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31 March, 2011

There Ought To Be A Law Against It

They should make it illegal to talk crap. I can't think of any other way to stop the flood of bullshit that threatens to drown out all sensible discourse. It should be a crime to say or write anything for public consumption that is provably wrong at the time it was said.

The irritating and most visible manifestation of the untrue rubbish people spout is in advertising. I don't just mean ads that say processed food X is "wholesome" or  indistinguishable from real food, I mean the lying nonsense about the beneficial powers of inert food supplements, or magnetic mattresses, or "quantum energised" crystals. All that New Age quackery, all that techno-babble, all that distortion and half-truth designed to mislead!

It gets beyond mere irritation when you hear garbage spoken by politicians. Many of them (particularly on the right wing) talk about medical issues, about welfare reform, about incentives, about wars on drugs, about the criminal justice system, about education and about tax reform, as if we haven't had a century of psychological studies, sociological studies, criminology, medical science, and anthropology. The evidence is all there if they had the wit to grasp it. Yet they go on, year after year telling us the answer is more police on the streets, stiffer sentences, getting back to the three Rs, sacking civil servants, etc., etc., etc.. I know politicians are just ordinary people with monster egos, and most of them don't have the intelligence to read research reports (from actual scientists, I mean, not from "think tanks"!) but if there were criminal penalties for being caught saying untrue things in public, maybe they would actually start to care about what they say.

And, of course, politicians lying to the public (wilfully or out of ignorance) can do real harm. It can blight lives and hobble whole societies. It can kill. But the people with the real power, who can do most harm, are the corporations and their various mouthpieces. We've seen endless examples of how the tobacco companies lied about the harm they cause, how the oil, coal and gas companies have lied about global warming (and pollution in general), and how the big news media corporations lie to ensure the political outcomes they favour. Yet there are no penalties. The Big Tobacco spokesperson may be responsible for thousands of deaths, but they are not tried for mass murder. The Big Oil CEO who sponsors obfuscatory research that may lead to hundreds dying in floods and droughts, doesn't face jail time, nor do the scientists who take his money and publish his papers. And the Big Pharma PR guys who tell the doctors lies about their products, are not being prosecuted wither, and nor are the doctors who sign their names to academic papers written by those same PR guys.

We live in a world where solid scientific evidence is ignored or actively disparaged, just so that people can sell you things, or feather their nest in some other way. It is a world where religious groups are allowed to teach anti-science courses which are nothing but insupportable nonsense - presumably so that young people aren't exposed to ideas or rational thinking or something equally horrible. There seems to be nothing anyone can do about all this lying and misleading and distortion and outright fraud. Or nothing anyone is willing to do. After all, the lawmakers are among the worst offenders.

Yet if there is anything there should be a law against, this is it.

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