We kicked off our 10th season this week looking at the term “post-truth” with Lee McIntyre, a philosophy professor and author based in Boston. He gave us an eye-opening glimpse into the history of the term, what we can expect in the future, and how we can counter the harmful erosion of basic facts. His interview also does a wonderful job in setting up the rest of our season—be sure to listen to this episode, if you haven’t yet!
Post-truth, which McIntyre defines as the political subordination of reality, isn’t a new phenomenon. Authoritarian leaders have long sought to muddy the waters of reality to gain power over their populations. In the US, companies also employed (and in part created) the playbook for obfuscating the truth.
“The blueprint for post-truth was 60 or 70 years of science denial,” McIntyre said in our interview. “The best example is maybe the one…where the tobacco companies freaked out in the 1950s because there was a scientific study that was going to show an all but causal link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.”
Although evidence of various health hazards related to smoking bandied about the ether during previous decades, 1953 marked a watershed moment. Experimental Production of Carcinoma with Cigarette Tar, written by Ernest L. Wynder, Evarts A. Graham, and Adele B. Croninger, created an iron-clad connection between cigarettes and cancer. For an industry that relied on ads featuring doctors touting the medicinal properties of smoking, this was a devastating blow. As it turned out, what is good for your T-Zone is very bad for your Lung-Zone.
Faced with the unsavory choice of profiting off death or not profiting, the Tobacco Industry decided on a novel strategy: deny facts (and profit off death).
“They hired a public relations specialist who advised them that what they needed to do was fight the science,” said McIntyre. “And so they needed to manufacture doubt where there was none.”
The executives turned to one of America’s leading PR shops, Hill & Knowlton (who, funnily enough, don’t mention their involvement anywhere on their website). The PR gurus soon realized ad hominem attacks and denials weren’t going to cut it and decided to sow doubt about established science. To this end, the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC) was born.
The TIRC invited skeptics, smokers, and others to their misinformation campaign. Within a year they had an operating budget of more than $1M, or nearly $10M in today’s dollars. The strategy was to focus on the basic science behind cancer and carcinogens, while conveniently ignoring tobacco’s role. They promised to uncover the link between cancer and smoking, while using their resources to investigate other causes of cancer at the same time. While they researched, they maintained it was “too early” to tell if smoking caused cancer. In this way, they dragged out the scientific debate around tobacco and cancer for another decade.
Putting scientists on payroll paid off for the tobacco executives. They continued to dispute the idea smoking caused cancer, oversold the importance of filtered cigarettes, and made gobs of money throughout the 1950s. Sowing doubt in scientific research proved to be the ultimate money-making tool.
In 1964, the Surgeon General released a damning report which concluded what we all now know: inhaling smoke is bad for your lungs. Many smokers quit when the story came out, but the tobacco industry continued to push their products, testing new falsehoods and denials, such as “low tar” cigarettes.
Big Tobacco’s concentrated doubt campaign led to imitators. The oil industry, reeling from the news that fossil fuels caused global warming, decided to run their own doubt campaign. Their first move? Hire Hill & Knowlton to manufacture uncertainty. As Geoffrey Supran explains in our interview with him, this campaign became one of the biggest (and potentially deadliest) propaganda coups in history.
What the tobacco industry began almost 70 years ago was one of the core tenants of post-truth: questioning the legitimacy of the truth. As the Post-Truth Era begins in earnest, we see variations of that original theme. When Trump labels real news “fake news,” he’s using the same tactic. When Kellyanne Conway crows over “alternative facts,” she’s making the ghost of the TIRC proud. Tobacco causes cancer, but post-truth is also a cancer, and it’s up to us to stop it before it becomes even more deeply entrenched in our society.
“About Us.” Hill+Knowlton Strategies, www.hkstrategies.com/about/.
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“Post-Truth: Lee C. McIntyre.” Future Hindsight, www.futurehindsight.com/episode/post-truth-lee-c-mcintyre/.
Specktor, Brandon. “Human Civilization Will Crumble by 2050 If We Don’t Stop Climate Change Now, New Paper Claims.” LiveScience, Purch, 4 June 2019, www.livescience.com/65633-climate-change-dooms-humans-by-2050.html.
“T-Zone.” Stanford Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising, tobacco.stanford.edu/tobacco_main/images.php?token2=fm_st014.php&token1=fm_img2905.php&theme_file=fm_mt002.php&theme_name=For%2Byour%2BThroat&subtheme_name=T-Zone.
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Wynder, Ernest L., et al. “Experimental Production of Carcinoma with Cigarette Tar.” Cancer Research, American Association for Cancer Research, 1 Dec. 1953, cancerres.aacrjournals.org/content/13/12/855?iss=12.