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20 March 2017 - Nicotine Science and Policy

Nicotine In the News

20 March 2017

Harry Shapiro Director DrugWise

In a departure from the normal round-up, I want this week to focus on the idea of how increasingly propaganda and lies are trumping facts – and the pun is intended. I am prompted in this by a very interesting and frankly scary and depressing article by Tim Harford writing in the Financial Times about the 'problem with facts'. 

He takes as his lead, the tactics of Big Tobacco to counter all the robust and incontrovertible evidence dating back to the 1940s that smoking causes cancer. The facts about smoking — indisputable facts, from unquestionable sources — did not carry the day with the public. Harford explains how the industry achieved the seemingly impossible. “First, the industry appeared to engage, promising high-quality research into the issue. The public were assured that the best people were on the case. The second stage was to complicate the question and sow doubt: lung cancer might have any number of causes, after all. And wasn’t lung cancer, not cigarettes, what really mattered? Stage three was to undermine serious research and expertise. Autopsy reports would be dismissed as anecdotal, epidemiological work as merely statistical, and animal studies as irrelevant. Finally came normalisation: the industry would point out that the tobacco-cancer story was stale news. Couldn’t journalists find something new and interesting to say?”

So why do facts lose out to lies? Harford posits three reasons. “The first is that a simple untruth can beat off a complicated set of facts simply by being easier to understand and remember. When doubt prevails, people will often end up believing whatever sticks in the mind”. One example was the Brexit Leave campaign claim that the UK sends £350m a week to the EU. “Simple. Memorable. False” But to challenge it required a load of complicated facts that few would bother to engage with. 

The second reason? Facts are boring. Distraction is much more interesting. Not much policy discussion in the Trump-Clinton televised debates. Just trading headline-making insults.
And the third reason is that people don't want to accept an inconvenient truth if it does not fit in with their world view . “ If you’re addicted to a product, and many scientists tell you it’s deadly, but the tobacco lobby tells you that more research is needed, what would you like to believe? ...the industry often got a sympathetic hearing in the press because many journalists were smokers. These journalists desperately wanted to believe their habit was benign”. Interestingly when people are really after the truth, facts help. How many of us have scoured the internet in an attempt to self-diagnose some symptoms and we don't necessarily just latch onto the most reassuring data. We are just as likely to run off to the doctor in a blind panic. But says Harford, “ when people are selectively reasoning about their political identity, the facts can backfire”.
And of course there is the echo chamber effect of social media where you are only hearing the information you want to hear because you are only interacting with those who think like you. But even if you come to different conclusions, you might baulk from expressing an alternative opinion for fear of flaming.

The example of the history of the public response to illegal drug use, illustrates just how corrosive propaganda can become to the point where people will literally believe anything negative they are told about drugs even in a complete and utter absence of evidence. The most famous example came from a UK satirical programme called Brass Eye which made up a drug called cake, attributed all sorts nasty effects from using it and then interviewed celebrities and politicians to gauge their reaction to the new 'epidemic' of cake. Everybody fell for it and there were even questions asked about it in the House of Commons. Nobody asked for any corroborative evidence.

I also read that in the deliberations leading up to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the French UN delegate was so anti-cannabis, he wanted his colleagues to agree on the dangers of cannabis on the basis of a study that hadn't even been conducted yet as he was “not averse...where cannabis was concerned to the predetermination of research findings by notions held beforehand” (Kettil and Bruun, The Gentleman's Club: international control of drugs and alcohol, 1975).

We are all aware of the many manifestations of anti-e cigarette publicity currently in circulation worldwide distributed largely by publicly credible national and international bodies. And the means to counteract this misinformation is no less challenging than trying to challenge Big Tobacco machinations in past decades. But while the public are understandably confused about the safety of e-cigarettes, I hope we are not in a situation where they will believe any outlandish nonsense they are told. And we all have a role to play in trying to side swipe this, not just through social media outlets, but by engaging with mainstream media at each and every opportunity.

I have spent much of my working life talking to journalists challenging the myths and prejudices surrounding drug use – trying to be the DMZ in the war against drugs. And I always make time for student journalists on the basis of 'catch 'em while they are young' in the hope that some of them might be able to subvert the editorial inclinations of the outlets they eventually work for. And unlike with drugs where apart from scientific and professional vested interest, the general antipathy has deep cultural and mythological roots - so far the job it is primarily I guess trying to counter junk science. But I'm up for being flamed on that one!

The tobacco industry could have saved themselves some money when in December 1953, they sat down with PR guru John Knowlton working out how to deal with all the bad press coming their way. They could have taken on board the advice of a propaganda expert from the 1930s who said among other things, “There is no point in seeking to convert the intellectuals. For intellectuals would never be converted...Arguments must therefore be crude, clear and forcible, and appeal to emotions and instincts, not the intellect. Truth is unimportant and entirely subordinate to tactics and psychology”. And “A lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth”. Who he? Joseph Goebbels.