Questioning Authority

excerpted from the book

Trust Us, We're Experts!

by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber

Jeremy P. Tarcher / Putnam Publisher, 2001, paper


Questioning Authority

Thomas Jefferson
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 their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.

When psychologists have explored the relationship between I individuals and authority figures, they have found that it can be disturbingly easy for false experts to manipulate the thinking and behavior of others. One of the classic experiments in this regard was conducted in 1974 by Stanley Milgram, who tried to see how far people would go in following orders given by a seemingly authoritative scientist. The subjects of Milgram's research were taken into a modern laboratory and told that they would be helping conduct an experiment that involved administering electric shocks to see how punishment affected the learning process. The subjects were seated at a machine called a "shock generator," marked with a series of switches ranging from "slight shock" to "severe shock." Another person was designated as a "learner" and was hooked up to receive a jolt each time he gave the wrong answer on a test. A third individual, the "scientist," stood over the experiment giving instructions and supervision. Unbeknownst to the real subjects of the experiment, both the "learner" and the "scientist" were actors, and no actual electricity was used. As each fake shock was administered, the "learner" would cry out in pain. If the subject administering the shocks hesitated, the "scientist" would say something like, "Although the shocks may be painful, there is no permanent tissue damage, so please go on," or "It is absolutely essential that you continue." The result was that many subjects continued to administer shocks, even when the "learner" claimed heart trouble, cried out, or pleaded to be set free. "With numbing regularity," Milgram observed, "good people were seen to knuckle under the demands of authority and perform actions that were callous and severe. Men who are in everyday life responsible and decent were seduced by the trappings of authority, by the control of their perceptions, and by the uncritical acceptance of the experimenter's definition of the situation, into performing harsh acts."

In another famous experiment, known as the "Doctor Fox Lecture," a distinguished-looking actor was hired to give a meaningless lecture, titled "Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physical Education." The talk, deliberately filled with "double talk, neologisms, non sequiturs, and contradictory statements," was delivered before three audiences composed of psychiatrists, social workers, psychologists, educators, and educational administrators, many of whom held advanced degrees. After each session, audiences received a questionnaire asking them to evaluate the speaker. None of the audience members saw through the lecture as a hoax, and most reported that they were favorably impressed with the speaker's expertise.


Recognizing Propaganda

Between World Wars I and II, the rise of the public relations industry in the United States and the growing use of propaganda by fascist and communist governments prompted a group of social scientists and journalists to found a remarkable organization called the Institute for Propaganda Analysis. The IPA published a periodic newsletter that examined and exposed manipulative practices by advertisers, businesses, governments, and other organizations. Fearlessly eclectic, it hewed to no party lines and focused its energies on studying the ways that propaganda could be used to manipulate emotions. It is best known for identifying several basic types of rhetorical tricks used by propagandists:

1. Name-calling. This technique, in its crudest form, involves the use of insult words. Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, is reported to have used this technique very deliberately, circulating a list of negative words and phrases that Republicans were instructed to use when speaking about their political opponents-words such as "betray," "corruption," "decay," "failure," "hypocrisy," "radical," "permissive," and "waste." The term "junk science," is an obvious use of this same strategy. When name-calling is used, the IPA recommended that people should ask themselves the following questions: What does the name mean? Does the idea in question have a legitimate connection with the real meaning of the name? Is an idea that serves my best interests being dismissed through giving it a name I don't like?

2. Glittering generalities. This technique is a reverse form of namecalling. Instead of insults, it uses words that generate strong positive emotions-words like "democracy," "patriotism," "motherhood," "science," "progress," "prosperity." Politicians love to speak in these terms. Newt Gingrich advised Republicans to use words such as "caring," "children," "choice," "commitment," "common sense," "dream," "duty," "empowerment," "freedom," and "hard work" when talking about themselves and their own programs. Democrats, of course, use the same strategy. Think, for example, of President Clinton's talk of "the future," "growing the economy," or his campaign slogan: "I still believe in a place called Hope."

3. Euphemisms are another type of word game. Rather than attempt to associate positive or negative connotations, euphemisms merely try to obscure the meaning of what is being talked about by replacing plain English with deliberately vague jargon. Rutgers University professor William Lutz has written several books about this strategy, most recently Doublespeak Defined. Examples include the use of the term "strategic misrepresentations" as a euphemism for "lies," or the term "employee transition" as a substitute for "getting fired." Euphemisms have also transformed ordinary sewage sludge into "regulated organic nutrients" that don't stink but merely "exceed the odor threshold."

4. Transfer is described by the IPA as "a device by which the propagandist carries over the authority, sanction, and prestige of something we respect and revere to something he would have us accept. For example, most of us respect and revere our church and our nation. If the propagandist succeeds in getting church or nation to approve a campaign in behalf of some program, he thereby transfers its authority, sanction, and prestige to that program. Thus, we may accept something which otherwise we might reject." In 1998, the American Council on Science and Health convened what it called a "blue-ribbon committee" of scientists to issue a report on health risks associated with phthalates, a class of chemical additives used in soft vinyl children's toys. People familiar with ACSH's record on other issues were not at all surprised when the blue-ribbon committee concluded that phthalates were safe. The committee's real purpose, after all, was to transfer the prestige of science onto the chemicals that ACSH was defending.

5. Testimonial is a specific type of transfer device in which admired individuals give their endorsement to an idea, product, or cause. Cereal companies put the pictures of famous athletes on their cereal boxes, politicians seek out the support of popular actors, and activist groups invite celebrities to speak at their rallies. Sometimes testimonials are transparently obvious. Whenever they are used, however, the IPA recommends asking questions such as the following: Why should we regard this person (or organization or publication) as a source of trustworthy information on the subject in question? What does the idea amount to on its own merits, without the benefit of the testimonial?

6. Plainfolks. This device attempts to prove that the speaker is "of the people." Even a geeky multibillionaire like Bill Gates tries to convey the impression that he's just a regular guy who enjoys fast food and popular movies. Politicians also use the "plain folks" device to excess: George Bush insisting he eats pork rinds; Hillary Clinton slipping into a southern accent. Virtually every member of the U.S. Senate is a millionaire, but you wouldn't know it from the way they present themselves.

7. Bandwagon. This device attempts to persuade you that everyone else supports an idea, so you should support it too. Sometimes opinion polls are contrived for this very purpose, such as the so-called "Pepsi Challenge," which claimed that most people preferred the taste of Pepsi over Coca-Cola. "The propagandist hires a hall, rents radio stations, fills a great stadium, marches a million or at least a lot of men in a parade," the IPA observed. "He employs symbols, colors, music, movement, all the dramatic arts. He gets us to write letters, to send telegrams, to contribute to his cause. He appeals to the desire, common to most of us, to follow the crowd."

8. Fear. This device attempts to reach you at the level of one of your most primitive and compelling emotions. Politicians use it when they talk about crime and claim to be advocates for law and order. Environmentalists use it when they talk about pollution-related cancer, and their opponents use fear when they claim that effective environmental regulations will destroy the economy and eliminate jobs. Fear can lead people to do things they would never otherwise consider. Few people believe that war is a good thing, for example, but most people can be convinced to support a specific war if they believe that they are fighting an enemy who is cruel, inhuman, and bent on destroying all that they hold dear.

The IPA disbanded at the beginning of World War 11, and its analysis does not include some of the propaganda devices that came to light in later years, such as the "big lie," based on Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels's observation that "the bigger the lie, the more people will believe it." Another device, which the IPA did not mention but which is increasingly common today, is the tactic of "information glut"-jamming I the public with so many statistics and other information that people simply give up in despair at the idea of trying to sort it all out.

The Precautionary Principle

... By training and enculturation, most experts in the employ of government and industry are technophiles, skilled and enthusiastic about the deployment of technologies that possess increasingly awesome power. Like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, they are enchanted with the possibilities of this power, but often lack the wisdom necessary to perceive its dangers. It was a government expert, Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis L. Strauss, who promised the National Association of Science Writers in 1954 that atomic energy would bring "electrical energy too cheap to meter" within the space of a single generation. Turn to the back issues of Popular Science magazine, and you will find other prophecies so bold, so optimistic, and so wrong that you would be better off turning for insight to the Psychic Friends Network. If these prophecies had been correct, we should by now be jet-packing to work, living in bubble-domed cities beneath the (- ocean, colonizing the moon and Mars. The cure to cancer, like prosperity, is always said to be just around the corner, yet somehow we never actually turn that corner. Predictions regarding computers are notorious for their rhetorical excess. "In from three to five years, we will have a machine with the general intelligence of an average human being," MIT computer scientist Marvin Minsky predicted in 1970. "I mean a machine that will be able to read Shakespeare, grease a car, play office politics, tell a joke, have a fight. At that point, the machine will begin to educate itself with fantastic speed. In a few months, it will be at a genius level, and a few months after that, its power will be incalculable." Expert predictions of this sort have been appearing regularly ever since, although the day when computers will be able to grease your car (let alone read Shakespeare) keeps getting pushed back.

The views of these techno-optimists deserve to be part of the decision-making process, but they should not be allowed to crowd out the views and concerns of the skeptics-the people who are likely to experience the harmful effects of new technologies and who deserve to play a role in deciding when and how they should be introduced. Just as war is too important to leave to the generals, science and technology are too important to leave in the hands of the experts.

Opponents of the precautionary principle have caricatured it as a rule that "demands precautionary action even in the absence of evidence that a health or environmental hazard exists" and says "if we don't know something we mustn't wait for studies to give answers." This is not at all its intent. It is a guide for policy decisions in cases where knowledge is incomplete regarding risks that are serious or irreversible and that are unproven but plausible in the light of existing scientific knowledge. No one is suggesting that the precautionary principle should be invoked regarding purely fanciful risks. There are legitimate debates over whether a risk is plausible enough to warrant the precautionary principle. There are also reasonable debates over how to implement the precautionary principle. However, groups that seek to discredit the principle itself as "unscientific" are engaged in propaganda, not science.

Follow the Money

When you hire a contractor or an attorney, they work for you because you are the one who pays for their services. The PR experts who work behind the scenes and the visible experts who appear on the public stage to "educate" you about various issues are not working for you. They answer to a client whose interests and values may even run contrary to your own. Experts don't appear out of nowhere. They work for someone, and if they are trying to influence the outcome of issues that affect you, then you deserve to know who is paying their bills.

Not everyone agrees with this position. Jeff Stier is the associate director of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), Stier goes so far as to claim that "today's conventional wisdom in favor of disclosing corporate funding of research is a 'new McCarthyism.' " Standards of public disclosure, he says, should mirror the standards followed in a court of law, where "evidence is admissible only if the probative value of that evidence exceeds its prejudicial effect." To disclose funding, he says, can have a "prejudicial effect" if it "unfairly taints studies that are scientifically solid." Rather than judging a study by its funding source, he says, you should simply ask whether its "hypothesis, methodology and conclusion" measure up to "rigorous scientific standards." When we asked him for a list of ACSH's corporate and foundation donors, he used these arguments to justify his refusal. With all due respect, we think Stier's argument is an excuse to avoid scrutiny. Even in a court of law, expert witnesses are required to disclose what they are being paid for their testimony.

Some people, including the editors of leading scientific journals, raise more subtle questions about funding disclosure. The problem, they say, is knowing where to draw the line. If someone received a small grant 20 years ago from a pharmaceutical company to study a specific drug, should they have to disclose that fact whenever they comment about an entirely different drug manufactured by the same company? And what about nonfinancial factors that create bias? Nonprofit organizations also gain something by publishing their concerns. They may have an ideological ax to grind, and publicity may even bring indirect financial benefits by helping attract new members and contributions. Elizabeth Whelan of ACSH made these points during a letter exchange with Ned Groth of the Consumers Union. "You seem to believe that while commercial agendas are suspect, ideological agendas are not," Whelan complained. "This is a purely specious distinction.... A foundation's pursuit of an ideological agenda-perhaps one characterized by a desire for social change, redistribution of income, expanded regulatory control over the private sector, and general promotion of a coercive utopia-must be viewed with at least as much skepticism and suspicion as a corporation's pursuit of legitimate commercial interests."

Activate Yourself

In understanding the hold that experts have on our lives, we should consider the role that we ourselves play as consumers of information. Most 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 5, 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.

Of course, there is no way that anyone can be active and informed about every issue under the sun. The world is too complex for that, and our lives are too busy. However, each of us can choose those issues that move us most deeply and devote some time to them. Activism enriches our lives in multiple ways. It brings us into personal contact with other people who are informed, passionate, and altruistic in their commitment to help make the world a better place. These are good friends to have, and often they are better sources of information than the experts whose names appear in the newspapers or on television. Activism, in our opinion, is not just a civic duty. It is a path to enlightenment.

Trust Us, We're Experts!

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