Canadian Insights on America’s Lunatic Fringe

by Quinn O'Neill

LiesA sizable minority of Americans holds beliefs that have been thoroughly dispelled by science. About 40% believe in a biblical account of human origins and as many as 29% seem to think that the earth is at the center of the solar system. Public opinion is divided on the reality of global warming and some even think that the moon landing was a hoax. If there’s one thing we can be certain about, it’s that many Americans have a hard time distinguishing fact from fiction.

How could a country so scientifically and technologically advanced be awash with confusion, anti-science fanaticism, and conspiracy theories, one might wonder. Reading Canadian news this past week, I was struck by an obvious answer. The Canadian government (or the “Harper government” as the megalomaniac narcissist at the country’s helm prefers) recently teamed up with Sun TV to bring Canadians their first real dose of fake news. At the government’s request, Sun TV News, the closest thing Canada has to Fox news, staged what the Star’s Heather Mallick described as a “happy clap-clap Canadian moment” for Citizenship Week. It was a “reaffirmation” ceremony (whatever that is), in which new Canadians reaffirmed their citizenship oath. As it turned out, six of the “new Canadians” weren’t new citizens at all, but federal bureaucrats simply acting the part.

Given its fabricated and dishonest nature, the event wasn’t the sort that would make Canadians swell with pride or tear up with sentimentality. It does, however, serve as an ironic commemoration of events that took place this time last year.

Last February, the Prime Minister's Office attempted to lift a ban on the broadcast of false or misleading news. That’s worth a moment of contemplation. Canada’s elected leadership tried to pave the way for lying on broadcast news, a rather undemocratic move that was clearly not in the interests of Canadians. Though the effort failed, the launch of Sun TV News followed shortly thereafter. Now, one year later, a fabricated ceremony suggests a demise of journalistic integrity in Canada.

As the Globe and Mail reported, Canadians said they feared that lifting the ban on dishonest reporting would “open the door to Fox TV-style news and reduce their ability to determine what is true and what is false.” Indeed, it’s easy to see how faux news could lead to confusion and make it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.

Lifting a ban like this may seem like an outrageous thing to do, but what’s more outrageous still is that the “land of the free” south of the border has no such rule.* In the US, the broadcasting of false or misleading news is commonplace. And the news isn’t the only seemingly credible source of disinformation. America is littered with Creationist museums, stuffed with what might look like legitimate evidence to support bogus claims.

Is it possible that the easy dissemination of disinformation through seemingly credible sources has something to do with America’s lunatic fringe? Could this persuasive packaging of lies generate confusion over what’s real and what’s not and suspicion that things might not be as they appear? Could this lead to public illiteracy on both political and scientific issues? How could it not?

Yet, in efforts to improve America’s poor science literacy, the focus has tended to be on aspects of formal education, like curriculum and teachers. We forget, or fail to notice, that the formal school curriculum makes up only a fraction of students’ overall educational experience. According to one report, 8- to 18-year-old Americans spend an average of 4.5 hours in front of the television and 1.5 hours on the computer daily, seven days a week. What are they watching and what messages are they getting? These sources of information comprise a persuasive ‘other curriculum’ that may dwarf its more scholarly and factual competitor.

If you think that America’s anti-science problem could be fixed with an improved K-12 science curriculum, consider this. The Canadian province of Alberta consistently boasts top performances on international evaluations of students’ performance in science. In 2009, for example, Alberta’s 15-year-olds ranked second in the world in reading and scientific literacy, as measured by PISA, the Programme for International Student Assessment.

Despite the consistent excellence displayed by its students, the province has one of the lowest rates of acceptance of evolution. It also happens to be home to the country’s only Creationist museum. Could disinformation cloaked in museum-style credibility be responsible for Alberta’s unscientific views?

According to an Angus Reid poll, in 2007, when the museum opened, 58% of Albertans accepted evolution while only 28% adhered to a creationist view. This was comparable to the Canadian average (59% for evolution and 22% for creationism). The following year, the Canadian average stayed about the same but the proportion of Albertans accepting evolution dropped to 37%! The Creationist proportion rose to 40%. Since then, Alberta’s rates have improved a bit, but are still very low (51% for evolution and 31% for creationism, in 2010).

What kind of curriculum would it take to compensate for the damage done by this convincing delivery of disinformation? A magical one, I think. The reality is that no school curriculum can compete against a barrage of anti-science disinformation when it’s delivered by apparently trustworthy sources, like museums or the news.

… Or by the US president. In a recent speech delivered at the national prayer breakfast, Obama referred to “our Creator” and spoke of the “extraordinary planet that God has made for us.” Perhaps you thought that Obama believed in evolution…? I know that’s the impression I got when he stated “I believe in evolution” and “I think it’s a mistake to try to cloud the teaching of science with theories that frankly don’t hold up to scientific inquiry.” He also reminded us that “promoting science” is “about ensuring the facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology”. From earlier comments, one might infer that Obama understands the importance of scientific literacy, and yet here he reinforces some of the same anti-science views that regularly threaten to disembowel the science curriculum. But Obama’s shape-shifting stances are just part of a phantasmagoria of lies and half-truths that has become an American political and cultural norm.

The media is less about providing accurate information and more of a tool to be used by those with exorbitant wealth and a vested interest in shaping public opinion. In 2010, a memo obtained by ThinkProgress provided the guest list of one of the Koch brothers’ secretive strategy meetings. The Koch brothers, with an enormous wealth derived partly from oil and other environment-ruining practices, have a clear interest in obscuring the reality of climate change. The memo listed a number of attendees who have ties to major media outlets, including Michael Barone and Glenn Beck of Fox News. It also noted that participants at the meeting had “committed to an unprecedented level of support.” There is little doubt that the Koch brothers’ efforts to exert influence over the media have been effective. Glenn Beck even took a break from a rant on climate change at one point to thank Charles Koch for his information.

As Truthout reports, the Koch brothers recently held another “super-secret billionaires’ meeting” to prepare for the 2012 elections. This effort is expected to channel tens of millions of dollars into the election and once again shape the outcome through bus tours, attack ads, and think tanks. According to Truthout, attendee Phil Kerpen recently purchased $6 million in attack ads against President Obama.

Shaped by America’s most wealthy and powerful, the media confuses and divides the public on a range of important issues and obscures the saddest reality of all: democracy’s been turned on its head. Those who control the media largely control public opinion on matters of both science and politics. The power to restore science to its proper place, the power to impose journalistic integrity and transparency, and even the power to choose the country’s leadership lies disproportionately with unelected plutocrats. The fight for a scientifically literate America is at its most fundamental level a fight to restore democracy.

*Clarification: The US Federal Communications Commission does have a limited rule against the broadcast of false information concerning a crime or a catastrophe if:
-the licensee knows the information is false; and
-the licensee knows beforehand that broadcasting the information will cause substantial “public harm.” The public harm: (1) must begin immediately and cause direct and actual damage to property or the health or safety of the general public or (2) divert law enforcement or public health and safety authorities from their duties.