Wag that dog

If this book doesn’t enrage you, then nothing will.

Carefully documented and persuasively written, Trust Us, We’re Experts is a good old-fashioned muckraking exposé. According to Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, the hired guns of the public relations industry are even more insidious than many of us may have guessed. Because science assumes unique authority in the modern age, industry and government devise clever strategies for manipulating public opinion through the cult of “expert” scientific opinion.

Take, for example, “Potemkin punditry.” Part of Microsoft’s PR campaign against the Justice Department’s antitrust suit paid for ads and partially subsidized a pro-Microsoft book by the conservative think tank, the Independent Institute.

The authors provide a wide variety of similar “Potemkin” incidents, including (unsurprisingly), the pharmaceutical, tobacco and oil industries.

Rampton and Stauber define the PR worldview as “the belief that people are fundamentally irrational and that therefore a class of behind-the-scenes manipulators is necessary to shape opinion for the public’s own good.”

Tragic example: occupational illness. These account for 800,000 injuries and 80,000 deaths per year. Industry and government, through PR spin and spit, distract the public from focusing on the causes for these tragedies.

Perhaps most alarming is the authors’ documentation of the subtle relationship between industry and academia. Rampton and Stauber cite dozens of studies which demonstrate that “scientists” whose funding depend on grants from industry and government are far more likely to report results congenial to their sponsors than are independent researchers.

How to remedy this abysmal state of affairs and provide more citizen participation in public policy?

Rampton and Stauber make two novel recommendations:

1) Consensus Conferences. Pioneered in Denmark, these conferences bring together “experts” and community laypersons to discuss specific public policy issues on a nonpartisan basis. Their conclusions are then transmitted to the appropriate governmental authorities. In the United States, this approach has been pioneered by the Amherst, Mass.,-based Loka Institute.

2) Participate in grass-roots community organized research projects. As the authors remark, if “community-based research sounds like some pie-in-the-sky idea,” note that this approach has already produced positive results in Holland, Austria, the Czech Republic, England, Germany, Malaysia and Northern Ireland, among many other countries.

If, in the immortal words of Pogo, we have “met the enemy and he is us,” in that possum’s creators equally immortal words, “All of us are in the dark, but some of us have learned to whistle.”

Rampton and Stauber have learned to whistle. The question is, can the rest of us carry their tune?