Robert Proctor was showing the world’s largest Earth science conference a picture of an industrial scale cigarette machine. The vast majority of us in the audience had never seen one before. And that was his point.
Proctor, a science historian at Stanford University, was helping climate scientists understand how the fossil fuel industry was using many of the same tactics pioneered by the tobacco industry to shield its products from public scrutiny. He explained that we hadn’t seen a machine like this before because the industry didn’t want us to focus on the cigarettes they made and the harm they cause.
Instead, they wanted to promote cigarettes as a lifestyle choice: the smiling couple in a Newport ad, the leather-jacket-clad Joe Camel, the tough and independent Marlborough Man. And when it came to the media and policymakers, Big Tobacco worked overtime to spread doubt about the dangers of their products—just like the fossil fuel industry was doing in response to climate scientists’ research.
Proctor, along with linguist Iain Boal, calls the study of such propaganda campaigns “agnotology”—meaning research related to the production of ignorance. The goal of these campaigns is not to convince people that something untrue is a fact. Instead, it’s to convince people that the truth can’t be known. In the hands of industries that make harmful products, including the gun industry, these tactics have led to years of delay on important public policy issues.
Understanding how they work can help us fight back.
Smoke and Mirrors
Big Tobacco produced ignorance with a small army of public relations firms, lawyers, front groups, politicians, and even scientists. Under the direction of the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton, the industry funded basic cancer research—not to find cures for the ills their products cause, but to promote scientific uncertainty about cancer itself.
Another tobacco company was more explicit about its strategy, writing in an internal memo in 1969: “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.”
Similarly, the fossil fuel industry has long funded contrarian scientists who dispute the now-obvious link between burning fossil fuels and heating up the planet. They also promoted scientific uncertainty through various industry-funded groups and conservative think tanks, including ones that hosted pseudo-scientific conferences. In 2002, the Republican pollster Frank Luntz advised Republicans to “continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue” in the climate debate.
Locked and Loaded
The gun lobby uses the same tactics to promote ignorance. In 1996, after federally funded research found a strong link between gun ownership and homicide, the National Rifle Association (NRA) succeeded in blocking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from supporting studies on gun violence. Congress only partially reversed this policy in 2018.
The NRA would fund its own research, too, but with a focus on legal rather than scientific scholarship. According to Michael Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center for Justice, the first indexed law review article to argue for an individual right to own a gun, published in 1960, relied on a story from an NRA magazine about Emperor Han rejecting a proposal to disarm subjects in ancient China. The gun lobby would go on to fund more pseudo-scholarship in this vein, persistently pushing the view that the first four words of the Second Amendment—”A well regulated militia . . . “—can be functionally discarded in favor of an individual right to purchase a wide variety of deadly weapons.
The NRA and its supporters are also happy to talk about many possible causes of gun violence—poor mental health, unlocked doors in schools, even violent video games—just so long as we don’t focus on guns. When the focus does turn to proposals to ban the sale of assault weapons, similar to a ban Congress passed in 1994, the gun lobby won’t offer an updated definition of what might constitute an “assault weapon,” despite detailed proposals from Democratic members of Congress worthy of debate. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, speaking at an NRA convention just a few days after 19 students and 2 teachers were massacred in his home state by a shooter wielding an AR-15-style rifle, would only refer to the weapons described in these bills as “so-called assault rifles,” arguing that Democrats’ “real goal is disarming America.”
The goal of spreading ignorance is not to end policy debate. It’s to prolong it in bad faith. These tactics extend to many industries, from sugar producers to pharmaceuticals. They’ll also be familiar to anyone who followed Republicans attempting to overturn the 2020 election. Spreading misinformation—what Donald Trump advisor Steve Bannon calls “flood[ing] the zone with shit“—misled supporters for months, culminating in the January 6 attack on the Capitol as Congress certified Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory.
Delay worked remarkably well for the tobacco industry. The first U.S. Surgeon General’s report warning the public and policymakers about the dangers of smoking was published in 1964. But the first local public smoking ban didn’t go into effect until 1975. The first limits on smoking in airplanes wouldn’t come about until 1987. In 1994 Rep. Henry Waxman of California held landmark hearings that put tobacco executives on the spot for the harm their addictive products cause. The dam was finally breaking. By 1998, the tobacco companies had to settle a series of lawsuits to pay for damages related to their products and dismantle parts of their propaganda machine.
At the start of the tobacco industry’s campaign, almost half of all American adults smoked. That number has shrunk to just 16% today. Still, the CDC estimates that 1,300 people die each day from tobacco. If the industry had stood down in the 1950s, millions of lives could have been saved globally.
On climate, the futurist and writer Alex Steffan calls this practice “predatory delay.” The fossil fuel industry knew about the dangers of climate change as early as the 1970s. As they spread doubt and fought for delay, heat-trapping gasses increased 50% over their pre-industrial baseline, leading to more coastal flooding, inland wildfires, heat wave deaths, and worsening air pollution.
For the gun lobby, delay means more mass shootings. According to one study, fatalities from mass shootings were 70% less likely to occur during the 1994-to-2004 assault weapons ban. Much more violence could have been prevented if Congress hadn’t let the ban expire.
In the face of these propaganda campaigns, it’s tempting to play Whac-A-Mole, chasing bad arguments with good information. But in doing so, scientists, advocates, media outlets, and political leaders wind up playing on the agnotologists’ turf.
Instead of getting sucked into bad faith debates, public interest advocates should focus on the concrete benefits of the policies they want and the popularity of their proposals.
Companies—and customers—should also stop doing business with institutions that spread misinformation. That includes ending partnerships with bad-faith trade groups, urging political leaders to reject funding from tainted industries, and refusing to support politicians who engage in these tactics, or work with these industries.
If misinformation is a product, the best solution is dismantling the machines that make it.
Aaron Huertas is a political communications consultant based in Washington, D.C. He previously worked as a communications director for the U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and as a science communications officer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a public interest science advocacy group.
This story has been updated to clarify that the CDC figure for deaths from tobacco is 1,300 deaths each day.