I Know Consensus When I See It

So, let’s recap.The experiments, although conducted by researchers of professional standing, are not regarded as conclusive. Eminent research scientists have publicly questioned the claimed significance of these experiments.

Distinguished authorities point out:

1. Research in recent years indicates many possible causes.

2. There’s no agreement among the authorities regarding the cause.

3. There’s no proof about a specific cause.

4. The statistics could apply with equal force to many other aspects of life. In fact, the validity of the statistics themselves is questioned by numerous scientists.

Global warming? Nope.

These are the essential messages from an ad that ran in 448 American newspapers on January 4, 1954. It was taken out by the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, which had been formed a bit earlier by increasingly skittish American tobacco companies that were unnerved by studies starting to link you-know-what with you-know-what. In the textbook example of staying “on message,” this positioning found fertile ground for about 40 years.

While the centrality of the “consensus/no consensus” argument is similar to today’s global warming debate (and while I think that’s interesting) my purpose here is not to equate the two. OK, maybe a little. Mostly I’m using it as a springboard to recommend Allan M. Brandt’s The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America (Basic Books, 2007), from which I’ve paraphrased the above and from which I’m learning a lot at the moment.

For anyone interested in communication, persuasion, marketing, history, advertising and PR  and the like, it’s a terrific, substantive and even-handed read.

— Hornseth

One thought on “I Know Consensus When I See It

  1. jloveland says:

    I know I’m not supposed to do this, but the parallel with global warming is striking.

    Yes, it’s irresponsible to jump to a conclusion too soon. But is it any less irresponsible to do nothing simply because 100% unanimity doesn’t exist? After all, inaction can cause every bit as much harm as much as action.

    One internal tobacco document showed industry officials stating that “doubt is our product.” That is, they didn’t need to win the argument; they just had to seed doubt. That’s the same thing the coal and oil-backed researchers are doing.


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