How Big Tobacco invented Donald Trump and Brexit (and what to do about it)

Economist Tim Harford (previously) traces the history of denialism and "fake news" back to Big Tobacco's cancer denial playbook, which invented the tactics used by both the Brexit and Trump campaigns to ride to victory -- a playbook that dismisses individual harms as "anaecdotal" and wide-ranging evidence as "statistical," and works in concert with peoples' biases (smokers don't want cigarettes to cause cancer, Brexiteers want the UK to be viable without the EU, Trump supporters want simple, cruel policies to punish others and help them) to make emprically wrong things feel right.

This "motivated reasoning" is incredibly hard to undo. Studies of whether presenting refutation to people who've bought into a belief system that serves their personal agendas shows that counterpoints can actually strengthen their beliefs (the "rebound effect").

But one promising approach is to cultivate "scientific curiosity," which is not the same as being a scientist: people who habitually engage in scientific curiosity are less prone to the rebound effect and more able to overcome motivated reasoning. This is a powerful refutation to critics of "scientific storytelling" (like Radiolab) as trivializing science by always reducing it to a human drama -- it's precisely that connection to science and identifying with the heroes of those stories that seemingly immunize us from harmful delusions, especially those that are weaponized by people with a financial interest in them.

What Kahan and his colleagues found, to their surprise, was that while politically motivated reasoning trumps scientific knowledge, “politically motivated reasoning . . . appears to be negated by science curiosity”. Scientifically literate people, remember, were more likely to be polarised in their answers to politically charged scientific questions. But scientifically curious people were not. Curiosity brought people together in a way that mere facts did not. The researchers muse that curious people have an extra reason to seek out the facts: “To experience the pleasure of contemplating surprising insights into how the world works.”

So how can we encourage curiosity? It’s hard to make banking reform or the reversibility of Article 50 more engaging than football, Game of Thrones or baking cakes. But it does seem to be what’s called for. “We need to bring people into the story, into the human narratives of science, to show people how science works,” says Christensen.

We journalists and policy wonks can’t force anyone to pay attention to the facts. We have to find a way to make people want to seek them out. Curiosity is the seed from which sensible democratic decisions can grow. It seems to be one of the only cures for politically motivated reasoning but it’s also, into the bargain, the cure for a society where most people just don’t pay attention to the news because they find it boring or confusing.

What we need is a Carl Sagan or David Attenborough of social science — somebody who can create a sense of wonder and fascination not just at the structure of the solar system or struggles of life in a tropical rainforest, but at the workings of our own civilisation: health, migration, finance, education and diplomacy.

The Problem With Facts [Tim Harford]

Notable Replies

  1. If I'm understanding what he means by "scientific curiosity," this show did much to foster it in me when I was young.

    And if not, it's a great TV show IMHO.

  2. The lead industry was also pretty good at this.

  3. Sometimes I think there was a tobacco industry meeting in mid-century America where the executives said "sure, our product kills millions of people a year, but if we're going to beat out munitions as the most evil industry ever we really have to step things up and set the standard for doing evil in other industries."

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