There’s a famous memo from the late 60’s, regarding the tobacco lobby. I’ll quote it:
“Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy. Spread doubt over strong scientific evidence and the public won’t know what to believe”
Of course, their approach failed dramatically. In partly, I suspect, due to the fact that WRT tobacco, no matter how much uncertainty may be cast over the empirical or statistical evidence, any smoker who has woken up coughing has plenty of physical evidence in their handkerchief that smoking isn’t doing them any good. I think this is also why the alcohol lobby has never managed to get a similar policy of confusion to stick; we know alcohol is bad for us whenever we wake up with a headache in a pool of vomit in a strange bedsit in Ruislip.
But the memo seems to have been ‘cc’d to other groups. The petrol industry used a similar approach when it came to the environmental impact of burning fossil fuels, both in terms of exhaust emissions and climate change. It’s also a strategy employed by the ‘creationists’; with about as much ethical justification as the tobacco lobby’s attempt to ‘teach the controversy’ about smoking.
The principle is simple. Create a ‘debate’ and any coverage will, in an attempt to be ‘balanced’, give equal weight to pro and con; creating the impression it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other, a fifty-fifty coin-toss that’s still up in the air – with the truth either ‘to be decided’ or somewhere half-way inbetween.
The mischief-maker in me, though, wonders whether this tactic might not be used for good. Religion shouldn’t be taught in schools – it is, by definition, indocrination – but if it is, then educators should also ‘teach the controversy’. Pupils should be told how contradictory and plagiaristic their magic book is; and how its version of history is not merely unsupported by primary evidence but utterly invalidated.