THE ILLUSIONS OF PUBLIC RELATIONS
Why do you believe in “Western Medicine?” If you really sit and ask why, you may be surprised that so many of your beliefs really have no basis in fact or even science for that matter. The power that science wields in modern society is a reflection of its ability to create knowledge that is as close to infallible as any product of human endeavor. Reasonable people may disagree in their opinions about Shakespeare or religion, but they do not disagree with the laws of thermodynamics. This is because the theories of science, especially the hard sciences, have been developed through methodologies that require verification by multiple, independent researchers using clearly defined, replicable experiments.
The very prestige that science enjoys, has also given rise to a variety of scientific pretenders-disciplines known as “pseudoscience”. Corporate interests and their advocates utilize effective public relations campaigns to promote marketable “pseudoscience” to lend legitimacy to their specious claims about numerous areas of science and medicine.
Most “pseudoscience” propaganda is designed to influence people who are not very active or informed about the topic at hand. There is a reason for this strategy. Propagandists know that active, informed people are likely to already hold strong, opinions that cannot be easily swayed. The people who are most easily manipulated are those who have not studied a subject much and are therefore susceptible to any argument that sounds plausible.
It can be quite disconcerting when you find that a surprising number of seemingly scientific assertions, many in which you may devoutly believe are complete nonsense.
Conventional wisdom that has mass acceptance is usually manufactured: somebody paid for it.
Examples of scientific nonsense:
Pharmaceuticals restore health.
Chemotherapy and radiation are effective cures for cancer.
Surgery can cure cancer.
Vaccination brings immunity.
The cure for cancer is just around the corner.
Cholesterol is bad.
Menopause is a disease condition.
When a child is sick, they need immediate antibiotics.
When a child has a fever they need Tylenol.
Hospitals are safe and clean.
America has the best health care in the world.
Americans have the best health in the world.
Milk is a good source of calcium.
Aspirin prevents heart attacks.
Heart drugs improve the heart.
The FDA thoroughly tests all drugs before they go on the market.
Pregnancy is a serious medical condition
When your child is diagnosed with an ear infection, antibiotics should be given immediately ‘just in case’.
Estrogen drugs prevent osteoporosis after menopause.
Pediatricians are the most highly trained of all medical specialists.
The purpose of the health care industry is health.
Without vaccines, infectious diseases will return.
Fluoride in the water protects your teeth.
Flu shots prevent the flu.
Vaccines are thoroughly tested before being placed on the Mandated Schedule.
Doctors are certain that the benefits of vaccines far outweigh any possible risks.
Chronic pain is a natural consequence of aging.
Soy is your healthiest source of protein.
Insulin shots cure diabetes.
After we take out your gall bladder you can eat anything you want.
Allergy medicine will cure allergies.
Your government provides security.
Wikipedia is completely open, unbiased, and interactive.
This is a list of illusions, that have cost billions to conjure up. Did you ever wonder why most people generally accept most of the above statements? Because we have been marketed to in the media to believe these illusions.
Media stories cover only the tiniest fraction of actual events, but stupidly claim to be summarizing “all the news.” The sole purpose of news is to keep the public in a state of fear and uncertainty so that they’ll watch again tomorrow to see how much worse things got and to be subjected to the same advertising.
Oversimplification? Of course. That’s the hallmark of mass media mastery – simplicity. The invisible hand, the people must be controlled without them knowing it.
The goal of media is to create a following of docile, unquestioning consumers. To that end, three primary tools have historically been employed:
Deliberate misrepresentation of facts has always been the privilege of the directors of mass media. Their agents – the PR industry – cannot afford random objective journalism, interpreting events as they actually take place. This would be much too confusing for the average consumer, who has been spoonfed his opinions since the day he was born.
A second tool that is commonly used to create mass intellectual inactivity is dissimulation. Dissimulation simply means to pretend not to be something you are. Like phasmid insects who can disguise themselves as leaves or twigs, pretending not to be insects. Or bureaucrats who pretend not to be acting in their own interest, but rather in the public interest. To pretend not to be what you are.
A third tool necessary to media in order to keep the public from thinking too much is distraction. Bread and circuses worked for Caesar in old Rome. The people need to be kept quiet while the small group in power carries out its agenda, which always involves fortifying its own position.
WHAT DO WE REALLY KNOW?
When it comes to a discussion of what’s going on in “modern” medicine or in the world for that matter, the honest individual must admit that he has almost no idea. When was the last time Obama met you in the Oval Office for a private chat? When did Bill Gates last invite you up for a brainstorming session about the next Big Thing? Or when did your neighbor who lives three blocks away from you call you up to tell you about the unfulfilled plans of his father who just found out he’s dying of cancer? How many life stories of the world’s seven billion people do you know anything about?
This is to say nothing of fluid events which are coming in and out of existence every day between the nations of the world that only the few ever hear about. What is really going on? Much more effort is spent covering up and packaging actual events that are taking place than in trying to accurately report and evaluate them. These are questions of epistemology: what can we know? The answer is: very little, if our only source of information is the superficial everyday media. The few people who buy books don’t read them. Passive absorption of pre-interpreted already-figured-out data is the preferred method
HOW IT ALL GOT STARTED
In their book Trust Us We’re Experts, Stauber and Rampton pull together some compelling data describing the science of creating public opinion in America. They trace modern public influence back to the early part of the last century, highlighting the work of guys like Edward L. Bernays, the Father of Spin.
From his own amazing 1928 chronicle Propaganda, we learn how Edward L. Bernays took the ideas of his famous uncle Sigmund Freud, [yes THE Sigmund Freud] and applied them to the emerging science of mass persuasion. The only difference was that instead of using these principles to uncover hidden themes in the human unconscious, the way Freudian psychology does, Bernays studied these same ideas in order to learn how to mask agendas and to create illusions that deceive and misrepresent, for marketing purposes.
THE FATHER OF SPIN
Edward L. Bernays dominated the PR industry until the 1940s, and was a significant force for another 40 years after that. (Tye 2001) During that time, Bernays took on hundreds of diverse assignments to create a public perception about some idea or product. A few examples:
As a neophyte with the Committee on Public Information, one of Bernays’ first assignments was to help sell the First World War to the American public with the idea to “Make the World Safe for Democracy.” (Ewen 1996) We’ve seen this phrase in every war and US military involvement since that time.
A few years later, Bernays set up a stunt to popularize the notion of women smoking cigarettes. In organizing the 1929 Easter Parade in New York City, Bernays showed himself as a force to be reckoned with. He organized the Torches of Liberty Brigade in which suffragettes marched in the parade smoking cigarettes as a mark of women’s liberation. After that one event, women would be able to feel secure about destroying their own lungs in public, the same way that men have always done.
Bernays popularized the idea of bacon for breakfast.
Not one to turn down a challenge, he set up the liaison between the tobacco industry and the American Medical Association that lasted for nearly 50 years. They proved to all and sundry that cigarettes were beneficial to health. Just look at ads in old issues of Life, Look, Time or Journal of the American Medical Association from the 40s and 50s in which doctors are recommending this or that brand of cigarettes as promoting healthful digestion, or whatever.
During the next several decades Bernays and his colleagues evolved the principles by which masses of people could be generally swayed through messages repeated over and over, hundreds of times per week.
Once the economic power of media became apparent, other countries of the world rushed to follow our lead. But Bernays remained the gold standard. He was the source to whom the new PR leaders across the world would always defer. Even Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, author of the Final Solution, was an avid student of Edward Bernays. Using Bernays principles, Goebbels developed the popular rationale he would use to convince the Germans that the Final Solution was the only option to purify their race. (Stauber)
This is the reach of Bernays.
SMOKE AND MIRRORS
As he saw it, Bernays’ job was to reframe an issue; to create a desired image that would put a particular product or concept in a desirable context. He never saw himself as a master hoodwinker, but rather as a beneficent servant of humanity, providing a valuable service. Bernays described the public as a ‘herd that needed to be led.’ And this herdlike thinking makes people “susceptible to leadership.” Bernays never deviated from his fundamental axiom to “control the masses without their knowing it.” The best PR happens with the people unaware that they are being manipulated.
Stauber describes Bernays’ rationale like this:
“the scientific manipulation of public opinion was necessary to overcome chaos and conflict in a democratic society.” — Trust Us, p 42
These early mass persuaders postured as performing a moral service for humanity in general. Democracy was too good for people; they needed to be told what to think, because they were incapable of rational thought by themselves. Here’s a paragraph from Bernays’ Propaganda:
“Those who manipulate the unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society. In almost every act of our lives whether in the sphere of politics or business in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.”
A tad different from Thomas Jefferson’s view on the subject:
“I know of no safe depository of the ultimate power of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise that control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not take it from them, but to inform their discretion.”
Inform their discretion. Bernays believed that only a few possessed the necessary insight into the Big Picture to be entrusted with this sacred task. And luckily, he saw himself as one of that elect.
Josef Goebbels, an avid student of Bernays, in turn had another apt pupil of his own: Adolf Hitler:
“What good fortune for those in power that the people do not think… It gives us a very special, secret pleasure to see how unaware the people around us are of what is really happening to them…Through clever and constant application of propaganda, people can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other way around, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise.”
HERE COMES THE MONEY
Once the possibilities of applying Freudian psychology to mass media were glimpsed, Bernays soon had more corporate clients than he could handle. Global corporations fell all over themselves courting the new Image Makers. There were dozens of goods and services and ideas to be sold to a susceptible public. Over the years, these players have had the money to make their images happen. A few examples:
Procter & Gamble
Dozens of PR firms have emerged to answer the demand for spin control. Among them:
Hill & Knowlton
Mongovin, Biscoe, and Duchin
Though world-famous within the PR industry, these are names we don’t know, and for good reason. The best PR goes unnoticed. They are invisible. For decades they have created the opinions that most of us were raised with, on virtually any issue which has the remotest commercial value, including:
cancer research and treatment
genetically modified foods
medicine as a profession
fluoridation of water
household cleaning products
pollution of the oceans
forests and lumber
images of celebrities, including damage control
crisis and disaster management
food additives; processed foods
biotechnology and GMO
Bernays learned early on that the most effective way to create credibility for a product or an image was by “independent third-party” endorsement. For example, if General Motors were to come out and say that global warming is a hoax thought up by some liberal tree-huggers, people would suspect GM’s motives, since GM’s fortune is made by selling automobiles. If however some independent research institute with a very credible sounding name like the Global Climate Coalition comes out with a scientific report that says global warming is really a fiction, people begin to get confused and to have doubts about the original issue.
So that’s exactly what Bernays did. With a policy inspired by genius, he set up “more institutes and foundations than Rockefeller and Carnegie combined.” (Stauber p 45) Quietly financed by the industries whose products were being evaluated, these “independent” research agencies would churn out “scientific” studies and press materials that could create any image their handlers wanted. Such front groups are given high-sounding names like:
Temperature Research Foundation
International Food Information Council
The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition
Air Hygiene Foundation
Industrial Health Federation
International Food Information Council
Center for Produce Quality
Tobacco Institute Research Council
American Council on Science and Health
Global Climate Coalition
Alliance for Better Foods
Sound pretty legit, don’t they? All are bought and paid for.
As Stauber explains, these organizations and hundreds of others like them are front groups whose sole mission is to advance the image of the global corporations who fund them, like those listed above. This is accomplished in part by an endless stream of ‘press releases’ announcing “breakthrough” research to every radio station and newspaper in the country. (Robbins) Many of these canned reports read like straight news, and indeed are purposely molded in the news format. This saves journalists the trouble of researching the subjects on their own, especially on topics about which they know very little. Entire sections of the release or in the case of video news releases, the whole thing can be just lifted intact, with no editing, given the byline of the reporter or newspaper or TV station – and voilà! Instant news – copy and paste. Written by corporate PR firms.
Does this really happen? Every single day, since the 1920s when the idea of the News Release was first invented by Ivy Lee. (Stauber, p 22) Sometimes as many as half the stories appearing in an issue of the Wall St. Journal are based solely on such PR press releases… (22) These types of stories are mixed right in with legitimately researched stories. Unless you have done the research yourself, you won’t be able to tell the difference. So when we see new “research” being cited, we should always first suspect that the source is another industry-backed front group. A common tip-off is the word “breakthrough.”
THE LANGUAGE OF SPIN
As 1920s spin pioneers like Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays gained more experience, they began to formulate rules and guidelines for creating public opinion. They learned quickly that mob psychology must focus on emotion, not facts. Since the mob is incapable of rational thought, motivation must be based not on logic but on presentation. Here are some of the axioms of the new science of PR:
technology is a religion unto itself
if people are incapable of rational thought, real democracy is dangerous
important decisions should be left to experts
never get too technical; but keep repeating the word “science”
when reframing issues, stay away from substance; create images
never state a clearly demonstrable lie
Words are very carefully chosen for their emotional impact. Here’s an example. A front group called the International Food Information Council handles the public’s natural aversion to genetically modified foods. Trigger words are repeated all through the text. Now in the case of GM foods, the public is instinctively afraid of these experimental new creations which have suddenly popped up on our grocery shelves since the ;ate 90s and which are said to alter our DNA. The IFIC wants to reassure the public of the safety of GM foods. So it avoids words like:
Instead, good PR for GM foods contains words like:
It’s just basic Freud/Tony Robbins/NLP word association. The fact that GM foods are not hybrids that have been subjected to the slow and careful scientific methods of real cross-breeding doesn’t really matter. This is pseudoscience, not science. Form is everything and substance just a passing myth. (Trevanian)
Who do you think funds the International Food Information Council? Take a wild guess. Right – Monsanto, DuPont, Frito-Lay, Coca Cola, Nutrasweet – those in a position to make fortunes from GM foods. (Stauber p 20)
CHARACTERISTICS OF GOOD PROPAGANDA
As the science of mass control evolved, PR firms developed further guidelines for effective copy. Here are some of the gems:
dehumanize the attacked party by labeling and name calling
speak in glittering generalities using emotionally positive words
when covering something up, don’t use plain English; stall for time; distract
get endorsements from celebrities, churches, sports figures, street people – anyone who has no expertise in the subject
the ‘plain folks’ ruse: us billionaires are just like you
when minimizing outrage, don’t say anything memorable – platitudes are best
when minimizing outrage, point out the benefits of what just happened
when minimizing outrage, avoid moral issues
Keep this list. Start watching for these techniques. Not hard to find – look at today’s paper or tonight’s TV news. See what they’re doing; these guys are good!
SCIENCE FOR HIRE
PR firms have become very sophisticated in the preparation of news releases. They have learned how to attach the names of famous scientists to research that those scientists have not even looked at. (Stauber, p 201) It’s a common practice. In this way, the editors of newspapers and TV news shows are themselves often unaware that an individual release is a total PR fabrication. Or at least they have “deniability,” right?
Stauber tells the amazing story of how leaded gas came into the picture. In 1922, General Motors discovered that adding lead to gasoline gave cars more horsepower. When there was some concern about safety, GM paid the Bureau of Mines to do some fake “testing” and publish spurious research that ‘proved’ that inhalation of lead was harmless. Enter Charles Kettering.
Founder of the world famous Sloan-Kettering Memorial Institute for medical research, Charles Kettering also happened to be an executive with General Motors. By some strange coincidence, we soon have Sloan-Kettering issuing reports stating that lead occurs naturally in the body and that the body has a way of eliminating low level exposure. Through its association with The Industrial Hygiene Foundation and PR giant Hill & Knowlton, Sloane-Kettering opposed all anti-lead research for years. (Stauber p 92). Without organized scientific opposition, for the next 60 years more and more gasoline became leaded, until by the 1970s, 90% or our gasoline was leaded.
Finally it became too obvious to hide that lead was a major carcinogen, which they knew all along, and leaded gas was phased out in the late 1980s. But during those 60 years, it is estimated that some 30 million tons of lead were released in vapor form onto American streets and highways. 30 million tons. (Stauber)
That is PR, my friends.
In 1993 a guy named Peter Huber wrote a new book and coined a new term. The book was Galileo’s Revenge and the term was junk science. Huber’s shallow thesis was that real science supports technology, industry, and progress. Anything else was suddenly junk science. Not surprisingly, Stauber explains how Huber’s book was supported by the industry-backed Manhattan Institute.
Huber’s book was generally dismissed not only because it was so poorly written, but because it failed to realize one fact: true scientific research begins with no conclusions. Real scientists are seeking the truth because they do not yet know what the truth is.
True scientific method goes like this:
1. form a hypothesis
2. make predictions for that hypothesis
3. test the predictions
4. reject or revise the hypothesis using the test results
5. describe the limitations of the present position
6. always ask the next question
Boston University scientist Dr. David Ozonoff explains that ideas in science are themselves like “living organisms, that must be nourished, supported, and cultivated with resources for making them grow and flourish.” (Stauber p 205) Great ideas that don’t get this financial support because the commercial angles are not immediately obvious – these ideas wither and die.
Another way you can often distinguish real science from phony is that real science points out flaws in its own research. Phony science pretends there were no flaws.
THE REAL JUNK SCIENCE
Contrast this with modern PR and its constant pretensions to sound science. Corporate sponsored research, whether it’s in the area of drugs, GM foods, or chemistry begins with predetermined conclusions. It is the job of the scientists then to prove that these conclusions are true, because of the economic upside that proof will bring to the industries paying for that research. This invidious approach to science has shifted the entire focus of research in America during the past 50 years, as any true scientist is likely to admit. If a drug company is spending 10 million dollars on a research project to prove the viability of some new drug, and the preliminary results start coming back about the dangers of that drug, what happens? Right. No more funding. The well dries up. What is being promoted under such a system? Science? Or rather Entrenched Medical Error?
Stauber documents the increasing amount of corporate sponsorship of university research. (206) This has nothing to do with the pursuit of knowledge. Scientists lament that research has become just another commodity, something bought and sold. (Crossen)
THE TWO MAIN TARGETS OF “SOUND SCIENCE”
It is shocking when Stauber shows how the vast majority of corporate PR today opposes any research that seeks to protect
It’s a funny thing that most of the time when we see the phrase “junk science,” it is in a context of defending something that threatens either the environment or our health. This makes sense when one realizes that money changes hands only by selling the illusion of health and the illusion of environmental protection or the illusion of health. True public health and real preservation of the earth’s environment have very low market value.
Stauber thinks it ironic that industry’s self-proclaimed debunkers of junk science are usually non-scientists themselves. (255) Here again they can do this because the issue is not science, but the creation of images.
THE LANGUAGE OF ATTACK
When PR firms attack legitimate environmental groups and alternative medicine people, they again use special words which will carry an emotional punch:
Our riflemen are sharpshooters – theirs are snipers.
The next time you are reading a newspaper article about an environmental or health issue, note how the author shows bias by using the above terms. This is the result of very specialized training. It is a very disciplined art and science.
Another standard PR tactic is to use the rhetoric of the environmentalists themselves to defend a dangerous and untested product that poses an actual threat to the environment. This we see constantly in the PR smokescreen that surrounds genetically modified foods. They talk about how GM foods are necessary to grow more food and to end world hunger, when the reality is that GM foods actually have lower yields per acre than natural crops. (Stauber p 173) The grand design sort of comes into focus once you realize that almost all GM foods have been created by the sellers of herbicides and pesticides so that those plants can withstand greater amounts of herbicides and pesticides. (see The Magic Bean)
THE MIRAGE OF PEER REVIEW
Publish or perish is the classic dilemma of every research scientist. That means whoever expects funding for the next research project had better get the current research paper published in the best scientific journals. And we all know that the best scientific journals, like JAMA, New England Journal, British Medical Journal, etc. are peer-reviewed. Peer review means that any articles which actually get published, between all those full color drug ads and pharmaceutical centerfolds, have been reviewed and accepted by some really smart guys with a lot of credentials. The assumption is, if the article made it past peer review, the data and the conclusions of the research study have been thoroughly checked out and bear some resemblance to physical reality.
But there are a few problems with this hot little set up. First off, money.
Even though prestigious venerable medical journals pretend to be so objective and scientific and incorruptible, the reality is that they face the same type of being called to account that all glossy magazines must confront: don’t antagonize your advertisers. Those full-page drug ads in the best journals cost millions, Jack. How long will a pharmaceutical company pay for ad space in a magazine that prints some very sound scientific research paper that attacks the safety of the drug in the centerfold? Think about it. The editors may lack moral fibre, but they aren’t stupid.
Another problem is the conflict of interest thing. There’s a formal requirement for all medical journals that any financial ties between an author and a product manufacturer be disclosed in the article. In practice, it never happens. A study done in 1997 of 142 medical journals did not find even one such disclosure. (King, Wall St. Journal, 2 Feb 99)
A 1998 study from the New England Journal of Medicine found that 96% of peer reviewed articles had financial ties to the drug they were studying. (Stelfox, 1998) Big shock, huh? Any disclosures? Yeah, right. This study should be pointed out whenever somebody starts getting too pompous about the objectivity of peer review, like they often do.
Then there’s the outright purchase of space. A drug company may simply pay $100,000 to a journal to have a favorable article printed. (Stauber, p 204)
Fraud in peer review journals is nothing new. In 1987, the New England Journal ran an article that followed the research of R. Slutsky MD over a seven year period. During that time, Dr. Slutsky had published 137 articles in a number of peer-reviewed journals. NEJM found that in at least 60 of these 137, there was evidence of major scientific fraud and misrepresentation, including:
reporting data for experiments that were never done
reporting measurements that were never made
reporting statistical analyses that were never done (Engler)
Dean Black PhD, describes what he the calls the Babel Effect that results when this very common and frequently undetected scientific fraud in peer-reviewed journals is quoted by other researchers, who are in turn re-quoted by still others, and so on.
Want to see something that sort of re-frames this whole discussion? Check out the McDonald’s ads which routinely appear in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Then keep in mind that this is the same publication that for almost 50 years ran cigarette ads proclaiming the health benefits of tobacco. (Robbins)
Very scientific, oh yes.
Stauber & Rampton – Trust Us, We’re Experts – Tarcher/Putnam 2001
Ewen, Stuart – PR!: A Social History of Spin – Basic Books 1996
Tye, Larry – The Father of Spin: Edward L. Bernays and the Birth of Public Relations – Crown Publishers, Inc. 2001
Bernays, E – Propaganda – Liveright 1928
King, R – Medical journals rarely disclose researchers’ ties – Wall St. Journal, February 2, 1999
Engler, R et al. – Misrepresentation and Responsibility in Medical Research – New England Journal of Medicine v 317 p 1383, November 26, 1987
Black, D, PhD – Health At the Crossroads – Tapestry 1988
Trevanian – Shibumi, 1983
Crossen, C – Tainted Truth: The Manipulation of Fact in America, 1996
Robbins, J – Reclaiming Our Health – Kramer 1996
Huxley, A – The Doors of Perception: Heaven and Hell – Harper and Row 1954