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Tobacco Control Tactics: Elephants, Big Lies And The Nigerian Prince Scam

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Carl V. Phillips Contributor
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Some tobacco control lies are clever, such as the use of intentionally misleading statistics that only someone who reanalyzed the data would discover. Others are patently obvious misreadings of study results that would never fool experts but are sufficient to fool a health news reporter or politician. But a lot of the lies — so, so many of them — are just reciting the same tired and refuted falsehoods. Most of tobacco control’s overviews — reports, research report introductions, pamphlet-type material — are full of so many that there is little way to respond. This suggests they are employing several particular strategies of deception.

The simplest is just piling on. Say something enough times and it becomes “fact,” even when the evidence says otherwise. It does not even matter if there is no possible evidence that could possibly make it true (e.g., there is no safe level of exposure to smoke or vapor). By sheer repetition, they make the claim stick. It also creates a “don’t think of an elephant” framing problem for those who want to reply: Addressing the false claim requires repeating it, and that makes it a little more memorable. In addition, when someone makes the mistake of trying to debate such a claim as an honest scientific proposition — rather than ridiculing it as nonsense as they should — they implicitly suggest it is defensible and merely might be wrong.

Further compounding the problem is the “Big Lie” strategy: If someone makes a specific technical claim that is just quantitatively wrong, a science-based debate can ensue and correct the error. But if someone makes a major claim that is so outlandish that the only possible response is to declare it to be out-and-out nonsense (e.g., that vaping might be as harmful as smoking, or that the evidence suggests it does not aid smoking cessation), it can actually be harder to respond. Pointing out the claim is obviously false means asking the audience to believe that the someone is openly telling a big obvious lie. No one would make a statement that could so easily shown to be false, the ironic thinking goes, and therefore the response that it is false must be wrong. Perhaps the original claim is uncertain or debatable, the thinking continues, but the counterclaim that it is a pure lie must be an overstatement. If the audience was inclined to trust the original claimant in the first place, the resulting conclusion is that whoever is making the counterclaim should not be trusted.

Those strategies represent some combination of intentional tactics and evolutionary processes. The simple tactics are probably often intentional at the individual level, but overall, it would be a mistake to think of tobacco control as a unitary rational actor. Instead, it is subject to evolutionary processes that naturally select for effective strategies. One of the more effective methods for insulating the lies from criticism, presumably an evolutionary discovery rather than a deliberate choice, is a use of a tactic from the Nigerian Prince phishing scam.

The Nigerian Prince scam is notorious for its initial contact emails that contain horrible grammar and other superficial features that ensure most readers would realize they were not communicating with an actual Nigerian prince, even apart from the whole thing being an obvious scam. It is theorized that this is intentional (how hard can it be to create a more convincing template, after all?), a way of selecting only respondents who are the most naive and scammable. If savvy readers just delete it without further thought then two advantages occur: First, the scammers do not have to waste their time with people who are more likely to figure things out before sending money. This is the rationale for the tactic that is usually cited. But perhaps more important, people who are savvy enough to warn of the scam do not take it seriously enough to warn potential victims, as they often do when more sophisticated scams pop up. After all, who would believe such nonsense?

The tobacco control scam involves authoritative-looking overviews that are filled with complete nonsense. These documents typically have half as many false or dubious claims as they do sentences, and anyone with any expertise in the field will notice many of them immediately. Their reaction will just be to quit reading — after all, you cannot waste your time on something so obviously stupid. No one interested in the science reads the introduction and discussion sections of tobacco control papers, let alone their countless position statements. Meanwhile those who are the naive targets of the propaganda obliviously read on, because no honest experts would bother to offer a critique beyond “this is full of blatantly false claims.”

Finally, consider the conversation that ensues if someone who is vulnerable to believing the wall of lies, but has an open mind, actually does manage to engage with someone who knows the truth: “What is blatantly false?” “[picks one of the scores or hundreds of examples and spends a couple of minutes explaining it].” “Ok, I see that might be a dubious claim.” “No, it is out-and-out wrong. Literally no evidence supports it.” “There must be some basis for it.” “[spends several more minutes explaining how the claim is falsely rationalized]” “Ok, I see. But that is just one example. Can you point out everything else they got wrong?” “Do you have a week to spare?.” “No.” “Me neither.”

A war of attrition against tobacco control lies would be hopeless based on sheer numbers alone. There are far more of them producing lies than there are honest experts to counter them, to say nothing of how long it takes to carefully refute each lie. These additional tactical and evolutionary issues make it that much harder. Tobacco control claims have become so overwhelmingly bad that no one who is capable of refuting them wants to bother.

If there is a solution, it probably lies in counter-narrative. People do not easily give up a belief, no matter how tenuously it was acquired, merely because there is evidence it is wrong. That applies to specific belief (“I have a friend who’s a nurse who says vaping turns your lungs into popcorn.” “Actually what she probably…never mind. It’s not true. There has never been a even single case of a vaper getting ‘popcorn lung.’” “Oh, ok…. But still, it might happen.”). It also applies to the meta-belief that tobacco controllers are providing honest information. If this can be effectively challenged — which would probably involve a major effort to demonstrate the falsity of so many of their claims — then it would no longer be necessary to challenge each claim individually. For any wild conspiracy theory, there will be some naive believers. But most people have learned to doubt such claims, and thus demand something more than assertions. Right now, the truth about tobacco control falls on the wrong side of that line to most people — they think it is just too wild to believe. Success will only come when the case is made so effectively that it is their claims that are recognized as the nutty claims of extremists.

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Carl V. Phillips