League of Denial

We all know that the denial campaign against global warming science has many parallels to the denial campaign against the health risks of tobacco.

I was a bit surprised to learn, however, that it is also similar to the denial campaign to hide the risk of brain injury by the National Football League:


31 responses to “League of Denial

  1. johnrussell40

    Shame we’re not allowed to see that in the UK. Is it available anywhere else; or is there a synopsis available?

  2. Yes, that was an itneresting show, and it was very clear the NFL did not like the tobacco comparisons one bit. I was watching, thinking “right from teh tobacco playbook” and then people in vdieo started saying so as well.

    Thank John Hill, of Hill and Knowlton, who suggested the tactics of science obfuscation for tobacco companies in 1953. See this for example.

  3. Add to your list, seat belts, leaded petrol, industrial pollution, nuclear power and (in the UK) BSE. All of them have a common aim, common strategy and a common vicabulary.

    A short virtual stroll through the Heartland Institute website can be very revealing. They have the technique down to a fine art.

    • and the various types of asbestos whose casualties are still suffering and dying, although the associated denial is less common now.

      • The denial was in full gear when the Liberal government tried to reopen the mine in the town of Asbestos, QC. That was only two years ago. The subsequent government shot that idea down.

    • Jonathan Bagley

      There has been quite a lot of serious work done about the impact of seat belt laws and the impact of seat belts themselves. Here, for example.
      and its references.

      It is difficult to discern whether laws made any difference. From what I remember, back in 1982, most people were wearing them out of choice by the time a law came in and the fitting of inertia reel belts which didn’t pick up dirt from the floor and are far more comfortable, made seatbelt use almost universal. I’m sure the car industry wasn’t objecting. A compulsory car component can only increase its profits.

      • I was under the impression that seatbelt legislation in the UK was introduced unsuccessfully a couple of times. They the proponents hit on the idea of only making it compulsory for kids. The drop in child deaths in car accidents that year defeated all opposition and seatbelts became compulsory for everyone.

      • In Canada, it’s a provincial responsibility. All provinces now have ‘primary enforcement’ (meaning they’ll stop you for seatbelt infractions); Ontario brought the first law in in on New Year’s day, 1976. The Ontario government estimates that 8,000 lives have been saved over the decades since, but I have no idea how they calculated that (especially given that many other safety measures have been instituted oover roughly the same time frame.) It is true that seatbelt usage has risen from ~15-20% to ~90-95% over that span, though.

  4. Yeah – I saw that, and braced myself for the “outrage” from “skeptics” so “concerned” that the NFL is being compared to holocaust deniers.

    Because the only time that the word “denier” is ever used is when someone’s making comparisons holocaust deniers, right?

  5. The biggest parallel to the denialism of the fossil fuel industry and AGW, of course, is the billion$, whether NFL or tobacco.

    The more interesting denialism, in my opinion, is the know-nothing, ideological denialism that parallels or massively overlaps with intelligent-design creationism.

  6. Interesting the amazing recovery QB Jim McMahon made. He was almost completely out of commission mentally, but then a surgeon relieved some pressure and he sounds like he has recovered. You hate to see these footballers suffer, and when someone does make a recovery, it gives you some hope that we can do something about it.

  7. But where is the astroturf denial machine here? I think the NFL hasn’t managed to figure out a way to attach their fans pocket book to the situation.

    This quote might provide a clue as to where they’ll go and what their pitch will be:

    And the NFL doctor at some point said to me, “Bennet, do you know the implications of what you’re doing?” I looked. He was on my left. I said, “Yeah, I think I do.” He said, “No, you don’t.” [laughs] So we continued talking, talking. At some point, he interrupted me again, “Bennet, do you think you know the implications of what you’re doing?” I said, “I think I do. I don’t know.” He said, “No, you don’t.” So we continued talking again.

    Then a third time, he interrupted me, and I turned to him and I said, “OK, why don’t you tell me what implications are?” He said, “OK, I’ll tell you.” He said, “If 10 percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football.”

    So now there’s this PR business with GE and Underarmor and the NFL:


    You can see where this is going- getting those 10% of mothers to let their boys play football, because they’ll figure out how to deal with it and their little boys will be OK. (and we’ll adapt to a 4C warmer world too at the same time).

    As if it’s only the head. Looking at the pictures of Webster’s lower legs it was clear that his head wasn’t the only thing in being damaged.

    I suppose it’s an expression of “Freedom” to make money off of people who are willing for play for pay or for the chance to be violent with social approval and knowingly commit a slow motion painful suicide…but that doesn’t mean it’s right.

  8. Horatrio Algeranon

    It’s not just NFL officials who are in denial about the impact of extreme physical violence.
    It’s also many (if not most) of the players.
    And it’s also many (if not most) of the millions of fans (some of whom actually seem to think that the players are “expendable” for their entertainment..or maybe just don’t “think” at all)
    And it’s not just on the football field.
    American culture glorifies violence and until we address that as a society, anything we do to help football players is merely treating the symptom.

  9. Philippe Chantreau

    What’s really interesting is how the NFL modulated its response according to the state of public perception, with which they were acutely tuned up. The impression I got was that they were doing only, and precisely what was necessary to manage the PR side of things, while always keeping themselves in a position where they could not be pinned down for outright wrongdoing, all the way to the self preservation clause in the settlement. You can tell that their entire policy is dictated by a team of lawyers and PR professionals whose exclusive goal is the protection of the NFL’s interests. It’s interesting that this policy can work, from the get go, whether or not CTE has a scientific reality. That fact seems almost irrelevant to them.

    It is as if they had a meeting in which it was said: ” there is this thing someone came up with that could be a problem for us. It’s not clear whether or not it’s real but we need to manage it somehow.” These people have learned a lot since the tobacco wars, and their methods are now superior. I think the NFL got its inspiration not from the tobacco operatives but from the climate ones. Some of them are the same people, just more experienced.

    Of course, there are also examples in the documentary of true denial. The problem with true denial is that it is 100% sincere. As a result, it can rationalize every action.

  10. “You can tell that their entire policy is dictated by a team of lawyers and PR professionals whose exclusive goal is the protection of the NFL’s interests.”
    Uh, that’s what their paychecks are for…pretty much all that their paychecks are for. On a moral level, you can ask how they can sleep at night, but having large paychecks helps. Money is enough to sooth the conscience of those who are more more self-centered than others. The “NFL” or “Heartland” or even “My Country” become extensions of the ego, and, especially when a paycheck is attached, many people will say or do almost anything to protect that ego.

  11. One of the contexts here may be the “sport” of boxing. I can’t think of the last time it made the sports news about who was the heavy weight champion. When I was growing up, you couldn’t help know about Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston, Cassius Clay/Muhumed (sp) Ali, the ‘thrilla in Manila’ etc. Now? Nothing. Could be a lot of things- NFL football being more gladiatorial than boxing, a public perception of boxing as damaging, or the predominance of former Soviet Republic fighters?

    I don’t think football will go the way of boxing. But maybe there’s a nugget in there somewhere

  12. Another reason for the denial — this kind of injury affects not just football players (whether school children or professional).

    It happens to a lot of soldiers too. They’ve been ignored forever.
    You can find them in the streets in any city, once you start looking.

    And the tactic? It should be no surprise, this is the large industrial scale application of the same tactic used whenever there’s money to be made — look at the Chicago Tribune piece on the political manipulation funded by the tobacco and flame retardant industries.

    They fund the extreme points of view on “all sides” to empty out the center where policy can be made. Yes, those folks may be sincere, but the people who fund them are cynically misusing them.

    It’s very hard to convince someone who’s passionately dedicated to some issue that their paycheck may be coming from someone who’s using them to delay moderate, considered political decisions.

    You might call it cynical. They call it profitable.

    These tactics are practiced on the small scale all the time in the company and tribe level.

    But to really make money at it, you need to be a lawyer, or a manager who knows how to use them.

    Of course once the Supreme Court makes money equal votes, as it already made people equal corporations, the game’s about over.

  13. I started to watch that Fronline docu, but had to turn it off soon after I saw the state of Webster’s legs (didn’t even really make it to the part where they were discussing the state of his brain). I’m quite sure that at the time he probably considered it to just be ‘collateral damage’. But wow. Just wow. No matter how well he did financially at the time, that is just too big a price to pay.

  14. And a common theme to all of these is that the price paid at the time is not the full price, and that if the full price had to be paid at the time, then behaviour would change.

  15. I’m assuming tamino is already onto this one from Wyatt/Curry:
    Role for Eurasian Arctic shelf sea ice in a secularly varying hemispheric climate signal during the 20th century
    Will be interesting to see if there’s really a physical basis for these ‘stadium waves’, or whether it’s just another (albeit elaborate) curve fitting exercise. Me, I’m not buying the story that there’s not likely to be another big el Nino event before 2030.

    • Horatio Algeranon

      “Ambler Waves of Brain”
      — by Horatio Algeranon

      Denial is like a stadium wave
      Passing through a crowd
      An undulating rant and rave
      Where reason ain’t allowed

      Back and forth and in and out
      Like grain-fields in the breeze
      Ambler waves without a doubt
      Brain raves if you please

  16. ETA: I’m trying to read the paper now, but the figures are all messed up/overlaying each other, making it (more) difficult to follow. I’ve tried both Foxit Reader and Adobe reader, and they are messed up in exactly the same way. dog only knows what PDF viewer they would display correctly in if they don’t work in the latest version of Adobe, which coincidentally I just updated (to v11.0.5) this morning.

    • guthriestewart

      I just tried to read it, you’re right, the figures are a total mess. I doubt, based on no evidence at all, that it’s an Adobe problem, I’ve never seen this problem before, it looks more like formatting issues I’ve had with word when trying to insert pictures.

  17. JB: the more generic theme is that some groups “privatize the profits and socialize the risks/costs”, although the NFL case is not as extreme, as the show focused on 1) below.

    Risks/costs can be shifted to:
    1) Own employees
    2) Customers
    3) Society in a geographic or political area, where produced/transported
    4) Society in an area where consumed
    5) Society worldwide

    Different groups have different combinations of these.
    Tobacco gets 2), 4), 5) and sometimes 1) (some employee jobs create illness).
    Some chemical businesses produce products that are useful and safe, but can cause serious trouble for 1) and 3). (I used to live in NJ near the Raritan River, fortunately a ways upstream from some places.)
    Of course, some items can have surprising long-term side-effects: although a misnomer, “SLow Death by Rubber Duck” was an interesting book.

    Coal manages 3) (particulates, mercury, etc downwind; coal dust along railroads, and local environmental damage, especially in Appalachia, 5) CO2, and in some places 1) (underground coal mining, Black Lung, safety issues a la Don Blankenship.)

    One of the best books know to read on the more general issue is:
    David Michaels DOubt is Their Product.(2008).

  18. As with tobacco, there never was any real uncertainty about concussions, at least amongst anyone who had ever played a field sport with contact or boxed. The whole point was to maintain implausible deniability against regulations.

  19. We in the UK sustained a tragic event which many people saw coming, but we ignored the merchants of doubt and we paid the price. A certain doctor trying to make a name for himself decided that there was a strong correlation between inoculations and autism. Pretty well everyone in the health professions knew it was nonsense, but we did nothing about it on the presumption that everyone would see through the idiocy of the idea. There were studies that proved him wrong, however scare stories make good newspaper junk and the usual suspects promoted the idea that children should not receive the vaccination. Rates fell, we campaigned for parents to ignore the study, but too late. There was the inevitable epidemic of a disease which had been almost wiped out. Children became gravely ill, people died. There was then a rush to vaccinate children, but the damage had been done. The Doctor in question was eventually struck off and faith restored in vaccinations, but such actions could not bring back the dead or cure children scarred for life.
    This story is a better parallel than smoking and cancer, because it was a plausible and interesting idea that was taken up by right wing papers eager to condemn universal healthcare and do gooders. Lets hope we don’t make the same mistake with climate issues.

  20. > maintain implausible deniability against regulations.
    And, as with tobacco, the profit was in the delay, for those collecting money during that time — although if they’d admitted the obvious and drafted their own regulation, as many industries do, they could’ve nailed down a rule that recognized only the most obvious damage. Instead science moved on and it’s become clear by now that after one blow to the head, there’s a longterm sensitivity to other insults, and damage from what used to be dismissed as minor bumps to the noggin.

    The sequelae may include, I’m guessing here, extra sensitivity to anesthetics. There’s increasing concern about cognitive deficit following anesthesia, for example. I’ve been wondering if anyone has correlated those results with history of concussion. Anecdotally, the people I’ve known who had the worst results from anesthesia had all had prior concussions — but then, so many people do. There’s a PhD thesis there for someone.