From tobacco to coronavirus – the grim history of science denial and conspiracy theory

By Mason Quah


THERE are many areas of modern political policy that are said to be science driven, from climate change policies to coronavirus responses.

The concept of science driven policy has been corrupted however, by the post-truth society we live in. YouGov polling shows that nearly 20 per cent of the US population believe either that the climate is not changing or that human activity is not responsible.

Thousands of protesters have assembled in the UK espousing the conspiracy theory that 5G technology is responsible for the nation’s coronavirus death toll, with several arrested for damaging cell towers.

Alternate theories range from the virus being a communist bioweapon to being transmitted by people eating raw bats. An Oxford study suggests that as many as half of English people believe some form of misinformed conspiracy about the virus.

Its very tempting in the face of these to claim that the winds have changed on how we believe scientific evidence: That the current wave of science denial or disinformation is a unique product of declining critical education, internet trolls, and unregulated access to false info.

The more concerning truth is that the current wave of conspiracy communities is nothing new. From the 17th century belief that the black death was caused by Jewish well poisoning, to the alleged faking of the moon landing by Stanley Kubrick, conspiracy theories have always flourished.

Where some conspiracies can be attributed to simple misunderstanding, many of these communities rely on a distrust of accepted knowledge that has been deliberately cultivated to undermine public understanding of the issues they talk about.

“Agnotology” was coined by Robert Proctor, a Historian at Stanford. It refers to the Science of Ignorance and Doubt, and more specifically the way they can be induced on a society wide scale.

Proctor took as his case study the tobacco industry. When Ernst Ludwig Wynder produced irrefutable proof that smoking correlated to lung cancers the tobacco industry coalesced towards a unified campaign of counter-science to discredit any scientific evidence that would threaten sales or empower lawsuits.

The “Tobacco Strategy” as it came to be called was a 5 pronged attack. The first, most famous, play in the book was the highlighting of uncertainty in the public consciousness. Few people would be following every news update on a story like this, meaning that if you can sell the first impression that “the evidence isn’t out yet” the public will retain that view for a long time.

All four of the other strategies lead back to this. The primary goal of this is to stall: If the evidence is seen as incomplete, any argument for action becomes conditional on finding further evidence. The nature of science, however, is that our understanding will always be incomplete.

The second point of attack is equally dangerous. Science from different fields of study are used to contest each other, confusing the public. Where medical doctors would claim that smoking caused cancer, geneticists would claim that people predisposed to cancer were more likely to smoke.

The tobacco industry pledged massive amounts of research money into the genetic causes of cancer, which also gave them the positive PR of taking the accusations seriously.

Our third point ties into the second: These contradictory scientific claims used to equip expert witnesses and media personalities who could present their version of science to the public with much better showmanship than the typical lab geek.

Whenever the media platformed a health expert to speak about tobacco, fairness doctrine would dictate that the counterview be given equal representation. Under these conditions, it is only natural for the audience to believe the person with better media training.

Our fourth point is perhaps the one most recognisable to a modern audience. A big part of the tobacco strategy was the construction of echo chambers; Rather than referring to politically radical Facebook groups these were large scientific institutions and journals that received their funding from the Tobacco industry directly.

The most famous application of this strategy is seen not in the tobacco debate but on climate, with the International Panel on Climate Change being hounded by the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change.

The NIPCC would shadow near perfectly the IPCC on media appearances and publications, creating confusion as to which group people were supposed to listen to.

The fifth strategy may be the most pertinent in how such a large number of people have come to distrust and deny scientific evidence that is presented to them. Personal and academic attacks were levied against popular and respected scientists, discrediting them in the public eye and casting their research into doubt.

The media was filled with stories on scientific corruption and subversions of truth for political gain. This is the reason why nearly 20% of Americans deny climate change; Once you hold the belief that academia is politically tainted and any research might be corrupt, any scientific evidence opposing your views can be dismissed.

The end result of the Tobacco Strategy, applied over several generations, is the current state of the climate debate and the reason why so many people have turned to conspiracy on matters like Coronavirus.

The emphasis on scientific uncertainty cultivated by the tobacco and oil lobbies lends itself to conspiratorial thinking that require a rejection of the scientific consensus. The construction of alternative scientific institutions that are indistinguishable from the real thing creates a ‘pick and choose’ attitude towards what science each person believes to be true.

None of these methods can hold back public understanding indefinitely, but they don’t have too. By the time tobacco was classified as an addictive drug with connections to cancer, many of the large tobacco companies had rebranded themselves out of the cigarette industry.

The ones that remained were consolidated through mergers and continue to dominate the market, despite what lawsuits may pursue them. The spin doctors who pioneered the strategy for tobacco passed it on to colleagues working in asbestos and petrochemicals.

The human race survived half a century of delaying tactics when the stakes were lung cancer amongst smokers. Whether we’ll survive a similar delay in climate action is questionable at best.

*****

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