Selling uncertainty

On the marginal price of ignorance

May 25, 2016 — February 18, 2020

Reza Farazmand:

Figure 1: When it’s close it will be larger

On the strategic inception of uncertainty. Fun keyword here: Agnotology, the study of ignorance.

1 Writ small

Possibly one reason this works is the notorious information avoidance problem (Case et al. 2005).

The assumption that individuals actively seek information underlies much of psychological theory and communication practice, as well as most models of the information-seeking process. However, much research has also noted that sometimes people avoid information, if paying attention to it will cause mental discomfort or dissonance. Cancer information in general and genetic screening for cancer in particular are discussed as examples to illustrate this pattern.

2 Writ large

I would be open to the hypothesis that a given incidence of weird social dynamics is a purely emergent behavior, as opposed to malicious conspiracy; but perhaps in this area there a startling number of cases where conspiracy is demonstrably the explanation:

The basic tenet is simple: carefully manipulate public perception about your product to make it sound like we either don’t know that it’s dangerous, or that the harm is caused by something else. Once the public is confused or thoroughly mislead, it’s impossible to get political consensus on any kind of regulation, and you can keep doing business as you see fit.

The tobacco industry is the most famous of such doubt-mongerers for having been caught in the act. But as “Merchants of Doubt” (Oreskes and Conway 2010) recounts, there are many other such examples (pesticides, mattress flame retardants, acid rain, the ozone hole, and most consequentially for our civilization, climate change). The industries behind such campaigns knew full well that they were selling a harmful product, and they just kept doing it until they got caught.

A particularly lurid case might be that of Syngenta going after Tyrone Hayes because his research made their product sound dangerous.

Tim Mitchell’s lecture on the government of uncertainty is also entertaining.

Henry Farrell,

[we have an article] asking why politicians were influenced by a key group of economists early in the Great Recession but not in the later part. […]what was crucial was the perceived degree of unanimity among economists. When the profession of economics appears to be speaking with one voice, politicians are more likely to listen, sometimes even when they don’t want to. When the profession appears to be split, politicians are much better able to pick and choose.

Unfortunately for economists, this offers incentives to politicians who don’t much like what economists are saying to elevate and promote dissident economists to create the appearance of intellectual division.

David Michaels, Science for Sale

Unfortunately, though, this story is old news: most people, especially Americans, have come to expect corporations to put profit above all else. Still, we mostly don’t expect there to be mercenary scientists. Science is supposed to be constant, apolitical, and above the fray. This commonsense view misses the rise of science-for-sale specialists over the last several decades and a “product defense industry” that sustains them—a cabal of apparent experts, PR flaks, and political lobbyists who use bad science to produce whatever results their sponsors want.

Curiosities such as perhaps 25% of all anti-climate propaganda being bots might fit in here.

3 References

Case, Andrews, Johnson, et al. 2005. Avoiding Versus Seeking: The Relationship of Information Seeking to Avoidance, Blunting, Coping, Dissonance, and Related Concepts.” Journal of the Medical Library Association.
Chernov, and Sornette. 2016. Man-made catastrophes and risk information concealment: case studies of major disasters and human fallibility. Management/Business for professionals.
Golman, Hagmann, and Loewenstein. 2017. Information Avoidance.” Journal of Economic Literature.
Jackall. 2009. Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers.
O’Connor, and Weatherall. 2019. The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread.
Oreskes, and Conway. 2010. Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.