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Giant Power: energy technology and the long history of post-truth

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In 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary named ‘post-truth’ its word of the year, defining it as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’, the Oxford Dictionary provided a useful addition to our vocabulary. Yet in the history of science and technology one can find many examples of attempts to undermine facts that threaten social or economic interests, as well as of appeals to emotion and belief to support those interests. In this paper, I explore an early 20th century example: the campaign by the National Electric Light Association (NELA) to undermine political support in the United States for publicly generated and distributed electric power.

By the 1920s, the private sector was providing electricity to millions of urban customers in the USA , but rural Americans had been left mostly unserved. Elsewhere in the world, including Germany, Canada and New Zealand, government involvement in the marketplace had ensured that electricity reached rural as well as urban customers. In response to this situation, Pennsylvania governor Gifford Pinchot proposed ‘Giant Power’, a plan to pool electricity under the guidance of state government to ensure that all citizens received power at a fair price. Pinchot and other advocates of this plan noted that in Canada, just a few miles away, electricity was not only more extensively delivered, but also cost less.

In response, NELA sponsored a major propaganda campaign designed to discredit public power by insisting that privately generated electricity was cheaper and more reliable than municipal- or state-run electricity, and that public power was socialistic and un-American. This campaign involved advertising, editorials in newspapers (many ghost-written), the re-writing of textbooks, and the development of school and university curricula designed to extol the virtues of laissez-faire capitalism and demonize government intervention in the marketplace. The campaign worked in part by finding, cultivating and paying experts to endorse the industry claims and cast doubt on factual information supplied by independent third parties. It also appealed to emotion – love of country – and fear – fear of communism. I conclude by suggesting that our current state of affairs is not as novel as the OED suggests, and that we may learn from the lessons of history on how to identify and address ‘non-truth’ claims.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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