Molehill mountaineering

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Molehill mountaneering is a neologism referring to the act of "making a mountain out of a molehill", a metaphor for applying undue weight to a subject, or making it appear as if it is more important than it really is.


It was coined as "molehill mountaineering" by British TV presenter and columnist Charlie Brooker to describe the actions of people in society who excel at this, such as tabloid newspapers.[1]

Brooker explains it as a "pejorative term to describe the sort of perpetually furious rightwing weevil who spends their life calculatedly conflating issues such as the "Ground Zero mosque" into gigantic media crapgasms", although he later abandoned the idea as a left-wing buzzword because it could apply to both sides of the political spectrum.


In the world of 24-hour news that requires a lot of time to fill, it's quite easy to find a few examples:

  • Coverage of pastor Terry Jones' plans to burn copies of the Qur'an on September 11th 2010. Despite Jones' church being so small they can all fit on one bus and usual congregations can be counted on one hand, it caused a worldwide incident and constant media coverage — Jones seemingly wimped out of the act at the last minute.
  • Following the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, TV and print news would cover anything the girl's parents did or said, regardless of how insignificant. These were treated as quite major events in themselves, from attending church to opening a front door — although the disappearance and investigation itself certainly wasn't an example.
  • The "race row" from the 2007 series of Celebrity Big Brother in the UK generated enormous coverage in the media, prompted a minor international incident, a discussion in the UK parliament, protests in India and a very thorough public mauling of the late Jade Goody. This is despite the fact that the comments were relatively mild from a point of view of racism and Goody herself, who was singled out for the fiercest reactions, was barely involved in the worst of it at all.
  • One of the more insidious examples involved the hysteria around the MMR vaccine that began ca. 2002. Uptake of the vaccine fell, the nearly eliminated disease mumps reappeared, and mistrust of vaccines and mainstream medicine infested the media for nearly a decade. The source of the entire event was a paper that didn't even show a link between the vaccine and autism, and was only a minor series of 13 case studies and an unpublished comment at a conference a few years later.
  • Similarly, any paper or press release "disproving" the link between the MMR vaccine and autism is jumped on by the press as final proof that the vaccine was safe — even though there was never any evidence to suggest otherwise in the first place.
  • The fossil Darwinius masillae had a massive media campaign behind it, books, TV series and multiple online and in print news articles behind it, not to mention the blogosphere erupting and creationists going wild over it as it was touted as "the" missing link. In reality, the Darwinius masillae specimen, known as Ida, was remarkable only for its quality and completeness (a genuine remarkable fact in the world of fossil research) and that it had lain undiscovered for so many years due to being held in a private collection.
  • When Elizabeth Warren ran against Republican Senator Scott Brown, she made an offhand remark to a reporter that she was part Native American. The right-wing blogosphere and conservative talk radio hosts quickly began to accuse Warren of lying, and Brown himself tried to build much of his campaign around how she was supposedly lying about her race. Though Brown lost the race (despite being the incumbent) some right-wing sources (including President Trump) still bring up Warren's race and how she's "lying", because if such a tactic didn't work for Brown, it must work for them. Somehow.
  • Arguably, coverage of the Lenski Affair on RationalWiki counts, as Lenski and his interaction with Andrew Schlafly have been raised to the level of quasi-mythical status of worldwide significance when it was really just a case of some crank wasting twenty minutes of an expert biologist's time. In fairness, however, it was a pretty big event under the remit of RationalWiki and the origins debate, and pretty hilarious to those who would understand it.

See also[edit]