The Emperor’s Clothes

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The Communications and Information Revolution has made it easier for the conman and the lobbyist to establish a concept without being subject to adequate scrutiny.

This is not an entirely new situation. The origins of the folk tale about the Emperor’s Clothes date back hundreds of years. The moral of the tale is that a confidence trickster can persuade the gullible that something exists when it does not. It often takes the innocent to see through the lies.

Modern continuous news coverage can establish a story about something that does not exist. At the heart of the story there must be a kernel of fact. Around this is built a web of opinion and unproven theory which becomes more distorted as the story is copied around the world. With the press of news, few have the time or the inclination to search behind the story. Repetition soon establishes the tale as proven fact. A favorite proof being an unsubstantiated claim that ‘most people’ agree, or ‘most scientists’ think.

In Medieval times, the Black Death swept Europe causing devastation. People searched for something, or someone, to blame. One culprit was the charcoal burner. Scientists believed that pollution from charcoal burning was the only cause of the plague. After much lobbying they persuaded the Pope to accept their theories as proven fact and charcoal burners were banished to the depths of the woods, away from towns and villages. Had modern news broadcasting been available in those times, hundreds of charcoal burners would have been lynched or refused hospital treatment, or had their taxes increased.

Today, the news media rapidly whips up opinion and every day we have a new victim of news hysteria, often providing a new taxation opportunity for politicians.

It is no fun for today’s latest victim, but the saddest aspect is that real problems either go unaddressed or are superficially dealt with while they are headlines, to be ignored as soon as the latest panic dominates the broadcasts.

Unfortunately, the greater the panic, the greater the eventual backlash.

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