I’m currently reading Merchants of Doubt, a fascinating study of the tobacco industry’s deployment of academic experts to cast doubt on the harm caused by cigarettes. Being in the mood to read the book in an ultra-cynical way, here’s my playbook for merchandising doubt, derived from reading these cases through the lens of critical realism:
- Exploit multiple causation to maximum effect: it might be that X reliably brings about harmful outcomes for society but so do A, B and C. Focusing on these alternate pathways to personal and social pathologies helps relativise the harm caused by X, as well as highlighting the uncertain relationship between it and those outcomes which everyone agrees are undesirable.
- Attack inferences from populations to individuals: exploit the difficulty of apply population level generalisations to individual cases. Highlight these cases, promote them and promulgate them as emphatically as possible. These cases are your friend! The public don’t think in terms of statistical knowledge, but rather in terms of individuals. The more you can focus on individuals, the easier it will be to discredit statistical claims. Exploiting folk theories of causation and correlation will be key to using this tactic effectively.
- You need facts to counter facts: it won’t work to simply dismiss research that harms your interests. It’s necessary to find ‘alternative facts’: claims about reality with enough evidence to make them hard to dismiss, but which encourage alternative framings of an issue that might otherwise be a matter of scientific consensus. Even if experts might question the salience of these facts, journalists will feel the need to report ‘both sides’ in interests of fairness or even highlight the novelty of the new framings your alternative facts open up. Plus the more facts the better, at least in so far as you’re trying to encourage the public to withdraw from intellectual engagement with these debates.
- Create a debate and then swamp your enemy: such alternative facts and their playing out in the media can be a powerful way to create a debate out of something which is actually a matter of scientific consensus. Once this happens, it’s important that you outspend your opponents to the greatest possible extent. Scientists are rarely versed in public engagement, lacking both the disposition and expertise. The platforms they have access to in disseminating their facts are dwarfed by the platforms you have access to if you’re willing to spend. Find experts at communicating your message and provide them with all the resources they need. Activist groups are slightly better equipped for this communication, but you’ll always be able to out spend them. It’s even better if you can create your own activist groups!
- Always stress the vested interests of your enemies: behind their protestations of disinterested rationality, scientists are people with careers, employers and aspirations. By definition, their interests are served when they do their job in the way they are expected e.g. by producing knowledge. If you stress the way this work serves their interests, it obscures their cognitive commitment to the production of knowledge. This is even easier with activist groups who are vocal about their ideological commitments: in their case, their failure to perform the disinterestedness of scientists can be used to dismiss them as zealots!
- Hack science through manipulating the burden of proof: most people don’t understand the way science progresses and uncertainty about peripheral issues can be exploited to cast doubt on what is largely settled. The complications which arise through new studies are your friend! Such a tactic will work even more effectively if you can find scientists prone to scientism, an obsessive commitment to countering claims that are seen to involve ‘over-reaching’, whose zealotry coupled with authority can help make your case.
- If all else fails, attack the proposals: once the battle is lost, don’t waste time continuing to defend your case. Move on to the consequences of what your enemy advocates: what is the evidence for their proposals? How much will they cost? Will the cost be worth it? Question the evidence, smear it as non-scientific, fund your own counter studies to discredit it. If their evidence is unimpeachable, invoke the slippery slope and attack the possible consequences of what they are advocating. Invoke democracy: who are they to say what we can or cannot do? Who gave them the right to shape policy? Who is controlling their agenda?