Les Gardiens de la Raison
Enquête sur la désinformation scientifique (2020)
Capturing the rationalist argument
Several books and journalistic investigations have shown that the tobacco, pesticide and oil industries fabricate doubt on scientific subjects that affect them commercially. The three of us - two investigative journalists and a social scientist - have each made our own contribution to describing these phenomena. If we have decided to undertake a new book together, it is because, in our view, a new level has been reached in the manipulation of the authority of science for the purposes of influence.
The 2000s were a time of lobbying by these "merchants of doubt" and their sponsored studies concealing the dangers of their chemicals, soft drinks and greenhouse gases. But they were also, without doubt, those of the great unveiling. The lawsuits brought against the tobacco industry in the late 1990s led to millions of confidential documents being made available online, revealing the strategies of their PR firms.
Ironically, it was the important work of raising public awareness and disseminating this information by researchers, NGOs and journalists that precipitated the mutation and acceleration of forms of manipulation of science by the private sector.
Industry has adapted to this wave of scandals and documentation of its actions. We are no longer simply witnessing the misuse of scientific expertise, but a more profound detour of the very logic of a public space based on an ideal of truth.
Micro-influencers and digital marketing
In particular, the book looks at the new stealth strategies concocted by digital marketing. For some agencies specializing in the manipulation of social networks, the new horizon of scientific lobbying is the ordinary citizen, the micro-influencer, as the trade jargon puts it.
Transformed into "field relays", they disseminate arguments designed and shaped by others. Defending climate skepticism in the name of free speech, anti-feminism in the name of the so-called "discoveries" of evolutionary biologists or neuroscientists: the micro-influencer disseminates and shares on social networks prose written by a handful of campus intellectuals converted to ultra-liberal and libertarian watchwords.
In the ecosystem of modern-style deception, the preferred target of influencers is no longer just the minister or senior European Commission official, but the college biology teacher hosting a "science café", or the enlightened agronomist passing on knowledge on his blog.
Enlisting science enthusiasts
Rationalist ideas used to be part of the fundamentals of the left, associating science with progress; today, they are used to stifle any social movement that tries to use the weapons of science to argue its case. Non-profit" associations, in fact funded by industry, are putting "ordinary" citizens in the saddle to demand that their MPs make their political decisions on the basis of scientific evidence.
Industry-funded science enthusiasts are calling for the establishment of centers supplying ready-to-use scientific material to journalists, along the lines of the UK's Science Media Centre. Or even high-level authorities to control the dissemination of information on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), nuclear power or chemicals. This type of strategy, which involves taking a position as close as possible to the public research and health sector, goes far beyond the manufacture of doubt.
Private-sector lobbyists are thus transformed into permanent but self-interested auxiliaries of science, truth and the common good. We may not yet have reached the Orwellian stage of a unified Ministry of Truth, but the Truth Brigades are already in action.
The 2020s will be a time of self-proclaimed fact-checkers, information verifiers and rumor hunters. In addition to this takeover of scientific mediation venues and players, a veritable capture of language is also underway. In an incessant passive-aggressive dialectic, the words and concepts invented to describe these strategies are returned to the sender. It is the journalists and environmental activists, and the researchers who have analyzed them, whom the accused are trying to brand with the seal of infamy, in turn labeling them as merchants of doubt and disseminators of fake news.
A journalistic investigation with a sociologist on board, this book is neither a social science thesis ready to be discussed in academic seminars, nor an essay declaiming pure opinion.
It takes a documented, argued and empirical approach to the most recent developments in lobbying strategies aimed at scientific information.