18 November 2021   2 comments

We tend to believe that social media is responsible for the wave of misinformation and disinformation that plagues discourse about politics in the US and about the COVID pandemic and vaccinations. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are well aware of the publicity campaigns launched by tobacco companies downplaying the dangers of cigarette smoking. In fact there is a website completely devoted to documents that provide evidence of the duplicity of the tobacco companies.

Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes have written an article for The Guardian which documents, in considerable detail, the efforts of the fossil fuel industry to confuse and misdirect the debates about global warming. This campaign of disinformation started long before awareness of climate change became widespread in recent years. The authors summarize the article as follows:

“The fossil fuel industry has perpetrated a multi-decade, multibillion dollar disinformation, propaganda and lobbying campaign to delay climate action by confusing the public and policymakers about the climate crisis and its solutions. This has involved a remarkable array of advertisements – with headlines ranging from “Lies they tell our children” to “Oil pumps life” – seeking to convince the public that the climate crisis is not real, not human-made, not serious and not solvable. The campaign continues to this day.

“As recently as last month, six big oil CEOs were summoned to US Congress to answer for the industry’s history of discrediting climate science – yet they lied under oath about it. In other words, the fossil fuel industry is now misleading the public about its history of misleading the public.

“We are experts in the history of climate disinformation, and we want to set the record straight. So here, in black and white (and color), is a selection of big oil’s thousands of deceptive climate ads from 1984 to 2021. This isn’t an exhaustive analysis, of which we have published several, but a brief, illustrated history – like the “sizzle reels” that creatives use to highlight their best work – of the 30-plus year evolution of fossil fuel industry propaganda. This is big oil’s PR sizzle reel.”

Robert Proctor, a science historian from Stanford University, has studied this process of disinformation and has developed a field of study which he calls agnotology. The BBC reports:

“Proctor had found that the cigarette industry did not want consumers to know the harms of its product, and it spent billions obscuring the facts of the health effects of smoking. This search led him to create a word for the study of deliberate propagation of ignorance: agnotology.

“It comes from agnosis, the neoclassical Greek word for ignorance or ‘not knowing’, and ontology, the branch of metaphysics which deals with the nature of being. Agnotology is the study of wilful acts to spread confusion and deceit, usually to sell a product or win favour.”

Agnotology is an awkward term and I doubt that it will achieve widespread usage. But it deserves greater attention given the ways publics have been manipulated by the tobacco, fossil fuel, and anti-science The efforts of the fossil fuel industry has not abated. In President Biden’s recent proposals on social infrastructure there was an important measure, called the “Clean Electricity Performance Program” (CEPP), which was designed to create incentives for cleaner alternatives to the production of electricity. But, as of now, that program has been excised from Biden’s agenda, dues largely to the success of the fossil fuel industry in getting Senators to block it. According to National Public Radio:

“But despite months of negotiation with the White House, Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, a coal and natural gas state, said he was against the program. Manchin told CNN recently that energy companies already invested in clean energy and asked why the federal government should be the one paying for it.

“Utilities, in fact, are making the transition to carbon-free energy, but far too slowly to stave off the worst effects of climate change. The CEPP’s carrot-and-stick approach is aimed at hastening the transition so that emissions levels get closer to what climate science says we need right now.

“The coal industry has been shrinking in West Virginia for decades. But Manchin himself made nearly $500,000 last year from investments in the state’s coal sector. He also raised $400,000 in campaign contributions from fossil fuel companies in the third quarter of this year, as he questioned the need for the CEPP. Manchin is the top recipient in Congress of donations from the oil and gas industry.”

It is difficult to address these tactics. Freedom of speech is a protected right in the US and I believe firmly in that right. But those who support disinformation often have access to large sums of money to spread obfuscation and outright lies since the industries involved are well-established and highly profitable. Agnotology is a destructive and corrosive process and incompatible with a thriving and functioning democracy.

Posted November 18, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

2 responses to “18 November 2021

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  1. Thank you for continuing to follow and comment on the condition of mankind and the planet. It is difficult to stay tuned-in, when it all seems so dark and grim. I find myself asking, ” is it healthy for me to pay attention?” I believe in the importance of a well-informed citizenry, but the news is so discouraging, it is debilitating. How does one keep on going?


  2. I share your discouragement. But on these matters, one does not need hope for success or to feel discouraged at failure. We simply need to do that which our hearts require.


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