Fact denial is the motive engine of the Trumpist movement in the United States. Many people believe Mr. Trump’s incessant lying manifests a character flaw, or perhaps mental illness. Others think it represents a strategy; that Trump is playing “4-D chess.” There is little evidence that Trump possesses the intellect necessary for such sinister maneuvering, but whatever the strategy or lack thereof represents, the constant flooding of public discourse with false, contradictory, and confusing evidence renders ascertaining the facts extremely difficult. The effect is to create a fog of disinformation with the effect of raising enough doubt to make possible denial of the obvious.

In Orwell’s 1984 the authoritarian regime made itself impenetrable by hiding behind a fog of misinformation. The point had been reached where a truth could be true yesterday and false today and true again tomorrow. The fact that it was true yesterday had no bearing on the fact that it was false today. The official “truth” had a fluid relationship with “reality,” to the point that no one could discern either. No one could identify any information damaging to the regime because whatever it was, it was false. Or true. Or whatever. The following excerpt describing how the protagonist Winston dealt with reporting the numbers of boots produced illustrates:

But actually, he thought as he re-adjusted the Ministry of Plenty’s figures, it was not even forgery. It was merely the substitution of one piece of nonsense for another. Most of the material that you were dealing with had no connexion with anything in the real world, not even the kind of connexion that is contained in a direct lie. Statistics were just as much a fantasy in their original version as in their rectified version. A great deal of the time you were expected to make them up out of your head. For example, the Ministry of Plenty’s forecast had estimated the output of boots for the quarter at 145 million pairs. The actual output was given as sixty-two millions. Winston, however, in rewriting the forecast, marked the figure down to fifty-seven millions, so as to allow for the usual claim that the quota had been overfulfilled. In any case, sixty-two millions was no nearer the truth than fifty-seven millions, or than 145 millions. Very likely no boots had been produced at all. Likelier still, nobody knew how many had been produced, much less cared. All one knew was that every quarter astronomical numbers of boots were produced on paper, while perhaps half the population of Oceania went barefoot. And so it was with every class of recorded fact, great or small. Everything faded away into a shadow-world in which, finally, even the date of the year had become uncertain.[1]

Orwell describes in fiction the consequence of deliberate denial of truth. His book was a warning, one we have failed to heed. A 2018 study by Lee McIntyre titled Post-Truth describes in historical detail the exact process.

“Doubt Is Our Product”

Science denial can start from either an economic or an ideological agenda. Most commonly, it is kicked off by those who have something to lose, and is later carried on by those who get caught up in their campaign of misinformation. In his Lies, Incorporated, Ari Rabin-Havt deepens our understanding of this link between economic interests and post-truth politics, by considering how corporate-funded lobbying (and lying) on a range of topics has influenced political positions on climate change, guns, immigration, health care, the national debt, voter reform, abortion, and gay marriage.

There are several excellent resources on the history of how science denial was born in the debate about smoking. In Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway trace the history of how the tactics cooked up by scientists at the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC) became the blueprint for science denial. The economic side of this story, as opposed to the ideological one that later arose from it, is crucial to understanding how what may seem like politically based opposition can have its roots in monetary interests. In this, it corroborates the story of how there came to be so much grass-roots push back on climate change (which was funded by oil interests). It also presages the story we will tell later about how fake news evolved from profit-seeking clickbait to full-blown disinformation.

The story begins at the Plaza Hotel in New York City in 1953. Here the heads of the major tobacco companies came together to figure out what to do in light of a devastating scientific paper that had recently been published linking cigarette tar to cancer in lab mice. The leader of the summit was John Hill, a legendary figure in public relations, who suggested that instead of continuing to fight among themselves over whose cigarettes were healthier, they needed a unified approach where they would “fight the science” by sponsoring additional “research.” The executives agreed to fund this under the auspices of Hill’s newly created Tobacco Industry Research Committee whose mission was to convince the public that there was “no proof” that cigarette smoking caused cancer and that previous work purporting to show such a link was being questioned by “numerous scientists.”

And it worked. Capitalizing on the idea that science had shown “no conclusive link” between cigarettes and cancer (for science can never do this for any two variables), the TIRC took out a full-page ad in numerous American newspapers—reaching 43 million people—which had the effect of creating confusion and doubt on a scientific question that was close to settled. As Rabin-Havt puts it:

The Tobacco Industry Research Committee was created to cast doubt on scientific consensus that smoking cigarettes causes cancer, to convince the media that there were two sides to the story about the risks of tobacco and that each side should be considered with equal weight. Finally it sought to steer politicians away from damaging the economic interests of the tobacco companies.

This story continued over the next four decades—even in the face of further damning scientific research—until 1998, when the tobacco companies finally agreed to close the successor to the TIRC (and in the process disclosed thousands of internal documents which showed that they had known the truth all along) as part of a $200 billion settlement that shielded them from future lawsuits. They were then free to sell their product to a worldwide market who could be presumed to know the risks. Why did they do this? Obviously the profit made during those four decades must have far outweighed the costs incurred, but once the evidence was undeniable and the lawsuits started in earnest, the companies must have calculated that their future profits would far exceed even the $200 billion paid in settlement. Less than a decade later, the tobacco companies were found guilty of fraud under the federal racketeering (RICO) statute for conspiring to suppress what they knew about smoking and cancer as far back as 1953.

As far as science denial was concerned, however, the issue was far from over, for there was now a blueprint that could be followed by others who wished to fight scientists to a standstill. In Merchants of Doubt, Oreskes and Conway explain this blueprint in more detail. Indeed, the authors provide evidence not only that other science deniers followed the “tobacco strategy,” but also that some of the same people were involved. Ever since the infamous internal memo written by a tobacco executive in 1969 which said that “doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public,” it has been clear what needs to be done. Find and fund your own experts, use this to suggest to the media that there are two sides to the story, push your side through public relations and governmental lobbying, and capitalize on the resulting public confusion to question whatever scientific result you wish to dispute.

As Oreskes and Conway explain, this strategy was successfully employed in later scientific “disputes” over Reagan’s “Strategic Defense Initiative,” nuclear winter, acid rain, the ozone hole, and global warming. Some of the funding for these campaigns even came from the tobacco industry. By the time climate change became a partisan issue in the early 2000s, the mechanism of corporate-funded science denial was a well-oiled machine:

Paid experts produced fake research that was converted into talking points and memes, then repeated on television by paid shills and spread through social media and, when necessary, hammered into the public consciousness through paid advertising campaigns.15

.Why search for scientific disagreement when it can be manufactured? Why bother with peer review when one’s opinions can be spread by intimidating the media or through public relations? And why wait for government officials to come to the “right” conclusion when you can influence them with industry money? All of this is of course shockingly cynical, yet it is only a stop on the road that today leads to post-truth. After 2016, it seems quaint to worry about leaked memos, damning testimony, and videotaped contradictions when the notion of truth itself has now been thrown into question. How did anyone know that they could take things this far? Because of the success of these tactics in the next campaign: against global warming.[2]

[1] George Orwell, 1984 (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984, 1977), chapter IV, kindle.

[2] Lee McIntyre, Post-Truth (Cambridge, Ma.: The MIT Press, 2018), chapter 2, kindle.