By Professor Paul M. Dombrowski
University of Central Florida
I have always been intrigued by the interplay between ethics and rhetoric—language and argument in the service of the good and of the not-so-good. In my technical communication classes I cite a wide range of examples of both. One of the most striking is a famous nationwide advertisement by the tobacco industry in the mid-1950s countering the rising awareness of the health risks of smoking, “A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers.” It is clear and powerful even today, as evinced not only by its reception in my classes but also in its innumerable citations in the steady stream of legal suits against tobacco firms.
Its relevance today has an additional important dimension—many of the same techniques and even the very same marketing and advertising agencies are being employed to oppose rising public concern about climate change. A well-researched 2007 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), “Smoke, Mirrors, & Hot Air: How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco’s Tactics to Manufacture Uncertainty on Climate Change,” reveals the ethically questionable, even shameful, activities to raise doubts in the public’s mind, to propagate confusion and misunderstanding, to fabricate a debate when there in fact is none, and to deflect attention away from taking concerted action to mitigate the effects of anthropogenic climate change. The report states: “In an effort to deceive the public about the reality of global warming, ExxonMobil has underwritten the most sophisticated and most successful disinformation campaign since the tobacco industry misled the public about the scientific evidence linking smoking to lung cancer and heart disease. . . . ExxonMobil has drawn upon the tactics and even some of the same organizations and actors involved in the callous disinformation campaign the tobacco industry waged for forty years” (2007, p. 1).
Among the techniques used are contrived uncertainty, information laundering, the promotion of scientific spokespersons who misrepresent scientific findings, and the attempt to shift the focus away from existing scientific evidence toward a search for supposed “sound science,” just as the tobacco industry did (2007, p. 1). As one of the major tobacco firms as a signatory of “A Frank Statement,” Brown and Williamson, declared: “Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy” (qtd. p. 7). In “A Frank Statement,” for example, the tobacco industry pledged to create and fund the Tobacco Industry Research Council (TIRC), which would be headed by a recognized scientist (actually one of the very few who doubted the reports by the U.S. Surgeon General and other research endeavors). Later, in the 1990s, Philip Morris created and funded The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (renamed slightly later) to propagate disinformation and uncertainty about the hazards of second-hand smoke, operating under the assumption that the mass of existing scientific knowledge was somehow unsound or incomplete.
Doing the same for the petroleum industry was natural enough but just as disturbing for the public interest. UCS finds it disturbing that ExxonMobil would continue to associate with some of the very same TASSC personnel who had overseen such a blatant and shameful disinformation campaign for Big Tobacco. The most glaring of ExxonMobil’s associations in this regard is with Steven Milloy, the former executive director of TASSC. . . . He served as a member of the small 1998 Global Climate Science Team task force that mapped out ExxonMobil’s disinformation strategy on global warming (18).ExxonMobil also funded a web-based “hybrid of quasi-journalism and lobbying” in support of its disinformation campaign. “Tech Central Station was published (until it was sold in September 2006) by a public relations firm called the DCI Group, which is a registered ExxonMobil lobbying firm” (13).
In addition to its well-argued text, the report has a number of striking tables it uses for evidence. Table 1, Select ExxonMobil-Funded Organizations Providing Disinformation on Global Warming, for example, documents scores of such organizations and ExxonMobil’s generous contributions to each (p. 31). Table 3, Key Personnel Overlap between Tobacco and Climate Disinformation Campaigns, as another example, specifically lists five principals involved in both disinformation campaigns (p. 36). The appendices include the notorious example of Mr. Philip Cooney, Chief of Staff, White House Council on Environmental Quality, who edited a draft of a report by scientists on the likelihood and magnitude of projected climate change and its economic consequences, though Cooney himself is not a scientist but a lawyer. This example is famously cited in Al Gore’s book and film An Inconvenient Truth, which further explain that as a result of this revelation Mr. Cooney was relieved of his White House position but immediately afterward took a position at ExxonMobil. Before coming to the White House, Mr. Cooney had been a lawyer and lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute.
This case illustrates rhetorical points, too, such as sophistry and rhetorical duplicity. Both the tobacco companies and ExxonMobil say they are concerned about the overall issue each faces, but it is “concern” in a sense different from that of the general public. It is concern about reduced sales and reduced profitability rather than about health and the public welfare. By not actually making that difference explicit, the communicators can have it both ways as it suits their purposes, and be technically true either way. Likewise in speaking about scientists. The two cases can cite “scientists” who differ from the accepted standard science position, but leave the actual number or proportion out of the text: is it 2 scientists out of 10,000 or is it 4,000 out 10,000 total scientists? By deliberately not specifying the figures, they leave the likely rhetorical impression of a substantial number or proportion, while the reality is entirely the opposite. The case is rich with other excellent examples of technically true statements that are grossly, intentionally misleading.
For a further exploration of the ethics of the tobacco industry’s opposition to scientific findings, I can suggest the chapter “Tobacco and Death: When Is a Cause Not a Cause” in my book Ethics in Technical Communication, Allyn and Bacon, 2000.
“A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers” by 14 major American tobacco firms, originally published in 400 major American newspapers on January 4, 1954, at http://www.tobacco.neu.edu/litigation/cases/supportdocs/frank_ad.htm accessed December 2, 2013. Available at many other websites as well.
“Smoke, Mirrors & Hot Air: How ExxonMobil Uses Big Tobacco’s Tactics to Manufacture Uncertainty on Climate Science” by Union of Concerned Scientists, January 2007, at http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/global_warming/exxon_report.pdf accessed December 2, 2013.