The Merchants of Doubt Strike Again

A few days ago I wrote a post about the WHO’s declaration that processed meat can cause cancer in human beings. Since posts from this blog also appear on my Facebook page, and many people comment there, I noticed a curious phenomenon: the knee-jerk response of many commenters was to cast doubt on the results of the committee who reached these decisions. Some of the doubters hinted that the committee members had ulterior motives. Others contended that the studies the committee relied upon to reach a decision, could not distinguish between meat eating and many other lifestyle choices that could heighten the risk of cancer.

Many indeed were those who doubted the results, for many wide-ranging reasons. And yet, from reading the comments it’s quite clear that none of them knows who exactly are the committee members, or which 800 papers they relied upon to make a decision. The main objective of the comments was to disparage the results that stand in contrast with the commenters’ current way of life.

Now, I’ll say straight ahead that the transparency of the evaluation process is definitely at fault. I haven’t yet had any success in finding the names of the experts on the committee, nor details about the “800 different studies on cancer in humans” they examined, or how much weight each study carried for them. In a world of information and transparency, it seems almost ridiculous that a body such as the WHO does not provide easy access to these details to the public, so that independent researchers and thinkers can make their own evaluations.

All the same, the first wave of doubters that we face now are probably a sign for the near future of the meat arena. In fact, if we learn anything from the way other industry giants have dealt with uncomfortable scientific evidence in the past, it’s that the spreaders of doubt will soon become prevalent in social media and on radio and TV.

Doubt, Tobacco and Climate Change

In the middle of the 20th century, the tobacco industry found itself facing a difficult challenge. An increasingly large number of scientific studies revealed a connection between smoking and cancer. The tobacco companies turned to one of the leading PR firms of the day, Hill & Knowlton, which reframed the situation: the dilemma was not whether or not smoking causes cancer, but what the public thinks on the matter. A key memo emphasizes the real issue from their point of view –

“There is only one problem—confidence and how to establish it; public assurance, and how to create it.”

In other words, the tobacco industry realized that it needed to create doubt about the scientific evidence. To that end, the industry founded ‘independent’ organizations that ‘studied’ the subject and reached conclusions that had almost no relation with the scientific reality or consensus. The industry also supported and promoted scientists who were willing to talk on behalf of tobacco and to publish studies (shaky as they were) against the connection between smoking and cancer.

I’ll admit this accusation would’ve seemed much like a conspiracy theory, if not for the fact that the internal communications in the tobacco companies was eventually made public. The industry could not challenge the scientific evidence for more than a few decades. Eventually, at the end of the 1990s, forty six states filed a collective lawsuit against the four largest tobacco companies. The companies agreed to pay a large fine, to shut down their funded ‘independent’ research organizations like the Center for Indoor Air Research, and to make all the related documents available to the public. This is how we know today how the history of tobacco in America really looks like: a grim mix of propaganda and greed, which was spilled on the public by the big companies. Overall, the tobacco industry had worked actively to plant and promote disinformation which has significantly damaged the public’s capabilities to act in a legal and enlightened way against smoking. Since a billion people are smoking today worldwide, and as the life expectancy of smokers is ten years shorter than that of their friends, it can be said that the tobacco companies have cost humanity ten billions years of living.

That is a pretty hefty fee to pay.

We see the same strategy of doubt casting being used today by ExxonMobil to counter scientific evidence for global warming and climate change, with some of the scientists who spoke against the relation between tobacco and cancer also speaking against the relation between human activity and climate change.

And quite soon, we’ll probably see it in use by the meat industry as well.

Meat and Doubt

Already, the meat industry starts casting doubt on the committee’s conclusions. Shalene McNeill, director of Human Nutrition Research at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, had this to say on the WHO’s declaration –

“These are studies that draw correlation, not causation. So these are studies that cannot be used to determine cause and effect.”

Her point is well-known to all scientists who review these studies, so I can’t imagine any of them falling for this old trick in interpretation.

another statements made by the meat industry about the WHO’s ruling included “Dramatic and alarmist overreach”, which seems strange in light of the fact that similar conclusions about the connection between meat and cancer have already been reached by the American Cancer Society and the World Cancer Research Fund. So nothing dramatic or overreaching here. If anything, the WHO is just falling into the ranks of the current scientific understanding of the issue.

Nathan Gray, science editor in the popular FoodNavigator site, has reported that he has received a large number of responses from trade associations and PR agencies representing the meat industry last week. Most of these responses, according to Gray, claim that the committee’s findings are biased, and that “the science is undecided or misrepresented”.

In short, they’re all casting doubt. We’ve seen this strategy being used before. We’re seeing it again right now.

Conclusion and Forecast

You want a final forecast, don’t you? Well, here’s an easy one: unless some kind of a miracle happens, we’re going to see a lot of doubt mongering coming from the meat industry in the next few years. Get ready for it. It’s coming, and it’s also going to rely a lot on social media. Social media is the new communications arena, where anyone can level baseless accusations, spread rumors and thrive on attention. If ever there was a place almost designed for disinformation, this is it.

Get ready. The doubt industry is marshalling its forces once more.

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