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The popular inability to distinguish fantasy from reality is not a new phenomenon. Snake-oil salesmen have long relied upon their marks’ eagerness to believe in magical elixirs. But even people’s skepticism is used to gull them, as when Fox News pundits exploit confusion of weather with climate to dismiss global climate change. Look! There’s still winter! Thus ignorant mockery trumps a vast body of evidence.
Phrenology was a popular pseudoscience in the 19th century, based on the notion that different mental faculties were housed in different parts of the brain. Skull measurements were used to justify doctrines of racial superiority. Science lectures became entertainment, hypotheses were tested by applause, and argument was supplemented by showmanship.
Misdirection and make-believe have long been used to sway crowds. The new media merely act as an accelerant. For example, The Lightly Braised Turnip website reported last week that a 160-foot squid had washed ashore in Santa Monica, Calif. Scientists reportedly said that the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster had caused genetic mutations that triggered radioactive gigantism, just like in old sci-fi movies.
The solution was suggested by writer Harlan Ellison in his classic Star Trek episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever“: locate a desolate planet with temporal disturbances, consult the Guardian of Forever, and go through the Time Vortex to prevent the disaster from occurring in the first place.
But Ellison was writing fiction. How often do we have to be fooled by, say, The Daily Currant before we learn that it specializes in satire? Granted, it’s hard to tell the difference these days, with Rep. Michele Bachmann weeping over the prospect of Obamacare killing Granny, and Gov. Chris Christie summoning the ghost of Richard Nixon with “I am not a bully.”
The problem is that we willingly fool ourselves. We believe what we wish to believe, filtering out evidence that fails to confirm our own preferences. Thus, in comments below a Facebook item about Gov. Christie’s staff causing a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge for political retribution, a right-wing troll brings up alleged cover-ups of the Benghazi consulate attack and IRS scrutiny of tea party groups, both pseudo scandals hyped by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). Never mind that a nonpartisan panel investigated Benghazi and found no withdrawal of American military assets during the attack; or that the IRS agent was a conservative Republican who examined both liberal and conservative groups without White House knowledge.
Ezra Klein writes in The Washington Post about the alacrity with which partisans change their supposedly principled positions based on whose ox is being gored, as when Republicans denounced the health insurance mandate originally devised by the Heritage Foundation after President Obama embraced it. “Oftentimes when we think we’re engaged in reasoned policy discussion we’re actually engaged in complex efforts to rationalize the direction in which our tribal affiliations are pushing us. Psychologists call this motivated reasoning. And they’ve shown its power in laboratory settings again and again and again.”
When stuck, a resourceful operative improvises, like the chief engineer on Star Trek, “reversing the polarity.” But dressing up bullshit in technobabble no more makes you an engineer than a superhero costume enables you to fly. I love the campiness of commercial spokespersons in white lab coats listing the awful side effects of medications in soothing voices.
When fast talk and sleight of hand are combined with poor science education, the real effects of public policy are missed. This trickery does not feed hungry children, nor create jobs, nor establish justice, nor clean up toxic spills, nor strengthen America’s global competitiveness.
Imagination can be used to illuminate or obscure. When it takes us in flight from the challenges we face, we are in for a rough landing.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.