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Radio review: Behind the Buzzwords, and How They Made Us Doubt Everything

07 August 2020


Behind the Buzzwords (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) explored the fear of missing out (FOMO)

Behind the Buzzwords (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) explored the fear of missing out (FOMO)

THE fear of missing out — of others’ having more stuff, or just more fun, than you — is surely as old as our species. But how much more acute is the anxiety for those who were not aware, until listening to David Cannadine on Behind the Buzzwords (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), that there is a neat acronym: FOMO.

FOMO might be summarised as never managing to achieve the same greenness of grass as the Joneses. It is aspiration and envy rolled into one; and, since we are now encouraged to view and be viewed ubiquitously on social media, it is a pathology that is suffered particularly acutely in the modern world. Even during lockdown, supposedly the great leveller, we observe our peers enriching their intellects and deepening their relationships while we can barely manage to get out of our pyjamas.

While the platforms are different, the phenomenon can hardly be new; so it appears that our duty, most especially for our mental well-being, is to nurture in ourselves moments of LOMO, or Love of Missing Out. Embrace your inadequacy; own your ignorance — at least until such time as everyone else is doing it more successfully than you.

The psychology that renders us vulnerable to such anxiety has as its affiliate the sense that others know more about something than they are letting on. At its paranoid worst, the result is the conspiracy theory, or paranoid doubt of the kind that Peter Pomerantsev described last week in How They Made Us Doubt Everything (Radio 4, weekdays). In this two-week, podcast-sized series, we hear two stories — about the tobacco and oil industries — linked by a common approach to the challenges of scientific research.

When, in the early 1950s, evidence began to emerge of the dangers of smoking, a tactic was developed by the PR guru John Hill, usefully summarised in the catchphrase “Doubt is our product.” Against every claim was deployed an alternative explanation; when one white coat appeared, so did another sponsored by the industry.

In recent years, oil companies appear to have adopted the same strategy. We heard from Dr Ben Santer, the lead author of the IPCC working group on climate change, about the pressures that he was put under, having so explicitly made the case that the change was man-made. As was the case with tobacco, the media’s confused interpretation of balance and objectivity allows the equal presentation of two unequal arguments.

Pomerantsev has a tendency to overplay the histrionics: the relish with which he handles secret typescript evidence, for instance, and the incredulity with which he greets every fresh assault on truth. Needlessly meretricious is the positioning at the end of last Friday’s episode of the news that Santer’s wife and son have disappeared — not, as it transpires in Monday’s episode, because of some devilish activity by Big Oil, but the result of a custody battle. We should at least doubt some things.

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