A strange and dangerous experiment


As children, many of us believed crazy things, such as the existence of ghosts and fairies and other manifestations of the magical or supernatural. As we grew up, we abandoned many of those absurd beliefs, mainly due to our growing realization that they did not make any sense. But in addition, as we got older our families did not actively seek to have us continue to believe them and, in the case of things like Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, actively sought to dissuade us from doing so. Society at large also does not have a vested interest in propagating a lot of magical thinking.

The one major exception is, of course, basic religious beliefs, where families and society both try keep them going. But even here, society no longer actively seeks to perpetuate their more extreme forms such as faith healing or snake handling and other things that are downright dangerous and are known to contradict our best current knowledge.

But America is currently going through a strange period where a major political party (the Republicans) and a major news outlet (Fox News) are actively seeking to perpetuate ideas that are flat-out wrong and, I suspect, known to be so by the people who are actively promoting them.

The two major ones are the denial of evolution and climate change but there are other ones that flatly contradict common sense and our best knowledge, such as that increased income inequality is beneficial for everyone, that making it harder for poor people to eat and survive is actually good for them, that unbridled access to guns is an excellent way to reduce gun violence, that universal access to free or even affordable health care is bad, and so on.

Because of this intense propaganda campaign, we have large numbers of people who actually believe all this stuff. I don’t know of any other nation that is so modern in other ways that has similar organs of powerful public persuasion that deliberately seek to mislead its public with such fundamental untruths on major issues.

Most myths that have real-life consequences eventually founder on the rocks of reality. Surely propagating such a vast disconnect between reality and myth has to lead to instability? How can a modern society survive for long on a false foundation? What happens then?

It seems like America is embarked on a strange and dangerous experiment to answer such questions.

Comments

  1. AndrewD says

    In the words of my mother (and, I suspect many other mothers) “It will all end in tears”

  2. jamessweet says

    flat-out wrong and, I suspect, known to be so by the people who are actively promoting them.

    Don’t be so sure. Probably a lot of these people kinda know the truth, but they have established all kinds of mental barriers to avoid thinking about it, to the point that in their day-to-day lives they are essentially just as deceived as the people they are bamboozling.

    I’ll maybe write more on this later… But yeah, I think the people who consciously know the truth about the things you listed, and spread the lie anyway — with eyes wide open about the contradiction — are an extreme minority. That’s movie villain territory. Most people have a need to believe they are good people, and that sort of cold-hearted deception just doesn’t jibe with that. For most people, it’s much easier to convince yourself that climate change really IS a hoax, than it is to accept the idea that you are propagating a lie that will do great harm to future generations in order to reap a short term gain.

  3. badgersdaughter says

    …that increased income inequality is beneficial for everyone, that making it harder for poor people to eat and survive is actually good for them … that universal access to free or even affordable health care is bad…

    No, they don’t believe income inequality is beneficial or that making the lot of the poor harder is beneficial. They know it’s cruel and evil and unworthy of a modern, functioning society. The problem is that they think the problem isn’t them or their policies. To them, the problem is the poor themselves. Poverty is the result of sins such as laziness and lechery and violence and godlessness. To them, the sinners need to be punished, not indulged. To them, whatever suffering the poor undergo is salutary and whatever happens to the children of the poor is their misfortune and the fault of their parents. There’s no incentive to help the poor when you make them the bad guys.

  4. corwyn says

    that unbridled access to guns is an excellent way to reduce gun violence,

    It is not clear how they are correlated (within the confines of the US).

    Gun violence is down.
    http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2013/05/07/181998015/rate-of-u-s-gun-violence-has-fallen-since-1993-study-says

    Gun ownership by household *seems* to be down.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/10/us/rate-of-gun-ownership-is-down-survey-shows.html

    Gun ownership *seems* to be going up. (each gun owner owns more guns)
    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/jul/25/gun-ownership-us-data

    [Hard data is hard to find]

  5. Mano Singham says

    The key word in ‘unbridled’. I think that people should be allowed to have guns but that the process to enable people to get them should be like that to drive a car, since both can be lethal. You should first get some training and be certified as a competent user. For anyone to be able to walk into a shop and buy one seems absurd.

  6. Jockaira says

    You should first get some training and be certified as a competent user. For anyone to be able to walk into a shop and buy one seems absurd.

    My own experience shows that “unbridled” gun purchases are a thing of the past, at least in California. About ten years ago I had to present official photo ID to purchase a gun though the gunshop owner knew me personally. This was for a background check for which I had to wait for two weeks for the check to be completed before I could actually purchase the gun.

    I also had to finish a written test on gun safety which cost me an additional $20 and took about 20 minutes. The test was not especially difficult but also not especially easy, about the same degree of difficulty as a DMV written test. A person of average intelligence with no gun experience would probably fail the test. The $20 fee included three test attempts only to be taken no less than 30 days apart. Failure of all three attempts would require to purchaser to complete a mandatory licensed instructor-taught course in gun safety that would cost $100 and include actual practice firing on a certified gun range. Failure to pass this course mandated the retaking of the course until passing with the fee each time of $100.

    Upon completion of the course the purchaser would still be required to take the gun safety test and pass for the gun purchase.

    After passing the test, paying the money, and waiting two weeks, the purchaser can then pick up the gun.

    About two years later I wanted to make a gift to my wife of another gun for her protection when I wasn’t home (she had complained about feeling unease about a neighborhood resident who had been under police suspicion for burglaries and attempted extortions of other residents). The gun shop owner required (by law) me to bring my wife to make the purchase after taking the safety test. He said that the law prohibited private transfer of ownership from one to another with the single exception being between two persons related by blood in the same line of descent.

    I have no quibble with these regulations as they seem reasonable and probably do prevent many from having guns who shouldn’t. They also show that gun control regulations can be written that do not unduly affect or prohibit the legitimate rights of people to own and use guns. Other regulations, such as assault-weapons bans or rationing and heavy taxing of ammunition accomplish nothing but garnering votes for politicians insincerely stampeding their constituents into useless thoughts and actions.

  7. Nick Gotts says

    I don’t know of any other nation that is so modern in other ways that has similar organs of powerful public persuasion that deliberately seek to mislead its public with such fundamental untruths on major issues.

    Actually, the USA is only the most extreme example. Here in the UK, a number of major newspapers propagate climate change denialism, and hate campaigns against immigrants, especially refugees and asylum seekers, have persuaded the majority of the population that millions of people are here under false pretences and are milking the benfits system on a huge scale. Belief in a threatened Muslim takeover of Europe is widespread both here and in other European countries. Belief that private is always better than public, that the rich need to be incentivised by cutting their taxes while the poor need to be incentivised by denying them benefits, and other neoliberal nostrums, have become conventional wisdom and are hardly challenged in broadcasting, which supposedly has a duty of impartiality. In Japan, there are increasingly bold moves to deny the truth about Japanese imperialism and atrocities in the period up to 1945. Even creationism is by no means confined to the USA.

    I think all these irrationalities are connected to the great rightward shift within rich countries that has now continued for several decades – some have obvious benefits for the rich and their ideological shills on the right, while others focus public anger away from the rich onto a variety of scapegoats (and, as jamessweet argues@2, allows the rich themselves to believe in their own virtue). The shift began when the right saw their opportunity to reverse the trend towards greater equality in rich countries following the oil shocks and stagflation of the 1970s, but has now so far transformed “common sense” that even the financial crash of 2007-8 and the subsequent revelations of outright criminality among the financial elite have scarcely dented the right’s hegemony. Unless we can find a way to destroy this hegemony, the future is grim.

  8. mnb0 says

    “I don’t know of any other nation ….”
    We Dutch (prejudiced as all human beings) tend to think that the USA are going nuts because of stuff like this.

  9. Nick Gotts says

    Dunc@9,

    Thanks for that link! Here’s a quote from it, from Hetan Shah, the Executive Director of the Royal Statistical Society:

    Our data poses real challenges for policymakers. How can you develop good policy when public perceptions can be so out of kilter with the evidence?

    We need to see three things happen. First, politicians need to be better at talking about the real state of affairs of the country, rather than spinning the numbers. Secondly, the media has to try and genuinely illuminate issues, rather than use statistics to sensationalise.

    “And finally we need better teaching of statistical literacy in schools, so that people get more comfortable in understanding evidence.”

    I don’t know whether Hetan Shah is really as naive as this suggests. It’s no accident, or even unintended consequence of actions taken for other reasons, that the public is so drastically wrong about so many things.

  10. steffp says

    @Dunc #9
    I side with Nick Gotts in this: What a survey of right-wing talking points without a factual basis. Although many European countries have similar parties who use such fear-mongering tactics, their medial echo rooms are by far smaller, and so is their voter potential.
    In Austria, the FPÖ bobs around 20%, in Italy the Lega Nord has some regional centers, but is nationwide at less than 8%, In the Netherlands G. Wilder’s VVD got about 15%, Germany houses about 10% right populist potential – no parliamentary representation, though. Poland had the Kaczyński brothers with their isolationist populist course, The UK has the UKIP (15%) and even in Scandinavia there are right wing populist parties with some influence. The general assumption is that these parties promise simple ways out of modern crisis, which the established parties seem to be unable to solve.
    As for the US, with her factual two-party system, a populist party should have about as much influence as Britain’s UKIP. But due to the GOPs general lack of vision, they did not protect their own turf, and could be taken hostage by a well-funded parasite. The future will be influenced by the US American tendency towards conformism, and the astonishing lack of political alternative thinking. Plus, of course, the general uninformed-ness on all matters abroad. How many US citizens know that it was Kaiser Wilhelm II who founded the German Health care system, or that many the “Socialist” European countries are constitutional monarchies (Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, not to mention Luxembourg, Andorra, Liechtenstein and Monaco)?

  11. Dunc says

    I don’t know whether Hetan Shah is really as naive as this suggests. It’s no accident, or even unintended consequence of actions taken for other reasons, that the public is so drastically wrong about so many things.

    Yes indeed – I made exactly the same point (although in rather more forceful and graphic terms ;)) when somebody shared that article on Facebook. But there’s a good chance that she still subscribes to the “deficit model“, given her profession.

  12. says

    jamessweet #2, and all

    If you haven’t yet, I would recommend you read Bob Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians: https://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

    It’s free in pdf on that site, and it was an incredibly eye-opening read based on solid research and data. The type of leaders that rise to power in the system we see in today’s right-wing madhouse are provably very well aware of how much bullshite they are spitting, and they are doing it purposefully.

    I really could go on and on about it, but seriously, if you haven’t read The Authoritarians, please do. I have yet to have someone tell me they didn’t find it very, very useful and important.

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