June 1, 2022
In the 1950s psychologist Solomon Asch conducted a provocative study of how our perceptions can be bent to the will of what we perceive as a majority opinion. In Asch’s experiment, groups of male university students were given a photo of 4 parallel lines with various lengths and asked to identify 2 that were the same. In one of the groups, videoed as part of the evidence, all of the students except one were coached prior to the experiment to claim that 2 of the parallel lines were equal in length when in fact they clearly were not. The unsuspecting student was set up to answer last. Obviously perplexed by each incorrect match, he peered intently at the group of lines again and again, glancing often at his classmates’ faces. Yet, when he was asked to select two matching lines, he merely paused for a long moment before making the same incorrect selection.
Why does this experiment seem so right on with our experience? For two reasons: We need to feel that our own observations are right and we need to feel part of a tribe. We recall moments when we have felt a discomfiting pressure to support a perspective we can’t embrace in private, and we wrestle ourselves for the courage to dissent openly. It occurs to us that its supporters may be operating from information we don’t have.
Or is it misinformation?
The crafting of information as a political tool has been the theme of the recent Frontline three-part series on the global oil industry: Doubt, Deny, Delay – the triple strategies used to keep the energy consortium of coal, oil, and natural gas publicly supported without interruption. This misinformation has kept a stream of subsidies and new project clearances going strong through the entire 40-year period that the industry has known, through its own covert research, its direct effects on global warming. Protests staged with actors, large-scale media campaigns, perceived authority figures casting doubt or using denial, professional marketers touting oil across the nation –all had the same objective: promote an image of social and economic benefit while denying the science of climate impact. And when the science prevails, convince the world that science can geo-engineer us out of catastrophe.
Our best defense against this new menace remains embracing the hard work of verification. Of staying skeptical. Of checking various trusted sources in any debate.
Stream Frontline’s Big Oil on PBS.