Dealing with tobacco control liars: under Trump, everyone will see what it’s like

I found myself struck by the parallels between my typical Twitter feed about the behavior of “public health” people and the flurry of tweets about Trump’s relationship with the truth that the inauguration has created. We are not talking strained similarities here, but rather the exact same playbook. In the former category, we have my observation here:

So you don’t have to click through to the subtweets, I was talking about this:

…and the reply subtweets to this observation from the next day:

I assume I do not have to explain how speculative it is to claim an advertising campaign had any effect in preventing something (an obviously unobservable phenomenon), let alone a precise quantification. Just to emphasize, here was my reply to CDC when they tweeted the same nonsense (thankfully without attaching a random completely unrelated video like FDA did — sorry I don’t know how to strip that off):

But that is the gaslighting that is common practice for tobacco controllers and others in the “health promotion” wing of public health (i.e., the meddling busybodies who have come to dominate the field despite not being about public health). They make claims like the above, which any reasonably numerate person who gives it a moment’s thought can see are unsupportable. They make claims that are flatly contradicted by overwhelming evidence (e.g., that low-risk tobacco products pose high risk). They make claims that I labeled “impossible”, in that there is no conceivable version of the world in which they could ever be true (e.g., that there is no safe level of exposure to environmental tobacco smoke).

I have documented how they get away with this, thanks to having a dominant pulpit from which they can repeat the lies, a lack of watchdogs (such as a scientifically literate press corps), and a sociopathic lack of concern when someone points out their obvious falsehoods. They simply do not care whether something is true, and have figured out how to manipulate their target audience into also not caring about truth or evidence.

There is an extensive literature on how particular types of lies often become reproductively successful memes, and how they cannot be easily dislodged by merely demonstrating the truth. Not that I think the tobacco controllers, along with others who share their tactics (fad diet gurus, anti-vaxxers, anti-GMO activists) have read it. They are not exactly the type of people who read. But they came to it naturally, as natural con men. I have seen a dozen pieces that reference this literature in the context of our new POTUS this week. By far the best is this one, which you should really read if you are not familiar with the concept (it simplifies it, but pretty accurately):

So we get stuff like this:

This is to say nothing of the silly battle over crowd sizes that took over the “news” the next day and continues today.

It all leaves me saying, “Welcome to my world.”

It is difficult for those us who have done battle with the blatant lies from tobacco control, and the press’s blind stenography of them, to not enjoy some schadenfreude here. Reporters and pundits are reduced to gibbering by Trump being able to get away with this, wondering why obvious empirical truths are not sufficient to shut down blatant lies. Let me give you a hint guys: It is because you make a habit of airing any lie coming from influential people as if it deserved to be taken seriously until proven wrong beyond any possible debate. If you had taken a few science classes, you would know there is no proof in the real world. So as a result of that, you highlight the lie and relegate the overwhelming (but necessarily never 100% proof) evidence it is wrong to a vague sentence of general disagreement from one honest person, buried ten paragraphs in.

I suspect I am not the only one enjoying a bit of this schadenfreude. There are quite a few other fields where the serious analysts, those who have developed pretty ironclad scientific analysis, are treated the same way by the punditocracy. Defenders of agritech and those who question U.S. military adventures come to mind. It even happens in areas where the powerful faction can generally base their position on valid and defensible science, as with climate change; anyone questioning the orthodoxy, no matter how legitimately, is personally smeared and attacked with simplistic propaganda, even when a legitimate scientific response is possible. Another example of my own work comes to mind, one where Mr. Trump cited my work on the health problems caused by wind turbines (correctly — he was 100% right on this one), and the Washington Post’s Sarah Kaplan used that to smear both him and me because the truth departs from “the narrative” and her employer’s economic interests. Never mind that Trump and I were the ones arguing for taking the science seriously and Kaplan is woefully unqualified to judge the topic. (I recounted that story, and my resulting sympathy for those who voted for Trump, at my other blog, here and here.)

That brings up the other element of such totalitarian propaganda, the politics of personal destruction, substituting ad hominem attacks, delivered with maximum schoolyard-bully viciousness, for substantive rebuttal. Like tobacco controllers (along with many stripes of “environmentalists” and others), Trump and his people do not merely tell blatant lies, but they try to personally harm those who question those lies. In Trump’s case it is obviously impossible to attack everyone who is seriously questioning the official lies, as can be done for smaller-pond topics, but a bit of picking and choosing can be equally damaging. Again, it is difficult to not enjoy some schadenfreude about this happening to the mainstream media, given that they have been complicit in the small pond versions of it (as in that attack on me).

Oh, and I did not choose that phrase “totalitarian propaganda” arbitrarily. It is a reference to the work of Arendt and others that has been getting a bit more popular attention than usual. (See this still-popular NYT op-ed from November for a nice explanation.) The basic concept of authoritarian propaganda is what you probably already understand the phrase to mean. It is usually grounded in us-versus-them appeals, playing on fear and tribalism. E.g., “American carnage” and hellhole inner cities. Or similarly, the threats from the magically potent machinations of “Big Tobacco”. If there are Jews or gay people available to blame, that seems to work particularly well.

But Arendt draws a distinction (idiosyncratic; this is not a generally accepted terminology), suggesting that this authoritarian propaganda only goes so far, and eventually weakens in the face of facts (crime is down; torture does not work; smoke-free tobacco products are close to harmless). But totalitarian propaganda seeks to construct a simplistic “reality” that is impervious to evidence. It creates a closed system of circularities, meaning there are only outputs but no inputs. And, yes, a closed system should not be able to produce any information beyond the “I think, therefore I am” level. But actual empirical claims are made (“biggest inauguration crowd ever”, “350K prevented from smoking”). These are not based on actual science, and indeed may be obviously false from the perspective of anyone outside the system. But what the closed system “thinks” ought to be true about the world is declared to be fact and is simply repeated until it is accepted as such. (Note: that is my characterization of it from a more engineering-ish perspective, not Arendt’s original.)

The point is that this is not even a little bit novel in the world of government policy making, as the media pundits would have us believe this week. It is business-as-usual at the detail level, even though it is a somewhat unusual to see at the top of the page (but only somewhat; see: “weapons of mass destruction”). As I implied in that “I have long made a study” tweet, I find the Trump phenomenon entirely familiar. I believe I am in an unusually good position to understand the implications of a lieocracy (there must be a better word for that, but nothing comes to mine). There are many of us, of course, who have been on the science end of these seemingly futile policy battles between science and totalitarian propaganda. But few others have made a focused study of the history, political science, and sociology of this lieocracy per se.

Frankly, the psychology experiments that the essay I linked to in that tweet are usually garbage, consisting of artificial experiments with heroic extrapolations to the real world. But in this case I think they got it right, both because these particular labs are actually a pretty good model of the real world and because I have witnessed it.

It is telling that neither those labs nor the flurry of top-level essays about Trump’s behavior pick up on the fact that a large portion of policy and conventional wisdom in science-based arenas is already based on totalitarian propaganda that contradicts the evidence. The psych lab experiments tend to be based on trivial stories (e.g., evidence at a crime scene). None of the essays about Trump’s propaganda seem to have made the observation “this is very much like the historical discussion around [issue X], where officials repeating a party line have dominated public opinion despite being flatly contradicted by all the evidence.” This cannot be fully explained by those pundits not wanting to admit to the other totalitarian propaganda, since there is an “issue X” out there for everyone to hate, whether they are conservative, liberal, insider, outsider, apologist for the rich, or defender of the poor, etc.

No, I believe the reason these pundits never say “this is just like…” is that they have no clue it is just like that. They have been so effectively taken in by the small-pond totalitarian propaganda that they do not even realize it exists. This creates the great irony of them expressing bafflement that anyone could get taken in by some of Trump’s claims. That, in turn, creates (at least in me) a sympathy for the masses that they hold in barely-veiled contempt for accepting Trump’s propaganda. In keeping with the theme from those posts from my other blog, it is very easy to sympathize with someone who chooses to repeat Trump’s claims about the crowds at the inauguration, despite having seen the aerial photographs. After all, he probably understands at some level that the insider self-styled “experts” are really no better on many issues that he cares about, so it is only fair to troll them a bit.

Being a scientist, and not some sloppy Vox or HuffPo just-so-story teller, I am not prepared to say Trump never could have gotten away with this if the press had developed a habit of resisting small-scale totalitarian propaganda, like that from tobacco control. It is certainly tempting to say, and might be true, but it jumps rather far beyond available evidence. But it does seem safe to say they would be aware of the concept and have some immune response ready if they had. That would have prevented their current embarrassing bout of running around in circles screaming “unprecedented” and “the sky is falling”.

Needless to say, this requires a lot more thought. I really think this is a yugely important observation. I wish I had time to write more (*sigh*).

A couple of final observations:

1. There is major imbalance of power here that must be accepted and dealt with. It is not just the “lies vs. your brain” imbalance from the cited essay, wherein the former are more powerful than the latter, though that is part of it. It is that for many issues, there is only one side that can lie effectively. It is generally the side with a simplistic and fear- or hatred-based message, not the side with subtle and complex (accurate) messages. When an issue is allowed to go “post-truth”, it is the fear mongers who win. So Trump might not succeed in convincing people his inauguration was well-attended, because most people do not much care, but he has a much better chance with “American carnage”. Similarly, tobacco controllers can convince people of some creeping amorphous evil threat. Anti-stuff campaigners of all stripes can use it; “scourge of binge drinking!!!” will beat “actually, the vast majority of drinkers consumes a quantity that is healthier that teetotalling….”

In addition, post-truth battles strongly favor those who work full-time on them. So Trump might just convince people about the inauguration crowds because he and his flacks will just keep shamelessly repeating the claim. Those who wish to dispute this fact, however, have other things to do, like explaining more complicated points about how changes to the health insurance system will kill people. Similarly, I have estimated is that it takes about ten times as much time and energy to explain why a bit of “public health” propaganda is false as it does to spout the nonsense in the first place (and, of course, many others have made similar observations over the years). These factors combine to ensure that lieocracy tends toward fascism, of the “health nazi” or actual nazi variety. Those who would defend a more thoughtful position cannot play the game by the liars’ rules and have any hope of winning.

2. Lessons here can go both ways. Consider, for example, this observation about Trump’s press secretary’s claims about crowd size, and what it says about how we need to deal with “public health” lies:

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12 responses to “Dealing with tobacco control liars: under Trump, everyone will see what it’s like

  1. Carl, the 350k claim is so ludicrous (even by FDA standards) it had me wondering if it wasn’t a direct result of Trump’s (at the time imminent) inauguration.

    IOW, could we see the FDA purposely copying the Trump playbook to curry favor? Or, I suppose, lose any semblance of restraint in this new milieu?

    • Carl V Phillips

      You might think. Frankly it would be better if that were true. But the 350K thing is a type and level of lie that is not the least bit unusual for them historically. Besides, I don’t think they have anything to learn from the Trump playbook. I can hear them saying (Crocodile Dundee voice) “that’s not a lie…. THIS is a lie!”

  2. Brilliant essay. Sad and scary how true it is.

  3. I find it all very disturbing.
    Why did some elements of the press crow about the paucity of crowds at the inauguration? What does it matter? If the press chooses to hype the apparent paucity of attendance, why should not Trump’s press secretary point out that there was greater interest in the inauguration world-wide than ever before? Why should he not counter one irrelevance with another?
    I, from England, have seen quite a few ‘swearing-in’ moments, but this is the first time that I have watched the whole two hour inauguration ceremony. Frankly, I was quite touched by it. Perhaps that is because I have been reading ‘The Gulag Archipelago’, which depicts wholesale torture and execution of thousands and thousands of people in the decades following the ‘glorious revolution’ in Russia. Could such a thing have happened in the USA? Most certainly! McCarthyism came close to it.
    Perhaps I was touched because it was possible for enemies to come together, even if it was tongue in cheek, and profess allegiance to ‘The Constitution of the USA’.
    In your own words, ‘truth’ can be trampled underfoot by ‘authoritarian propaganda’. Suppose, for a moment, that Trump counters ‘authoritarian propaganda’ with his own version?
    What is important is what he DOES. And was that not the theme of his speech?
    I hope that you are not insulted if I say that you talk a lot but do nothing. Or perhaps I should say that you have no POWER to do anything. Maybe if you had the power, you would declare that ecigs are as near as damn it harmless during the normal life-span of a human being. The last few words of that sentence are almost always forgotten.
    It seems to me that academics are the main perpetrators of ‘authoritarian propaganda’.
    “HIDE THE DECLINE!!”

    • Carl V Phillips

      Um…. Yeah, I am not sure how to parse most of that. I will respond to the bits I can parse:

      I don’t think it makes sense to speak of countering authoritarian propaganda with authoritarian propaganda. Perhaps it does in terms of specific policy battles, but my topic here was whether or not it exists and is effective in a particular case, and adding more just adds by that measure.

      Proper academics — those who are really scholars — are the antithesis of authoritarian propaganda. I believe you may be tarring the whole profession — in all its integrity, fussiness, and wonkish attention to nuance — based on your experience with the “public health” types who happen to be employed by universities. They are proper academics by any measure.

  4. In a post-truth world where “alternate facts” are a reality, the battle goes to the ones who have the ‘best’ propaganda narrative.
    That is why it isn’t about the science, but undermining the trust in those who produce it for their own ends.
    That is why it isn’t about harm reduction, but undermining the trust in the zero-tolerance proponents.
    This is why it isn’t about regulations, but undermining the trust in those who use them to deny autonomy.
    The ‘trick’ is to do it with detached deliberation and not get caught up in the process itself.

  5. Without intending to be facetious in the least, it could just be the case that as human beings we do not thrive by attaching a higher value to truth, but by living by myth, the latter judged of course from a different perspective. At great risk of sounding like an idealistic undergrad (despite being fifty), I believe Nietzsche had great insight when he asked after the value of truth. A lack of truth may be just as important in the development of the human race.

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  8. Roberto Sussman

    Very thought provoking material. As you so eloquently write, the mainstream media and academics are now forced to put up with an institutionalized demagogic power that acts in a quite similar fashion as Tobacco Control and Public Health has acted towards its critics. I feel exactly the same schadenfreude that you describe. However, those in the media and in academic circles acting as useful idiots for Public Health (the same crowd being targeted by the Trumpian “post-factual” climate) will not engage in any form of retrospection. Even if under attack by Trump himself, these academics and media folks will not revise their own very very Trumpian and post-factual covering of public health issues.

    After decades of well financed lobbying in a global scale the narrative of Tobacco Control (together with its many “post-factual” lies, notably on secondary smoke) has become a practically undisputed part of the “common wisdom” in the broad society, specially among academics and the mainstream media. In the academic milieu (where I live and work) smoking is roughly regarded as an extremely inconsiderate and politically incorrect activity, not much different from expressing racist or a misogynist opinions. Most of the politically correct in academia and in mainstream media are not extreme dogmatists, so when raising any nuance or second thoughts on how authoritarian and paternalistic is tobacco regulation and the social consequences of its “de-normalization”, they react with polite disagreement (after all they don’t smoke, so they don’t care and they instinctively trust Public Health “experts” as they trust “experts” in other fields). However, raising these issues among the most dogmatic of the politically correct (and there are many of them) is met by a flurry of moral condemnation, a barrage of emotional anger: “why should we put up with this “filthy” addiction?” or “defending the “right to smoke” is like cheering for the “rights of child molesters” or the “rights of white supremacists”. This attitude is particularly intense in the USA and in English speaking countries (I wonder if there is some sort of cultural explanation for this).

    However, in spite of smoking having become so politically incorrect, the current social rebellion against the dogmatic expression of political correctness has not involved Public Health issues. The social condescension of academia and the mainstream media towards tobacco and poor diets among the “commoners” is as intense as their condescension towards other social and cultural issues. Exploiting an anti-establishement reaction against Public Health social arrogance could be politically profitable for politicians challenging the current order, yet it has been absent in the current political debate (perhaps it is not politically profitable for them as we may think).

    • Carl V Phillips

      Yes, I mostly share your pessimism about this not leading to any soul searching. There has been no hint of the Democratic Party doing any soul searching about why they blew it so badly. They There is also the issue of the tendency of people to believe what they read in the news about topics they know little about, despite knowing how bad the reporting is on topics on which they are expert.

      It is an interesting question as to whether there is anything to be gained, politically, by attacking “public health”. It is not entirely clear. As a regular reader, you will know that I have pointed out that the fantasy of a national-government-level politician winning by actively embracing e-cigarettes is clearly absurd. That does not rule out political gain from a broader attack on public health on a broader front (i.e., not just one guy doing it). I think the problem is that it is a case where the dynamics favor propaganda/lying/demagoguery on one side, that of “public health”, whereas the critics need to make nuanced cases. E.g., the PH people can appeal to fear and demons, while the opponents have to point out their science is faulty, etc. So not only does that give PH an advantage, but the very people who would be most inclined to take on the issue are those who eschew (and often despise) science and nuance. So the deck is stacked. The only faction that is into nuance, has the skills, and does not like PH are the intellectual libertarian types. That is, if you can even call <0.1% of the population a faction.

      This is an interesting line of thinking. I think it is significant.

      • Roberto Sussman

        I was not thinking of a political attack on PH based on pointing out nuances or that its science is faulty, something which anti-establishment politicians would not do. Rather, I believe it could be profitable for them to take issue with “Big Government” arrogantly meddling through PH into personal private lives of the social sectors that voted for them. Case in point: opposition to the proposed federal law to ban smoking even inside the homes of people living in public housing accommodation in the USA. This measure would affect a lot of Trump voters (poor white senior citizens). Ben Carson is now in charge of Public Hosing. I guess he could make political gains if he supported a smoking ban that does not extend into the smokers’ homes. Senior citizens suffering a government imposed ban in their own homes is a powerful emotional issue that Carson could exploit for political gain without invoking intellectual arguments.

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