Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Corporate Construction of Doubt

Today's bloggence is part 2 of yesterday's introduction to the ideological distortion and suppression of technical knowledge, the social construction of ignorance, or the study of agnotology. Yes people are undeniably ignorant, but they ain't stupid. They've been kept ignorant. Today much of this ignorance is designed by corporate strategies.

Below is an excerpt from Response to Philip Scranton’s Report On Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution by David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz

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Industry lawyers realized the importance of historians in tobacco and lead cases
many years ago and began recruiting historians into tobacco and lead suits in the 1980s and early 1990s. A substantial number of historians’ briefs now exist making it apparent that a common historical argument serves to protect industries in lawsuits. In what historian Robert Proctor has called agnotology, lawyers for major industries have, with the help of historians, created a new “science” for the creation of doubt and ignorance about industry’s actions in the past. Proctor argues in a number of oral presentations and editorials about the tobacco industry that historical experts testifying for industries have adopted a few basic techniques to undermine plaintiffs’ claims that the tobacco industry bears responsibility for their suffering because the industry knew of danger long ago but failed to warn unsuspecting smokers.

Proctor [describes the strategic production of juridical-scientific doubt about corporate responsibility for things like toxic poisoning in the following] . . . generic propositions:

• Despite whether knowledge existed within industries of the dangers of a product, that knowledge cannot be considered definitive proof of real danger.

• Without absolute certainty about the danger of a product or substance, there was little or no obligation on the part of industries to act to remove their product from the market or to lower exposures to toxic materials within the factory.

• More research is needed before doubt can be eliminated.

• Causation is extremely difficult to prove and requires years, if not decades, of careful experimentation and observation before “controversy” about the sources of disease can be resolved.

• It is necessary to “contextualize” the knowledge of danger to understand that standards of openness have changed over time.

• Standards of morality were “different,” meaning not as “advanced,” in the past.

• Historians who draw conclusions that indicate industry malfeasance are sloppy, simplistic or biased.

• If the danger of this product is undeniable, and it is impossible to deny knowledge of its dangers, argue that the government knew about danger as well and government failed to regulate the industry, making government, not the industry, responsible

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What interests me beyond the utility of knowing such courtroom strategies to defend corporate malfeasance, is the peculiar resemblance to normal scientific procedure and its epistemological caution. Yet here we expose a kind of parody of science, in which there is the inverse of a quest for truths and clarification. Such experts are paid in order hide the truth and to obscure the situation.

Moreover, this collection of arguments, when strategically deployed during many lawsuits, soon help to construct an ideological theme. The corporate construction of doubt becomes the dubious construction of corporate innocence.


At 3:11 PM, Anonymous C.B. said...

Interesting parallel with the "corporate" (nominally United) state's position on DU.

I remember working for a couple of advertising execs on the Upper East Side in Manhattan a few years back. I was doing a renovation on their ground floor, multi-room apartment, with backyard --and if that ain't proof enough they were loaded, then you don't know New York City. Somehow it came up that I was quitting smoking. Neither of them smoked. I was using "love and rage" as a psychological device: love of my newborn son, hate of corporate pushers of addictive death. The female of my pair of clients charged that there was no proof that cigarettes killed anyone. I didn't want to argue with this paycheck, and so what anyways: she obviously worked for tobacco companies.

But what about her argument? I posed this question to a biology student who replied that advertiser was quite correct: no smoker who died from any disease circumstantially linked to smoking could be scientifically proven to have died from smoking ... BUT, the aggregate data collected from studies of many individuals tells a different story: the more and longer a person smokes the more likely they are to die earlier from a number of specific causes such as lung cancer, emphysema, etc. There is a clear and definite statistical tendency. Biological studies show the carcinogenic effect of tobacco smoke byproducts on animal tissue.

Not much wiggle room left? What about 100% proof in a particular case? Maybe there was a genetic predisposition that was *more* causal . . . The real struggle is over wealth: in a litigious society, if a lawyer can "prove" fault, i.e., guilt, harm, etc., that equals a windfall for the victim, and the lawyer... or save a client millions (in either case the lawyers score). In such a situation "fault" + profit are more important than knowledge + health.


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