The process of "rubbishing" tries to make people doubt their own knowledge—whether it's about smoking or the President's tweetsby Quassim Cassam / February 11, 2019 / Leave a comment
What was President Trump up to when he tweeted that the concept of global warming was invented by the Chinese to make US manufacturing less competitive? What do pro-Leave campaigners hope to achieve by describing warnings about the economic impact of Brexit as “Project Fear”? Both are examples of a popular and highly potent political tactic: rubbishing.
Rubbishing is a more extreme version of the so-called “Tobacco Strategy.” In their book Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway describe the reaction of cigarette companies in the 1950s to the discovery that their product is a killer: They hired experts to question the link between smoking and lung cancer. Strong evidence of a link was dismissed as inconclusive, as smokers were encouraged not to give up.
The Tobacco Strategy was an exercise in fact-fighting. The point was to create doubts in the minds of smokers about whether smoking was really bad for them. In the words of a notorious memo written by a company executive, “Doubt is our product.”
Raising questions about a piece of evidence is one thing; rubbishing it is another. The point of Trump’s tweet was to rubbish evidence of climate change caused by humans. The point of the Project Fear label is to rubbish warnings by economists and business that Brexit is going to be bad for the economy.
But even though rubbishing is more extreme than the Tobacco Strategy the basic objective is the same: to make it harder for non-experts to know the facts. If we don’t really know that humans are responsible for climate change, why do anything about it? Why fear Brexit if warnings about its economic impact are rubbish?
The key to rubbishing is the connection between knowledge and confidence. For you to know that smoking is bad for you it’s not enough to think you know it’s bad for you. You also need to be reasonably confident that it’s bad, and you need to have the right to be confident. To know that humans are responsible for climate change you have to be reasonably confident that your view is correct. If that’s right, then undermining a person’s confidence is a way to undermine their knowledge.
Knowledge is based on evidence but most of us don’t have direct evidence for many-widely accepted theories. Unless you…