Video: Denialism: Media in the Age of Disinformation

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A few hundred years after the Enlightenment, western civilization is rushing back to the Dark Ages. The causes are debatable, but, argue these science journalists, the public increasingly rejects the findings of science, from climate change to evolution, and is turning away from rationality and reason in general.

“People are afraid of anything that will hammer away at their preconceived notions,” says Michael Specter. He points to the fanatic opposition in some quarters to genetically engineered foods, and the worship of organic products. Almost everything we eat is the result of genetic modification, he notes, and “organics kill people, too.” It doesn’t make sense to think that returning to “the old ways” will keep us healthy and supply the world with food. “We’re hurting ourselves in lots of ways,” says Specter, when people insist on believing what they want.

Human nature plays a big part in feeding denialism, believes Chris Mooney. “We all … argue against information that contradicts our existing worldview.” The unfortunate evolution of media in the digital age is feeding our inherent “confirmation bias,” and today “Americans with different political leanings construct different realities.” We must “give up” on the idea that truth triumphs and society advances as more people become critical thinkers. Concludes Mooney, “We have to work with the media and brains we have, and seek realistic change.”

Shannon Brownlee had an “epiphany” a decade ago when she realized that prostate cancer tests did not lead to a lower risk of dying, as researchers suggested, but instead to potentially harmful treatment. Her “awakening” led her to perceive “how much of medicine we take on faith.” Brownlee’s journalistic beat now involves the frequent occurrence of “bad science” in medicine. She believes we are not all that far removed from the days when medicine was based on “four humors of disease” and bleeding was the key remedy. Health care, on which Americans spend more than anything else, depends on “the perception of science as its underpinning”– a terrible delusion, she implies.

To contend with denialism, says Shankar Vedentam, we need a more nuanced view, one that recognizes its different shapes: One type rejects events from the past for which we have evidence, and another kind “says I’m not willing to trust projections of what will happen in the future.” Climate change falls in the latter category, as people “are being asked to trust data rather than their intuitions.” Some summers feel cold, and some winters feel hot, for instance. Also, he says, partisanship now holds sway in all aspects of life, with people swearing loyalty to particular positions in unrelated areas, and to fellow members of their “team.” Given indifference to facts, good information “paradoxically, horrifyingly can amplify the effects of bad information,” believes Vedentam. Just look at the explosive growth of the Obama birther movement, in spite of ample evidence that the president was indeed born in Hawaii.

Panelists see no easy antidote to this large-scale retreat from reason. Specter recommends that schools teach statistics, and Brownlee concurs that kids “should know what a big denominator and small numerator means.” Vendantam argues for a nonpartisan approach to such issues as climate change, and Mooney thinks hard scientists and social scientists should be “in better dialog” to craft an effective approach to the big scientific and policy questions of our time.

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22. June 2010 by Miguel Barbosa
Categories: Curated Readings, Wisdom Seeking | Leave a comment

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