Dr. Cailin O'Connor explains how propagandists "fight science with science" to muddy the waters and raise doubt.

Producer: Lauren Shields
09/16/2020 • 01:44 AM EST

Dr. Cailin O'Connor, Professor of Logic and Philosophy of Science, UC Irvine, discusses Edward Bernays and the origins of propaganda in the U.S. She explains how the tobacco industry funded selective research to effectively "fight science with science" in order to muddy the waterssee definition - bringing up irrelevant facts to confuse or complicate an issue, which may otherwise be relatively simple and easy to understand.
and sow doubt and confusion about the detrimental effects of smoking. O'Connor also touches on how industrial propagandists cherry picksee definition - presenting only evidence that confirms your position, while ignoring or withholding an often more significant portion that contradicts it.
scientific research data to support their own conclusions.

0:00: Lauren Shields:

With us today, we have Dr. Cailin O'Connor who is going to talk with us today about the social nature of belief. Dr. O'Connor is a professor in the department of logic and philosophy of science at UC Irvine. She and Dr. James Owen Weatherall wrote the Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread, out from Yale University Press in 2019. Cailin, thanks so much for being here with us today.

0:22: Dr. Cailin O'Connor:

Oh, thank you for having me.

0:24: Lauren Shields:

Absolutely. All right. Let's jump right in. You do a great job of summarizing the history of propaganda. Can you briefly walk us through its original aims and how it was used throughout the 20th century US war efforts?

0:37: Dr. Cailin O'Connor:

Yeah. So, one of the places where the science of propaganda really got going was with this group, the Committee on Public Information in the United States, it's sometimes been called, I think the Committee on Public Misinformation or something like that, but they developed a lot of techniques meant to communicate with the public about the war effort, to get people on board, to make them think that the US was on the right side, to support the war effort, etcetera. This fellow Edward Bernays was part of that committee. And then afterwards literally wrote the book on propaganda. So, he wrote several things where he discussed various propaganda techniques and had, in general, this very rosy picture of it, where he thought we could use propaganda to shape this ideal society, where we could all live in harmony and this kind of very nice picture. In fact, propaganda has much more often been used for a nefarious purposes since then.

1:43: Lauren Shields:

So, you talked a little bit about Edward Bernays. Can you tell us a bit about the tobacco industry and how it rather masterfully muddied the waters around the effects of smoking?

1:53: Dr. Cailin O'Connor:

Yeah, so this history really began in the 1950s, where it started to become clear to the public that tobacco, there was a link between tobacco smoking and health. So increasingly there were studies linking tobacco with cancer or various lung diseases. There was a very influential article in Consumer Digest called Cancer by the Carton, after which tobacco sales started to drop. In response to this drop in sales, a number of big US tobacco companies hired a public relations firm out of New York. And what they did with this firm was developed a new sort of, you might call branch of propaganda strategies, which, you know, what was different was that they decided they were going to fight science with science basically.

And they knew that they couldn't convince people using science that tobacco was totally safe or that it was beneficial for you. But what they could do was to cast a lot of doubt on this sort of increasing body of work, showing that tobacco smoking was dangerous. Now I'll just flag a lot of this history,we draw from the really excellent book, Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway. So, people who are interested should go read this book, I mean, the work they do is really fantastic. So as far as muddying the water, there were a number of things that big tobacco and their public relations partners did during this period.

So, one thing was that they funded a lot of research on other potential causes of lung disease. So, things like asbestos, even weirdly, I believe there was some study into a connection between getting married too early and lung disease. But so by funding this research, they caused more confusion or doubt about what the cause of increased lung disease might be now. So maybe it's not just tobacco, maybe it's this other thing. They also allowed themselves out in the courtroom, so when they're sued by someone who says, I have lung cancer, you caused it, they can say, well, maybe it was actually caused by these other factors. So that was one way they muddied the waters.

In addition, there was just this general strategy of continuing to press this idea of doubt long, long after it was completely clear that tobacco smoking caused cancer and other lung disease. So there was absolutely no doubt by the mid fifties that this was true, including for tobacco companies. So they were doing their own research on this. They knew this was true, but they just continued to put out, you know, more and more material suggesting, well, maybe it's something else. Maybe it doesn't really cause cancer. Well, we're still not sure. Maybe we shouldn't regulate this until we really know. And so that's how they confuse the consensus, the growing consensus that tobacco killed.

4:50: Lauren Shields:

How does cherry picking manifest itself in the interactions between propagandists, scientists, and the public?

4:58: Dr. Cailin O'Connor:

Good. So in general, one thing we talk about in this book and I really like to bring up in talks that we give on it is the way some of these strategies of industrial propaganda work, because I think a naïve, someone naïve to these strategies will think, Okay, here is how industry influences science. They get a scientist, they give them a bunch of money. And then that scientist starts producing fraudulent results. Maybe he starts producing studies that show that tobacco doesn't cause cancer. And sure enough, this sometimes is what happens. But a lot of the techniques are actually much more subtle and they work without subverting the norms of science, because most scientists don't actually want to commit fraud.  You know, most scientists, aren't bad people and they're in a community where there's a lot of social pressure to sort of do good science.

Cherry picking is one part of this. So one thing you see industrial propagandists do is looking across the scientific community, finding just those studies that happen to support the conclusions they're trying to press and widely publicizing them. So this really takes advantage of the fact that scientific evidence is probabilistic. Not everyone who smokes gets cancer, not everyone who gets cancer smokes. That means that sometimes when you do studies about this link, they won't show an effect.

And this is exactly what we saw in the 1950s and 60s with this tobacco propaganda, they would, you know, make these glossy pamphlets that say something like here are nine studies that found no link between tobacco and cancer. And these would be real studies independent of any influence from tobacco, but they would be cherry picked. They wouldn't be saying, and here are the 60 other studies that did find that link.

6:44: Lauren Shields:

You mentioned Russian interference in the 2016 election claiming that the point was not intelligence gathering, but sowing fear, uncertainty, and doubt among Americans. Can you say a little bit more about that?

6:56: Dr. Cailin O'Connor:

Well, so I think part of what's become much more clear when it comes to disinformation in 2016 and going forward, I think when people first started becoming aware of how much targeted disinformation there was online, including from the Russian State and now increasingly from other states and political actors. The assumption was that the aim would be similar to a lot of past propaganda, to get people to believe something, to promote some particular belief or behavior, get them to think cigarettes are safe, get them to keep smoking cigarettes, get them not to act on climate change.

And so I think it took a lot of people by surprise, when it turned out that the goal of a lot of this wasn't to promote any particular belief, but rather to confuse things, to drive polarization, to make people dislike each other, basically to turn foreign states into dysfunctional states, where people can't engage in good democratic decision-making, where they can't vote in their own best interests, where lawmakers can't work together effectively to govern. So the goal is like to throw a wrench in the gears a lot of the time, which sort of took people a little while to figure out.

8:13: Lauren Shields:

Well, it looks like we're out of time for today. Cailin, where can we find you online?

8:19: Dr. Cailin O'Connor:

All right, well, I've got a website which is just my name, cailinoconnor.com. I'm also on Twitter. My Twitter handle is @CailinMeister, like my first name and then Meister. It's a play on words, cause you know I'm also a professor got a master's degree, so yeah.

8:37: Lauren Shields:

Great. Okay. Well thank you so much for joining us today.

8:40: Dr. Cailin O'Connor:

Thanks for having me. It was really nice to talk to you folks.