News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Ignorance: America's growth industry

A few weeks ago, a CNN poll revealed that 55 percent of Americans have spurned the H1N1 vaccine.  The main reason is that despite no clinical evidence that there is any unusual danger in the vaccine, people believe that it may have dangerous side effects.   With Swine Flu  causing  10,000 deaths since April and infecting 50 million people, one must wonder why people fear the side effects more than the flu itself, despite the efforts of health officials to publicize data that shows the vaccine does not cause the side effects that people seem to fear.  The answer is "the new media."

Actually,  the answer is in  how the "new media" has hooked up with and exploited an audience that has become a mainstay of the older media, talk radio.  A study published by the American Pyschological Association takes a look at the "dysfunctional" people with "aberrant behaviors" who dominate the call-in portions of sports talk radio.  In short, the study finds a disproportionate number of callers who demonstrate abusive and confrontive behavior because they "over identify" with their teams and favorite figures.

While this study is limited to sports talk radio, the behavior it describes is common to most talk radio, to comments on discussion boards, and to bloggers.

In the case of the poll about H1N1 vaccine, the pollsters do not ask what the respondents are basing their opinions on.   The people who listen to the midnight radio show, Coast To Coast AM with George Noory as host, hear regular assertions that the Swine Flu epidemic is a hoax and that the vaccine is fraught with dangers.  The show has 4.5 million listeners a night, some of whom go on the internet as bloggers and commenters and spread their news.  George Noory, an unctuous replacement of Art Bell as the show's main host, does not just tolerate wackiness; he encourages and contributes to it.   He has regular guests who deny the H1N1 pandemic and state things about the riskiness of the vaccine, and he asserts the same himself.

Coast To Coast AM concentrates on UFOs, aliens, grotesque creatures, out-of-body and out-of-mind experiences, conspiracies galore, and all manner of hallucinatory stuff.  Midnight radio talk is representative of the alternative media and the integral role it plays in the deterioration of the intellectual and social culture.  While the discussion of  the paranormal and those aspects of news that give cause for doubt need open examination, Coast To Coast AM feeds on and exacerbates that part of the human psyche that chooses ignorance, superstition, urban legends, and the disinformation of the psychotic and hateful as its preferred intellectual level. Not all the hosts of the show conduct it at that level, but George Noory has  built a huge audience out of shilling for the wacky and downright fraudulent.  The originator  of the show, Art Bell,  who still hosts occasionally, is more challenging and skeptical and more discerning in his choices of guest.  Weekend host Ian Punnett is considered, sometimes downright intellectual, in his approach to topics, although he generally bases his programs on entire books and elicits thorough, critical discussion. 

George Noory's fixation on aliens and evil spirits in various forms goes beyond the unexplained into deep psychosis.  His mainstay is ignorance and superstition, spiced up on occasion with outright fraud.  He cultivates guests who make grossly erroneous statements about everything from native American religions to current political affairs that generally contend that everything is driven by evil conspiracies.  Noory repeatedly had guests who espoused the theory that Obama was not born in Hawaii.  The debunking of global warming is among his favorite topics. 

Noory's programs are considered ludicrous by people of reasonable intelligence and some education, but the nation-wide audience indicates an alarming number of people who, with their counterparts on sports talk radio, over-identify with ignorance and superstition and live under huge intellectual rocks that permit no penetration by evidence-supported facts and the rigors of reason.  The reach this appeal to wackiness has is indicated by the 55 percent of Americans who decided not to inoculate themselves from a deadly flu virus because the false information generated by the intellectually and morally deficient and transmitted through the new media has possessed a majority of Americans.

Any time one criticizes the quality of information being flung around us, one is accused of wishing to limit free speech or of disparaging dissent.  Those accusers tend to ignore the fact that free speech includes exposing bad information and people who do not have the mental or moral wherewithal to provide good information.  The real issue is that some factions that want political power depend upon the ignorant, the malicious, and mentally indigent to be duped into political movements.  Opposing stupidity, malice, and falsehood is contended by them to be an un-American opposition to free speech. 

The fact is that superstitions and falsehoods are a force in shaping American life.  Their propagation has money and resources behind it.  A New York Times story notes that the influence of the forces of ignorance in Congress are  "the culmination of more than a generation of partisan polarization of the American and political system, and a precipitous decline in collegiality and collaboration in governing that seemed to move in inversproportion to a rising influence of lobbying, money, the 24-hour news cycle and hostilities on talk shows and in the blogosphere." 

Some professors are encouraging their students to take a break from the new media and let their minds work free from the constant assault on sensibility.  And a distinction between internet sources that strive for the integrity of legacy journalism and and those that cater to the lowest and most dangerous of human motives is being made.

 A colleague of mine insists that the times of superstition and ignorance are an important aspect of the natural selection process that improves the human race, as history has shown.  She says, for example, those who declined the H1N1 vaccination are the ones who will bear the brunt of a pandemic and be eliminated from passing their traits on to  other generations. 

And she makes the point that times when ignorance and scurrility are immensely popular are times when the genuine elite can identify those currents drifting through human affairs that must be avoided.  The future of the race depends very much on education in discernment.

Coast To Coast AM is like a horror show.  I suppose I will tune in now and again to see what grotesque things dementia can conjure.  

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States