The Problem With Facts

Tim Hartford: “…In 1995, Robert Proctor, a historian at Stanford University who has studied the tobacco case closely, coined the word “agnotology”. This is the study of how ignorance is deliberately produced; the entire field was started by Proctor’s observation of the tobacco industry. The facts about smoking — indisputable facts, from unquestionable sources — did not carry the day. The indisputable facts were disputed. The unquestionable sources were questioned. Facts, it turns out, are important, but facts are not enough to win this kind of argument.

Agnotology has never been more important. “We live in a golden age of ignorance,” says Proctor today. “And Trump and Brexit are part of that.”

In the UK’s EU referendum, the Leave side pushed the false claim that the UK sent £350m a week to the EU. It is hard to think of a previous example in modern western politics of a campaign leading with a transparent untruth, maintaining it when refuted by independent experts, and going on to triumph anyway. That performance was soon to be eclipsed by Donald Trump, who offered wave upon shameless wave of demonstrable falsehood, only to be rewarded with the presidency. The Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” the word of 2016. Facts just didn’t seem to matter any more.

The instinctive reaction from those of us who still care about the truth — journalists, academics and many ordinary citizens — has been to double down on the facts. Fact-checking organisations, such as Full Fact in the UK and PolitiFact in the US, evaluate prominent claims by politicians and journalists. I should confess a personal bias: I have served as a fact checker myself on the BBC radio programme More or Less, and I often rely on fact-checking websites. They judge what’s true rather than faithfully reporting both sides as a traditional journalist would. Public, transparent fact checking has become such a feature of today’s political reporting that it’s easy to forget it’s barely a decade old.

Mainstream journalists, too, are starting to embrace the idea that lies or errors should be prominently identified. Consider a story on the NPR website about Donald Trump’s speech to the CIA in January: “He falsely denied that he had ever criticised the agency, falsely inflated the crowd size at his inauguration on Friday . . . —” It’s a bracing departure from the norms of American journalism, but then President Trump has been a bracing departure from the norms of American politics.

Facebook has also drafted in the fact checkers, announcing a crackdown on the “fake news” stories that had become prominent on the network after the election. Facebook now allows users to report hoaxes. The site will send questionable headlines to independent fact checkers, flag discredited stories as “disputed”, and perhaps downgrade them in the algorithm that decides what each user sees when visiting the site.

We need some agreement about facts or the situation is hopeless. And yet: will this sudden focus on facts actually lead to a more informed electorate, better decisions, a renewed respect for the truth? The history of tobacco suggests not. The link between cigarettes and cancer was supported by the world’s leading medical scientists and, in 1964, the US surgeon general himself. The story was covered by well-trained journalists committed to the values of objectivity. Yet the tobacco lobbyists ran rings round them.

In the 1950s and 1960s, journalists had an excuse for their stumbles: the tobacco industry’s tactics were clever, complex and new. 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?

Such tactics are now well documented — and researchers have carefully examined the psychological tendencies they exploited. So we should be able to spot their re-emergence on the political battlefield.

“It’s as if the president’s team were using the tobacco industry’s playbook,” says Jon Christensen, a journalist turned professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who wrote a notable study in 2008 of the way the tobacco industry tugged on the strings of journalistic tradition.

One infamous internal memo from the Brown & Williamson tobacco company, typed up in the summer of 1969, sets out the thinking very clearly: “Doubt is our product.” Why? Because doubt “is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.” Big Tobacco’s mantra: keep the controversy alive.

Doubt is usually not hard to produce, and facts alone aren’t enough to dispel it. We should have learnt this lesson already; now we’re going to have to learn it all over again.

Tempting as it is to fight lies with facts, there are three problems with that strategy….(More)”