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Ever since the field of rhetoric was born, there have been those who misuse the power of persuasion to mislead public audiences, and it has been only through vigilant counter-persuasion that such deception has been overcome.--Leah Ceccarelli*
Increasingly, sensationalism, gossip, manufactured controversy have become our agenda instead of the best obtainable version of the truth. We've become frivolous.--Carl Bernstein, talking about the news media*
Doubt is our product.--Brown and Williamson tobacco company document no. 680561778–1786*
A manufactroversy is a type of disinformation in which one manufactures a controversy to confuse the public. A manufactroversy tries to make an issue that is not in dispute appear to be one over which there is significant disagreement. Classic examples include: The Tobacco Lobby's campaign to spread the notion that cigarette smoking does not cause lung cancer;
- The Discovery Institute's campaign against evolution to "teach the controversy";
- The campaign to deny the Holocaust happened;
- The campaign of climate change deniers;
- The campaign of the HIV/AIDS deniers;
- The campaign to deny the Apollo moon landing;
- The campaign to blame autism on vaccines;
- The campaign of the "9/11 truthers" to deny a conspiracy by Muslim fanatics;
- The campaign to scare people into believing that cell phones cause brain cancer;
- The campaign by parapsychologists to convince the public that psi phenomena have been proven to exist in scientific studies;1,2,3
- The various campaigns that aim to show that acupuncture, homeopathy, and other so-called alternative medicines work better than placebos.
Rhetoric professor Leah Ceccarelli says that the creators of manufactroversies are "motivated by profit or extreme ideology to intentionally create public confusion about an issue that is not in dispute."* She adds that these disinformation artists often construct imagined conspiracy theories and spend large sums of money to market their deception, e.g., oil companies and climate change. The masters of disinformation are also fond of claiming that they are being 'persecuted for their daring to challenge sacred dogmas of science.'
Manufactroversies arouse fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) and promote the false notion that "sound science" is science where you can't find a contrary view. To demand that nobody doubt anything before one can claim the science is sound is a bit of doublespeak that is the scientific equivalent of the filibuster. In a very trivial and obvious sense, all science is uncertain to some degree.
The anti-vaccination manufactroversy poses a significant threat to public health. It has significantly affected the issue of vaccination to the point where many intelligent, educated people are not having their children vaccinated against diseases like measles. Dr. Harriet Hall writes that the anti-vaccination manufactroversy was
...created by junk science, dishonest researchers, professional misconduct, outright fraud, lies, misrepresentations, irresponsible reporting, unfortunate media publicity, poor judgment, celebrities who think they are wiser than the whole of medical science, and a few maverick doctors who ought to know better.
One reason it is easy to create confusion among the general public on scientific issues is that the average person is ignorant not only of specific and complex scientific issues,* but also of how science works. This is often also true of the average journalist. Ignorant journalists compound the problem by using ignorant celebrities as experts on scientific issues. For example, when Diane Sawyer of ABC news reported on a new study that found no effect on autism from special diets, she didn't interview any scientists. She interviewed Jenny McCarthy, one of the creators of the anti-vaccine manufactroversy. In the interview, McCarthy said that scientists need to take anecdotes seriously. She said that she and other parents have used special diets and they know they work. Her profound ignorance of how science works — and that science uses randomized controlled trials to overcome just the bias that McCarthy exhibits — was not challenged by Sawyer. Scientist Phil Plait commented:
First of all, scientists did take the anecdotes seriously. That’s why they investigated any possible links between GI disorders, diets, and autism. What they found was that there is no link.
Second, McCarthy confuses anecdotes with data. As I have said before, anecdotes are where you start an investigation, not where you finish one. That’s the difference between science (aka reality) and nonsense. You can convince yourself of all manners of silliness through personal experience.
According to Dr. Ceccarelli, another reason the public is easily duped by disinformation is that the manufacturers of controversy
...skillfully invoke values that are shared by the scientific community and the American public alike, like free speech, skeptical inquiry, and the revolutionary force of new ideas against a repressive orthodoxy.
Parapsychologists have made a concerted effort to establish themselves as "true skeptics," while depicting true skeptics as "pseudoskeptics," in their effort to get the public to think that there is great disagreement among scientists regarding paranormal phenomena.
South African President Thabo Mbeki condemned the scientific community for its "campaign of intellectual intimidation and terrorism which argues that the only freedom we have is to agree with what they decree to be established scientific truths."*
It seems obvious that manufactroversies would be less likely to succeed if the public and the media were more knowledgeable of how science works. Why are we, as a culture, so scientifically illiterate? Some, like Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum blame scientists for not communicating pleasantly and in a non-condescending way with the public and the media. While it is true that some scientists are arrogant and condescending, it is unlikely that the demeanor of a few scientists can account for much of the scientific illiteracy that pervades our culture. Some credit for our illiteracy must be given to the rhetorical skills of those who make it their business to manipulate the press and public opinion. One of those rhetorical skills is the ability to create the stereotype of the scientist as an arrogant, repressive, protective, authoritarian character. The manipulators also know that appealing to emotions is more effective than appealing to relevant evidence. They know that feeding prejudices and biases is more effective than trying to convince people that they must overcome their natural biases if they are to find the truth. They know that by creating doubt they create uncertainty, and uncertainty is their best ally.
It seems obvious that our scientific illiteracy isn't due to lack of availability of relevant information. Many of us either won't access that information, don't know how to, or can't evaluate it properly when we do. Whose fault is that? Individual citizens and journalists must bear some of the blame. It isn't easy to understand how science works. On the other hand, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to learn to think critically about causal claims or how to defend yourself against those who would manipulate you by taking advantage of your innate biases. Providing good information isn't the problem, since there is plenty of good information readily available to those who would seek it out. Proving information in a non-threatening, pleasant way isn't the problem, since that's been done repeatedly by many scientists and teachers. Blaming a few arrogant scientists or a few manipulators who bellow about arrogant scientists forming a cabal and protecting their monopoly is too simplistic.
Rather than blame anyone for our scientific illiteracy, we might do better to focus on what we can do about it. Individuals and journalists should take personal responsibility for getting educated about the nature of science. Those who are scientists should not assume that the general public or journalists have an innate understanding of the nature of science. Scientists have to be teachers: all of them, all of the time. Those of us who are not scientists, but understand the art of rhetoric or the power of cognitive, perceptual, and affective biases to hinder our ability to evaluate personal experience and scientific claims, have to be teachers: all of us, all of the time. It is not enough to call out those who are manufacturing controversies. We should explain in lovely and kindly prose, if possible, the errors, lies, frauds, and deceptions, the dishonesty, misconduct, misrepresentation, and irresponsibility of those creating the disinformation and those reporting it in the media under the guise of fairness and completeness.
We can't force people to better themselves or make themselves more knowledgeable of how science works or why anecdotes and stories, while powerful persuaders, can lead to some dangerous delusions. All we can do is try to expose or explain dangerous manufactroversies to the best of our ability. We might fight rhetoric with rhetoric, but it will not serve us in the long run to fight lies with lies or fraud with fraud.
Of the eight manufactroversies I listed at the top of this article, four of them have been successfully weakened, if not toppled. Most people and most journalists do not take seriously the claims that smoking doesn't cause cancer, that intelligent design is science, that AIDS isn't caused by HIV, or that cell phones cause brain cancer. The climate change deniers continue to rack up successes, as do the anti-vaccinationists. Significant numbers of people continue to believe in paranormal phenomena, but it is unlikely that the work of parapsychologists has had much effect on belief in these superstitions. Finally, now that health care has been brought to the forefront in American politics, we can expect the disinformation campaign for so-called "alternative" medicine to take center stage among all the manufactroversies that continue to plague the social landscape. Experts have anticipated this and are hard at work to keep health care on a science-based track.
9 July 2009. From a report based on a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science
When it comes to contemporary scientific issues, differences between the public and scientists are significant. "Most notably, 87% of scientists say that humans and other living things have evolved over time and that evolution is the result of natural processes such as natural selection. Just 32% of the public accepts this as true.
"And the near consensus among scientists about global warming is not mirrored in the general public. While 84% of scientists say the earth is getting warmer because of human activity such as burning fossil fuels, just 49% of the public agrees. [Only 35% of the public think global warming is a very serious problem.]
25 Feb 2009. From a national survey commissioned by the California Academy of Sciences: "Only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun. Only 59% of adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time. Only 47% of adults can roughly approximate the percent of the Earth's surface that is covered with water. Only 21% of adults answered all three questions correctly."
books and articles
Herrick C, Jamieson D. Junk science and environmental policy: Obscuring public debate with misleading discourse. Philos Public Policy Q. 2001; 21:11–16.
blogs and websites
Manufactroversy: The Art of Creating Controversy Where None Existed by Leah Ceccarelli