Lung cancer is not the only legacy of Big Tobacco, and arguably not even the worst.
In the years when tobacco companies were fighting emerging medical evidence of the links between smoking and deleterious health consequences, including cancer, they developed a diabolically effective strategy; rather than arguing that the science was wrong, they claimed it was inconclusive, that no one really knew whether cigarettes were the cause of people’s illnesses. The research was inconclusive.
That tactic worked for a long time, and as Senator Sheldon Whitehouse recently wrote, it has been the playbook for efforts by fossil fuel interests to delegitimize scientific consensus about climate change. In an essay for Inside Higher Ed, Whitehouse called upon universities to confront the tactic.
The threat is simple. The fossil fuel industry has adopted and powered up infrastructure and methods originally built by the tobacco industry and others to attack and deny science. That effort has coalesced into a large, adaptive and well-camouflaged apparatus that aspires to mimic and rival legitimate science. The science that universities support now has an unprecedented and unprincipled new adversary…
The science-denial machinery is an industrial-strength adversary, and it has big advantages over real science. First, it does not need to win its disputes with real science; it just needs to create a public illusion of a dispute. Then industry’s political forces can be put into play to stop any efforts to address whatever problem science had disclosed, since now it is “disputed science.” Hence the infamous phrase from the tobacco-era science denial operation — “Doubt is our product.”
Doubt is aided and abetted by the absence of universally trusted news sources (Where have you gone, Walter Cronkite? A nation turns its weary eyes to you…), increasingly sophisticated propaganda purveyors, and the very human tendency to engage in confirmation bias.
As Whitehouse says, the fossil-fuel apologists and climate-change deniers don’t waste their time in peer-reviewed forums. Instead, they go directly to Fox News and talk radio, to committee hearings and editorial pages. “Their work is, at its heart, PR dressed up as science but not actual science. So they go directly to their audience — and the more uninformed the audience, the better.”
Our universities and other organizations engaged in the enterprise of science struggle for funding. Not so for the science-denial forces. You may think maintaining this complex science-denial apparatus sounds like a lot of effort. So consider the stakes for the fossil fuel industry. The International Monetary Fund — made up of smart people, with no apparent conflict of interest — has calculated the subsidy fossil fuels receive in the United States to be $700 billion annually. That subsidy is mostly what economists call “externalities” — costs the public has to bear from the product’s harm that should be, under market theory, in the price of the product. These $700-billion-per-year stakes mean that the funding available to the science-denial enterprise is virtually unlimited… Make no mistake: in every dispute that this denial machinery manufactures with real science, it is determined to see real science fail. That is its purpose.
As Whitehouse points out, given the strong connections between the incoming Trump Administration and the fossil fuel industry, we can no longer depend on government to be an honest broker and a defender of legitimate science. Hence his plea to universities and other scientific organizations — to join together and step up a common defense.
Sometimes, it all seems like a bad dream…..