WAs evidence emerged linking smoking to lung cancer, tobacco companies formulated a clear strategy. By investing in doubt and even denial, as Jennifer Jacquet puts it, they delivered delays. So they suggested that the case isn’t yet watertight, that factors other than smoking were at play, or that we need more research. And that delayed the day when governments insisted on warning labels, consumers changed their buying habits, and companies faced legal challenges. In the same way, wickedly costly efforts to deny — or cast serious doubt on — the clear conclusions of climate science have yielded huge “payoffs” to interested parties like oil companies, including what the book calls “effectively zero legally binding” International Politics”.
The basic story may be widely known, but Jacquet has found a brilliantly effective way to show just how vast and systematic such corporate strategies are – by creating a Machiavellian secret guide for executives concerned about what the latest science means your company could mean. The playbook claims to “contain sensitive information” and be “not intended for distribution”. Countless examples of corporate insidiousness are presented as success stories. Whenever research “embroils a product in a problem,” we read, companies and other interested parties should rely on a tried and tested, four-tiered “arsenal” of answers.
The most basic is to “challenge the problem itself”: calling cancer a “biological activity” and insisting on the term “biosolids” instead of “toxic sludge”. The next step is to challenge claims of causality. acid rain could be the result of volcanic activity and not sulfur dioxide pollution. The Varroa mite, instead of pesticides, could explain a decline in bee numbers. Any vague “credible alternative hypothesis” creates doubt and therefore buys time.
When none of these tactics work, companies need to play dirtier and “challenge the messenger.” When confronted with “scientists, activists and reporters whose work will ultimately jeopardize business operations,” advises Jacquet (or their evil alter ego), “call them apocalyptic, biased, fatalistic, hysterical, radical. Intimidate or coerce you. These tactics have the added effect of discouraging young professionals from asking similar questions.”
The playbook offers numerous examples of how companies try to keep critics in line. When Berkeley biologist Tyrone Hayes published his findings on the dangers of a particular pesticide, clever use of search engine optimization resulted in an ad saying “Tyrone Hayes not credible” appearing in response to online searches for him. He also claimed that a major agrochemical company was behind “derogatory remarks about his appearance, his speaking style and even his sexual orientation.”
The same happened to Jane Mayer, author of the 2016 synopsis Dark Money: The Hidden Story of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Far Right who claimed, “I’ve been a long-time reporter and have covered wars, the CIA, presidencies, and many very powerful organizations. But the cooks [Charles and his late brother, David, who together headed Koch Industries, the second largest privately owned company in the US] are the only people I’ve ever covered who hired a private investigator to try to dig up dirt and spread untrue stories about me to tarnish my reputation.”
But what happens when, despite all these efforts, a product or an industry catches on does have harmful effects? The final string in the corporate arc is to challenge any proposed solutions as arbitrary, ineffective, a waste of taxpayers’ money, a case of “government transgression,” or a poor substitute for a technological solution that’s always just around the corner. When in doubt, Jacquet suggests making an emotional appeal: “A soda tax is regressive and therefore disproportionately affects poor people… Global warming policies will ‘kill the African dream’ and condemn the poorest countries to ‘perpetual poverty.’ “
Although the satirical mask occasionally slips, The playbookDevil’s Advocate’s gleefully amoral approach makes it far more entertaining, but also far more disturbing, than a more sober historical account or polemic would be. What is less clear is what we can do about the corporate obfuscation it flaunts. “A fundamental principle of scientific knowledge,” says the book, “is that it can be revised at any time. This revisionist quality makes science reliable over long periods of time, but also creates opportunities to challenge science in the short term.” any Research piece, one can raise valid questions about “how data are interpreted, the assumptions built into models, alternative hypotheses, uncertainty, confidence, the strengths and weaknesses of randomized controlled trials, the standards of statistical significance, possible confounders”. Medical research involving animals can be welcomed when the results serve the company’s agenda, or firmly rejected when they do not.
But their “revisionist quality” is probably a feature, not a flaw, of the scholarly method. Doesn’t mean it will always be open to abuse by companies and others? I’m not sure Jacquet wants us to come to such a pessimistic conclusion.