One of the websites that I enjoy, "Real Climate", has been discussing how it is that untruths get disseminated so quickly these days. In this case, they're talking about Peter Doran, whose 2002 study on the climate in Antarctica was, according to him, misquoted and misrepresented. What Doran found was that "climactic changes in Antarctica were resulting in cooling conditions on certain parts of that continent." Quite quickly however, the study was bandied about on the Internet and cable news as having argued that global warming is nonsense. "Scientific Findings Run Counter to Theory of Global Warming. Oh, Dear! What Will the Doomsayers Say Now?"
But, incredibly enough, his study actually supports the theory of global warming!
What's amazing though isn't that people misunderstood the study. But, according to Doran, news sources actually quoted him as saying that his study was being misrepresented in the same articles that then went on to misrepresent it!
So, what caused this perfect storm of horseshit?
1) The Mass Media: If you ask liberals, they will tell you that the media is conservative. 'Just look at Fox News!' If you ask conservatives, they will tell you that the media is liberal. 'Just look at the New York Times!' It seems to me that they're both wrong. As far as I can tell, mass media operates on only one principle: A controversy, no matter how manufactured or stupid, will pull in a larger audience than simply reporting the facts. So, they would rather have the 'global warming debate' than figure out whether or not the planet is getting hotter.
2) Various corporations: The talking point that 'there is a serious debate as to whether or not global warming is a myth' may well come from industry sources, for obvious reasons. I don't really blame them, and I don't think they've created the debate, but I do think they have financial reasons to keep it going.
3) Bloggers and Internet Loudmouths: I think the easiest way of spreading misinformation is to post it on the net. For example, I assume I could post to a newsgroup that the sun is actually in the process of cooling and expect that it would be unquestioningly linked to all over the Internet. But, why are people who have no interest in the global warming debate so quick to repeat whatever nonsense they read on the net? I think for the same reason that if Saddam Houssein was to claim tomorrow that he had developed weapons of mass destruction and had been planning to use them on Los Angeles, we could expect Daily Kos and other left-wing news sites to post that he was 'forced to lie by the US government'. To put it simply, there are plenty of people who make politics their religion.
My father used to say that there are plenty of people who just need to belong to a church. What he meant was that there are people who need to think they're part of a team, to filter every decision through the interests of the group. I don't think that Joe Blogger, who will dutifully post any misinformation about global warming that he sees on WorldNet Daily, cares one way or the other about climate science, and he certainly doesn't care about the oil industry. What he cares about is that there are people who are 'liberals' who must always be wrong for him to be happy. Similarly, there are people on the left for whom America must always be wrong, or at least, Republicans must always be wrong for them to be happy. So, no matter how reasonable 'the other team' is being on some issue, they need to fight them.
I think this is another reason that people willfully believe things that aren't true- they simply hate the people who claim they are true. It used to be that various denominations would argue viciously about triffling points of Christian doctrine. Now people would rather argue night and day about various social and political problems without really caring if they're right or wrong- so long as they can prove the other side is wrong.