For two weeks beginning December 7 of this year, scientists and world leaders (as well as a few ignoramuses from Washington) are making their way to Copenhagen. As they struggle to find global solutions to the world-wide environmental crisis, right-wing critics in America are still nattering about some injudicious words taken out of context from emails sent years ago by scientists at the University of East Anglia (UEA).
Hackers and thieves stole thousands of pages of material, selectively releasing tidbits that can be interpreted by the ill-informed to cast doubt on the enormous body of scientific knowledge supporting climate change. The timing of this sophisticated bit of intellectual terrorism—days before the largest and most important international climate summit in the history of the world—was no accident.
In his recent book, Denialism, Michael Specter says this of people who persist in disbelieving what rational and well-informed people know to be true: “they shun nuance and fear complexity.” That may be true of the consumers of misinformation; but those who manufacture it, popularize it, and profit from it are motivated by something more sinister than ignorance and fear: greed and/or the lust for power.
From what has so far been made public, it seems clear that the UEA scientists were concerned that fragmentary and incomplete information from their research could be used by climate-change deniers to overshadow conclusions based on years of good-faith scientific inquiry. Of course, that’s exactly what’s happening; ironically, however, discussion about whether and how to release these isolated facts has resulted in the whiff of a cover-up—which, in the minds of many, is enough to taint their entire body of evidence.
A favorite and very effective trick of those who manipulate public perception for financial or political gain is to find one or two instances out of many thousands and blow them out of proportion. When a gabby Acorn worker in Baltimore had a conversation with some sleazy visitors to her office that was recorded on tape, the result was an avalanche of criticism that crippled the entire organization. Besides encouraging poor people to vote (a practice that enrages many Republicans), Acorn is a community-service organization that aids the needy and homeless. When Congress cut off funding to the organization in a knee-jerk response to that one incident, things got even more desperate for thousands of people who need the kind of assistance Acorn provides.
The problem with the UEA emails is not information withheld by scientists. It’s mis-information deliberately manufactured and broadcast by people who stand to profit by public confusion. The problem for America and the world is how, in the “information age,” we can help people learn how and where to get accurate information—and whom to believe.