The Merchants of Doubt

How we are tricked into the interests of corporate profit

This article appeared in the Jersey Evening Post as ‘Corporate tricks can beFUDdle’ on 26 October 2017

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fading of the Cold War, a small group of ultra-conservative US rocket and atomic bomb scientists found themselves without a great cause to fight. As described in the seminal book The Merchants of Doubt, they soon found not just one, but a few. They also created a methodology that came to dominate scientific argument during the second half of the Twentieth Century.

They campaigned on behalf of big industry that there was no need for health or environmental controls or legislation to get in the way of unbridled profit-making, and were paid handsomely to do so. Having worked on acid rain, tobacco smoking, secondhand smoke, pesticides, the hole in the ozone layer, and finally global warming, they found that while the topic may change, the methodology of the argument that worked for their corporate clients need not.

All that was needed was to spread public doubt about the state of the science, the potential for errors in the data, and even the personal integrity of the scientists.

This was enough for their clients’ corporate buddies in congress to block all moves to regulate the industries — industries that certainly were causing problems — and to keep the profits flowing. Flowing for a few more years or decades, at least while the current board members and stockholders could safely approach their retirement ages, and could comfortably cash in their shares.

Re-branding denial to ‘skepticism’, they and others muddied the waters of public debates long after the scientific debates were over.

Microsoft Corporation settled just one well-documented lawsuit in their decades long ‘fear, uncertainty and doubt’ (FUD) campaigns with an out-of-court settlement of US$280m. FUD doesn’t really use actual facts about the competitions’ products, but does just enough to encourage you to pay reassuringly expensive licence fees, just to avoid perceived risks.

Dr Michael Mosley, presenter of the BBC’s ‘Trust Me, I’m a Doctor’ said last week on Radio 4, “We found that as with the tobacco industry, the sugar industry is quite good at funding research which tells people that sugar is absolutely fine, and making sure that legislation is delayed: ‘give us one more chance.’”

Often, what starts in America ends up in the UK, and gets to Jersey a while after that. We need to be on the lookout for sad attempts at discrediting, astroturfing and FUD locally, especially when talking about water pollution, soil runoff, organic growing and regenerative agriculture.

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