Plant-based meats and clean (aka lab-grown) meats will be the next targets of a well-financed major misinformation campaign. In the long run, the traditional meat industry is not going to be able to compete on price or quality. An informed consumer will rarely pay more for an inferior or similar product. The meat industry can only survive in the long run if consumers are misinformed. The main strategy will be to confuse the public about the healthfulness and safety of next-gen meats.
There are no simple solutions to curtailing misinformation and widespread science denialism but one of the most important strategies is to get out in front of it. Decades of psychological literature tell us that once a belief is embedded in someone’s mind it’s extremely difficult to get them to change their view–no matter how strong the contravening argument or evidence. Science denialism, conspiracism, and misinformation spread like viruses, so it’s critical to inoculate people against them before they spread.
In this post I’m going to reveal parts of the misinformation playbook so you’ll be able to spot the tactics and avoid succumbing to them in advance. First, I’ll introduce these core tactics through a historical lens: You’ll learn how misinformation campaigns functioned in the past. Then I will explain why the next big misinformation campaign will be against plant-based and clean (lab-grown) meats. Finally, I’ll explain how the core misinformation strategies will be applied to next-gen meats.
Skip Part II. if you just want to read about the upcoming campaign against next-gen meats…although, something about those who ignore history and repeating it.
II. The Misinformation and Science Denialism Playbook: A Quick Romp Through History
Most of us are broadly familiar with the most famous historical case of science denialism and misinformation carried out by the tobacco industry. As early as the 50s there was good evidence that smoking caused lung cancer. In order to protect its industry, tobacco companies engaged in a conspiracy (yes, there are real ones!) to spread doubt and misinformation about this connection. The strategies developed by the tobacco industry have become the playbook for later misinformation, denialist, and conspiracist campaigns.
Here are a few of the core strategies and sub-strategies to look out for (This is NOT a comprehensive list):
A. Strategy: Create Doubt About the Science
Refuting a consensus is difficult. Sowing doubt is easy. This is the most fundamental strategy of all misinformation and denialist campaigns. There are two main interconnected ways to do this: (a) Sow doubt about the trustworthiness of people and institutions producing the science and (b) sow doubt about the science itself. Let’s look at (b).
Refuting a trend in scientific literature is difficult but all that’s really needed is to sow doubt about it in the public consciousness. Sowing doubt is fairly easy since it is the nature of science that almost no conclusion is absolutely certain. Scientific conclusion are always expressed probabilistically. This leaves open the ability to sow doubt by claiming that scientists still aren’t 100% sure about something. Bad actors exploit this by calling undue attention to the intrinsic uncertainty of scientific conclusions regardless of the relative probabilities. For example, a conclusion might be 80% certain. Does the 20% uncertainty mean we throw up our hands as though there’s no reasonable position to take? If you only produce headlines about uncertainty (and not relative uncertainty), this is how segments of the public will react. The tobacco industry leaned on this strategy for decades. Here are a couple other ways it’s often done:
- Ignore large trends in the literature by focusing on single studies or parts of single studies: Different studies are designed to demonstrate and investigate different kinds of conclusions: some focus on mechanisms, some on effect, some on correlation, some are retroactive, some are prospective, some seek to establish causation. No single study can do all things. That’s why it’s important to focus on trends in scientific literature rather than on single studies. There was a clear trend in research on the relation between lung cancer and smoking tobacco. Tobacco companies exploited the necessary incompleteness of individual studies to sow doubt. For example, an epidemiological study shows that 90% of lung cancer patients in the US were smokers. However, by design, observational studies cannot establish causation (on their own). It’s not what they’re for. There could be other confounding variables that explain the relation. Tobacco companies exploit this by claiming this study is bad science because it doesn’t show causation. The reader’s attention is diverted to a single correlational study and away from the larger trend in multiple lines of converging evidence–the hallmark of a strong scientific finding. This method should sound familiar if you follow current denialist strategies…
- Conflate disagreement over mechanism with disagreement over effects: By the 70s, there was widespread agreement in the scientific community that smoking tobacco caused lung cancer. However, there was disagreement and uncertainty with respect to the precise mechanism by which smoking caused lung cancer. The tobacco strategy was to sow doubt in the public by promoting the idea that “scientists disagree.” The message (which should sound familiar) goes something like this: “People claim that there’s a scientific consensus but even among the scientists we find disagreement and uncertainty. This study says tobacco causes cancer through mechanism X, this other study says it’s caused through mechanism Y. So much for scientific consensus! The scientists don’t even agree among themselves. People who claim otherwise are misleading you and alarmist” The public is non-culpably mislead. The industry has pulled the ol’ switcher-oo between consensus on causal relation and on mechanism! Again, this should sound familiar.
- Use strategic omissions and framing to mislead and sow doubt: This is just a general statement of which the above are particular strategies. Consider your reaction to the following headline:
Only 10-15% of smokers get lung cancer!
That sounds pretty low. The tobacco companies sowed doubt by arguing that the link in tenuous because 85-90% of smokers don’t get lung cancer. There’s probably some other variable other than tobacco that might explain the lung cancer in smokers. Smoking causing lung cancer is hoax!
The denialist argument might seem compelling until we situate it in its correct context; i.e., we don’t pluck it from all the other data surrounding the issue. First, of people who get lung cancer, 90% are smokers. Also, most smokers die of other smoking related conditions before they show signs of lung cancer. When we situate the initial lung cancer statistic in a more complete context, the case against tobacco is much more compelling. But, unlike the tobacco industry, the scientific community doesn’t have billion-dollar advertising campaigns and PR firms to get inside the public’s head.
The general public rarely hears the contextualized message and if they do, they’ve been “skepticized” in advance. Recall, it’s extremely difficult to change someone’s mind once they’ve taken a position–especially when their identity or habit are involved (e.g., being a smoker/enjoying smoking). This is (in part) how the tobacco industry was able to forestall large-scale public opposition for half a century. It is hands down one of the most difficult deceptions to catch because it requires non-experts to have a fairly broad and deep understanding of the relevant background literature. Many people are non-culpably fooled with this tactic–which makes it a favorite among denialist campaigns.
4. Link to Studies that Don’t Show What the Author Thinks They Show: This strategy is related to the above strategies but pertains to the internet age. To mislead the public, organizations can give articles the veneer of legitimate science by linking to scientific studies that don’t actually support the author’s point. As one study suggests, fewer than 1% of people actually click on those links anyway. They reasonably assume that the author isn’t misleading them and/or actually understands the study they’re linking to.
B. Strategy: Create Doubt Regarding who the Legitimate Experts and Institutions are, and their Trustworthiness and Credibility.
This strategy is absolutely critical. People are only likely to fall for misleading information if they disregard what the genuine experts say and/or are confused about who the genuine experts are. We can’t all be experts in all things and no one has time to deeply research every single claim we hear. We have to rely on and trust experts and institutions of knowledge. For most of contemporary human history, it wasn’t difficult to identify the legitimate scientific experts and institutions. They all worked at universities.
- Reduce trust in legitimate institutions and experts: The first prong of the strategy is to discredit or at least sow doubt about the credibility, trustworthiness, and identity of the legitimate experts and institutions for an issue. The general public becomes skeptical of genuine experts opening them to misinformation.
- Create and Fund parallel institutions: The other part of the strategy involves creating and funding parallel pseudo-experts and institutions that have the appearance of legitimacy, credibility, and impartiality in order to further confuse the public. In the 70s and 80s ideological think tanks and “consumer advocacy” groups blossomed. These institutions often select names straight out of Orwell. For example, the tobacco industry hired several prominent cold war physicists to head their newly created institution, “The Council for Tobacco Research.” From the point of view of the public, they now hear news reports that scientists’ from legitimate and impartial-sounding Council for Tobacco Research found no link between tobacco and lung cancer. Never mind that the scientists are physicists, not cancer researchers, and that the legitimate-sounding Council for Tobacco Research is an industry-funded organization with a mission to publish misleading and biased research and to discredit legitimate research. This strategy, once again, should sound familiar.
- Find and/or Create Ideological or Interest-Based Allies: This one’s straight forward enough. Arguments and talking points are much more credible if they come from a group or person not directly affiliated with the interest group. For example, one prong of the tobacco industry’s strategy in the 80s was to form alliances with libertarian groups such as the Tea Party, Americans for Prosperity, and Freedomworks to “organically” oppose smoke-free zones and tobacco taxes. The plan was to “create the appearance of broad opposition to tobacco control policies by attempting to create a grassroots smokers’ rights movement. Simultaneously, they funded and worked through third-party groups, such as Citizens for a Sound Economy […].”Link The veneer of authentic citizen engagement lends legitimacy to the position.
C. Invoke fear and anger:
Involving emotions applies to every aspect of misinformation. Understanding the role of emotions is critical to understanding how misinformation, denialism, and conspiracism spread so quickly today. Fear and anger have important effects on our cognitive functioning and our online behavior.
- Fear makes us risk averse and so we are more likely to oppose changes to the status quo. Although fear also motivates information-seeking, it causes us to process information in a biased way–giving more weight to the fear-inducing information. This is why fear is commonly used in misinformation against new technologies and proposed government regulation. Fear can be used by both sides. Propagators of misinformation understand this so they make sure fear is directed at their target.
For example, people have reason to be fearful of the effects of smoking but–especially in the US–there’s a culture of fear surrounding government shaping individuals’ decisions. What follows are political fear-based campaigns about governments banning tobacco or prohibiting smoking in–gasp–public spaces like restaurants and airplanes. (Yes, young readers, people used to smoke in restaurants and airplanes). All the while, the fact that we should be fearful of lung and mouth cancer and cardiovascular disease is pushed out of the discussion in the name of individual rights and freedoms. A word to the wise: When you hear an industry arguing for freedom of choice, be skeptical. What they usually mean is freedom from accountability and civic responsibility.
- Anger reduces our cognitive capacities and exacerbates motivated reasoning. When we’re angry, we’ll passionately defend false views so long as they align with our prior convictions. Anger is particularly useful in spreading conspiracism and denialism. Who wouldn’t be angry to “discover” that some company, the government, or an industry is trying to do evil things to us? Once you’re worked up, you’re going to share the bejesus out of that article to warn everyone.
- Finally, emotions are important for spreading misinformation because emotionally charged messages are much more likely to be shared than posts and articles that are emotionally neutral.
I could go on.
The playbook has become long and sophisticated. Learning all the techniques would require taking a course which, as your luck would have it, I have built and offer online free of charge!
In what follows, I want to talk about the next big misinformation campaign. Until now, it’s only been a trickle, but you can bet your bottom dollar it will be in full force within 2 years (I’m calling it here!). So you and others don’t fall prey, I’m going to administer your vaccine.
III. The Next Big Misinformation Campaign: Plant-Based and Clean (i.e., Lab Grown) Meats
A. Who and Why?
The old adage in journalism is “follow the money.” To be sure, this is a good rule of thumb but on its own it doesn’t show guilt or malevolence. However, we can make a reasonable inference based on past experiences. Very rarely has an industry ever taken an existential threat lying down. And plant-based/clean meats ARE an existential threat to meat producers.
The success of next-gen meats has caught just about everyone by surprise. But to those familiar with this new industry’s strategy, their wide-spread success should be less surprising. The long-term term goal is to offer a better product (than traditional meat) at a lower price with a smaller environmental footprint and with no animal suffering.
Think about it.
Someone presents you with a cow and a plant-based or lab-grown meat. They say to you that the plant-based/clean meat
- tastes just as good or better than the cow;
- has a similar nutritional profile,
- creates almost no environmental footprint relative to beef (Beyond Burgers required 99% less water, 93% less land use, 90% fewer greenhouse gasses, and 46% less energy); and
- and it’s cheaper.
Then they tell you:
(a) I can sell you this plant-based/clean burger or
(b) you can pay a little more and I can drive a bolt through this baby cow’s skull, slice up its carcass, and give you a slab.
Which do you prefer?
That essentially the choice consumers will have within about 5 years. (They almost have it now except they have to pay an extra dollar for the next-gen meat instead.)
As a percentage of the population, very few–with full information–will ask you to slaughter the baby cow. Who’s going to say, “No, I want to pay more for the same product that causes more environmental damage and animal suffering.” Humans are irrational, but not all of them all of the time. Most of us, to some degree and on some occasions, act contrary to our own beliefs and values. The genius behind the next-gen strategy is that it doesn’t rely on ethics but on economics. You can completely ignore environmental and animal welfare considerations and still get everything you want for less. Most humans will choose the cheaper product, especially if its superior assuming full information.
The traditional meat industry has 3 ways of responding to this existential threat:
- Make a superior product,
- Drop the price or
- Ensure that consumers don’t have full information.
The first strategy is only a short-term solution because next-gen meat technology is only in its infancy. The products will only get better, more diverse, and cheaper. And whatever can be cut from an animal’s carcass can also be replicated and improved in a lab.
The second strategy isn’t sustainable either. The traditional meat industry is already massively subsidized directly and indirectly. Dropping prices means further socializing the cost of meat and the meat industry. At some point, tax-payers will wonder whether it’s worth continuing to artificially prop up an obsolete industry.
That leaves strategy #3. Ensure consumers aren’t fully informed. AKA, make sure they’re misinformed.
B. But How?
Here is where it’s helpful to become familiar with some of the tried-and-true strategies for misinformation. Let me tell you how the meat industry is going undertake its misinformation campaign by taking you through the strategies I mentioned in the introduction.
1. They are going to sow doubt about the relative safety of the new products. Never mind that all such products undergo rigorous safety testing. Here’s how they’re going to do it:
a. Appeal to scientific ignorance/chemophobia: They will list scary sounding chemicals that constitute or are used in the production of next-gen meat. Next to it, they’ll put a chunk of traditional meat and write, “Ingredients: just meat.” You’ll see memes and articles bravely proclaiming, “I’m not putting a bunch of chemicals in my body.” (Ok, stop breathing then…) This is a common strategy employed already by the organic lobby. But as you can see from the picture to the right, you can make any food sound scary to many people if you simply list its chemical make-up. You could do the same for the traditional meat.
b. Link to animal studies that don’t show what they purport to show: There are a few ways to do this. But let me first point out what is widely understood in the scientific community: that even well-conducted animal studies are poor predictors for effects on humans.
- Publish studies that use a dose/body weight ratio on lab animals that massively exceeds what a human would ever reasonably consume. This allows you to write headlines that say, “Lab rats that consumed X found in next-gen meat Y got cancer/became obese/[insert any health problem]. People don’t click past the headline so no need to worry about people actually reading the study.
- Statistical fishing/p-hacking. If you test for enough variables, statistical laws imply you will always find some statistical correlation between two of the many variables. Of course, using this method makes it impossible to distinguish between statistical correlation and genuine causation. No matter. All you need is the headline or link saying that “chemical X in next-gen meat possibly linked to [insert negative health outcome].” Gee, better avoid that product just in case–and completely ignore that consuming traditional meat has well-established correlations to poor health outcomes…
- Sow Doubt/Confusion about the Nutritional Differences. They will apply statistical fishing to compare every possible nutrient between traditional meat and the target next-gen meat. Obviously the results will be mixed but they will select the few nutrients where traditional meat is superior. They will not advertise the metrics where traditional is inferior. Then they will present the information is a misleading context.
For example, traditional meat has 4.8 mg of zinc/serving. Next-gen meat, let’s stipulate, has 1mg/serving. What does this mean for overall health? What percentage is this of the recommended daily allowance? These answers will be buried deep in the article. And how relevant is it anyway? No one is going to eat next-gen meat as their one and only food just like no one does with traditional meat. But the headline you’ll read is: TRADITIONAL MEAT CONTAINS 500% MORE ZINC THAN [INSERT NEXT GEN-MEAT]!!!
And just like that, all of a sudden everyone is oh-so-concerned about maximizing their zinc intake…and the only way to get it is through lots and lots of traditional meat. No other foods contain zinc.
2. Find Natural Allies and/or Create Them: Finding natural allies isn’t that hard. Here’s one thing we know about humans. If you provide them with evidence (no matter how weak) that confirms what they already believe they will drink that kool aid like an unsupervised 7 seven-year-old at a birthday party. This partly explained why so many smokers were so easily mislead by tobacco misinformation. It confirmed what they already wanted to be true and it involved an activity or belief central to their identity. Here are a few groups who will be naturally sympathetic to the meat industry where you should expect to find pro-traditional meat propaganda.
1. Cross fit community.
2. Paleo diet community.
3. Anti-GMO crowd.
4. The alt-right.
All of these groups, for various cultural, ideological, and doxastic reasons, are invested in traditional meat being superior (for any criterion) to whatever plant-based/clean meat companies come up with. There is no amount of evidence that will convince them to the contrary because their pro-traditional meat stance grows out of beliefs central to their identity. Challenging those beliefs challenges the foundations of their identity which means they will be very defensive.
Cross-fitters and paleo diet adherents believe that if something is “natural” (whatever that means) or was part of our early evolutionary diet then health-wise it’s automatically better for you. Anti-GMO groups believe the same but also add a moral element (here’s another study) tied to biological essentialism and teleological thinking: Food that is created in a lab is objectionably messing with nature. And it’s doubly bad since GE foods are created by a profit-motivated corporations (which actually isn’t true of many GE foods; e.g., GE plantains and cassava in Africa, Golden Rice, and Bt eggplant in Bangladesh and India). Of course, we all know that meat farmers and distributors are driven purely by altruism. They don’t care one fig if they make a profit.
Furthermore, for this group, safety research and standards can’t be trusted because the FDA has been captured by industry. Even if this were entirely true, such groups ignore or trivialize high quality impartial research and major trends in the overall literature. (I’ll return to the anti-GMO/organic crowd later).
Various groups on the political right define themselves in part as “not the left.” And they don’t mean just politically. The left disproportionately consumes plant-based diets, therefore identity politics logic dictates that people on the right have to eat a lot of meat. Makes sense, right? For someone on the alt-right to consume a predominantly plant-based diet would mean they are the same as a global warming-believing liberal. That’s simply not an alternative.
It’s important to note that it’s much more convincing to the generally ambivalent public if there’s (the appearance of) “grassroots” opposition and skepticism toward next-gen meats. We trust the people in our social networks and so our guard is down when these stories enter our newsfeeds via friends and trusted news outlets. Given this social dynamic, it’s no surprise that in 2018, 7/10 of the top health articles shared on social media were false or misleading.
3. Sow Confusion and Doubt Over Who Are Trustworthy Experts:
- Personal attacks on scientists working on next-gen meats in order to undermine their credibility in order to cast doubt on their science. The easiest way to do this is through freedom of information requests. Muck-rakers comb through thousands of emails then use highly decontextualized excerpts from those emails in order to create an illusion of nefarious deeds or bad science.
- Pseudo Institutions of Knowledge: Following the tobacco playbook, watch for what look like neutral and legitimate consumer advocacy websites and research groups that have the trappings of legitimacy. Often googling “who funds [insert institution]” will reveal who’s behind the curtain. You can frequently (but not always) find this information on wikipedia.
- “Experts”: As I said, often the best way to sow doubt is to get people with natural alliances to do the work for you. It comes off as more authentic which avoids trigging our skeptical sensibilities. Despite the fact that the “wellness” and fitness industry is notorious for bad science millions of people take advice from self-professed gurus.
For example, Max Lugavere, a Hollywood “fitness guru” is already (probably non-culpably) supporting traditional meat. He is a regular on Dr. Oz for health and fitness segments. Must be a genuine expert. He’s on TV, after all. Credentials? Not so much. He has an undergraduate degree in film and psychology yet bills himself as a health and science journalist. (Link)
Here is from a recent Tweet.
|Oh, Max…too predictable!|
IV. Final Thoughts (and Prayers)
Safety testing is another issue for these groups that will certainly lead to internal war. Members of these groups (and others) will demand impossibly high levels of safety testing given their general anti-biotech/anti-corporate dispositions. However, the safety standards they demand probably can’t be accomplished without some animal testing. Do you test on some animals to save billions of future ones? On the one side you’ll have absolutists–the end can never justify the means–and on the other are the pragmatists/utilitarians. Expect things to get nasty. I hope that the absolutists come to understand that sometimes future consequences matter more that mere principle or at least that the absolutists are small in number.