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Editor-at-large of the German Daily Newspaper, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Munich
Feuilleton (Arts & Ideas) Editor, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Munich

We Will Overcome Agnotology (The Cultural Production Of Ignorance)

Have you heard this one by Conan O'Brien: Yesterday, a group of scientists warned that because of global warming, sea levels will rise so much that parts of New Jersey will be under water. The bad news? Parts of New Jersey won't be under water. Or this one by Jay Leno: Heating bills this winter are the highest they've been in five years, but the government has a plan to combat rising bills. It's called global warming. Not their best jokes, but this year global warming became one of the staple topics of late night monologues.

This makes me very optimistic, because jokes are hard evidence of sociological currents. A joke can only work on national TV, if the majority of viewers is able to understand the cultural reference in a split-second and if a general consensus allows the joke to take sides. If Leno makes fun of global warming—great. It's now part of the collective subconscious. It means the general public made up its mind on the subject.

This is quite a change from just two and a half years ago. In the summer of 2004 Hollywood director Roland Emmerich released his disaster movie, The Day After Tomorrow. He openly said he wanted to use his film to combat the widespread ignorance about climate change in the US. To emphasize how serious he thought the subject, he invited numerous scientists and activists to make the point that very ignorance about global warming might be one of the greatest obstacles for a solution.

His film was written accordingly. To bring the audience up to speed, large parts of the first act were spent on Dennis Quaid as a paleoclimatologist, who did a lot of reciting of scientific facts and fictions, not unlike the endless science dialogues between Spock and Kirk, which had to set up the outer worldly realities in Star Trek.

Emmerich’s disaster might have bombed at the box office, but it did trigger a chain reaction. Media attention to climate change rose. TV features about endangered polar bears created emotional impact. Sales of hybrid cars went up. Seven Northeastern states have signed the Kyoto protocol, an initiative followed by more than 300 cities. Several Hollywood stars like Brad Pitt, Keanu Reeves and Leonardo di Caprio currently work on documentaries about global warming, which will raise the topic's profile for an audience normally not interested in scientific matters even further. Now even notoriously fatalistic Christian fundamentalists see earth as a gift from God mankind has to protect.

This is of course not just about the power of pop culture. It's not even just about climate change. This is about a society's choice between listening to science and falling prey to what Stanford science historian Robert N. Proctor calls agnotology (the cultural production of ignorance), Production has been booming. The editing of NASA reports about climate change. The political sanctification of coma patient Terri Schiavo. The introduction of intelligent design into curriculae. All those efforts have all just served the purpose of creating a widespread will to ignore facts and reason.

If a nation purposely kept in the dark about an imminent danger for so long manages to overcome public inertia and become acutely aware of a complex issue like global warming in the span of two years, it means that the power of reason is ultimately able to overcome the forces of ignorance driven by economic interests and religious dogma. This is a universally optimistic outlook on history. And not to forget that this ability to swiftly react as a collective is still most important in the US. The number of leading research facilities, the economic power, the pioneering spirit and entrepreneurial verve put the US in a leadership position that can affect not just global affairs, but down the line maybe even the weather.