Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Cultural Evolution of Mimicry and Deception

Mimicry and deception are everywhere in nature, thanks to evolution. Some mollusks attract fishes by waving fishlike gills. When the fishes approach, the mollusks lay their parasitic eggs on them. Orchids mimic bees and wasps, and attract bees and wasps, which try to mate with the flowers and only end up pollinating them.

Mimicry and deception are everywhere in human society, thanks to cultural evolution. I want to briefly share an example. What do you do if you are pretending to be a scientist, and you are trying to spread your gospel which just happens to be totally contrary to all scientific data? And you want journalists to spread your gospel for you? Well, you cannot do much, unless someone gives you a lot of money. If you have the money, you can pretend to be a real grown-up scientist and you might convince journalists to believe you.

Let’s suppose you are trying to convince people that there is no such thing as global warming. The first thing you can do is to send out your literature in an envelope that looks like it comes from a legitimate source. Thousands of us scientists received an envelope that looked like this:

This plain white envelope looks like it is from the New York Times. But where is it really from? You don’t want people to know, so you put your return address, but not your name. A journalist would notice, but only if he or she had time to look closely. It doesn’t actually claim to be from the New York Times, because the NYT logo is in the lower, not upper, left.

The second thing is to have literature that looks really, really slick. A journalist might not take seriously something amateurish, such as the “National Sunday Law” weird religious pamphlets that millions of people (42 million, in fact) have gotten in their mailboxes. Those pamphlets were obviously printed up at a local rural Oklahoma print shop. But the anti-global-warming book inside the white envelope was really slick:

Third, the name of your organization should closely imitate that of a respected scientific organization. For example, if I wanted to make my literature look like it came from AAAS (the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the world’s premier scientific bodies), I could call my group the AAAST (American Association for the Advancement of Scientific Thought). Only an experienced scientist might notice the difference; a journalist might not. This global-warming denialist group called itself the NIPCC, the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, which looks really similar to the pre-eminent world body that studies climate change, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).

Fourth, you get together with other similar groups, and you praise each other’s work. This book was published by the Heartland Institute, but was co-sponsored by (Craig Idso) and by the Science and Environmental Policy Project (Fred Singer). Craig Idso and Fred Singer are in fact co-authors of the Heartland book. If you visit the website of the latter group, and click on “about us,” you will find a blank, at least I did. You see, the three authors have formed three organizations, each of these organizations has gained the endorsement of two other organizations, and all three are well-funded, perhaps from the same source.

Suppose I wanted to convince everyone that the Earth was the center of the universe. I could start up that AAAST that I mentioned earlier. Then I could get some of my friends to start the STAA (Scientific Thought Association of America) and others to start the Ptolemy Institute, and I would instantly have two other societies endorsing whatever I might say, that is, if they want to still be my friends and receive...

And receive the funding that we all receive from the same source. The Heartland Institute keeps its funding sources secret. But leaked documents reveal that most of their funding comes from the Koch Brothers, who get their wealth from people burning lots of oil. They probably get a few dollars here and there from other sources, but Heartland is mostly a front for the Koch Brothers. If I had a rich donor, I would ask that donor to fund three institutes, not one.

Fifth, you have to make your funding look like it is not all from a single place. Heartland claims that it receives 60 percent of its funding from foundations, 19 percent from individuals, and 18 percent from corporations. But, you see, the Koch Brothers have a foundation, and a corporation, and they are also individuals!

Other “think tanks” are more transparent about their funding. The Cato Institute (whose lie-filled diatribe against Rachel Carson somehow got repurposed into a chapter in a book that was inexplicably published by National Geographic) acknowledges the Koch Brothers right on their homepage.

But, as it turns out, the Heartland Institute is not just funded by oil interests. It must also be funded by tobacco corporations. Heartland proclaims that smoking is bad but it should not be in any way discouraged, except in kids. This is so ridiculous that nobody could believe it, even the tobacco corporations themselves. Heartland’s website claims that anti-smoking advocates “personally profit” from their opposition to smoking. They give no data, not even any anecdotes, to support this preposterous claim. They imply that tobacco corporations aren’t in it for the money but they just want to make life better for everyone. But all of the profits (from book sales, or salaries for scientific research) that come from opposing tobacco amount to just a few hours’ worth of tobacco corporation profits. Their statement indicates that teachers such as myself who try to get students to stop smoking are reaping profits from this. But I have not earned one penny from my anti-smoking educational efforts.

What this amounts to is that Heartland will say anything if you pay them enough. Only oil and tobacco can pay them enough.

I don’t think I need to convince you that what Heartland and its associated groups are doing is wrong. I wanted to tell you about it because of the deceptive practices that they use, practices worthy of any sinful orchid or any parasite. The only thing more amazing than their strategy is that people fall for it.

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