Montag, 4. Mai 2015

“Doubt is our Product”

[Regarding the acquisition of knowledge there are two (negative) extremes, that could be labeled as (A) illusory uncertainty, and (B) illusory certainty. People can suffer (A) from an overdose of skepticism or (B) from a complete lack of skepticism. According to Peter Hofstätter, critics are especially prone to commit beta errors.]

Reckoning with Risk, Gerd Gigerenzer (2002):

The United States is home to thousands of trade associations promoting everything from asbestos to zinc. The Beer Institute defends brewers against claims that drunk driving causes car accidents. The Asbestos Information Association protects citizens from their “fiber phobia.” The Global Climate Coalition represents scientists who question the evidence for global warming. Washington, D.C., alone, is home to 1,700 such trade associations. Estimates indicate that more than $1 billion is spent by such organizations every year on “image advertising” and “issues management.” Trade associations have become active in the manufacture of knowledge and ignorance. Consider, as an example, the Tobacco Institute's “spin” on the hazards of cigarette smoking.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, lung cancer was an exceptionally rare type of cancer—so rare that Isaac Adler, who wrote the first book-length medical review on lung cancer, apologized for writing about such an uncommon and insignificant disease. By the end of the twentieth century, lung cancer had become the most frequent cause of cancer deaths worldwide. Why? At the beginning of the century, cigarette smoking was rare; people smoked pipes and cigars. Smoking cigars causes different kinds of cancer than smoking cigarettes does. To take an example, Sigmund Freud developed cancer of the mouth as a result of his heavy cigar smoking. The cancer cast a shadow over the last 16 years of his life, causing him continuous pain and discomfort and requiring some 30 operations to remove cancerous and precancerous growths.
Cigarettes first became popular during World War I. Unlike cigar and pipe smoke, cigarette smoke is generally inhaled, exposing lung tissue to irritants. The link between cigarette smoking and lung cancer was first demonstrated by German researchers in the 1920s and 1930s but was largely ignored in America, possibly because this research was associated with the Nazis. In the early 1950s, however, a consensus developed in the American scientific community that cigarettes are a major source of illness, including lung cancer. By the mid-1950s, there was strong evidence that a two-pack-a-day smoker lived, on average, about seven years fewer than a nonsmoker. Most scientists came to agree that tobacco kills about 400,000 Americans every year and that tobacco is the cause of 80 percent to 90 of lung cancers.
The Tobacco Institute was founded in 1958 as an offshoot of the Council for Tobacco Research, which was established by tobacco manufacturers, growers, and warehouse owners. Since then, it has argued the case for cigarette “safety” by creating doubt in the public mind about the hazards of smoking. In the 1960s, spokesmen tried to undermine and distract from the growing consensus in the scientific community. For instance, they asserted that the link between cigarettes and cancer was “merely statistical,” that the evidence was uncertain and the conclusions premature, and that there might be a gene that both leads to smoking and predisposes certain people to developing cancer. In 1962, a Gallup survey found that only 38 percent of American adults knew that cigarettes cause lung cancer. Although many physicians quit smoking after the Surgeon General's Report in 1964 made it clear that cigarettes are a major cause of illness, many members of the public remained under the impression that the question about the effects of smoking on health was still open. The silence in popular magazines about the hazards of smoking played a crucial role in maintaining public ignorance; cigarette advertisers discouraged magazine publishers from covering the topic of smoking hazards. A 1978 article in the Columbia Journalism Review noted that it could not find a single article in a leading national magazine that had discussed the health effects of smoking in the last seven years. The less sophisticated, popular press was more straightforward. A headline in a 1968 National Enquirer read: “Most Medical Authorities Agree, Cigarette Lung Cancer Is Bunk: 70 Million Americans Falsely Alarmed.” Much later, in 1989, the Surgeon General's Report explicitly linked the tobacco lobby's suppression of media coverage to the general public's ignorance of the nature and extent of the hazards of smoking.
More recently, the Tobacco Institute has tried to challenge evidence of the hazards of “passive smoking” or “secondhand smoke.” Strong evidence of the negative health effects of breathing smoke from others' cigarettes emerged in the 1980s, when Tokyo's National Cancer Center Research Institute showed that lung cancer was twice as common among the nonsmoking wives of smokers as among those of nonsmokers. In the 1990s, the Environmental Protection Agency released data indicating that secondhand smoke was responsible for 20 percent of all lung cancer deaths among nonsmokers, that is, for the deaths of about 3,000 Americans a year. The Tobacco Institute dismissed this study as “characterized by a preference for political correctness over sound science.”
The case of the tobacco lobby epitomizes the manufacture of ignorance and confusion. Its efforts at obfuscation shifted constantly; as soon as one argument from the tobacco lobby was discredited, new arguments were constructed to engender fresh confusion. Their arguments and slogans evolved in the following way:
Smoking doesn't hurt your health; it's safe.
OK, smoking may or may not hurt your health, but the scientific evidence is still insufficient and inconclusive.
OK, the evidence is conclusive that smoking does cause lung cancer, but we didn't know until now.
OK, we knew, but we didn't know that nicotine was addictive.
OK, we knew that nicotine was addictive when we added chemicals to cigarettes to make nicotine enter the bloodstream faster, but this was long ago. Today we have low-tar and low-nicotine cigarettes.
OK, low-tar and low-nicotine cigarettes do not actually reduce the risk of lung cancer, but this is people's own fault because they now smoke more cigarettes.
OK, it is in our interest that people smoke more, but they smoke more by their own free choice.
A similar sequence of claims has been made to cloud people's minds concerning the risks of passive smoking. As the historian Robert Proctor reports, this goal was privately admitted in an internal document produced by a cigarette company: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of facts’ that exists in the mind of the general public.”

[Siehe auch: Entscheidungen des praktischen Lebens]

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