Cultural production of ignorance provides rich field for study

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In a recent study, a research team headed by Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College tried four methods to change the minds of parents who had decided not to immunize their children with the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine — a factual refutation of the vaccine-autism link; two different means of warning about the risks to children from contracting measles, mumps or rubella, including "a dramatic narrative about an infant who almost died of measles"; and horrific photos of children suffering from the diseases.

Some of the interventions persuaded the parents that the autism link was specious, but not a single one made the parents more willing to vaccinate their children. And some intensified opposition to the vaccine, a "backfire" effect.

A second danger is that ignorance interferes with the creation of intelligent policy. Citing the results of a 2012 Gallup poll, Proctor asks, "If half the country thinks the Earth is 6,000 years old, how can you really develop an effective environmental policy? This sort of traditional or inertial ignorance bars us from being able to act responsibly on large social issues."

Still, it's commercially manufactured ignorance that's most insidious. And Big Tobacco, that great pioneer in the field, is still at it.

The industry has succeeded in persuading the public and politicians that it has lost the smoking war, but that's a myth. Proctor says 40 million Americans still smoke and tobacco use is still rising in much of the world. Moreover, the industry's program isn't just about cigarettes, but part of "a larger agnotological project to promote free-market fundamentalism," he points out.

As Stanton A. Glantz of UC San Francisco documented last year, the tobacco industry was deeply involved in the evolution of the tea party movement, which promoted some of the industry's cherished aims, such as fighting tobacco taxes and anti-smoking laws.

"The Tea Party of the late 2000s has become the 'movement'" envisioned by a Reynolds executive 10 years earlier, Glantz concluded, "grounded in patriotic values of 'freedom' and 'choice' to change how people see the role of 'government' and 'big business' in their lives."

Given the torrent of misinformation washing about the public space and the multiplicity of pathways for its distribution, is there any hope for beating back the tide? Agnotologists are divided. "I don't see any easy out," says UCLA's Wise. "All of the forces are on the side of undermining public trust in science."

But Proctor has hope. "My whole career is devoted to pushing back," he told me. "There is opportunity to expose these things through good journalism, good pedagogy, good scholarship. You need an educated populace."

The effort needs to begin at a young age, he says. "You really need to be teaching third-, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-graders that some people lie. And why do they lie? Because some people are greedy."

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Read his blog, the Economy Hub, at latimes.com/business/hiltzik, reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @hiltzikm on Twitter.

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