This is a subject that has always interested me – agnotology, the study of the cultural production of ignorance.
It’s a rich field, especially today when whole industries devote themselves to sowing public misinformation and doubt about their products and activities.
The tobacco industry was a pioneer at this. Its goal was to erode public acceptance of the scientifically proven links between smoking and disease: In the words of an internal 1969 memo legal opponents extracted from Brown & Williamson’s files, “Doubt is our product.” Big Tobacco’s method should not be to debunk the evidence, the memo’s author wrote, but to establish a “controversy.”
Bullshitting for profit and to protect the profits – and bullshitting about life and death, at that. Such a fabulous thing to do. “So a lot of people get lung cancer because we succeed in fooling them! So what? It’s more money for us!”
When this sort of manipulation of information is done for profit, or to confound the development of beneficial public policy, it becomes a threat to health and to democratic society. Big Tobacco’s program has been carefully studied by the sugar industry, which has become a major target of public health advocates.
It’s also echoed by vaccination opponents, who continue to use a single dishonest and thoroughly discredited British paper to sow doubts about the safety of childhood immunizations, and by climate change deniers.
Well, everybody needs a hobby.
Big Tobacco’s public relations campaign against the anti-smoking movement, for example, was aimed at “manufacturing a ‘debate,’ convincing the mass media that responsible journalists had an obligation to present ‘both sides’ of it,” reported Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their 2010 book, “Merchants of Doubt.”
I am reading that book right now. It is terrific.