In the last few weeks, I’ve found myself using the term ‘playbook’ in a number of contexts. It’s typically defined as “a book containing a sports team’s strategies and plays, especially in American football” but I’m not quite sure where I picked up the phrase from as someone who hasn’t had much interest in sport for a long time.
It’s been on my mind since reading Merchants of Doubt, an incisive historical exploration of a dangerous corporate tendency towards the deliberate cultivation of doubt in relation to pressing issues such as nuclear winter, acid rain, DDT and climate change. As I suggested in a post a couple of weeks ago, we can talk meaningfully of a ‘playbook for merchandising doubt’. In fact something akin to this was once explicitly published, as the authors of Merchants of Doubt summarise on pg 144-145:
Bad Science: A Resource Book was a how-to handbook for fact fighters. It contained over two hundred pages of snappy quotes and reprinted editorials, articles, and op-ed pieces that challenged the authority and integrity of science, building to a crescendo in the attack on the EPA’s work on secondhand smoke. It also included a list of experts with scientific credentials available to comment on any issue about which a think tank or corporation needed a negative sound bite. 42 Bad Science was a virtual self-help book for regulated industries, and it began with a set of emphatic sound-bite-sized “MESSAGES”:
1. Too often science is manipulated to fulfill a political agenda.
2. Government agencies … betray the public trust by violating principles of good science in a desire to achieve a political goal.
3. No agency is more guilty of adjusting science to support preconceived public policy prescriptions than the Environmental Protection Agency.
4. Public policy decisions that are based on bad science impose enormous economic costs on all aspects of society.
5. Like many studies before it, EPA’s recent report concerning environmental tobacco smoke allows political objectives to guide scientific research.
6. Proposals that seek to improve indoor air quality by singling out tobacco smoke only enable bad science to become a poor excuse for enacting new laws and jeopardizing individual liberties.
Has anyone encountered comparable documents to this? The scale and organisation of doubt merchandising surely means they have been produced. But perhaps there’s a broader category to be explored here: the explicit articulation of surreptitious tactics.
It highlights how coordination presupposes communication, suggesting that even the most duplicitous strategies of the powerful will tend to leave a paper trail. Where we see what appears to be organisation, even if the actors involved deny this, do we have reason to believe there may somewhere exist a ‘playbook’ or something akin to it? I would tentatively define this as the formal articulation of a tactical repertoire that can be drawn upon in informal contests, even if the definition of these elements may be obscured behind a thick veneer of technocratic distance. By ‘informal contests’ I mean those where rules are not defined or a contest actually declared. The existence of a playbook reveals how advantages in organisational capacity might translate to a practical advantage in competition.
I’d be intrigued to know if these ruminations resonate with anyone, particularly those who might be able to furnish further examples