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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

How to Manipulate The Public Into Believing Corporate Lies

Prof. Jennifer Jacquet explains the tactics used to cast doubt about scientific research that threatens corporate profits.

Jennifer Jacquet is not actually an evil corporate consultant. She’s a professor in NYU’s Department of Environmental Studies and deputy director of the school’s Center for Environmental and Animal Protection. But you might think otherwise if you flipped open her book The Playbook: How to Deny Science, Sell Lies, and Make a Killing in the Corporate World, a tongue-in-cheek handbook supposedly directed toward CEOs who want to fully follow Milton Friedman’s dictum that “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Its Profits.” 

The Playbook shows these readers what to do when they find that the spread of scientific knowledge is posing a threat to their bottom line. Using case studies from the cigarette industry, the fossil fuel industry, and more, it’s a “guide on whom to hire, how to recruit experts, tips for effective communication, and ways to successfully challenge the science, the policy, and the scientists, reporters, and activists using science to further their policy agendas.”

In fact, Prof. Jacquet is interested in exposing these techniques. Her book shows just how many insidious ways there are to sow doubt on scientific research that demonstrates a corporate harm, and she teaches readers to identify the familiar tricks that are used to keep effective public policies from curtailing corporate wrongdoing. Today she joins us to discuss the methods that have been perfected for protecting corporations from the ongoing risk posed by the public’s exposure to truth.

Robinson  

Your book is probably the first book I’ve interviewed anyone about that is written almost entirely in sarcasm. Could you start by explaining the premise of The Playbook?

Jacquet  

The Playbook was written by my alter ego, who runs a consulting company called JJ and Friends. We work on behalf of our clients to help them understand how to both deny science and also use it to their advantage. “A good accountant doesn’t allow a new tax code to ruin its clients, and we’re doing the same for science here at JJ and Friends.” So, yes, the book is written in a sarcastic way, for a variety of different reasons. I felt that looking at it from that side—I also taught at the Stern School of Business for a long time at NYU—would actually give me some kind of advantage. I think it did; it helped me predict certain tactics that I was able to outline.

Robinson  

Your book starts from the perspective: if I were a consultant and I accepted the Milton Friedman premise that the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits and nothing more, and that there is a fiduciary duty to put the pursuit of profit above all else, what then would be the various implications that flow from that, in terms of how a corporation was obligated and ought to approach scientific research that threatened it?

Jacquet  

Yes, exactly. Or scientific knowledge in general. The book is really an homage to scientific knowledge. When you think about the various competing forms of knowledge we could be using, we’re fortunate to live in the modern moment, which is heavily grounded in science: a wonderful way of knowing the world that’s more open to a democratic approach to forming knowledge than any other system. And most businesses, of course, are very pro science and use it to their advantage. We’re living through a global pandemic, and we know Pfizer and Moderna used science to help create vaccines so that maybe, we wouldn’t all die from COVID-19.

But there are moments when scientific knowledge threatens business operations, and the science of climate change is very much one of those moments for fossil fuel companies. They have internal scientists and external scientific knowledge, and confront the problem of climate change and then decide the writing is on the wall for them: this is really going to undermine their business, full stop. They had some options at that juncture, and their Milton Friedman approach was to pull the greatest heist on global consciousness one could possibly imagine and pretend this was a hoax. And I say “pretend” because internally, they did know climate change was real.

Robinson  

But as you point out in chapter one, “Denial, a fiduciary duty,” if you build an institution around the maximization of profits that follows the Friedman dictum and sells a certain product that will cause terrible human harm, you have this awful conflict between the interests of the artificial institution of the corporation and the interests of everyone else.

Jacquet  

Yes, or the interests of the even this structured form of knowledge, which is why this book is so important in the present moment because we’re really talking about undermining or threatening an entire way of knowing the world.

Now, keep in mind, every company would have that impulse if scientific knowledge threatens their business—they’d like to fight it. But not all companies are well-suited to do that. We have many examples through history where that’s certainly the case. And again, the fossil fuel companies outright denying climate change is probably the biggest and boldest example of it.

It started in the early 20th century with workers issues around medical issues, like lead, radium, and asbestos. The asbestos companies employed their own doctors who were looking at X-rays of the employees, could see they were developing life-threatening illnesses as a result of handling their products, and then directly lied to their faces.

So, there’s a long history of denying scientific knowledge—in this case, medical knowledge—so the business can stay afloat. It hasn’t stopped with climate change, either. I think what this book does is point out that when scientific knowledge threatens the business, they will respond in very predictable ways, and we need to be braced for those moments.

Robinson  

Yes. I think the value of the book is that you get inside the heads of those who think in terms of, “How do we neutralize the threat this research is posing to our profits?” So, The Playbook, even though it looks like an amoral playbook for corporations to pursue the campaign of denial, is, in fact, a playbook for those of us who wish to anticipate what they will do and counter it.

Jacquet  

Yes. And in fact, it’s relatively banal at the end of the day. Once you put on and really try to embrace the mindset of needing to make money at all costs—”we have to stay in the business, corner the market, and maintain our market share”—it’s easy to see the kind of tactics that fall out of that.

Luckily, we have some stopgaps that hold us back from going full hog. For instance, in many South American countries, scientists have been physically threatened, harassed, and chased by agrochemical companies in a way that we haven’t seen as much of in the United States—although that could change. So, it’s not as if we don’t have some sort of social backstops, but it is pretty easy to predict how scientists are harassed depending on the geopolitical setting.

Robinson  

And those might be, in part, external constraints on corporate activity. That is to say, if the law and journalism are capable of exposing bad acts, then corporations can’t commit them without consequence.

I’ve always been shocked every time I think about the logical conclusion of the pure pursuit of the Friedmanite “social responsibility of businesses is to increase profits” thing. Because if you really accepted that as the sole social responsibility of business, physical violence against scientists would be a fiduciary obligation, except to the extent that one could get caught. It’s a real sociopathic maxim.

Jacquet  

Yes, as with child labor, and a seven-day workweek. That’s what I mean by these sorts of social backstops: we do have structures in place, and the corporation can’t go as far as it might like to. This book is a call to arms that we need more of them, vis-a-vis scientific knowledge.

Robinson  

One of the things that really comes across in The Playbook is how big the playbook is. How many different tactics can be used to sow doubt on and discredit inconvenient facts for the corporation?

Jacquet  

Yes, and then they refresh every decade or so in the digital space and with digital tools now to create fake messages or advertising and spread it throughout social media. It’s given them a whole new set of tools. I think we have to think long and hard about how to make sure truth prevails.

Robinson  

Let’s map out the different kinds of methods that can be used to fight inconvenient scientific knowledge.

Jacquet  

I argue there are really four broad strategies, and then the specifics fall into each of these bins.

The first is to outright challenge the problem the science has outlined altogether. The classic and most obvious case of this is the example of climate change. There are almost very few other examples as bold and brazen as this. The companies that made CFCs [chlorofluorocarbons] did not deny the existence of the ozone layer altogether. Instead, they tried to minimize it or argue that much of it was natural, with various ways that you can play around the edges of the problem.

The second is to challenge causation. This is, I’d say, the bread and butter of what corporations are up to. They want to say, “Yes, of course there’s a problem with chemicals in the watershed, but it’s not because of us. Instead, it’s because of this or that.” “Of course there is cancer, but smoking doesn’t cause it. It’s because you already had a genetic predisposition, a personality prone to addiction, or all these other causes.”

Third is to challenge individual scientists making the claims, or reporters or activists—whoever’s making these claims, and put them in the hot seat.

And finally, challenge the policies if you haven’t been successful at challenging those three groups. It comes down to a policy discussion that, for example, maybe we should be taxing carbon. You challenge the policies altogether, and say we do need to address climate change, but taxing carbon is not the way to go, instead we should do X, Y, or Z. And then, once taxing carbon becomes politically impossible, then come out and encourage the taxation of carbon. It’s a ruse, and all in the name of buying time.

That’s what these tactics are good for, it engages with something that science takes very seriously as a way of knowing the world and is always open to revision. And there are, again, other competing forms of knowledge that are not always open to revision, like for example, religious forms of knowledge. Science always says, “We will deal with the pushback seriously; we’ll entertain that hypothesis; nothing is ever case closed.” The corporations see that as a loophole—it’s their offshore tax haven for science, and they exploit it over and over again.

Robinson  

So the very thing that makes science strong also makes it weak and vulnerable in a certain way. Scientists want to be cautious about making extremely confident statements, and then the corporation could claim, “You see? They’re not even confident in what they believe, so why should you be?”

Jacquet  

Exactly, that is the culture of science, and it’s the way of doing science. It can take decades or even centuries to reach consensus on positions. It’s a beautiful thing, but in the short run, it makes science very vulnerable.

Robinson  

The last point you mentioned was about attacking the policies. I’m a regular reader of the Wall Street Journal op-ed page because I need to keep tabs on what industry is saying. I try not to believe any of it, but it really tells you where Wall Street stands on any given thing. I’ve noticed over time a switch from outright climate change denial to “we shouldn’t do anything about it.” For example: all the proposals to deal with it won’t work and will eat up taxpayer money; the problem is real, but it’s not so important; it’s only going to hit GDP a little bit, so don’t do anything—whatever you do, no matter what you believe about how real it is, don’t do anything.

Jacquet  

Yes, they have that sequential tactic down, from denying the problem, then denying the cause; hurting the scientists, journalists, and activists still working on it, and eventually litigators; and then denying or challenging the policies. This has bought the fossil fuel companies over 50 years of profits. If you run the calculations, this was an excellent bet on their part. We should all be really upset about that, frankly. Gambling with the planet, our future, and our morality in that way is really villainous.

Robinson  

Yes, it’s pretty unconscionable to enrich yourself based on harming other people by defrauding and lying to the public about the harm that you’re doing. A couple of years ago, there was an Exxon lobbyist who was caught on tape discussing their support for carbon taxes, admitting, “Yes, we support a carbon tax because we know it won’t happen. We deliberately picked that policy.” This is part of the strategy to make sure there is no policy that gets passed.

Jacquet  

We’re really talking about the most powerful transnational corporations in the world, and it’s hard to even pinpoint individuals within those firms that are tacitly responsible. This is what’s so interesting is that culture, that dominant Friedman-esque idea of what the corporation is, seems to dominate this behavior and allow it to be so predictable.

It’s really painful to see it unfold in this way. And what’s even crazier is, when you read a book like Empire of Pain about the Sackler family of Purdue Pharma, which is privately held, I had a nugget of hope this company may act a little bit differently because it’s not under the publicly traded profit maximization. It’s exactly untrue. It’s just the playbook word for word all over again, it’s greed as the way of existing in the world.

Robinson  

One of the important things your book does is put different cases together for very different subjects, from drug manufacturers to cigarettes and climate change. You really can see the tendencies much more easily when you’ve seen something similar in different cases. When you go through the history of the tobacco companies, you then can really see what the fossil fuel companies are doing much more clearly.

Jacquet  

Yes. What’s significant is the role of third-party allies—public relations firms or strat comms [strategic communication] companies—in helping globalize and share these tactics across companies. So, they’re really the arms dealers. Exxon doesn’t want to share what it does with Chevron, let alone Tyson or Cargill. But the PR firms take these tactics, sharpen them in these campaigns, and then swiftly move them across. John Hill at Hill+Knowlton Strategies was a genius at doing this. That’s how their side is so well-equipped, they’re hiring the same firms to do their bidding.

Robinson  

Some days, I think it’s an interesting question to wonder, “Do people know what they’re doing, or are they in denial?” And then some other days I think, “I don’t care whether they know it or not, the actions are the same.” It’s of no interest to me what goes on in their minds. The PR people I somewhat understand because I went to law school and lawyers are the same—their mindset, in terms of justifying it to themselves, is, “My job isn’t to think about the substance; I’m just here to help a client. The ethics of my profession are to do the best for my client.” That’s the extent of the ethical inquiry I need to make.

But for you, as someone who’s been in a business school and seen the business culture, do the people within fossil fuel or tobacco companies recognize the dishonesty of the playbook? Did they say, “We know that we’re doing harm, but we’re going to lie about it.” It feels to me very few people would be able to admit that to themselves honestly.

Jacquet  

It’s very hard to find examples of this. It’s even difficult to find examples of industry-funded scientists within universities who regret the work they’ve done. That’s a group of people where I’d expect to find that more often—I looked for it and was surprised at how little I saw, with a few incredible exceptions. One of the managers at Johns Manville, the asbestos corporation that eventually went bankrupt because of their denial of worker safety, wrote a long piece in the Harvard Business Review about this culture of denial and how problematic he thought it was. I wouldn’t say it was super revealing in terms of the psychology, but it was to say that someone there had a pulse, and that felt distinct.

It really is hard to see examples of this. There are these masterminds, and there are clearly plenty of individuals carrying out this work in a piecemeal fashion and can probably deny it because they’re working on this for a few months and then move on to something else. But then there are people like Lee Raymond, who was the CEO of Exxon during the period in which it really went whole hog into climate denial, who really did seem to have hardcore ideological beliefs that would be interesting to get on the record. 

Robinson  

What do you mean? 

Jacquet  

In the sense there hasn’t been enough work into figuring out his psychology. There’s been much more done to figure out the Koch brothers by Jane Mayer, but Lee Raymond is a pretty important figure for what happened with climate denial. I feel there’s not enough interest in what makes him tick, although perhaps it’s as simple as greed. Really, that’s how it appears.

Robinson  

It’s true. There are so many efforts to cast greed to something else. Charles Koch wrote a book called Good Profit, about how to do well while doing good, and all that. It’s very strange to me that all the people who are wreaking this destruction for their own benefit still think of themselves as good people doing good for the world.

Jacquet  

Yes. That’s one thing that has to change. There are many options that we could go about trying to figure out how to fix all this, but one of them is to delegitimize many of these industries. Of course, it’d be nice to delegitimize the whole model of profit seeking as the be-all and end-all to existence. And then after that, there shouldn’t be as much prestige as there is to work in these extractive industries which really exist to rape and pillage the earth. You’re laughing, but it’s still pretty glamorous.

Robinson  

Yes, there shouldn’t be glamour in working for the “destruction of the world” industry.

Jacquet  

Yes, that would be a good place to start.

Robinson  

Weapons companies should be added to the list because they need human conflict to persist.

Jacquet  

I agree. I wish I had more about weapons manufacturers in the book—I only have a few cases, one in which the NRA sent a letter directly to a scientist who was doing work on the impact of gun violence in America. But, I don’t have enough research on them. It’s a really great area for exploration.

Robinson  

The fact that many weapons company executives also serve in foreign policy think tanks suggests to me there’s a conflict of interest in terms of whether you produce opinions more likely to exacerbate global conflict or resolve it through diplomacy.

Jacquet  

They’ve had an enormous chilling effect on independent research in the United States by people who might be interested in pursuing research into gun violence. I think they are dissuaded by the power of the NRA. They’ll love that I say that, by the way. They’ll say, “That’s a win, for us. This is a measurable outcome.”

Robinson  

We’ve discussed the casting of doubt on actual scientific research, but much of The Playbook discusses the manufacture of fake scientific research, or pseudo-science, creating the illusion of this alternate body of knowledge with the appearance of credibility.

Jacquet  

It’s not so much that it’s pseudoscience, but about shaping the scientific research agenda. John Hill was so smart and understood the way science had legitimacy within our society, and he said, “I’m going to get all this tobacco money and give it to medical doctors and researchers interested in alternative causation.” So, some of that that interest was genuinely motivated. They wondered if something else caused lung cancer, aside from smoking. He found all the people that he could and gave them a lot of money. And not only did this create an illusion that there were all these alternative causation hypotheses, but it also kept those people busy. It kept them from looking at smoking, and instead, working on genes, addictive personalities, or on other questions.

So, it’s a distraction technique. And again, it just something the powerful could do: shape the research agenda proactively. It’s something that’s harder to write off as denial—it really isn’t—but as a way that power manifests.

Robinson  

It seems you’re saying it doesn’t even require there to be dishonest or corrupt scientists taking industry money to adjust their findings, because there are more subtle ways in which even honest scientists can have their honest research misused to sow doubt.

Jacquet  

Exactly. I’ve started thinking this will be in the sequel, but of scientists or researchers because it is an interesting category of people to me—the most benign one would just be a daily, desperate researcher, who just needs money. Then there’s the sellout; the industry says, “We have this idea,” and the researchers respond, “Okay, I’ll work on it.” Then there’s the industry shill who does more than just work on those issues, but also writes op-eds saying we shouldn’t have a carbon tax—they’re really egregious because they’re shaping public conversation. Then, I would argue, there are the full on merchants of doubt: “We’ll go to Congress, talk to your mom, go to Germany, whatever it takes.” They’re fully embedded with industry. I’ve been thinking of this as a spectrum lately.

Robinson  

Do scientists need to get savvier about politics, economics, and power? It seems to me one of the problems is that many researchers live in their heads and think that they’re working on this isolated problem and don’t necessarily think very much about how the research is ultimately used.

Jacquet  

Yes. One area we could do a quick fix is, to do science, the industry needs scientists, and they have some options: they can get consultants—product defense firms like Gradient—but we all know this is sort of where science goes to die. It’s still work for hire.

The university experts, those real university scientists who seem completely independent and might be taking grants, they’re the bread and butter. They have to become not only much more aware and motivated ethically as individuals, but there have to be rules put in place, and universities are being used so much, and so willfully I should add, by corporations right now. The credibility those universities have built up, it’s perilous—it’s not going to necessarily be there in 100 years if we keep playing our cards this way. And I have this line in the book, it’s probably my favorite, by Thomas Kuhn talking about how great science is, how it takes special conditions for it to work, and that those social conditions may not exist in the future. And that really is the risk here: we’ve benefited enormously from this way of knowing and form of knowledge. It really is under threat right now due to private interests.

Robinson  

Because it could be corrupted easily. I know the Koch brothers have paid for a bunch of professorships to teach libertarian economics. I, as an undergrad, learned from a professor whose official title was “The JPMorgan Chase Professor of Ethics,” which I always found hilarious. But, what do you mean when you’re talking about how the corporation uses the university?

Jacquet  

This one of the ways in which the tactics have heavily evolved, starting really with cigarette manufacturers. They saw the most prestigious institutions, and they bought their way in to Scripps or UCSD [University of California San Diego] and others—I’ve been looking at California institutions, but there are others, too. The oil and gas companies have been at the big Ivy League schools for ages, and buy entire centers and shape and influence those research agendas. There was a big story in the New York Times in the fall about the way meat and dairy companies have done this at the University of California Davis. These companies have been singled out for their role in climate change, especially due to methane, which is a short-lived but powerful greenhouse gas.

They’ve launched a multimillion dollar center called Clear, which is really a public relations hub for the animal agriculture industry and operates out of UC Davis. It makes it look like a legitimate research institute, but they’re not publishing peer-reviewed research. They are publishing blog posts, tweets, a lot of white papers, and shaping the conversation by getting quoted by journalists, and attributed to UC Davis.

I think this is really dangerous territory. For the industry to use science, they need scientists, and if we cut off that pipeline and allow them to use scientists who work within the company, I’m not opposed to that. Hire scientists and write their affiliation as Tyson, but not as UC Davis.

Robinson  

So, universities need to be very vigilant about protecting the independent pursuit of knowledge.

Jacquet  

I should hope so. Unfortunately, as you know, universities are big business now, too. They’re looking for money as well, but so much of what they do rests on their credibility, and if they continue to compromise this, there won’t be as much cachet to their brand.

Robinson  

Right, because once it’s clear you can’t actually trust anything, that’s a big problem.

Jacquet  

We’re careening rapidly, I’m afraid, into that situation.

Robinson  

Yes, indeed. There are ways, as you pointed out in the book, of creating, even if you don’t have a university affiliation, the appearance of credible expertise. I once looked into a statistic I found on a PragerU video that was about how if California passed the thing that was going to make Uber drivers employees instead of contractors, it would cost millions of jobs. They cited a study by an organization called the Berkeley Research Group, and it turns out the group was paid by Uber to conduct this study. And they never disclosed the study, they just disclosed the underlying talking point. So essentially, this shadowy group spat out this talking point, which is then repeated in Prager U, and repeated in all the ads. And then, of course, the ballot measure overturns the rules successfully. So, there are many ways in which you could manufacture pseudo statistics.

Jacquet  

You just highlighted another way in which we can work against this happening. As someone who is a journalist and a lawyer, you started looking into the veracity, claims, and those associations. It would be great if journalism schools and journalists looked closely at those industry ties before they quote someone or a study. As you say, the more you dig in, the more you realize, “Of course, almonds are good for you”—it’s funded by the almond industry. And it doesn’t take that much to get to the bottom of that. And that’s what’s good about the U.S. is this broader cultural context; we actually do require those things. Or, if you contact those researchers, and they don’t want to say who funded them, you have every right then not to talk about the study.

Robinson  

There are some bad incentives in journalism though, too, because in science journalism, you want a flashy headline. And I know, as someone in the press, we get 50 press releases a day, from people encouraging us to write about stuff and say they’ll give us an expert we can interview about this thing. And if you need a story and create content for your website, it’s very tempting to talk to the person who they’re offering you to interview about their study.

Jacquet  

There’s a study that came out that was really depressing that used plagiarism software to look at how often the media just copy and paste from press releases. It’s not a crime. But what was depressing about it is that the media copy and paste more often from, in this case, fossil fuel industry press releases, than from civil society groups or politicians. When we discuss a bias in the media, the bias is toward repeating what the industry says, verbatim—two times as often as any other group. So again, it’s a reassertion of power.

Robinson  

And there can also be, as you write in The Playbook, fake consumer activism or activist groups. All sorts of groups are named things that make them sound like they’re operating in the interests of the opposite party of the one they’re actually operating in the interests of.

Jacquet  

Yes, like the Center for Consumer Freedom, which is actually a PR front group. These are sometimes called astroturf groups instead of grassroots organizations. They’re meant to look grassroots. What you’re describing is the broader arsenal the corporations use. The last thing McDonald’s wants to do is say obesity is not a problem. McDonald’s would like to say, “We’re cutting fat from our menu, and we’re going to give you exactly what you want as a consumer,” and then pay a trade association who will challenge obesity as a problem. So, there are these third-party groups that really do the dirty work for corporations so that they can keep their hands nice and clean.

Robinson  

A crucial thing The Playbook shows is that corporations will often make a strong effort to pretend to care about solving the problem that they’re causing. I once read an article about an advertorial that I saw in the New York Times—the New York Times actually let Shell write an article, a sponsored post, all about how it was solving climate change.

Jacquet  

They do it all the time. And in the New York Times recently, they allowed JBS, the largest meat company in the world, to take out a full-page ad about how they’re going net-zero. And you wonder, “How are they doing that?” The New York Times would say it’s their advertising section, “We don’t police what they say. We just are here to provide space for our clients.”

Robinson  

“That’s just the propaganda department. We got nothing to do with those in the news department.” But maybe you shouldn’t have a propaganda department.

Jacquet  

Yes, and just have subscribers. That’d be nice.

Robinson  

I’ve just published a book on talking points and propaganda, and many things I’ve been thinking about in this come up in The Playbook, especially in the policy section where you write about all the very common talking points applied to every policy, no matter what it is: the policy is too expensive, wastes money, hurts workers, undermines rights, hurts poor people, cost lives, and will be ineffective. Or there are more important policies and it is arbitrary; there are unintended consequences that threaten our national sovereignty; it’s unnecessary; more research is needed.

It is incredible, just apply the same talking points to anything. What’s great about your playbook is that it’s an all-purpose playbook for any issue.

Jacquet  

Exactly, any issue that involves government regulation. Fundamentally, this is a fight against any regulatory action, which is a stand in for protecting the public in a democratic way. It is a threat to democracy, and not isolated to the private sector. There happens to be a political party that is anti-government in this country. It doesn’t make much sense to people who don’t live here, but it’s something we’ve all grown accustomed to, and speak about as If they are “conservatives.”

Robinson  

That’s right. This is the right’s argument, that this is going to destroy civilization and will hurt people, or whatever. I want to ask you about one final argument that you talk about. You’ve also co-authored an article about this in the context of climate change, which is the argument about human nature. We’re often told we shouldn’t do something because we are constrained by human nature—we’re just not wired for it. It’s a powerful argument because it isn’t just that we shouldn’t, it’s that we literally can’t—it’s impossible.

Jacquet  

Yes. It’s an essentialist argument: we cannot do this because we have not evolved to do it. I’m seeing that primarily come out of well-meaning academics or journalists, and I don’t see the direct tie to industry as much as I see industry amplifying those arguments. They’re very keen to use it in their messaging, but it doesn’t seem to originate with the private sector. Although I could be entirely wrong, I’m curious about those origins.

But one way in which I wrote in depth about it with a co-author, was about the idea that we’re not evolved to solve climate change. It’s something you hear all the time, especially by high-level prestigious academics who are semi-psychologists and discuss the way in which our brains are not hardwired to solve climate change. But again, we’re not hardwired to do so many of the things that we do. We’re not hardwired to read or scuba dive, and we’re not even hardwired for women’s rights, frankly. However, we fight for those things as a society. We’ve fought to end child labor, and banned horse meat. This idea is leveraged a lot, and I think it would be interesting to look at all the ways in which it has been.

Robinson  

On the program recently we had professor Cordelia Fine, who researches the arguments about gender differences and debunks research that says various social and gender inequities are the inevitable result of our hard-wiring. These evolutionary psychology arguments are very convenient if you want to defend the status quo, to say, “Human nature, and the wiring of the brain makes an alternative to this totally impossible and can’t be done, no matter how much we wish to do it.”

Jacquet  

Yes, it’s an easy defense for certain kinds of things like gender, and certainly meat eating—we see that argued all the time, even though, if you look at the literature, so many of our ancestors in prehistory barely ate any meat. But they say, “Look, we have these canine [teeth], we have to eat more meat.” It’s ridiculous. But, it is an argument that is everywhere once you start looking for it.

Robinson  

Yes, as a vegetarian who is still alive after ten years of being one, I can confirm there is no evolutionary imperative. There may be an evolutionary imperative to eat delicious cheeses—I haven’t found a way to stop doing that. Anyway, I want to encourage our listeners and readers to pick up The Playbook because it is essential that this book end up in the right hands rather than the wrong hands.

Jacquet  

The wrong hands already have many copies of this book.

Robinson  

Yes, because my first instinct when I got it was, “Oh, no, people are going to see this. What if they actually use this the wrong way and do these things?” And then I thought, “No, she’s exposing what they already know and you don’t.”

Jacquet  

Exactly. But many people have said that. My mother said, “I’m worried.” And I responded, “Mom, please. They have the playbook. They are the masterminds.” In fact, I’m missing things, and I’m curious what I’m missing. Hopefully, someone on the edge of retirement would want to send me the various things that I’m missing. I’d be happy to do an updated epilogue with other various tactics that I’m sure deserved exposure.

Robinson  

I want to close here by reading a little bit from the appendix, in which you write in your own voice:

“In the same way that the casino could affect the character of town, corporate funded scientific denial has contributed to the erosion of scientific authority and mistrust in the government. In this casino, however, we are gambling with our health, the planet, and our most reliable way of knowing the world. The stakes could not get higher.”

I think that is so true. That is why we all have to understand the playbook, so we know how to fight the playbook.


This conversation originally appeared on the Current Affairs podcast. It has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity. Editing by Patrick Farnsworth.

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