Many industries share “spin” strategies to undermine science they don’t like

We have known for a long time that the tobacco companies have developed sophisticated strategies to “create doubt” and attack scientific results that threaten their profits. Similar strategies have been identified for other industries.

Now Rebecca Goldberg and Laura Vandenberg have published “The science of spin: targeted strategies to manufacture doubt with detrimental effects on environmental and public health” that summarizes papers that assess strategies to undermine science by the tobacco, coal and sugar industries, manufacturers of the pesticide Atrazine, and the Marshall Institute, a think tank that generally supports industry on global warming.

While their paper is not a formal systematic review, they identified 28 tactics to manufacture doubt about scientific findings as well as logical fallacies in these tactics.

Of these 28 tactics, five were used by all the industries they discuss: (1) attacking study design, (2) gaining support from reputable individuals, (3) misrepresenting data, (4) employing hyperbolic or absolutist language, and (5) working to influence government and laws.

In the e-cigarette interests’ successful effort to bully the Journal of the American Heart Association to retract a paper we published their linking e-cigarette use with heart attacks, they used the first 4 of these approaches (details here). (The fifth tactic is not relevant to a journal.)

The move by e-cigarette interests to seek retraction of papers that do not serve their interests — there are other cases beyond JAHA) — is an escalation of longstanding industry efforts to discredit science that threatens them. Journal editors and organizations need to take notice of this escalation and recognize that not all criticism of scientific work is motivated by a neutral desire to seek the truth.

This paper represents a start at systemically looking at cross-industry strategies to suppress or counter science that threatens their profits and power. The fact that the UCSF Truth Tobacco Documents Library has now been joined by collections of industry documents from the Chemical, Drug (including opioids), Food, and Fossil Fuel industries to created the expanded UCSF Industry Documents Library, which includes the ability to cross-search different collections should speed understanding of these cross-industry strategies, including similarities in the people, PR firms, and law firms working across industries.

Here is the abstract:

Background: Numerous groups, such as the tobacco industry, have deliberately altered and misrepresented knowable facts and empirical evidence to promote an agenda, often for monetary benefit, with consequences for environmental and public health. Previous research has explored cases individually, but none have conducted an in-depth comparison between cases. The purpose of this study was to compile a comprehensive list of tactics used by disparate groups and provide a framework for identifying further instances of manufactured doubt.

Methods: We examined scholarly books, peer-reviewed articles, well-researched journalism pieces, and legal evidence related to five disparate industries and organizations selected for their destructive impacts on environmental and public health (tobacco, coal, and sugar industries, manufacturers of the pesticide Atrazine, and the Marshall Institute, an institute focused on climate change research, and other scientists from the era that associated with those in the Institute). These documents provided evidence for a list of tactics used to generate pro-industry spin and manufacture doubt about conferred harm. We then identified trends among sets of strategies that could explain their differential use or efficacy.

Results: We recognized 28 unique tactics used to manufacture doubt. Five of these tactics were used by all five organizations, suggesting that they are key features of manufactured doubt. The intended audience influences the strategy used to misinform, and logical fallacies contribute to their efficacy.

Conclusions: This list of tactics can be used by others to build a case that an industry or group is deliberately manipulating information associated with their actions or products. Improved scientific and rhetorical literacy could be used to render them less effective, depending on the audience targeted, and ultimately allow for the protection of both environmental health and public health more generally.

The full citation for the paper is: Goldberg RF, Vandenberg LN. The science of spin: targeted strategies to manufacture doubt with detrimental effects on environmental and public health. Environ Health. 2021 Mar 26;20(1):33. doi: 10.1186/s12940-021-00723-0. PMID: 33771171; PMCID: PMC7996119. It is available here.

Published by Stanton Glantz

Stanton Glantz is a retired Professor of Medicine who served on the University of California San Francisco faculty for 45 years. He conducts research on tobacco and cannabis control and cardiovascular disease/

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