When Mark Twain commented that, “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is getting its shoes on,” he was talking about America. It’s only gotten worse. We live in a world of bullshit, where reality is manufactured or denied, depending on the circumstances.
How did this come to happen?
US policy makers and corporations have consciously used new methods of propaganda, public relations and advertising to sell products and manipulate public opinion. Products and public opinion were often merged together. After all, ideas and opinions are also products to be sold in America.
There’s another American contribution that is salient for our discussion. “Agnotology is the intentional manufacture of doubt and uncertainty in the general populace for specific political motives,” writes Notre Dame Economics Professor Philip Mirowski, in his indispensable study of neoliberalism—Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste.
According to Professor Mirowski, “Unlike propaganda, agnotology is rooted in the profession of advertising and public relations with close connections to the organization of think tanks and lobbying firms.” Agnotology creates impressions of controversy where actual disputes are marginal. The ultimate purpose is to stymie political action and maintain the present unequal status quo.
One quibble with this otherwise excellent book. Mirowski claims that the earliest instances of agnotology were “deployed in the natural sciences, most specifically, on the political controversies over the cancer consequences of tobacco smoke, Star Wars antimissile systems, the theory of evolution, the efficacy of pharmaceuticals, and the causes and consequences of global warming.”
However, there was an earlier instance that Professor Mirowski missed. Leaded gasoline was actually the original template for corporate and government obfuscation. In The Secret History of Lead, author Jamie Lincoln Kitman, shows how the makers of leaded gasoline systematically suppressed information about the severe health hazards of their product for decades, even though they knew from the mid-1920s on that leaded gasoline was a public health menace.
According to Kitman, “The leaded gas adventurers have profitably polluted the world on a grand scale and, in the process, have provided a model for the asbestos, tobacco, pesticide and nuclear power industries, and other twentieth-century corporate bad actors, for evading clear evidence that their products are harmful by hiding behind the mantle of scientific uncertainty.”
To reveal the hidden history of lead in gasoline, Kitman uncovered documents in the archives of corporate giants like General Motors, E.I. duPont, and Standard Oil of New Jersey (now Exxon), examined records of the US Public Health Service, and conducted dozens of interviews. The year-and-a-half long process revealed a shocking venture, with complicity of the US government, of putting corporate profits ahead of public safety. The parallel to the tobacco industry extends into the arena of junk science, with scientists from the lead additive industry denying, even today, that their product is dangerous.
Read the whole article. The way in which corporate actors like GM and duPont cynically profited from criminal actions will sound jarringly familiar. Corporations learned that they could get away with murder by claiming uncertainty and cynically using ideological experts to preclude doing anything that might cut into profits.
Since then corporations, neoliberals and the series of think tanks and foundations they support have only refined their efforts. Look to the failure to address global warming as the ultimate example of how even the threat of human extinction is no barrier to business as usual.
Agnotology, the manufacture of doubt and uncertainty, is their new and successful refinement.
As Professor Mirowski demonstrates In Never Let a Serious Crisis Go To Waste, “the aim of agnotology is not so much to convince the undecided, but to fog the minds of anyone lacking the patience to delve into the arguments in detail (which is pretty much everyone).”
Mirowski, explains that neoliberalism survived the Wall Street crash and has avoided any blame by evoking doubt in the minds of Americans as to who was to blame. Was it greedy Wall Street bankers, or was it instead the evil government showering cheap mortgages on losers who should never have gotten a loan?
Like I have argued here before, it sure looks looks like a clean getaway.
Now we know why.