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Information/culture wars

In creating with a history of the “climate fight,” Dr. Spencer Weart has created a history with interesting points about the democratization of knowledge. [Link] He talks about a decline in the prestige of all authorities, expansion of the scientific community with greater interdisciplinarity, and a decline of science journalism.

These trends had been exacerbated since the 1990s by the fragmentation of media (Internet, talk radio), which promoted counter-scientific beliefs such as fear of vaccines among even educated people, by providing facile elaborations of false arguments and a ceaseless repetition of allegations.

Mike Hulme’s response:

I think Spencer is helpful by suggesting there is a much bigger story happening in the world of science, knowledge and cultural authority of which the climate change incidents of this moment are just part. These are going to be increasingly difficult challenges for many areas of science in the future – how is scientific knowledge recognized, how is it spoken and who speaks for it, and how does scientific knowledge relate to other forms of cultural authority. It’s not just about the politicization of public knowledge, but also about its fragmentation, privatization and/or democratization.

In comments, Bob Potter says

The key phrase is “expert public relations apparatus”. In the mid 20th century scientists had the luxury of public respect. People believed what they said. As public confidence in authority figures of all types waned, scientists took no notice. When global climate change became a serious issue scientists still assumed that a “word from the wise” would be sufficient, and that is all they brought to the fight. They lost the war because industry had a public relations army and they did not.

All great points: we’re in the midst of culture and information wars, and the concept of “authoritative voice” is less meaningful, if not lost. We can’t fix this by going backwards… as so many of us have said before, we have to focus more than ever on media literacy. Should be right up there with reading, writing, and arithmetic.

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