Putting inconvenient facts down the memory hole — a local example

In today’s Carolina Journal, publisher Jon Ham decries “a disturbing trend among mainstream news outlets these days”—which is “putting inconvenient news or facts ‘down the memory hole.’” Ham’s examples come from national media. I will provide a local one, from the Fayetteville Observer.

But first: What on earth would make news or facts inconvenient to a fact-based news organization? Do we feel compelled to describe opening a car hood as inconvenient to a mechanic? Or reading a book as inconvenient to a scholar?

And what is a memory hole? It hails from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, which describes a world under full control by socialists. The protagonist, Winston Smith, worked in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth, where his task was to “correct” past news items and official records by making them align with the current political needs of the day. Inconvenient items would be changed, and all papers and notes bearing their former facts were placed in memory holes, large slits placed throughout the building that leads to internal furnaces, where they would be destroyed.

Orwell’s description was apt. Socialism requires a figurative “memory hole” because it holds that truth is relative, a social construct crafted by those in power, and that — in the words of V.I. Lenin — “there is no such thing as abstract truth.”

Or in the words of Saul Alinksy, inspirational figure to the current president and Hillary Clinton among many, many other American leftists, the effective political advocate “doesn’t have a fixed truth; truth to him is relative and changing, everything to him is relative and changing.”

(Yes, the very act of declaring truth is relative, or stating there is no such thing as abstract truth, is self-contradictory — but there are memory holes for any true believer who senses that contradiction.)

Orwell’s memory hole was, at its core, an exercise of calculated forgetfulness in service to the state. This lesson was driven home to Winston in the interrogation scene toward the end:

There was a memory hole in the opposite wall. O’Brien lifted the grating. Unseen, the frail slip of paper was whirling away on the current of warm air; it was vanishing in a flash of flame. O’Brien turned away from the wall.

‘Ashes,’ he said. ‘Not even identifiable ashes. Dust. It does not exist. It never existed.’

‘But it did exist! It does exist! It exists in memory. I remember it. You remember it.’

‘I do not remember it,’ said O’Brien.

Winston’s heart sank. That was doublethink. He had a feeling of deadly helplessness. If he could have been certain that O’Brien was lying, it would not have seemed to matter. But it was perfectly possible that O’Brien had really forgotten the photograph. And if so, then already he would have forgotten his denial of remembering it, and forgotten the act of forgetting. How could one be sure that it was simple trickery? Perhaps that lunatic dislocation in the mind could really happen: that was the thought that defeated him.

So what makes news or facts inconvenient and memory-hole worthy is if it is inconvenient to the political cause. If truth is subject to the whims of politics, then any manipulation of truth is excusable to a mind trained to subject what it knows to be factual to the politics of the moment — even so far as to vanish truth from memory.

A memory hole in Fayetteville

One of the most important items of make-truth in statewide politics right now is the unquestionable ascendency of renewable energy. Exploring all the reasons why that is so would belabor this piece even more so than I have done already, but no small part of it is that renewable energy is of utmost importance to environmentalists. (It’s also of utmost importance to one of the state’s most profligate lobbies, but again, I won’t belabor.)

For several decades now renewable energy advocates have promised they are “almost” able to compete unaided with traditional energy sources (coal, natural gas, nuclear). But, as illustrated in the phrase “For several decades,” they are not anywhere close.

Why renewable energy sources — especially solar and wind — are unable to compete with traditional energy sources in terms of cost, reliability, and efficiency is memory-hole fodder. Their manifest comparative inefficiences, greater costs, unreliability, and damning enough, subsequent need to keep traditional sources around for backup generation are rarely if ever reported by mainstream media.

The evidence one gets in media reports for renewable energy’s coming greatness includes

  • repetition of renewable energy’s coming greatness (begging the question)
  • pointing to government incentives drawing interest from the vastly incentivized renewable energy industry (deliberately missing cause and effect, compounded usually by urging the persistence of those incentives lest the industry dry up)
  • declaring no cost effects (sometimes declaring cost savings) from renewable energy policies (by ignoring the cost of the incentives, conflating renewable energy costs with savings from energy conservation, ignoring the costs of background generation, ignoring opportunity costs of shuttering already built traditional plants, and relying on promised future cost savings through future predicted technological change)
  • citing polls of people saying they would like more renewable energy (which is more a memory-hole effectiveness barometer given all the withheld information)

There are even serious questions about the comparable environmental benefits from renewable energy sources as opposed to traditional energy sources. They include net emissions, negative impacts on ecosystems and wildlife, and hazardous materials. You will not find hint of those in mainstream media. Though they are facts a well-informed citizenry should have in weighing costs and benefits of political decisions than impact them (never forget that electricity is a basic household necessity, not a luxury item), they are all potentially inconvenient to the political message.

I saw disheartening evidence of the renewable energy memory hole in operation this past Sunday in the Fayetteville Observer. It was in a news article entitled “Future is bright for solar in N.C.” The article relies on spurious facts from the renewable energy advocates (including “economic benefit” figures that had been generated with methodology thoroughly discredited in peer review), which is nothing new. Why I found it disheartening was that I knew this time the reporter knew better.

I knew because I had given him a great deal of information, none of which found it in the news story. Make no mistake: I don’t care if I get quoted (because getting quoted often is perilously close to getting misquoted). I don’t care whether I change the reporter’s personal opinion on the subject. I do care when, under the guise of a comprehensive news story, significant details are deliberately omitted. Because then people are being intentionally misled by those they trust to give them the whole story, those who are abusing that trust in the service of politics by withholding the whole story.

The report quotes several pro-solar subjects, including Lance Roddy of Innovative Solar, “some solar investors” (not named), Rep. John Szoka, Allison Eckley of the solar lobby North Carolina Sustainable Energy Association, Duke Energy spokesman Randy Wheeless in the context of its Fayetteville Solar Facility, Frank Marshall of FLS Energy, and Brian O’Hara of Strata Solar.

The only voice allowed in the article counter to the “future is bright” message is that of Sen. Andrew Brock. Brock is allowed to state several objections to renewable energy and seems to serve as a token nod that there remain “some critics.” This stood out:

Brock said solar and wind power, subject to the whims of the weather, can’t meet the needs of a power grid with a customer base demanding that electricity be available instantaneously, Brock said.

Rep. Szoka was allowed to counter that:

In an answer to Brock’s objections about the reliability of renewable energy, Szoka said battery technology is quickly advancing to store solar-generated electricity for use on demand.

Among many other unreported things in the course of a long and cordial phone interview, I addressed the battery storage issue. No matter what Szoka says, battery technology is not anywhere close to being able to store solar-generated electricity for use during the many, many hours the sun doesn’t shine, let alone during cloudy days.

The storage potential of the future advancement in battery technology is measurable in minutes, not hours, let alone days, as I explained to the reporter.

Those who read my newsletter have seen a discussion of the insurmountable obstacles to effective battery storage. Readers of our blog were treated to a discussion of the same on Monday. As I put it in the latter,

Oil and other dispatchable technologies are their own “batteries,” if you will. Storing them in reserve stores their potential energy. It is and will for the foreseeable future be much, much, much, much cheaper to store an energy source than it is or will be to store generated electricity.

Remember about the coming, $5 billion gigafactory that would outproduce the world’s existing supply of batteries. Now imagine 99 more of them. Now take this hundredfold expanse of the world’s known battery production and calculate it out for 40 years. Presto! You have finally reached the amount of energy in the oil stored right now just in Cushing, Oklahoma.

After the interview, I sent a follow-up email as promised giving the source for the information, for which I was thanked. At this point, suffice it to say, the reporter knew that Szoka’s statement of fact about battery storage was compromised, and that the truth is, the issue of impending battery storage is at the very least highly questionable.

Battery storage being practically impossible right now and in the prospective future is, however, inconvenient to the “almost there,” “quickly advancing” tone apparently required of stories about renewable energy. So that went into the memory hole.

On Wednesday, the Fayetteville Observer’s editors penned an editorial, “Solar is our energy future. Continue its support.” Among other things (such as the self-defeating notion that the market has taken hold when even the title refers to continuing government support), the editorial states:

Solar equipment costs have dropped dramatically and innovative battery technology will soon solve solar’s difficult relationship with sunsets and cloudy days.

That was stated as unalloyed fact.

Meanwhile, people — who after all could be polled on the issue in time to influence policymakers — are still left with the misimpressions that solar energy is just as efficient and cheap as traditional energy, that solar energy jobs are important and new while traditional jobs are inconsequential and worth taking from people, that solar energy doesn’t cost them any more than traditional energy while polluting less, and that solar-generated electricity can be stored in batteries for later use by utilities and that all can be done also without costing any more than traditional energy.

As Ham said, it’s a long way from the notion “that a newspaper should print the news, the truth, no matter who it offends, who it hurts, who it embarrasses, or who it angers.”

Jon Sanders / Director of Regulatory Studies

Jon Sanders studies regulatory policy, a veritable kudzu of invasive government and unintended consequences. As director of regulatory studies at the John Locke Foundation, Jo...

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