By Vexen Crabtree 2017
Several industries have been caught out producing fake and heavily biased science reports, orchestrating so-called "grass-roots" movements whereby they cast doubt on medical science, producing endless reams of misleading public-relations material and manipulating news outlets with fake think-tanks. They have well-practised and efficient methods for manipulating the news and public opinion and the money and effort that goes into these channels of deception are great. They produce "manufactured doubt" using scientific-sounding organisations as fronts, to try and discredit the mountains of evidence that stand against them. They are expert at getting this 'fake news' on to broadcast media and in every success they cause harm, ill health and long-term problems for all.
The worst culprits in spreading mass-lies in this way are: (1) the tobacco and smoke industry1,2,3, (2) the fast-food and junk food industries4, (3) those who sell most nutritional supplements5 and (4) the petrol and oil industries6,7,1.The worst outlets for promulgating rubbish without checking sources are the sensationalist, downmarket and popularist news bodies.
Modern journalists work at breakneck speed to process stories as fast as possible. Much of this news comes from trusted wire agencies, but these also rely on public relations (PR) material, as do the news outlets themselves. Most news services rely heavily on PR material in order to rapidly produce a stream of news. Because of these pressures, public relations firms and commercial companies are having a heyday and find it easy to insert material into news media. News outlets get cheap, professional-looking news at no cost. In general, over half of all news stories are mostly PR or contain substantial PR-sourced material8. Journalists themselves do not check the facts or figures of such inputs, nor admit in the articles themselves that PR material is the true source of the information, so the news often appears unbiased8. For example in 1991, CBS Evening News, USA, aired a video source from the Institute for Injury Reduction showing that cars' safety belts are actually unsafe and cause more damage than they prevent - an idea which managed to catch the attention of the public. Did the journalists of that news station check the source of this video to see who it was that was passing them the information? No. They didn't. And it turned out that the Institute for Injury Reduction is actually a lobby group supported by lawyers who make money from clients who were suing automobile companies for crash-related injuries9. Too many journalists are engaged in an unthinking, uncritical conveyor-belt of news, and old journalistic practices such as fact-checking and critical thinking have proven to get in the way of corporate efficiency. Powerful commercial lobbies use this weakness to pervert public opinion.
“Vice President Dick Cheney complained in an interview with conservative media commentator Armstrong Williams about bias in the press. Cheney was absolutely right about bias in the press. The Bush administration had paid Williams $240,000 to promote the No Child Left Behind Act in broadcasts and in print. Williams lost his job with Tribune Media Services when it was revealed that he was a hired propagandist producing covert puff pieces for the Bush administration. [...] Many bloggers and websites that appear to be independent are actually fronts.”
"Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!" by Robert Todd Carroll (2011)6
In short, don't trust the news media directly even when they are reporting on scientific-sounding research groups. Always check facts with long-standing scientific bodies such as the Royal Society. The scientists and welfare groups who wish to get real scientific worries about certain industries out into the open are not funded or equipped to run public relations campaigns. Only multinational information campaigns, legal agreements and inter-national political bodies such as the EU have the oomph to be able to fight back against such powerful industries.
Edward Bernays is often described as the founding theorist of modern public relations. He had no doubts about the objectives of those with the money and power to influence the media:
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons ... who pull the wires that control the public mind.”
While what he says is true (that it is important in a democracy) because the populace must be informed, when the information flow is abused by commercial interests, democracy suffers because the truth suffers.
“The leading figure in the public relations industry, Edward Bernays [...] went on to develop what he called the "engineering of consent," which he described as "the essence of democracy." The people who are able to engineer consent are the ones who have the resources and the power to do it - the business community.”
"Media Control: The Spectacular Achievement of Propaganda" by Naom Chomsky (2002)11
In the 1950s the smoking lobby created a range of innocent-sounding and scientific-sounding groups in order to discredit government information about the dangers of smoking. They produced scientific reports engineered by their own scientists, which serve to boost their own industries by deceiving the public. The disinformation campaign spanned many decades. The vested commercial interests of the smoking industry provide an incentive to manipulate the public's understanding of the risks in order to keep people smoking. They concocted invented studies, fabricated doubts on health science, creating fake consumer-concern groups and poured great quantities of cash into misleading marketing. A few senior executes eventually found themselves stood before USA's congress. Clive Bates, Public Health Consultant, states very bluntly:
“The chief executives of the world's major tobacco companies stood up in front of congress and [...] lied, knowing that they were lying [and] deliberate[ly] misled people.”
“... the tobacco industry previously poured huge sums into 'independent' research showing that the effects of smoking on health had been greatly exaggerated.”
“As a result of paperwork disclosed in US court cases, we now know that when the tobacco companies in the 1950s found themselves under pressure from the discovery of the link between smoking and cancer, they hired PR companies to create a network of pseudo-groups to massage public thinking on their behalf. Hill & Knowlton, who were then the biggest PR agency in America, duly created the Council for Tobacco Research and the Tobacco Institute as apparently independent organisations to produce research to defend their sales. [...]
A second PR agency, Burson-Marsteller, created the National Smokers Alliance as an AstroTurf group, to hold public meetings and hassle politicians, changing the tobacco story from a threat to health to a threat to freedom.”
Oil and petrol lobbies have spent fortunes on PR tricks. They produce scientific reports engineered by their own scientists1, which serve to boost their own industries by deceiving the public. The Global Climate Coalition was founded in the around 1990, and funded "scientists and writers who would provide disinformation regarding climate change to anybody who would listen. For more than ten years they supported 'research' that would cast doubt on scientific reports" about the dangers of burning fossil fuels6. Basically, their reports were distorted lies, pretending to be science. Who funded this maverick outfit, which received a lot of media coverage each time it produced a report? "Exxon, Ford, Texaco, General Motors, British Petroleum, and DaimlerChrysler"6 yet there was no indication in the mass media that these "scientific" reports were funded by the oil lobby - it was all presented as unbiased research, and has damaged the USA's population knowledge of climate change in the long-term.
“Reminiscent of the way in which the tobacco industry previously poured huge sums into 'independent' research showing that the effects of smoking on health had been greatly exaggerated, so now the oil and energy industries are supporting science to challenge research about global warming and its effects.”
“Within months of the UN producing its first report endorsing the idea of man-made climate change, in 1989, Exxon and other big corporations started setting up pseudo-groups. The first and biggest was the Global Climate Coalition which was soon lobbying in the corridors of power [...]. As a single example of its activities, the coalition made a classic appeal to the subconscious feelings of its American audience before the Kyoto conference in December 1997, when it spent $13 million on TV advertising, aimed at reining in the Clinton administration. It pitched the whole issue as a matter of freedom and patriotism. 'America has signed many treaties... but never a treaty of surrender,' was the key line in one advertisement, over a photograph of the Japanese surrender at the end of the Second World War.
When Kyoto nevertheless produced an agreement to cut emissions, Exxon, in early 1998, helped to set up a new front group, the Global Climate Science Team. [...] Between 1998 and 2005, ExxonMobil alone spent $15.8 million on forty-three different front groups, according to research published in January 2007 by the Union of Concerned Scientists, who described this as 'the most sophisticated and successful disinformation campaign since Big Tobacco misled the public. [...]
A columnist at the Daily Mail [...] Melanie Phillips [wrote] a series of outspoken columns denouncing the whole concept of man-made climate change. 'Global warming is a scam,' she wrote in February 2002. 'The latest evidence is provided in a report published today by the European Science and Environment Forum, in which a group of the most eminent scientists from Britain and America shred the theory.' However, the forum whose work she was quoting was, in truth, yet another pseudo-group, created with the help of two PR agencies (APCO Worldwide and Burson-Marsteller) with the specific intent of campaigning against restrictions on corporate activity; and the report to which Phillips referred in such glowing terms was recycled work which had been funded by Exxon.”
You cannot trust much of the news when it comes to issues that have commercial impact, not even when it comes to the reporting of scientific studies on nutrition and food. Some of these studies were funded and managed by scientists supplied by the food industry itself!
“The food industry in Europe recently has been funding groups to protect its position against public and government alarm over obesity, junk food, misleading food labelling, diabetes and the advertising of fatty foods to children. British newspapers routinely carry reports and quotes on diet from the Social Issues Research Center, the British Nutrition Foundation and the International Life Sciences Foundations and routinely fail to point out that all three have received significant funding variously from Cadbury Schweppes, Nestlé, Kelloggs, the Dairy Council, Kraft and the Sugar Bureau. In 2003, Fleet Street reported the comments of a nutritionist called Dr Susan Jebb who attacked the Atkins Diet as 'a massive health risk', without explaining that her research into the low-carbohydrate diet had been funded the Flour Advisory Bureau. This kind of research may or may not be accurate; but it is the hidden hand of PR which is paying for it to happen and promoting it into the news.”
“Diet has an impact on health and affects the risk of disease13. Over the last few decades biochemical and other sciences, from neural to gastric, have made impressive contributions to our knowledge14. Never before have scientists known so much about food and nutrition. Unfortunately much of this knowledge is not reported by the popular press and news outlets because it is technical, mundane and statistical in nature. The average consumer mostly hears only the sensational claims of pseudoscientific sham researchers and promoters, which are often paid for and orchestrated by the rich food industry itself. The two most misleading sources of information are reports based on single-studies and TV adverts. Most people are ill-informed about diet and health as a result of this.
There have been a long series of temporarily popular fad diets which limit food intake to a specific range of items, sometimes cutting out essential fats and proteins completely. They emphasize rapid short-term change at the expense of medium and long-term issues. Of the independent scientific studies on fad diets, supplements, mega-vitamins and similar highly-hyped abnormal sources of nutrition, all have found them to be useless and sometimes actually harmful. The National Health Service (UK) warns that "many fad diets are based on dodgy science or no research at all, prescribing eating practices that are unhealthy and can make you ill"15. The boring truth is that only well-rounded diets are truly effective at long-term weight management with only the very basic advice being effective: cut down on fats and salts, cut down on sugary and fizzy drinks, and eat plenty of wholegrain food, fruit and vegetables (5 portions a day), and drink ordinary water.16,15
Fads rely on testimonials and public-relations tricks to make themselves sound effective and claims are often based on (easily biased) single-studies rather than on independently verified and duplicated scientific trials. The mass media love reporting on these single-studies as their claims are often outlandish and celebrity endorsements boost a fad diet from time to time. Fad diets distract people from sensible eating habits. Rather than accept enthusiastic praise from soap stars, models and newspaper advertisements, it is doctors and the medical profession that we should trust to keep us informed. Let's stop falling for these tricks!”
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Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Published by Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, NY, USA. Pro-science magazine published bimonthly.
BBC. The British Broadcasting Corporation.
(2014) Burning Desire: The Seduction of Smoking. A two-part television documentary first shown on 2014 May 29 featuring the veteran journalist and investigator, Peter Taylor. www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b045qf9q.
Carroll, Robert Todd. (1945-2016). Taught philosophy at Sacramento City College from 1977 until retirement in 2007. Created The Skeptic's Dictionary in 1994.
(2011) Unnatural Acts: Critical Thinking, Skepticism, and Science Exposed!. Amazon Kindle digital edition. Published by the James Randi Educational Foundation. An e-book.
(2002) Media Control: The Spectacular Achievement of Propaganda. 2nd edition. Originally published 1991. Current version published by Seven Stories Press, New York USA. A paperback book.
Gardner, Martin. Died 2010 May 22 aged 95.
(1957) Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science. Originally published 1952 by G. P. Putnam's Sons as "In the Name of Science". Current version published by Dover Publications, Inc., New York, USA. A paperback book.