Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall's "The Misinformation Age"

Cailin O'Connor is associate professor of logic and philosophy of science at the University of California, Irvine. James Owen Weatherall is professor of logic and philosophy of science at the University of California, Irvine, and author of the New York Times best-seller The Physics of Wall Street. Both are members of the Institute for Mathematical Behavioral Science.

They applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread, and reported the following:
On page 99 of The Misinformation Age we write about the work of Edward Bernays. He worked for the US Committee for Public Information (CPI) during WWI, attempting to sell the US public on the war effort via propaganda efforts including film, posters, and print. After the war, in the 1920s, he wrote several books synthesizing what he had learned into a general theory of political and commercial manipulation. As we point out:
Bernays himself took a rosy view of the role that propaganda, understood to include commercial and industrial information campaigns, could play in a democratic society. In his eyes it was a tool for beneficial social change: a way of promoting a more free, equal, and just society. He particularly focused on how propaganda could aid the causes of racial and gender equality and education reform.
Unsurprisingly, though, the propaganda tools developed by the CPI and others have not been employed for primarily beneficial uses. Despite Bernays's optimism, some of the passages from his 1928 Propaganda sounds straight out of 1984. As he writes about propaganda, "Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of" (9).

Our book focuses on propaganda directed towards the scientific community, and towards public understanding of science. People generally do not think of science as a target for propagandists. But industry interests have developed a playbook of surprisingly subtle, and often very effective tools for influencing both the progress of science, and public beliefs about it.

For instance, drawing on the work of historians Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway, we explore the logic of what has been called 'The Tobacco Strategy'. This involved industry (starting with Big Tobacco) widely publicizing real, independent research that happened to show no connection between tobacco use and cancer. Without buying off scientists, or getting involved with the scientific process at all, they were able to use scientific findings as propaganda tools to confound public belief.

We also draw on the work of philosophers Justin Bruner and Bennett Holman to discuss 'industrial selection', whereby industry funds scientists who are already producing results they like. For instance, tobacco companies funded work on the dangers of asbestos, and Big Sugar on the dangers of fat. Big Coal seems to have funded a longitudinal study that happened to be finding no childhood mercury poisoning in one location, while ignoring another study that was detecting such a link. Again, scientists are not bought by industry in these cases. But, as we discuss, industry can nonetheless wield a great deal of control over what scientific fundings are ultimately produced via these efforts.
Visit Cailin O'Connor's website and James Owen Weatherall's website.

--Marshal Zeringue