In a society where science is regularly equated with truth, scientists are often vested with the authority once given to prophets, priests and God Himself. Slap a Ph.D. after someone’s name, and we’re much more likely to believe whatever he (or more rarely she) says.
In their important, horrifying and ultimately uplifting new book, Trust Us, We’re Experts!: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles with Your Future, Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber make clear how corporations use and abuse our faith in science, and make equally clear how bogus claims by scientific “hired guns” are all too often given credence by a credulous mainstream corporate media. Tobacco companies hired doctors to say smoking’s good for you, then later, when that lie failed, funded studies showing at least it’s not bad for you. Oil and auto companies fund scientists to say global warming isn’t happening: A debate gets fabricated, a president disbelieves and the ice caps melt.
Trust Us is Rampton’s and Stauber’s third book, and their best yet. Their first, Toxic Sludge Is Good for You, was an expose of public relations, a multibillion dollar transnational industry dominated by PR firms most people have never heard of — Burson-Marsteller, or Hill & Knowlton, and Ketchum — which work on behalf of powerful interests from dictatorships to the cosmetic industry, manipulating public opinion, policy-making, and the flow of information. Their second, Mad Cow USA, about the presence of mad-cow disease in the United States and efforts to quell public fears about it, was, given recent events, prescient.
Trust Us focuses on one specific — and ubiquitous — technique of politicians and PR firms, which is the “third man” scheme. Here’s how they start their book:
“Suppose we told you that this book holds the key to wealth beyond your dreams — and that it can make you stronger, healthier, more intelligent, and in every way a better person. More love in your life. Freedom from worry and want, and knowledge that will protect you from illness of all kinds.” Readers would, they write, be justifiably skeptical, believing the authors “would probably dress up in chicken suits if they thought it might get me to buy their book.”
But what if, the authors posit, they could provide testimonials from people with important-sounding titles? Then would you believe? And better yet, what if these testimonials came from people with no apparent connection to the authors, no obvious reason to lie? More convincing, right?
That’s exactly what big business banks on. Thus Bristol-Myers Squibb pays $600,000 to the American Heart Association for the right to display the AHA’s name and logo in ads for its drug Pravachol. Thus SmithKline Beecham pays $1 million to use the American Cancer Society’s logo in its ads for anti-smoking aids. If Nicorette is good enough for the ACS, it’s good enough for us, right?
As Rampton and Stauber detail, it gets worse. Corporations don’t merely pay for these partnerships. They create front organizations to play the third-man game, pumping out opinions for editorial and news pages, which print them without checking the financial relationships between these organizations and the causes they support.
For example, global warming. As Rampton and Stauber state, “With the exception of nuclear war, it is hard to imagine a higher-stakes issue than global warming.”
Melting icecaps. Record-setting temperatures. Essential unanimity among climatologists. Yet even The Chronicle ran the headline “Spring Scorches the Record Books: It was the hottest in U.S. history — study rekindles global warming debate” (June 17, 2000).
Where does this “debate” come from? From tidal waves of articles by such reasonable-sounding groups as Global Climate Coalition (formed by Burson- Marsteller and consisting of Dow Chemical, Exxon, Ford, GM, Mobil, Union Carbide, etc.), the International Climate Change Partnership (BP, DuPont), the American Energy Alliance (Edison Electric, the American Petroleum Institute) and plenty of other “astroturf” — or fake grassroots — organizations.
Rampton and Stauber cite political theorist Goran Therborn’s observation that there are three ways to keep people apathetic about a problem. First, argue the problem doesn’t exist. If that doesn’t work, argue that the problem isn’t actually a problem, but a good thing. And, if that doesn’t work, argue that even if it is a problem, there’s nothing we can do about it anyway.
The book makes clear that, no matter what the problem — whether heart disease, cancer, global warming, bankruptcy laws, food safety, environmental protection, work safety, human rights — you can bet that huge corporations have funded “experts” to convince the public to be apathetic.
Rampton and Stauber — the latter one of the world’s experts on the public relations industry, and founder and director of the nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy — are good old-fashioned muckrakers, the sort of investigative and humanitarian writers the American people need if we’re to salvage what’s left of our democracy. Trust Us, We’re Experts! not only names the names of those who want us neither to care about nor participate in our own democracy, but enables us to wend our way through lies and obfuscation to make up their own minds.
Originally published in the April 8, 2001 issue of San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
See also Derrick’s War On Truth: An Interview With John StauberFiled in Book reviews