“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. It is also the means of establishing a controversy. Within the business we recognize controversy exists. However, with the general public the consensus is that cigarettes are in some way harmful to the health. If we are successful in establishing a controversy at the public level, then there is an opportunity to put across the real facts about smoking and health. Doubt is also the limit of our ‘product’. Unfortunately, we cannot take a position directly opposing the anti-cigarette forces and say cigarettes are a contributor to good health. No information that we have supports such a claim.” ~Smoking and Health Proposal, 1969
This is straight from the tobacco industry playbook when they were faced with a direct assault on their profit margins. Rather than acknowledge the dangers of their products and search for alternative healthy products to sell, they launched a smear campaign to discredit the science.
In fact, they continued to deny the cancer link until a federal judge ordered them to accept it in 2006, 42 YEARS after the original Surgeon General’s warning. At that point they switched their tactic from denial to blame: “Smokers have a choice to consume our products…it’s not our fault.”
Notice I bolded the last section of the “Smoking and Health Proposal” quote. We’ll come back to that after we lay some groundwork for how this tactic has become far more sophisticated and effective.
Strategies Used to Confuse the Public Into Inaction
The Four Dog Defense
Back in 1997, David Barstow exposed a Big Tobacco tactic in “Can This Man Tame Tobacco?” that he coined “The Four Dog Defense.” It goes like this:
- First of all, I don’t have a dog.
- And if I had a dog, it doesn’t bite.
- And if I had a dog and it did bite, then it didn’t bite you.
- And if I had a dog and it did bite, and it bit you, then you provoked the dog.
In other words:
- Tobacco doesn’t cause cancer. Period. (Circa 1969)
- The science is uncertain. There’s no study that shows a causal relationship between smoking and cancer. (Circa 2006)
- Ok, so smoking causes cancer. But there’s no way to prove it gave YOU cancer. (Present)
- Ok, so smoking gave you cancer. It was your choice to smoke. We didn’t force you. It’s your own damn fault. (Present)
Along with Doubt Is Our Product, this tactic is now standard business practice by most industries and corporations, with government support.
In psychology, there’s a term called Projection. This is a theory in which “humans defend themselves against their own unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others.”
Let’s say someone in a position of power, someone who constantly bullies his perceived adversaries both online and offline, regularly accuses others of bullying him. Or let’s say you’re married to said bully and you launch a campaign to stop bullying…oh wait, that’s a whole different psychological issue.
Anyway, when someone accuses others of doing what they do, it’s called Projection. People can project a good or a bad trait, but they usually project bad traits onto others while projecting good traits onto themselves.
Projection is a very effective way to shift blame, and more importantly attention, away from you and onto something else. It also has the added benefit of tainting any defense mounted by the accused. “I didn’t bully you! You bullied me!” (Sounds like two brothers fighting.)
The human brain is really f—ed up. Not only because so many people engage in Projection on a daily/hourly/minutely basis, but because the rest of us are so gullible to believe it.
In addition to Doubt Is Our Product and The Four Dog Defense, corporations and the government frequently use this tactic on us, too.
The term itself elicits a sort of emotional knee-jerk reaction, doesn’t it? Conspiracy Theory. [shivers ensue]
In the “Smoking and Health Proposal,” they used the term “controversy” instead of “conspiracy.” They stated, “If we are successful in establishing a controversy….” In this context, “controversy” and “conspiracy” mean virtually the same thing. You can interchange the words.
So what’s the benefit of creating a conspiracy about Smoking and Health? It creates doubt in the minds of the public, and it paints the tobacco critics as Conspiracy Theorists. That label makes it much easier to discredit the critics in the eyes of the public because, again, we’re so amazingly gullible.
To quote Mark Twain, “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled.”
Unfortunately for Big Tobacco (and fortunately for the rest of us), their manufactured conspiracy had a severe limitation. They couldn’t “take a position directly opposing the anti-cigarette forces and say cigarettes are a contributor to good health. No information that we have supports such a claim.”
Remember this bolded quote from the end of the “Smoking and Health Proposal” above? Let’s talk about that now.
Big Tobacco’s Big Limitation
The biggest self-acknowledged limitation Big Tobacco had was that they couldn’t refute the science. They didn’t have any studies saying that smoking was healthy. The only thing they could do was call into question the methodologies of the studies that showed smoking was unhealthy.
Big Tobacco still insists that without a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled clinical trial, the “Gold Standard” in studies, we can’t prove, without a doubt, that smoking causes cancer.
To conduct this type of study, we would have to have two groups of people: one would smoke cigarettes and the other would smoke a product that looks like a cigarette but contains an inert substance that doesn’t cause cancer (really hard to do). Then we’d have to follow them over several years, maybe 10 or 20 years, to see who gets cancer and who doesn’t.
The problem with using this Gold Standard methodology in a smoking trial, is that it’s unethical and illegal to subject people to something we know will likely kill them. However, without this type of study, we can only prove correlation, not causation. And the tobacco industry relies on this lack of definitive certainty to create doubt and to defend themselves in court.
Briefly, the difference between correlation and causation is pretty significant. Correlation indicates a relationship, but not necessarily a cause-effect relationship. For example, people who smoke are also more likely to be alcoholics. Did smoking cause them to be alcoholics? We can’t say that. We can only say the two events are correlated.
We can’t even blame their smoking, drinking parents or effective ad campaigns or a propensity for addictive behavior for their smoking and drinking ways. All of those factors may be correlated, but the only way to prove causation is with a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled clinical trial, which is impossible to do in the real world for things like smoking and alcoholism.
And chemical exposure. And climate change. And gun violence. And cancer. And diabetes. And heart disease.
But there IS a very effective way to cast doubt on legitimate scientific studies that show strong correlations: conduct your own biased, flawed pseudoscientific studies.
What Big Food Learned from Big Tobacco
If Big Tobacco had done what Big Food is doing now, most people would still be smoking and we’d still be arguing with each other on social media about whether smoking causes cancer. Big Food (and Big Pharma and Big Oil and Big Chemical and Big GMO) learned a lot from Big Tobacco’s mistakes, and swore not to repeat them.
In addition to employing Doubt Is Our Product, The Four Dog Defense, Psychological Projection and Conspiracy Theories, Big Food figured out how to circumvent Big Tobacco’s severe limitation (the lack of studies showing the health benefits of smoking) by funding and conducting their own “scientific” studies.
I put “scientific” in quotes because we can’t really call the vast majority of studies they fund scientific in the true sense. Valid scientific studies employ the Scientific Method, which “is an empirical method of knowledge acquisition…involving careful observation, which includes rigorous skepticism about what one observes…”
The problem with industry and corporate funded studies, is that they lack the “rigorous skepticism” that is an absolutely essential part of the Scientific Method.
They also intentionally mislead and in some cases, blatantly lie about their findings. More on that below, but first, here are some examples.
How Someone Can Say Saturated Fat Doesn’t Affect Blood Cholesterol Levels
Let’s say I wanted to show that saturated fat doesn’t affect blood cholesterol, even though I know from controlled feeding experiments that it does. The fact that I know saturated fat raises cholesterol is irrelevant. I want to create doubt by saying that it doesn’t so people keep buying my products.
But I need to have legitimate looking evidence. I can’t just say, “because I said so.” And I also need to use some fancy scientific terms and a methodology that media interviewers and the general public won’t understand.
This is where the Observational Study methodology comes in. This is a very popular methodology in the social sciences because we simply can’t lock large groups of random people away in rooms for long periods of time, which is required for a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled trial (the Gold Standard, remember?).
Unfortunately, this type of study really sucks for things like diet. It means we have to either watch people eat EVERYTHING THEY PUT IN THEIR MOUTHS for months or years, or we have to ask the subjects to fill out questionnaires, which are notoriously unreliable. Ask an alcoholic how much they drank during the last week and the answer is almost always, “Not a lot. Maybe two or three.”
A more reliable methodology is an interventional dietary change experiment where we actually do lock people in a room, measure their cholesterol levels, feed them saturated fat (like butter) and then measure their cholesterol levels again.
Cholesterol levels go up very predictably when people eat saturated fat. You can buy a cholesterol testing kit on Amazon and test yourself at home. First test your cholesterol. Eat saturated fat. Wait 2 hours. Measure your cholesterol again.
There is no confusion on this matter.
SATURATED FAT RAISES YOUR BLOOD CHOLESTEROL LEVELS.
Knowing Observational Studies are very unreliable, Big Food pays to conduct dozens of them a year, thousands of them over the past 30 years. It’s the best marketing money can buy!
Then they roll up a hand-selected group of favorable studies into a Meta-Analysis like this one and say, “See! We have hundreds of studies showing butter/cheese/dairy/milk/eggs/beef/fish/olive oil/coconut oil has no effect on cholesterol! Vindication!”
If you want to see all the fancy diagrams and the expert explanation, here’s a good video:
How Someone Can Say Beef Can Be Included in a Heart Healthy Diet
Simple. The beef industry funded a study to show that beef is heart healthy. Here’s what the researches wrote in their peer reviewed, published, “Beef in an Optimal Lean Diet” study: “The results of the BOLD study provide convincing evidence that lean beef can be included in a heart-healthy diet that meets current dietary recommendations and reduces cardiovascular disease risk.”
So how can they make this ridiculous claim that a large portion of the population now believes?
According to Dr. Michael Greger, “In a study bought and paid for by the beef industry, beef was added to people’s diets. At the same time, the subjects removed so much poultry, pork, fish, and cheese from their diet that they halved their saturated fat intake from 12 percent of their diet, down to 6 percent of their diet, causing their cholesterol levels to go down. If our diet goes from 12 percent saturated fat down to 6 percent saturated fat, it doesn’t matter if that 6 percent comes from beef, chicken, lard, or Twinkies. If we cut our total saturated fat in half, our cholesterol will follow, especially if we eat more fiber and vegetable protein as they did in the study.”
If anything, this study proves that saturated fat directly affects blood cholesterol levels, but the beef industry spun the findings to make their product look better. More on this strategy below.
Beef reduces cardiovascular disease. Yeah, right. [cue eye roll]
How Someone Can Say Cholesterol Doesn’t Cause Heart Disease
We know from decades of research NOT funded by the meat, dairy and egg industries, and purveyors of fad diet products for Atkins, Paleo and Keto, that cholesterol is the cause of cardiovascular disease. This is not new news.
You can be an obese, smoking couch potato with diabetes, but if your LDL (bad cholesterol) is very low from eating a truly low-fat diet (or from a rare genetic mutation), you have a very low chance of developing heart disease.
Just like we know that smoking causes cancer, we know that too much cholesterol in our blood causes heart disease. The plaque in our arteries is literally made of oxidized cholesterol!
The only thing we can’t do is conduct a randomized, double-blind, placebo controlled clinical trial on cholesterol because people would die of heart disease, and it’s illegal and unethical to do that to people.
And that tiny kink in the armor is all the animal ag and fad diet industries need to create their “controversy” about cholesterol. If scientists could conduct a Gold Standard study, the debate would be over. But since they can’t, the animal ag industries design studies they know will generate no meaningful results or misleading results to cast doubt where none exists.
Controversy created. Profits protected. Tobacco industry fate avoided.
So how do they do it? Here’s one example from the egg industry tactics.
We know cholesterol and triglycerides spike within 2 hours of eating eggs, but the levels settle back down to the baseline 7 hours after consumption. So the egg industry structures their study methodology like this:
- Measure baseline cholesterol and triglycerides.
- Feed the subject eggs.
- Wait 7 or more hours (not allowing the subject to eat anything else).
- Re-measure cholesterol.
Viola! After 7 hours, the cholesterol and triglyceride levels return to the previous levels and the happy egg industry goes on the 6 o’clock news and says, “See! We told you eggs don’t raise your cholesterol! Vindication!”
In fact, eggs are so unhealthy that the egg industry is not legally allowed to say they’re healthy, nutritious or even SAFE for human consumption! Let that sink in for a minute!
But that doesn’t stop them from selling their deadly product, from creating misleading advertising (nutrient dense does not equal nutritious) or from funding misleading studies to create controversy.
How Someone Can Say Olive Oil Is Healthy
They may be a little late to the game, but the cooking oil industry, especially olive oil and coconut oil, is jumping on the Big Food biased science bandwagon. This is largely due to a recent increase in the amount of criticism relating to oil and its promotion of heart disease caused by the saturated fat it contains.
Again, SATURATED FAT RAISES YOUR BLOOD CHOLESTEROL LEVELS AND CHOLESTEROL CAUSES HEART DISEASE.
Pretty much everyone agrees that refined sugar is unhealthy. It’s a processed food that’s 100% carbs, it’s loaded with empty calories (48/tablespoon) and it has no other nutritional value.
Oil, however, is also a processed food that’s 100% fat, it’s loaded with empty calories (120/tablespoon – 2.5 times more calories per gram than sugar) and only has some vitamin E and K, and a tiny amount of omega-3 on it’s plus side. Telling someone to eat olive oil for omega-3 is like telling someone to drink Coke for potassium. The cons far outweigh the pros.
So why does oil (a processed food) get accolades while sugar (another processed food) gets demonized?
Olive oil is a mainstay in the Mediterranean Diet, which was made popular in the 1990’s outside of the Mediterranean, but has existed in the Mediterranean region for hundreds if not thousands of years.
People eating this diet are generally healthier than people eating the standard western, or standard American diet (SAD) that’s high in processed foods, refined sugar and flour, and high fat animal products. While olive oil is one component of the diet, it’s hardly the only component.
In addition to olive oil, the diet consists of large quantities of fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, legumes, whole grains and a little lean meat including fish. It also encourages a glass of red wine per day for the antioxidant value (which can easily be obtained from foods not containing cancer-causing alcohol). In other words, it’s a whole-food plant-based diet with the addition of olive oil, fish, small portions of lean meat and a glass of red wine.
So is it possible that the benefits of the diet are not the olive oil, meat and red wine, but the abundance of whole plant foods they consume?
In fact, that’s probably exactly the reason. “When researchers from the University of Crete recently compared residents of Crete who had heart disease with residents free of the disease, they found that the residents with heart disease ate a diet with ‘significantly higher daily intakes’ of monounsaturated fats (principally from olive oil) as well as higher fat intake overall.”
Other than a significantly higher intake of olive oil, their diets were virtually identical. Yet the subjects in the olive oil group had more heart disease. It’s kind of common sense if you accept that saturated fat contributes to heart disease (see above).
The Mediterranean Diet appears to promote health despite the consumption of olive oil, meat and red wine, not because of those things. The high level of whole plant food consumption and low level of processed food consumption probably counteracts some of the negative effects of the high saturated fat foods.
So if I’m the olive oil industry, how might I create a study that steals the limelight from whole plant foods, and attributes the success of the diet to my product? How can I project their healthy qualities onto my unhealthy product so people keep buying it by the truckload?
All I have to do is fund a study that compares the Mediterranean Diet to a low-fat diet, while providing the test subjects with free extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) and telling them to eat a bunch of it everyday.
Did I mention that the low-fat diet group can’t really be low-fat for this comparison to work? They can only be slightly LESS fat, not low-fat. It’s a LESS-fat control group.
Enter the PREDIMED study, peer reviewed and published in 2013 in a “reputable” medical journal. It was funded by the olive oil and nut industries. It has been cited in over 3,000 other studies over the past 6 years as justification and explanation for the benefits of olive oil. It has been the basis for thousands of articles and news reports touting the benefits of the Mediterranean Diet.
And it was just retracted due to serious methodological flaws. It also had multiple serious conflicts of interest (being funded by the industries that would benefit from a positive outcome, as well as being conducted by researchers affiliated with those industries) and the findings were not only insignificant but totally meaningless.
The study looked at both olive oil and nuts, but I’m going to focus on the olive oil group since that’s what this section is about, and because the nut group had just about the same outcome.
The subjects in the olive oil group consumed a diet that was 39% fat, while the low-fat control group consumed a diet that was 37% fat. Not only is the 2% difference in total fat consumption meaningless, 37% of calories from fat is NOT a low-fat diet!
In a whole-food plant-based diet, the goal is to get 10% of total calories from fat. THAT, my friends, is a low-fat diet!!!
You’ll love this part… The LESS-fat group didn’t follow the recommended diet so they couldn’t be compared to the olive oil and nut groups. Rather than admit this, the researchers said they had to stop the control group because to continue feeding them the LESS-fat diet would be unethical. They said it was killing people! OMG! You can’t make this stuff up!
They spun a negative that should have prevented their study from being published in the first place, into a positive that olive oil addicts LOVE to repeat.
SOMETIMES IT’S HARD NOT TO SCREAM!!!
HOW DO THESE PEOPLE SLEEP AT NIGHT?!!!
In fact, most of the studies published in support of the consumption of a high-fat diet, are not compared to a low-fat diet, but rather, to a different high-fat diet with fewer beneficial components. Usually fewer fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains, or a combination of those.
It appears that conflicts of interest are now the norm, rather than the exception in scientific research.
You can watch what the real expert, Dr. Pamela Popper, has to say on this retracted study here:
What Happens to Studies with Unfavorable Outcomes?
Sometimes, despite the best efforts of the funding sources, the study actually does what it’s supposed to and uncovers the real science. This is usually very bad for the funders and the sales of their products, so what do they do about it?
One common tactic is to just NOT publish the study. They throw it out. If you don’t publish your findings, no one knows about them except the researchers, who are typically required to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement before starting the research. An NDA prohibits them from talking to anyone about what they found.
Another more common tactic is to “spin” the science so it sounds positive to the funder’s products using one or more of these tactics:
- Misreporting the methods
- Misreporting results
- Selective reporting of outcomes and analysis
- Ignoring or understating results that contradict or counterbalance the initial hypothesis
- Misreporting results and figures
These tactics and more can be found in the vast majority of industry funded, peer-reviewed studies. The most common place for spin is in the summary or conclusion of the published work. “In observational studies evaluating an intervention, spin was identified in the abstract’s conclusions in more than 80% of reports.”
Researchers and funders know that the media and most laypeople skip to the abstract/summary/conclusion without reading the whole study and without analyzing the methodology so it’s the best place to spin (or misrepresent) the real findings.
Big Food Without Big Tobacco’s Limits
These are but a tiny, minuscule, few examples of how Big Food uses science to confuse the public with false and misleading studies to create a controversy where none exists. They structure studies that project their negative, unhealthy qualities onto their healthy competition, while projecting their competition’s positive, healthy qualities onto their own deadly products.
They figured out how to remove the shackles placed on Big Tobacco. They have no limits.
Doubt Is Our Product 2.0
I gave this famous Big Tobacco “Doubt Is Our Product” slogan a 2.0 version number to indicate it’s new and improved implementation. Big Food and other deadly industries have studied Big Tobacco’s playbook and they devised a plan to eliminate its only drawback: the lack of studies showing the health benefits of their products.
Armed with their own biased and flawed pseudoscientific studies, they confuse the public into inaction with The Four Dog Defense, Psychological Projection and Conspiracy Theories. When people don’t know what to believe, they don’t do anything. They don’t change their behavior or they adopt worse behaviors. And they continue buying deadly products.
To quote my mom, “You can find something on the internet to justify any side of any position.” And she’s absolutely right. Unfortunately.
But that’s where our human cognition comes in. We can review the evidence and weigh the biases. We can look at the methodologies and the ulterior motives.
If we continue to believe what we’re told without question, we’ll continue to suffer from, and die of, preventable diseases. And so will our loved ones.
Corporations, and the industry associations they fund, have no regard for truth, human life, animal life, health, pollution, the environment or the future of humanity on this planet. They only care about hitting Wall Street’s earnings estimates for the current quarter. And they’ll do whatever it takes to hit their goals without regard for the consequences. They are a cancer that will grow until it destroys the host: Us and Mother Earth.
If we let them.
If we stop buying their deadly products, they’ll stop selling them and start creating better, healthier options. We vote for what we want with the dollars we spend.
“The average American drinks 37% less milk today than in 1970.” And dairy farms are shutting down because of it. That’s how capitalism works. If we stop buying their products, they adapt or go out of business.
It’s up to you to stop allowing yourself to be manipulated for corporate profits. To educate yourself. To stop believing good news about your bad habits. To look at new information with a critical eye. To have an open mind. And to change your mind when new, unbiased, trustworthy facts contradict your previously held opinions.
This isn’t just about living longer. This is about living better and leaving a habitable planet for our children and their children. It’s time for us to stop being selfish, blind and gullible. It’s time to fight back before it’s too late.
If you enjoyed reading this post or learned something new, please share it with your friends and family. If more people understand these tactics, they’ll have less power over us.
P.S. A lot of my references are to Dr. Michael Greger and NutritionFacts.org. That’s because he’s one of a handful of doctors and scientists that I actually trust to tell us the “mostly” unbiased truth. Everyone has biases, even Dr. Greger. But he and his team of mostly volunteers do a very good job of reviewing the studies and presenting them in an accessible way. Plus, his website is just easier to use than most of the other trusted sources’ websites. My next post will be about how I decided who to trust, and who Amelia and I trust as credible nutrition sources.Please share your thoughts in the comments below. And please share with your friends to help spread the word about healthy plant-based eating.