Going viral on climate change

On many a sleepless afternoon, I have mused on some of the effects of the Internet, both good and bad. The good aspects are generally known and rightly applauded: the democratic culture, the free dissemination of knowledge and opinion, the encouragement of open discussion. But the very power of the medium can produce uncontrollable and thoroughly bad effects. People will argue, of course, about the Internet as they do about firearms in countries that don’t have proper gun control: ‘it’s only a tool; no better or worse than the person using it’. But we wouldn’t apply that argument to something incomparably more powerful than a gun, like a nuclear bomb.

It’s the power that’s worrying, and, perhaps more significantly, the incapacity of anyone to correct erroneous information once it gets out into cyberspace. People trust electronic communication too much. When the issue and return of books in University libraries started being controlled electronically, students who used to argue the toss over a 5p fine on a slip of paper would meekly accept whatever the computer spewed out, even if it was wrong.

These thoughts have been triggered by the attempts to discredit Sir John Houghton, who was instrumental in setting up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It is alleged that Sir John said, ‘Unless we report disasters, no-one will listen’. The trouble is, he apparently neither said nor wrote anything of the kind. That has not prevented the ‘quote’ being peddled on the Internet, to the extent that climate change deniers who use it get 100,000 hits. People go on quoting, not the original supposed source, but  the citations on the web, and it appears to be impossible to convince the deniers that they are disseminating a lie. Read the full story here.

Not so much ‘viral’ as ‘toxic’?


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