If you haven't yet found a suitable beach read for the dog days of summer, there's a new one you should hear more about, called The Playbook: How to Deny Science, Sell Lies, and Make a Killing in the Corporate World.
The latest entry in the growing field of disinformation studies, NYU associate professor Jennifer Jacquet provides what Guardian book reviewer Matthew Reisz called "a machiavellian secret guide for executives worried about what the latest science might mean for their business." The steps won't be particularly new to regulars here, from denying the problem, to claiming it's a real problem but not their fault, to attacking those that raise the issue to shoot the messenger.
In a recent interview with Bridget Huber at the Food and Environment Reporting Network, Jacquet explains that "the central claim to the book is that scientific denial — challenging scientific knowledge — is just part of business operations."
It starts in the early 20th century with worker safety issues — you see the asbestos, radium, and lead industries all begin to challenge the science about the link between their products and worker health problems. And then there is a second wave of denial that happens when we start to see linkages between the consumption of certain products and harms to human health; the tobacco industry was the most visible, but it was also happening with pharmaceuticals and food. And then there is the more recent wave of environmental issues and, of course, the denial of climate change by fossil fuel companies.
At FERN, the focus is on Big Ag, because:
conflicts of interest are very common in nutrition research — companies are so thoroughly involved in nutrition science that it’s almost an arm of industry. And one area that I have more expertise in is the role that large meat and dairy companies play in the denial of climate change. Initially, these industries didn’t focus as much on denying the existence of climate change as the fossil fuel industry did. But they challenged the extent to which their products cause it. And that’s a big part of the playbook: if you can’t challenge the problem itself, challenge its causes. So they say, “You know, it really isn’t meat and dairy. The transportation sector is really much more important.” More recently, though, the meat and dairy industry has actually begun challenging whether or not climate change is human-caused. This, to me, suggests that they’re really going whole hog into this issue. If you’re at that level of denial, that typically means you have a lot of resources behind you, because at this point the science is very well established — it’s a bold stance.
The meat industry is, by Jacquet's estimate, "100 percent behind this narrative" that you can just give cows Kelp to reduce methane emissions, or do "regenerative ranching" to ameliorate the climate impact of beef production:
And it’s only going to get more intense because there is more and more scientific attention on the issue of meat and dairy and climate change. They are responding with really big investments at the university level and are helping pump out research that argues that the meat and dairy industries don’t have to change all that much to be a sustainable part of the solution. The industry has also put an enormous amount of money into Facebook ads, and Twitter, in order to control the conversation and to make people think, well, it must not be too bad.
Now that we know the playbook, and the industry has denying science down to a science all its own, can we maybe start figuring out solutions?