It’s relatively easy to manipulate people. If nothing else, this blog should make it plain that there are any numbers of techniques to manipulate consumers, voters, or viewers. There are a couple of classes of people that are relatively harder to manipulate, however.

No, not time travelers. Try again.

Scientists are fairly hard to manipulate. By definition, they tend to be the most knowledgeable of people, at least on their domain of expertise. You can use cute names to hide additive details from the average food consumer, for example, but it’s hard to fool the scientist who named the actual additive, or who can synthesize it in his lab at will. You can fool some doctors with fake scientific journals, but it’s going to be hard to draw the same wool over the scientists who are used to perusing a dozen of these journals before lunch every day.

 

Scientists are hard to manipulate not only because of their command of their domain, but also because of their training: they are trained for decades to review facts, to challenge assumptions, to demand evidence. They are the ultimate fact-based thinkers, at least professionally, and that makes it inordinately difficult to manipulate them.

And yet, increasingly, manipulating scientists is becoming a necessity for almost every major player in manipulation. The reason is simple: the world is becoming more complex, and as the issues we all face become more complex, there is a natural tendency to ask what the experts think – what do the scientists recommend? In such a context, being able to manipulate the voice of the scientists carries huge rewards – if you can do it.

But how? How can you manipulate men and women who by definition know a LOT more about the issues that even you do?

The first ones to face this challenge were these folks:

Cigarette makers had a problem around the 1950’s. They were minting money, since they were selling an addictive product to a growing population, but they were increasingly concerned about pesky scientists who were trying to explain that cigarettes killed people.

The cigarette makers, as most of you probably know, designed a swift response. They formed the Tobacco Institute, which was a “research center” that was supposed to study tobacco and cigarette smoking. It was funded entirely by the cigarette manufacturers, and it swiftly began to justify that funding by regularly attacking any study that hinted at a link between cancer and smoking. There were not many scientists at the Tobacco Institute, but they did have many, many  lobbyists that challenged scientific studies, as well as policy decisions like banning smoking on planes. The Institute’s cover, though, was always portrayed as ‘legitimate’ scientists doing legitimate science – it was just a coincidence that that research was always pro-smoking.

Now, why did the cigarette makers bother with all this? They knew that the Tobacco Institute was a sham, and that the research was conclusive that cigarettes caused cancer. But they realized that an “institute” friendly to their policy could delay the inevitable. It could sow confusion. It could create enough material to give the political lobbyists, who could then use it to influence politicians: “look, congressman, this health study is not reliable. Read the critique from the Tobacco Institute, whose scientists don’t agree at all with the findings of these guys. If you act on this study, you’re just backing bad science!”

The cigarette manufacturers’ strategy was not to manipulate the scientists. It was to create enough confusion and doubt about those scientists to negate their influence on policy makers and on the public at large.

This is a time-proven strategy to deal with scientific consensus that could impact you negatively. This is largely what some energy and oil companies do with the Heartland Institute, for example, as mentioned before, only this time the issue is global warming.  The Heartland Institute (and some others) consistently try to find ways to undermine the scientific evidence behind global warming, using pretty much the same techniques pioneered by the Tobacco Institute. A couple of months ago, a number of internal documents about this “think tank” were released by a whistleblower, and they show textbook examples of how to manage FUD – ‘Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt‘ – around climate change. Some gems from these documents, and their similarity to our friend the Tobacco Institute:

  • More than 75% of the group’s funds are actually going to advocacy and lobbying program, fairly similar to the Tobacco Institute’s budget.
  • High on the agenda for 2012, a program to ‘educate’ kids about climate change (basically, to create a curriculum to manipulate kids into ignoring evidence of climate change). Amusingly, the Institute’s key leader was a huge proponent of Joe the Camel, the Tobacco Institute’s own outreach to kids:

  • The Heartland Institute’s main funders of this type of activity are folks like the Koch Brothers, who have deep interests in coal and other carbon-based activities that would suffer if there was climate change legislation; this is exactly the same model as the Tobacco Institute’s funding, that came from the cigarette manufacturers.

Recognize the theme?

Okay, so you can fund an institute or a think tank to sow disinformation about an issue and try to ‘drown out’ the scientists. But let’s say that you’re a mining company that uses diesel engines in your operations, and those diesel fumes seem to be causing a lot of cancer to the villages and towns around your mines. Enough cancer, in fact, that several scientists begin to study the link between diesel fumes and cancer. What do you do?

THEY ARE HARMLESS, I TELL YOU!

The problem is that you can’t really go out and do a FUD campaign on the issue. After all, while everyone suspects that the scientists will come back with a verdict that yes, toxic black fumes tend to be bad for people, they haven’t yet, and creating a campaign that argues that black fumes may, actually, be good for you seems like a stretch. So, what do you do?

Well, if you’re the Mining Awareness Resources Group, you can try suing the scientists. In 1992, The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) began a landmark study to show whether or not diesel fumes are bad – specifically, if they cause cancer or not. The Mining Awareness Resources Group decided that its best strategy was to use the courts to force the scientists conducting the study to turn over all their work to the industry group and to basically hand over oversight of the study to the industry itself. And, to a large extent, the strategy worked, at least for a while: the scientists were delayed, and, had organizations less stable that NIOSH and NCI been involved, the study would have been cancelled under the weight of the lawsuits alone. Eventually, after 12 years, the study was completed, showing that indeed, diesel fumes cause all sorts of health issues. Ironically, once the study was done, the Mining Awareness Resource Group switched strategy, threatening to sue journals that would publish the study, which is a good example of taking a decent manipulation too far in desperation.

This type of manipulation is getting so severe that, even a few years ago, the editor of Science, the most prestigious science journal in the world, wrote that the Bush administration was increasingly manipulating science to serve political aims. A relatively famous report, the Waxman report, actually documented interesting ways in which administration officials tried to get around the thorny problem of manipulating scientists. If you like manipulation, you really should read the report, because it is a shopping list of interesting techniques designed to essentially muzzle scientific voices. One gem amongst many:

You can’t make this stuff up.

Why do these manipulations work so well in the US?

Well, the problem is that we are an elected government system, and we tend not to elect scientists in government, which makes this type of manipulation a lot easier than if the government was stacked with scientists. Let me close this entry with a worrying statistic, at least if you’re in the US: in China’s government, 8 out of the top 9 Chinese leaders are scientists.

A meeting of the top Chinese Government officials

That’s 8 out of 9 top officials who are hard to manipulate, can read scientific literature, can make fact-based assessments of threats and opportunities, and who can then implement solutions to those problems with minimal fuss.

How do we stack up here? Well, we have 535 members of the US Congress, which is our top legislative body. Out of those, if we kept the same proportion as the Chinese, we should have… around 475 scientists. How many do we actually have?

6.  In amongst 225 lawyers, 4 ministers, 5 accountants, and even a mortician, we have just 6 scientists. Even if we throw in ‘science-like’ professions, like doctors and engineers, we are up to… 27. So we’re 448 scientists short. And when you represent less than 5% of a group, you tend to be lonely…

And this is why, at least here in the US, we will continue to see a fair bit of activity to try to manipulate, not the US scientists themselves, but the audience that needs to hear them for any of their opinion to actually make its way into policy. And that is why folks like the Heartland Institute are a growth industry.