Advertising, scepticism and zombies

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

The pernicious appeal of misinformation

Counterknowledge is defined as “misinformation packaged to look like fact” in Damian Thompson’s excellent (and short) book. People’s propensity for swallowing any dozy nonsense has been a pet subject of mine for some time; it is also an important consideration in much of the trends analysis I undertake.
Ah, you might think, here’s a bloke who works in advertising and knows all about misinformation because, hur hur, these marketing machines churn out fibs and deceit all day long. Well, no actually.
For a start, what this industry generates is constantly scrutinised and, unlike the press, takes criticisms from its watchdog very seriously. Any batterings delivered by the ASA reflect poorly on our clients. Not good for business.
Secondly, I believe that ad agencies with a strong strategic planning presence have a better understanding of what makes people tick than most other consumer-facing businesses.
This makes a cosy reason for monitoring all the nonsensical stuff that people believe in.
Here’s the fit.
Modern history (a good summary of which can be found in Andrew Marr’s sweet tome) informs us that over the last half-century, Britain’s traditional authority figures – parents, teachers, doctors, the police etc. – have seen that authority wane. It’s partly true that our fate is no longer determined by birth, but by choice. I say “partly” because it looks like social mobility has declined over the last decade for those unfortunates at the bottom of society’s pile.
The increase in media choice – firstly by more TV and radio channels and then by that internet thingy – combined with social change means that we have new authority figures: brands and celebrities. My book of the year – Professor Geoffrey Miller’s “Spent” – suggests to me that the mass of choices available to us provide a cornucopia of options for building our identities. We choose brands according to the image we are trying to project.
Why this can be a force for good is the subject of another post. It’s the bad stuff I’m interested in.
The counterknowledge problems arise when members of the great British public ignore the traditional authority figures and nail their colours to the masts of celebrities and charlatans. The public is exposed to powerful and seductive influences now more than ever. Attention spans are shorter (more stimulus from the media, most of it innaccurate if you read certain grey-top tabloids).
Remember the Millennium Bug? That was bullshit dreamt up by the media and “new experts” who over-reacted to a minor article published inside a Canadian newspaper in the early 1990s. More recently, the MMR vaccine, a scare over which was manufactured by a dodgy doctor who falsified (poorly executed) research based upon a tiny sample of children. Parents who refused to vaccinate their children are now faced with outbreaks of those once-banished illnesses that the injections were designed to counter.
Being a parent, I was naturally concerned about the MMR issue. Now my kids are no longer toddlers, I’m more concerned about bullshit being peddled in schools. Fortunately I have seen little evidence of misinformation in lessons, except where it belongs – in RE – but there is a need for vigilance if Britain is to avoid a rather pernicious influence that originated in the USA: the undermining of science.
The British Council instigated a survey that suggested over half of Britons want creationism taught in science lessons.
The polled statement was "Evolutionary theories should be taught in science lessons in schools together with other possible perspectives, such as intelligent design and creationism."
I’m having to hold back on releasing a sweary rant at this point. It’s difficult when faced with such ignorance.
“Intelligent design” is creationism. Same wine, different bottles. The idea is that the evidence-based theory of evolution is given equal parity to fairy stories about magical beings creating creatures and people. And you can’t restrict creationist teachings to Judaeo-Christian myths because then you’d have to explain why these are more valid than every single creation myth from the Stone Age onwards.
You see the problem?
Science was once one of the old authorities. Because we are now used to the opinions of self-appointed whack-jobs being given equal weight to those of people trained for years in the scientific method, it’s becoming harder to tell the difference.
It’s not that people are more stupid. This issue is that they’re not taught to think.

Bible dino pic from b3ta

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