How to Beat Science and Influence People: Policy Makers and Propaganda in Epistemic Networks

Paper by James Owen WeatherallCailin O’Connor, and Justin Bruner: “In their recent book Merchants of Doubt [New York:Bloomsbury 2010], Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway describe the “tobacco strategy”, which was used by the tobacco industry to influence policy makers regarding the health risks of tobacco products. The strategy involved two parts, consisting of (1) promoting and sharing independent research supporting the industry’s preferred position and (2) funding additional research, but selectively publishing the results.

We introduce a model of the Tobacco Strategy, and use it to argue that both prongs of the strategy can be extremely effective–even when policy makers rationally update on all evidence available to them. As we elaborate, this model helps illustrate the conditions under which the Tobacco Strategy is particularly successful. In addition, we show how journalists engaged in “fair” reporting can inadvertently mimic the effects of industry on public belief….(More)”.