The Corporate Enemy of Truth

Just finished Jonathan Rauch’s 2021 book The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth, which argues that the government and science have evolved analogous mechanisms to steadily close in on objective truth, with self-correcting mechanisms, and that modern political forces are at work (as always) to undermine them for their own ends. Will discuss the book in detail soon.

Here’s another example of a force working to undermine objectivity. It’s not even that they’re doing so consciously, necessarily…. it’s that, as Jonathan Haidt has described, humans are instinctive lawyers, working to justify conclusions reached on emotional grounds, or which benefit themselves. As Upton Sinclair (an early 20th-century novelist), or maybe others, said: It Is Difficult to Get a Man to Understand Something When His Salary Depends Upon His Not Understanding It. There are variations.

Salon, Paul Rosenberg, 29 Oct 2023: Lies, damned lies and “corporate bulls**t”: A consumer’s guide to bad-faith arguments, subtitled “Co-author Donald Cohen on the research into generations of false claims that led to ‘Corporate Bulls**t'”

This is drawn from a book by Nick Hanauer and others called Corporate Bullsh*t: Exposing the Lies and Half-Truths That Protect Profit, Power, and Wealth in America

The Salon article is largely an interview with co-author Donald Cohen, who’s identified a small set of categories to capture much corporate propaganda. I’ll summarize.

  • “It’s not a problem.” Climate change. Before that, tobacco. And lead. And even slavery. The core of propaganda is self-interest.
  • “The free market knows best.” Auto safety and seat belts. The private market and civil rights.
  • “It’s not our fault, it’s your fault.” Examples about workplace safety, and unsafe cars, and the ozone layer, and drug addiction, e.g. the Sackler family and how they blamed their victims. And the classic case of the elderly woman burned by hot coffee from McDonald’s.
  • “It’s a job killer.” Raising the minimum wage. Providing health care. (Now they’re saying it about electric cars.)
  • “You’ll only make it worse.” Minimum wage again; how medicare will destroy private initiative; earlier examples about women’s suffrage [the right to vote] and slavery.
  • “It’s socialism!” Income tax, social security, anything the government does.

Reality objects on all these issues; the claims are prejudices, or excuses for self-interest. For example,

“In reality, people who receive benefits become less poor. It does not create dependency. People still go out and get jobs. If you feed children, they do better in life. If you give them health care, they are healthier and do better in life.”

The article ends,

Finally, what’s the most important question I didn’t ask? And what’s the answer?

How come this works so well, over and over again? The answer would be because there’s an enormous amount of money and self interest that is driving, influencing and impacting public decisions about public things, meaning health and safety and jobs and all that. It’s about power. The book is about power, and propaganda, if you have resources — which corporate interests certainly do — is one of the key tools in the tool chest to maintain that power.

The point here is not to be cynical. Is everyone out there trying to get you? Then perhaps you’re playing the wrong game. The Rauch book emphasizes the two ways people can collaborate, and make actual progress, and participate in a “reality-based community.” Science, and government, the very things the extreme right-wing in America are against, and trying to dismantle. Do not be part of that. That way likes only anarchy. Adopt a reality-based worldview. Think outside your tribe.

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