Disinformation at its finest

Merchants of Doubt paints a bleak picture of the state of affairs, from climate change to general rampant miss information.  In regards to climate change it almost seems that Climate Change has never had a time to shine.  In 1965 Roger Revelle made a prediction that by the year 2000, we would see physical changes in temperature due to increased CO2 in the atmosphere.  Lyndon Johnson took the report to congress where it was essentially swept under the rug.  Oreskes and conway explain that it was because of timing, there were more pressing concerns.  It is clear that until very recent years there has been a generally downward spiral in the state of the world climate.  In fact environmental issues as a whole always seem to fall low on the “pressing” scale.  It would seem that because many environmental issues are “it will get bad in the future” kind of issues that they rarely seem to be dealt with “now”.  Governmental policies, historically have not seemed to address and project what unchecked issues could potentially have in the future.  Only recently when the current state of the environment has become blatantly apparent have there been more active movements towards preventing future issues.

Apart from the obvious issues presented in Merchants of Doubt, there seems to be one issues that contributes to the others.  The issue of the modern age of communication.  As expressed in the conclusion the right to freedom of the press is a double-edged sword.  As they say everyone has an opinion, and with the advent of the internet, now you can share yours with everyone: “Opinions sometimes express ill-informed beliefs, not reliable knowledge.”  Whats worse is that scientific fact has become harder for people to believe.  By its nature the scientific process is designed to be proven wrong, and change.  experiments are done, data is recorded and a consensus is met, yet with additional research that consensus can change easily and dramatically.  Internet opinion, is organic in that it also changes constantly.  I believe that people have been conditioned to not believe things that change often, that appear “wishy washy”.  Because of this, scientific reasoning appears similar to internet information, and people are less likely to believe.  In the example of climate change science, the addition of nay sayers only reinforces peoples belief that it can not be true.

With the ability of the internet, the words of Alexis de Tocqueville become very prevalent:

“A confused clamor rises on every side, and a thousand voices are heard at once”

When Objective Journalism Breaks Down

Two of the most important features of a liberalized nation are the right to free speech and freedom of the press. Freedom of speech gives all citizens of a nation the right to voice an opinion or idea using their body or property. Freedom of the press allows the freedom of communication and expression of ideas through various media without state intervention. These two rights enable people to obtain information from a diversity of sources, make decisions, and communicate those decisions to the government, which in turn contributes to progress within a nation and in the world at large.

These two rights are probably the two cornerstones of a liberal society, but nonetheless, these freedoms can still be abused. Take the cases discussed in Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s book Merchants of Doubt for example, about a loose-knit group of scientists and scientific advisors who worked to mislead the public on various issues, such as the effects of tobacco smoke on the lungs, the effects of CFCs and the effect humans and technology have on global warming.

This group of scientists worked with large industries to oppose new research that damaged the public perception of said industries. Journalists, in their constant drive for true objectivity, portrayed both sides as being two equal, legitimate arguments. This is seemingly what the idea of free press is about; an argument is formed around an issue, and the media gives equal and neutral coverage to both sides. But the problem with this was that the scientists on the side of large industries were not doing science, but instead merely drawing attention to various uncertainties in the true research on the other side. The two arguments were not equal; while one side was doing truthful, legitimate and objective research, the other was merely finding uncertainties in this science and drawing attention to them, hence creating doubt in the public.

This brings to light an interesting question: Where do we draw the line between objective research and disinformation?

In the age of the Internet, anyone with access to a computer has a way to disseminate his or her opinion to the public. In a sense, this is a big step forward for the freedom of speech, because the discussion of local, national and international issues is opened to more people, ensuring that no one is censored. But on the other hand, this means that the opinions expressed might hold no truth, as is the case with the group of scientists discussed in Merchants of Doubt.

There are a lot of ideas out there that one might not necessarily agree with, but this does not mean they are disinformation. They still deserve to be covered with the same journalistic integrity as the ideas that one does agree with, but the line between objectively researched information and disinformation seems to be very thin. Where do we draw the line between the two without censoring any arguments? How should a journalist decide what to and what not to cover? To be honest, I have no solution to these questions. It seems to me that both journalists and consumers of journalism need to take a better look at the credibility of the information that they are reading. I predict, as widespread Internet use continues to grow, this is a problem that will more and more become an important political issue.