they believe are good reasons. Attacking people only helps feed the confusion, anger, and polarization.

As Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh told me: “Speak the truth, but not to punish.”

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