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: