By Cyril Toman
Enjoy a good conspiracy theory? Then look no further than How they made us doubt everything, a new podcast series from the BBC, which reveals how some of the world’s most powerful interests made us doubt the connection between smoking and cancer, and then how the same tactics were used to make us doubt climate change.
Using once-secret, internal memos, the series takes the listener behind the boardroom doors and gives them a seat at the table where the PR strategies were drawn up.
The story starts with how the tobacco industry devised strategies, a “playbook”, that was successful for forty years in casting doubt in the public mind over whether smoking causes lung cancer. One important part of the strategy was to get highly-trained communicators to exaggerate the degree of uncertainty in scientific findings. And a small number of scientists were found who enjoyed being contrarian; some had their own libertarian agendas, committed to doing whatever it takes to prevent any sort of Government regulation. Money was slipped to Institutes and “Think Tanks” who obligingly produced publications that cast doubt on genuine science.
When global warming became an issue in the early 1990’s, the oil companies took over the same “playbook” – using some of the same PR experts – to mislead the public on the risk. The strategy included reframing scientific facts as “only theory” and targeting certain groups in the US such as older, less educated white males for particular attention, the aim being that they would vote for politicians who were opposed to action on climate change. This strategy was so successful that belief/disbelief in the science of climate change has become a marker of political allegiance in the US and to some extent in Australia.
It is sad to think that the deceptive campaigns of big tobacco and big oil have caused such damage to human health and exposed us to serious risk of climate-related harm. At the same time, exposing the methods of these criminal enterprises should strengthen our determination that they must not be allowed to succeed.