In today’s blog we talk with Shawn L. Otto, an activist who views scientific literacy as the bedrock of a functioning democracy and co-founder of Science Debate 2008.
David: Hi Shawn. Technology, you said, appears as magic to most people. And that’s a problem for democracy. You sounded the alarm, but you appeared optimistic. You showed that despite its absence from our current political discourse, interest in science exists. You wrote a second book and laid out a detailed plan. Then you seemed to disappear. Where did you go? Did you lose hope?
Shawn: When The War On Science came out in late 2016 I shifted to doing media and educating audiences and journalists about what was happening and the dangers it posed. I’ve given hundreds of speeches since then across the nation and in many other countries, at universities, to corporations, at professional societies, at awards ceremonies, to the general public, to groups of journalists, describing what is happening and warning about the dangers that denial of science and evidence poses to freedom and democracy. The notion of objective evidence derived from scientific investigation is really the universal pre-requisite that democracy and the rule of law rest on. It was assumed by the founders that the authority of evidence was really self-evident, but it probably should have been more explicitly protected in democratic constitutions. And by now the problem has become much more obvious, at least as far as the disinformation aspect goes. To those of us that have been warning for years about the sorts of violent attacks on democracy that have begun to happen because people are misled by disinformation this is sad vindication.
Where (else) did I go? I also spent a year managing a gubernatorial campaign and advising other candidates for state and federal office, and then my mom died and my wife left politics and we took a year or so off to just catch up with our lives and lots of deferred maintenance on all sorts of fronts. I also got really tired of engaging with professional deniers and bots on social media and decided to pull back from that. I’ve looked at Facebook 3 times in the last year. I miss the updates from friends but the caustic nature of the politics, really turning that off lifted a great weight off me and I would highly recommend it. Lately I’ve begun a new novel built around some of these same themes, and I’ve continued to speak remotely through the pandemic, and begun thinking about a new nonfiction book detailing where the war has gone since 2016. Spoiler: it’s gotten both much wider and much worse.
Have I lost hope? No, but as I write this in the days immediately after the insurrection attempt to take Congress hostage by Trump loyalists, many of whom honestly believe they are the good guys defending democracy, I think we have not really even begun to come to grips with the problem and so we are vulnerable in ways we don’t understand and can’t easily anticipate. In congress, I think very, very few lawmakers understand it, among them Sheldon Whitehouse is undoubtedly the best informed, and those that do find it hard to get any traction for change. Partly this is because of structural and cultural changes that have happened in the Republican Party and partly it’s because Republicans have become so heavily targeted by corporate disinformation that it’s skewing the whole party’s worldview, and partly it’s because it’s not obvious to a lot of people until you get an insurrection or a civil war breaks out or you get a coup.
Adding fuel to this fire is the opening up of a fourth front in the War on Science, the Intergovernmental war on science, in which Russia, North Korea, Iran, China, and other authoritarian regimes are actively working not so much to confuse us about what’s true, but to erode trust in the very concept of truth itself, again to weaken that foundation on which Democracy rests and thereby to discredit or destroy it. Russia in particular has been very active sowing doubt and confusion and also fueling climate denial. As the third largest oil economy after the US and Saudi Arabia, and the northernmost one, Russia stands the most to gain from climate denial.
David: Your book outlines 14 “Battle Plans”. This was over 4 years ago. Is there progress?
Shawn: Sadly, no, and the many-headed hydra of science denial has continued to morph. The problem is there is not a lot of economic incentive to protect against denial and huge incentives to engage in it. The Kochs and the Mercers and Exxon and others spent a billion and a half dollars building a giant denial infrastructure to defeat Waxman-Markey in 2009-10. That money funded the growth of an entire product defense industry and a network of think tanks and astroturf organizations and all kinds of micro targeted PR channels with thousands of employees using the most brilliant and effective spy-ops, persuasion and propaganda methods humans have ever developed, all targeted at a very small audience: the likely donors and activists surrounding Republican lawmakers.
Product defense campaigns use persuasion methods adopted from psychological warfare. They understand that people respect science and form their worldviews in a generally scientific way by generalizing from confirming bits of evidence. To change your worldview they provide you with other bits of evidence, sustained and repeated, along with peer pressure. That other, engineered evidence leads you over time to the desired conclusions. They then deal with your respect for science by attacking legitimate scientists and their findings as dishonest while providing contrarian alternatives. At the same time, they offer up fraught philosophical arguments and conspiracy theories to help you justify dismissing evidence, and gin up feelings of grievance and outrage to encourage you to disregard evidence and go with the guy that is on our side. The enculturation is complete. It worked spectacularly and it tied in with a lot of suspicion and latent racism that many of the activists felt toward Obama. This is a lot of what fueled the tea party, and you’ll notice after Waxman-Markey failed the tea party pretty much went away. Why? Because a lot of the money dried up. And, that’s a general tell for when there’s an anti-science propaganda campaign going on: people get unusually worked up about something you would have expected.
But there was this infrastructure that had been built, and these networks that had been built and invested in and these product defense companies that had been formed to gin up phony science and disseminate it, and this infrastructure sought to become self-sustaining and to stay in business. They realized the same techniques and networks could be used to hold back regulation and reduce jury awards in all sorts of cases where certain products or services threaten public health or the environment but are still profitable enough that they justify mounting a product defense campaign to keep them on the market. So you have denial campaigns erupting in all these other areas: from the beverage industry, the alcohol industry, the mining industry, the sugar industry, the financial services industry, and so on.
Over the last ten years the growing problem of product defense influence campaigns has largely flown under the radar, but it has become very big business. One product defense firm recently profiled in a New York Times investigation, FTI consulting, has nearly five thousand employees. Other firms in the space include Cardno ChemRisk, Exponent, Gradient, Innovative Science Solutions, Ramboll, TERA, and more.
The campaigns are run through a blended network of industry and conservative think tanks, fake and slanted news sites, industry news sites, talk radio, phony and captured science journals and policy newsletters, mercenary contrarian scientists publishing against the established science, those same scientists giving persuasion talks or touting books at the meetings of professional societies with likely Republican donors, industry-funded university programs, slanted school textbooks, former regulators and congressional staffers turned lobbyists and pundits, “grassroots” astroturf organizations, and paid bloggers, bots, social media personas, and trolls. All work together to drive home the message that regulation means lost jobs, higher taxes, and less freedom, while deregulation protects individual liberty, with a slant on X product. And to make it work you emphasize loyalty over evidence.
If you are in a profession that makes you a likely Republican or Libertarian or socially conservative donor, or if you have volunteered for such a candidate or interacted with the conservative ecosystem, or if you share certain religious or ideological perspectives with some Republicans such as opposing abortion, then you are at-risk for immersive product defense microtargeting.
The New York Times investigation revealed an FTI internal document that details one way propaganda campaigns use social media to shape perceptions of reality. Fake personas are used to surround targets and to monitor and disrupt legitimate online discussion, among the actual descriptions FTI used:
“The Derailleur seizes on a seemingly innocuous portion of the otherwise negative narrative and attempts to pull the comment thread into a discursive discussion around that detailed non-issue.
The Drunken Conspiracy Theorist Uncle agrees with the Negative Commenter but conflates other unrelated and offensive Issues into it lumping it all together into an unpalatable whole.
The Semantic Nitpicker asks an endless series of questions seeking clarification or pointing out minor flaws in the way the argument ls constructed. This can be played both friendly and oppositionally, but by different stacks of kids.”
These are the same people that Trump tapped directly into and they are how he managed to coop the Republican Party. They are primed for disinformation and their resistance to it has been systematically eroded over several years and billions of dollars of corporate investments in disinformation.
David: While the political right directly and proudly attacks science, the views of so-called progressives on the opposite side of the spectrum, are arguably even more insidious to the health of science. Is it not high tide to break with these political creeds and create a party of science? What could be more attractive than a well-informed, charismatic and engaging candidate, that can explain how science makes the world a better place? As the new year sets in, and we reflect on the significance of 2020, it seems like this is a good time. Would you consider running for president in 2024?
Shawn: The right are certainly the most problematic offenders because their denial is always around opposing regulation of products science shows are dangerous to health or destructive to the environment. Turning the concept of freedom - freedom from oppression - on it’s head to mean freedom to do whatever I want. This puts private profits for a few ahead of the public good. The denial on the left is most often about suspicion about hidden dangers to health or the environment that are generally not supported by the evidence, such as the fear that cell phones might cause brain cancer, that vaccines might cause autism, that GMO food is unsafe to eat, and the like. This isn’t always as immediately dangerous until it runs into something like an infectious disease like measles or COVID-19 and then the disinformation harms the common good in a similar way, by interfering with public health efforts to stamp out the disease, and even by helping to spread it.
The bigger problem on the left is the reactionary nature of postmodernist philosophy, which began as a reaction against Nazism but through creating a philosophical framework that argues there is no such thing as objective truth and that science is but one of many possible ways of knowing, and then educating millions of students in this sort of thinking, postmodernist philosophy inadvertently laid the framework for all the arguments the political right uses to discredit evidence and legitimize alternate interpretations of reality and alternate media like Fox. But it doesn’t matter what the racial, religious, gender, ethnic, sexual or political identity of me or you, is we stand together and stick a yardstick in a bucket after a rainstorm we’re going to come up with the same objective facts, and that universal acceptance of that evidence - that x inches of rain fell - is the only way we have to settle questions of fact other than by authoritarianism. So let’s not problematize objectivity and turn it into a he said she said debate about opinions. It’s the only fair and impartial guarantor of freedom we have, and we should guard, defend, and celebrate it. Instead let’s problematize the abuse of power by holding the powerful accountable to the evidence.
As to getting involved with politics, I’ve managed statewide campaigns many times and I know the players and understand the process, but I haven’t taken it farther than that to run as a candidate. Maybe I should give it more thought. At the moment though I am going to finish the projects I’m currently working on.
Another problem is that our system is structured to be slow and deliberative and yet we live in increasingly fast times. There is very little leadership in Congress; most of it is followership. Politicians don’t get kudos or support for taking up issues that the public doesn’t already care about to some degree - there’s too much work and too little upside in a world swamped with information. They need to work on causes that already have some degree of traction. It’s not necessarily their fault; but it is a part of the system that has been created through a combination of short-sighted legislation and short-sighted (or ideologically driven) court decisions. So the part for me that has been frustrating and disappointing is to see the reaction I get from audiences all over but if it’s not something donors and activists are talking about in urgent terms politicians won’t give it anything more than a cursory look, even though the events of January 6, for example, were easily predictable. They are much better at reacting to things that have already happened or become broadly recognized. That’s why the money on the denial side surrounds donors and activists with denialist propaganda and gins them up with grievance - it’s how to build the urgency and passion needed to move lawmakers off the dime. If I had that kind of money for our side, I could move the dial but as it is I’m fighting a forest fire with a garden hose, and I think anybody that has run a pro-science or public health or environmental NGO will know exactly what I’m talking about because they’re in there with their slightly larger garden hoses or maybe they even have a fire truck going, but then meanwhile Exxon and Koch Industries and the NAM and the Chamber back up their tankers and start spraying on more gas.
One thing Biden could do is really look at this question of disinformation, denial of evidence, radicalization, and our media environment. It didn’t originate with Trump, he just adopted the existing infrastructure for his own ends. Who and what created it? And learning how it happened and that these people have been radicalized by propaganda, how should the federal government respond to preserve the republic? We have spent billions funding propaganda efforts touting and spreading democracy across the world, but we haven’t directed the same kind of messaging domestically at home to build a similar unified patriotism around civics and evidence and science and fair play and the nobility and majesty of our system of government when it is at its best. And all sorts of special interests have moved in to fill the void and we wring our hands and wonder why America is so divided and messed up. But if you don’t tend the garden every day, weeds spring up opportunistically and pursue their own ends at the expense of others, and if you let them go pretty soon they choke the garden out and make a mess of things. I’d like to see the federal government engage in its own massive deprograming and pro-evidence pro-civics PR effort, and I’d like to see the Justice department get more aggressive about pursuing, arresting and prosecuting bad actors that engage in the kinds of science and evidence denial and disinformation that hurts the nation for private benefit. There is a reason the world’s most scientifically advanced country had the world’s worst COVID outcome, and there’s a reason we’re crapping out our environment at an unprecedented rate and there’s a reason we are seeing health outcomes slide across the board on so many areas and it’s the same reason we had people storming the capitol. But Trump is a tyke compared to what could happen. Freedom of speech doesn’t apply to yelling FIRE in a crowded theater and what’s been going on in America is an order of magnitude more dangerous, and we saw just the tip of the iceberg of what can happen on January 6. Trump is not the cause, he’s the symptom, and unless we recognize that and go after the cause we’re in for a world of hurt. So if I see the Biden team start listening and taking the appropriate action I’ll start thinking that maybe we have a chance.
David: Thank you Shawn and good luck to us all!