Manipulating Public Knowledge

Sharon Beder

Citation: Sharon Beder, 'Manipulating Public Knowledge', Metascience, Vol. 7, no 1, 1998, pp132-139.

This is a final version submitted for publication.
Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications

Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, Betrayal of Science and Reason: How Anti-Environmental Rhetoric Threatens Our Future. Washington, D.C and Covelo, California: Island Press. 1996. Pp. xiii + 335. US$24.95.

Jed Greer and Kenny Bruno, Greenwash: The Reality Behind Corporate Environmentalism. Penang, Malaysia: Third World Network. 1996. Pp. 258. US$18.95

Andrew Rowell, Green Backlash: Global Subversion of the Environment Movement. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. Pp. xv + 476. £19 PB.

John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, Toxic Sludge is Good for You! Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1995. Pp. iv + 236. US$16.95 PB.

These four books are part of a new wave of literature on recent trends in corporate activism and the resurgence of conservative agendas, particularly in the area of environmental issues. They all describe the attempts by corporations and right wing groups to shape or confuse public knowledge of environmental and public health problems so that activities that cause these problems are not regulated.

Towards the end of the 1980s public concern about the environment rose, reinforced by publicity about scientific discoveries regarding phenomena such as ozone depletion and weather patterns that seemed to indicate that global warming had already begun. Local pollution events, such as medical waste washing up on New York beaches and sewage pollution on Sydney beaches, also contributed to the public perception of an environment in decline.

Rowell points out that a 1989 New York Times/CBS poll found that 80% of people surveyed agreed that "protecting the environment is so important that standards cannot be too high and continuing environmental improvements must be made regardless of cost."(p.22) Green parties in Europe attracted 15% of the vote. An Australian survey found that 59% of people believed that protecting the environment was more important than other issues including the economy and 81% said they were prepared to pay for environmental protection.[1]

Amidst all this public concern, regulatory agencies in various countries got tougher and new laws were enacted. In the US, the highest ever number of environmental convictions was recorded by the EPA in 1989 and half of those convicted got jail sentences. Environmental indictments by the Justice Department increased by 30% in 1990 over the previous year.[2] In New South Wales Australia, an Environmental Offences and Penalties Act was introduced in 1989 which provided for jail terms and million dollar fines for senior executives of polluting companies.

This heightening of public anxiety and regulatory activity induced a new wave of corporate political activity to counter public perceptions of environmental crisis and persuade politicians against strict regulation. In a world where a new environmental or health regulation can cost an industry millions of dollars worth of profits the stakes are high and corporations have employed almost every imaginable technique of persuasion that money can buy including the latest PR techniques and information technologies available for raising money, building coalitions, manipulating public opinion, lobbying politicians and attacking environmentalists.

The combination of corporate activism and corporate money has become a powerful weapon in the battle of ideas. In the US opinion polling indicates corporate funded anti-environmental efforts produced a major shift in public opinion within the space of a single year. Rowell relates how in 1992 51 per cent of those surveyed agreed that environmentalists had "gone too far" compared with 17 per cent the year before (p. 22). Democracy has become dominated by a vast information industry aimed at attaining the consent of the public to the goals and values of those who can best afford the experts, and this is especially so in the US. According to Stauber:

The ascendancy of the PR industry and the collapse of American participatory democracy are the same phenomenon. The growing concentration of economic power in fewer and fewer hands, combined with sophisticated marketing techniques and radical new electronic technologies, have come together in the past decade to fundamentally re-shape our social and political landscape....[3]

Now a number of authors have written books that seek to uncover and delineate this phenomenon. They are attempting to make explicit the covert activities of those, whom they believe are subverting the public interest. As such they are all contributions to the struggle to shape public perceptions that they are describing and they are unashamedly partisan.

Rowell was commissioned by Greenpeace to research Green Backlash and although he claims that Greenpeace "had no editorial control over the book", his viewpoint is clearly that of an environmentalist. Greer and Bruno have also worked for Greenpeace and their book is published by the activist Third World Network. Their book is an expanded version of the 1992 Greenpeace Book on Greenwash. The Ehrlichs are best known for their campaigns for population limits, although their range is much wider than this and in Betrayal of Science and Reason they have written on a wide range of environmental topics. Stauber and Rampton admit that their book Toxic Sludge is Good For You! doesn't tell the good side of public relations work but in their own defence they argue that "the positive uses of PR do not in any way mitigate the undemocratic power of the multi-billion dollar PR industry to manipulate and propagandize on behalf of wealthy special interests, dominating debate, discussion and decision-making." (p. 205)

Stauber and Rampton document and expose, in a highly accessible way, the various strategies that public relations firms use in defending the undesirable practices of their clients and in countering activists who attempt to expose those practices to the public. John Stauber is founder and executive director of the US Center for Media and Democracy. Sheldon Rampton co-edits with Stauber the excellent journal PR Watch. The book contains a series of essays, with several case studies drawn from articles previously published in PR Watch, on the use of public relations to promote nuclear power, US foreign policy, the use of sewage sludge, and the tobacco industry.

The tobacco industry case was a precursor to modern corporate PR campaigns. When tobacco was linked with cancer in the early 1950s the tobacco industry turned to public relations firm Hill and Knowlton for advice. Stauber and Rampton describe how Hill and Knowlton helped the tobacco industry set up The Tobacco Institute described in Public Relations Journal as one of the most "formidable public relations/lobbying machines in history" (p. 29). Hill and Knowlton was later sued by the State of Mississippi for its role in what court documents describe as:

a coordinated, industry-wide strategy designed actively to mislead and confuse the public about the true dangers associated with smoking cigarettes. Rather than work for the good of the public health... the tobacco trade association, refuted, undermined, and neutralized information coming from the scientific and medical community (p.28).

According to the tobacco industry the campaign was to promote cigarettes and to counter the attacks being made on them by "creating doubt about the health charge without actually denying it, and advocating the public's right to smoke, without actually urging them to take up the practice."(p. 27). This strategy has allowed an addictive drug, which kills hundreds of thousands of people each year, to successfully avoid serious regulation for decades.

The tactics used by the tobacco industry so long ago are being applied in the 1990s in every industry which has come under public criticism from public interest groups. Stauber and Rampton set out these tactics, including manipulation of the media, spying on citizens groups, cooption of environmentalists and other activists in a divide and conquer strategy, and organising phoney 'grassroots' groups and coalitions (referred to as 'astroturf') to support the industry.

Quite clearly, public relations firms can play a vital role in scientific controversies, yet because their activities are often covert, they are usually left out of scholarly accounts of such controversies. These are not isolated stories; public relations is pervasive, if secretive. It is a huge multi-billion dollar industry employing 150,000 people in the US alone, meaning there are more public relations personnel than news reporters (p. 2).

Green Backlash by Andrew Rowell also documents the public relations efforts of corporations as well as other ways that conservative and anti-environmental groups attempt to defeat environmentalists. These include the use of violence and law suits to intimidate activists and the funding of corporate front groups and conservative think tanks to speak against environmental reforms and to question scientific claims, such as global warming and ozone depletion.

Like Toxic Sludge is Good For You!, Green Backlash is written in a journalistic style for a popular audience and Rowell, like Stauber and Rampton, has filled his book with examples, anecdotes and short case studies to illustrate how the environment movement is being subverted. His tone is one of indignation that such things are happening but the passion adds to its readability. Green Backlash takes an international approach, with chapters on Canada, Australasia, the UK, Central and Latin America, Nigeria, South Asia and the Pacific.

Rowell gives equal attention to a medley of groups and organisations from mainstream think tanks and corporations to right wing fringe groups such as the Larouche organisation and the US militias. His failure to differentiate between them in terms of influence and power and the juxtaposition of weirdo fringe groups with the more powerful mainstream organisations downplays the influence that think tanks, corporate lobbyists and PR people have on mainstream policies and political thinking. This promotes a pluralistic vision of society where various groups are battling to present their version of reality and ignores the more structural and institutional role of corporate interests in setting an essentially anti-environmental cultural agenda.

Similarly, Rowell's focus on acts of violence against environmentalists pulls the focus into fringe areas and detracts from the more compelling message that powerful mainstream organisations and institutions are using much more sophisticated, legally sanctioned and legitimate yet covert means to oppose environmentalism. Nevertheless Rowell's book does an excellent job of documenting the current backlash against environmentalists that is sweeping the world and will be an eye opener for most people.

Paul and Anne Ehrlich use the term 'brownlash' to describe what Rowell has called the 'green backlash'. Their book Betrayal of Science and Reason is a defence of what they call 'environmental science' which they equate with good science. The Ehrlichs take a positivist view: "the vast majority of brownlash pronouncements are based in either faulty science or the misinterpretations of good science... although convincing to some lay readers, are replete with gross scientific errors and severely twisted interpretation." (p. 18)

In this the Ehrlichs' book is quite similar to the series of anti-environment books and articles they are responding to, which also claim to have good science on their side, although, as the Ehrlichs point out, their book tends to represent the scientific consensus whilst the brownlash position is supported by a handful of contrarians and industry-funded scientific dissidents.

Indeed it is hard to imagine how the Ehrlichs could have mounted what is basically an effective refutation of brownlash claims (with chapter titles such as "Fables about Population and Food") using a wholly relativist argument. Relativism may work well when you are challenging the scientific consensus and seeking to undermine those arguments by deconstructing them but it is not always the best tool for supporting mainstream science.[4]

The Ehrlichs suggest that the reason the purveyors of 'brownlash' are so successful, despite their lack of scientific credentials, in persuading the public of their views is partly "the overall lack of scientific knowledge" in the community (p. 13). It is also, they claim, because people "have difficulty perceiving and appreciating the gradual deterioration of civilisation's life-support systems" (p. 13); because people believe environmental quality is improving; and because the disadvantages and costs of environmental regulations are more evident than their benefits.

Missing from their explanation of the success of the brownlash is the more overt political analysis found in the other books reviewed here. Although they recognise that "anti-science brownlash provides a rationalization for the short-term economic interests" (p. 19) of some groups they seem reluctant to recognise the power of multinational corporations in promoting such views and naively believe in the power of scientists to "counter the erroneous information and misrepresentations... with accurate scientific information." (p. 22)

This naivety is most obvious in their chapter on "Fables about Economics and the Environment." Here they heap high praise on Monsanto as an example of how "multinational corporations that understand the need for sustainability have an extraordinary opportunity to brighten humanity's future." (p. 183). Their only reference to the "enlightened steps" Monsanto is taking is an email from a person whom they themselves describe in a later footnote as a consultant to Monsanto. A quick search of the internet shows this person to be a biologist and a director of the Missouri Botanical Gardens, which is heavily funded by Monsanto ($5 million over the last 3 decades and a recent donation of $2 million) and has the CEO of Monsanto on its Board.

The Ehrlichs' praise of Monsanto contrasts with the other books, where Monsanto is portrayed as one of the villains. In Greenwash, Greer and Bruno use Monsanto as one of their case studies of a Greenwash company which, they claim, discharges millions of pounds of toxins into the Mississipi River and has conducted fraudulent studies of the effects of dioxin on its workers (the very sort of 'bad' science the Ehrlichs referred to). It also a major pesticide manufacturer which, say Greer and Bruno, insists that pesticide residues in food pose no health risk (pp. 140-146). In Green Backlash Rowell describes how Monsanto employed Hill & Knowlton to help in their campaign for acceptance of Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), a genetically engineered product aimed at increasing milk production. Hill & Knowlton, on behalf of Monsanto, "were instrumental in defeating state legislators' attempts.... to label the growth-hormone milk" for the benefit of consumers (p. 113). And Stauber and Rampton describe the same campaign by Monsanto and other manufacturers of rBGH that included legal threats to farmers attempting to label their milk as rBGH free (p. 70) and PR people posing as reporters and activists to get information from opponents (pp. 57-59). They say that although Monsanto claim to have cut their toxic emissions and undertaken other "socially responsible business practices", this doesn't "change the fact that the company's most profitable products include dangerous pesticides, artificial food additives, and risky bioengineered products." (p. 72).

Betrayal of Science and Reason does, however, provide a useful resource for those wishing to study the scientific arguments surrounding issues such as population growth, global warming, acid rain, ozone depletion, species extinction, and the risks posed by toxic chemicals and waste products. This is missing from the other books which take these phenomena as a given and don't bother to argue the point with the brownlash brigade. In this respect, the Ehrlichs are reaching out beyond an audience of believers in a way that Rowell, Greer and Bruno are not.

For students of scientific controversy the Ehrlichs' book could be usefully contrasted to brownlash books coming out of the conservative think tanks such as The True State of the Planet edited by Ronald Bailey for the Competitive Enterprise Institute or The State of Humanity edited by Julian Simon, Cato Institute adjunct scholar and longtime adversary of the Ehrlichs.

Greenwash: The Reality Behind Corporate Environmentalism provides a necessary counterbalance to the Ehrlichs' faith in corporations by revealing how the corporations that claim to be socially responsible and environmentally progressive are often the very ones responsible for many environmental problems. In a long introduction, Greer and Bruno give an overview of the public relations efforts of corporations. They include a brief critique of corporate codes of conduct such as the chemical industry's Responsible Care and corporate activities at the Earth Summit, where "proposals to regulate, or even monitor, the practices of large corporations" were effectively headed off (p. 24).

The book then proceeds to consider the environmental records of 20 multinational corporations under the heading of "Greenwash Snapshots". Many of the big names are there including Shell, Mobil, Dow Chemical, DuPont, ICI, General Motors, Mitsubishi and Westinghouse. These are literally 'snapshots'. They are frustratingly brief but with the endnotes will provide a starting point for those wishing to know more about a particular company.

Finally there is a section on "Responding to Greenwash." Surprisingly this section is not so much an analysis of the political action required to combat the power of these corporations as a listing of criteria for clean production, environmental impact assessment and audits and other necessary institutional mechanisms for the achievement of environmental protection. These are put forward as guiding principles to campaign for, which may be "co-opted and corrupted in another round of greenwashing" but "implemented in a dynamic, democratic process... CAN help combat greenwash." (p. 244)

The difficulty facing Greer and Bruno in being able to end with a note of hope is also one encountered by Rowell, Stauber and Rampton. An effective argument about the power of corporations and well-financed conservative groups to influence political agendas and perceptions of scientific knowledge tends to leave the reader feeling somewhat overwhelmed and powerless. Each ends with calls for renewed activism and genuine grassroots political action in the hope that readers will be inspired to act rather than resigned to a future increasingly dictated by transnational corporations.


[1] Peter Perkins, 'Developing a Program to Satisfy the Community's Concerns' Paper presented at the NSW Agriculture & Fisheries DAs Conference 1990 , p. 34.

[2] E. Bruce Harrison, Going Green: How to Communicate Your Company's Environmental Commitment (Homewood, IL: Business One Irwin, 199?) , p. 6.

[3] Quoted in Peter Montague, 'PR firms for hire to undermine democracy', Rachel's Hazardous Waste News, No. 361 (1993)

[4] See for example, Pam Scott, Evelleen Richards and Brian Martin, 'Captives of Controversy: the Myth of the Neutral Social Researcher in Contemporary Scientific Controversies', Science, Technology, Human Values, Vol. 15, No. 4, (Fall 1990), pp. 474-494.

Professor Sharon Beder is a visiting professorial fellow at the University of Wollongong.
Sharon Beder's Publications can be found at