Manufactured ignorance

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.


  1. Blanche Quizno says

    Before I clicked on my email notification of this post, I was thinking of a conversation I was having with someone yesterday. He was saying that, despite every official detail of the Boston Marathon Bombing being demonstrably false, he knows a coupla people who were *there* that day, and there was definitely an explosion and definitely some people injured and maybe killed (but not that guy in the wheelchair with the fake blown-off leg, of course).

    I asked if he considered these people reliable sources and he said “Yes.” I don’t think it is any stretch to imagine that our government will kill people in order to manipulate public opinion in the direction it wants, though most people will resist such an idea most forcefully.

    What has our information system come to, when in the end, we must rely on eye-witnesses to confirm details? Aren’t our news media supposed to be reliable, honest, and trustworthy?? What has happened?

  2. Omar Puhleez says

    Taking #2 above at face value, any old crap stance can be beaten up into a ‘controversy’. And yes, Ophelia, I agree: ‘Merchants of Doubt’ is a good read.

  3. Chris J says

    Does the book talk about how groups will try to mimic the language and processes of another in order to make their agenda appear legitimate? Like creationist groups forming “peer-reviewed” “journals”, or MRAs using the language of privilege? It’s just as infuriating as made up controversy, because even if you don’t fall for the trick and actually believe the language, it poisons the well of that language and makes even legitimate uses seem illegitimate.

  4. Shatterface says

    The vaccination hoax is interesting in that it’s almost the mirror image of the others; with tobacco, sugar and climate change lobbyists are manufacturing doubt about the dangers of their client’s products for clear financial gain. People like smoking, they like sweet food and they like cheep energy, and ‘evidence’ that tells them their desires can be indulged will allow them just enough justification to continue. It’s not about proof, it’s about plausibility.

    The mechanism behind the vaccine hoax seems different. With the vaccine the doubt being manufactured is about the safety of the product, not the danger. It’s the parent who makes the decision, not the child. People are willing to risk their child’s health by avoiding a product rather than using it.

  5. Ned Hamson says

    The vaccine anti-movement threatens thousands, perhaps tens of thousands here in US and many more across the globe – it might get us all. The lead industry showed the tobacco industry how to drag on the “controversy.” As a consequence, tens of thousands of children and adults who ere exposed now live and die with COPD and reduced thinking abilities and autism like symptoms.

  6. RJW says

    Yes, corporations have a long history of ‘manufacturing ignorance’ in regard to the externalities of production, essentially the agenda is to transfer the costs onto taxpayers indefinitely–in addition to tobacco, there’s asbestos, heavy metals, smog, and of course, climate change. It’s rare to see any article by a climate change “skeptic” who has any relevant qualifications whatsoever.

    Where I live the, next ‘dispute’ will be over the social and health effects of the excessive consumption of alcohol, the manufacturers of alcoholic drinks and their conservative political allies will fight dirty.

    I’d certainly recommend Prof Oreskes’ research on the subject.

  7. Claire Ramsey says

    I know Naomi! She is fabulous! She is really really smart! And she has a lot of cool rocks in her office.

  8. artymorty says

    I was just thinking about this, too, because of an article I just read.

    (I had no idea there was a word for it — I like this word, agnotology.)

    There’s a good new piece from Mother Jones making the rounds; it’s about toxic chemicals leaching from plastics. The author covers the Big Tobacco-style tactics the plastics industry is using to bury the story — scary-but-fascinating stuff. Many of the very same people formerly involved with the tobacco lobby are now getting paid to cast doubt over the dangers of supposedly safe “BPA free” plastics.

  9. Omar Puhleez says

    A classic pea and thimble trick: present consumerism-as-usual as some kind of dissenting ‘skepticism’.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *