Barry Ritholtz: Culturally constructed ignorance wins the day

The myths which were being pressed by the leave campaign about the EU were absurd that the European Commission had to put out repeated corrections. Photo / Getty Images
The myths which were being pressed by the leave campaign about the EU were absurd that the European Commission had to put out repeated corrections. Photo / Getty Images

I spend much of my time shrugging off breathless news events.

Ebola (now Zika), employment reports, Federal Reserve rate changes, government shutdowns, peak earnings and so on. Much of what passes for earth-shaking news turns out to be, with the benefit of hindsight, something in between idle gossip and fear-mongering.

The genuine, not well-anticipated, actual market-moving news - such as the U.K.'s vote to leave the European Union - is a relatively rare thing.

However, there is a disconcerting trend that has gained strength: agnotology. It's a term worth knowing, since it is going global.

The word was coined by Stanford University professor Robert N. Proctor, who described it as "culturally constructed ignorance, created by special interest groups to create confusion and suppress the truth in a societally important issue."

It is especially useful to sow seeds of doubt in complex scientific issues by publicizing inaccurate or misleading data.

Culturally constructed ignorance played a major role in the Brexit vote, as we shall see after a bit of explanation.

Perhaps the best-known example of agnotology is found in the tobacco industry's claims for many years that the evidence that smoking cigarettes causes cancer was "not yet in." The position of the industry and its executives was that the hazards of cigarette smoking were an open question.

Of course, this was a huge lie, as the industry had scientific evidence that proved that smoking caused cancer, emphysema, heart and lung disease. As Proctor observed "The tobacco industry is famous for having seen itself as a manufacturer of two different products: tobacco and doubt."

That doubt, however, allowed cigarette sales to continue for decades before the inescapable truth came to light. And it forestalled broader regulatory oversight by the states and the federal government for years.

But the truth can only be held back for so long, and eventually tobacco sales in the U.S. fell off a cliff. But it was too late to save millions of people who became sick and died due to smoking.

Current agnotology campaigns seem to be having similarly desired effects. We see the results in a variety of public-policy issues where one side has manufactured enough doubt through false statements, inflammatory rhetoric and data from dubious sources that they can mislead public opinion in a significant way, at least for a time.

The backers of each of these public issues have used the technique of culturally constructed ignorance to affect public opinion, direct government policy and alter regulatory oversight.

Here a just a few examples:

• Iraq has weapons of mass destruction

• Genetically modified crops are dangerous

• Global warming is a scientific hoax

• Vaccines cause autism

• Tax cuts pay for themselves

• Poor people caused the financial crisis

Each of these is, of course, wrong and lacking in any factual basis. Nevertheless, they have a following.

Now, you can add Brexit to the list. Watching from across the Atlantic, it was a wonder to see the stream of claims that failed to stand up to even the slightest scrutiny.

Perhaps the biggest was the assertion by Nigel Farage, the loudest advocate for Brexit and leader of the U.K. Independence Party, that leaving would free up 350 million pounds ($460 million) a week that now goes to the EU for use by Britain's financially stretched National Health Service.

Farage was forced to backtrack on this claim almost immediately. He was successful at frightening people with claims about immigration that he also was forced to "row back."

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, there is evidence that people didn't fully understand what they were voting for. Some didn't think their protest vote would matter, or misunderstood what they were voting for, or what the EU actually was.

Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party celebrates with his supporters in London as people voted to leave. Photo / AP
Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party celebrates with his supporters in London as people voted to leave. Photo / AP

There seems to be a rise in voters' remorse the days after. Many blamed the tabloids in the U.K. The misstatements and myths which were being pressed by the leave campaign about the EU were so rampant and absurd that the European Commission had to put out repeated corrections and maintain a blog to rebut the nonsense.

Democracy is based on the concept of a market place of ideas. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes described the "free trade in ideas" within "the competition of the market."

By the time voters head to the polls, the participants will have chewed over the finer points, the details will be well known to all and, for the most part, everyone more or less understands what's at stake.

Or not.

The assumption underlying policy debates - their true purpose in a democracy - is to engage in a principled argument in order to reach a discernible truth. It isn't, as we have seen more and more often, to win a short-term victory at any and all costs.

Jonathan Swift once wrote, "Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it." That was never truer than today, when falsehoods and Facebook hoaxes can travel around the world at the click of a mouse.

Hyperbole and exaggeration is one thing, creating an alternative universe is something else entirely.

- Washington Post

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