I still sometimes read a newspaper. Today’s LA Times had the absolutely best article I have seen in years. It is called “Sowing Doubt About Science” by Michael Hiltzik.
Agnotology, the study of the production of ignorance
The Hiltzik article reports on the work of Robert Proctor, a history of science professor at Stanford specializing in what is called “Agnotology”, the study of the cultural production of ignorance. This is the investigation of the deliberate sowing of public misinformation and doubt in a scientific area. I of course saw an immediate application to what I have been calling the “sex addiction deniers”.
Agnotology studies projects such as the tobacco industry’s campaign to cast doubt on the link between smoking and disease. Hiltzik quotes from an internal tobacco industry memo of 1969 which boldly stated “Doubt is our product.” Meaning that the goal is not to contribute real evidence but to cast doubt on the existing evidence and create a bogus controversy in which the media then publish both “sides” of the issue as though they had equal weight.
Hiltzik cites other examples of agnotological projects including that of the sugar industry, the vaccination opponents (who rely on ‘a single dishonest and thoroughly discredited British paper’) and climate change deniers. In all of these, bogus doubts have proved extremely hard to dispel.
Sex addiction deniers and their misinformation
The attempt to “scientifically” prove that sex addiction does not exist is relatively new but the deniers of sex addiction have been around for a long time. In my previous post on sex addiction deniers I attempted to place them in the historical perspective in which a new phenomenon such as alcoholism is seen initially as a moral failing or a social evil. Thus any attempt to medicalize the problem is threatening to these deniers because it portends a slippery slope in which people can avoid moral responsibility on the grounds of addiction. But the traditional sex addiction deniers also come from the opposite direction, namely those who are afraid that identifying something as a sexual problem could result in a kind of morality police, curtailing their own legitimate sexual freedoms.
But more recently a study published by sex researchers at UCLA claimed to have scientific evidence that sex addiction was not an addiction. This study was criticized up one side and down the other; but still it was a study. Wasn’t it?
The decline of scientific credibility
The Hiltzik article quotes Norman Wise, a historian of science at UCLA as saying that “The question is the degree to which the commercialization of academic science is increasing public doubt and destroying the public good at the university and at places like the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) such that they no longer look distinctly different from the tobacco industry or Big Pharma.”
So those who have analyzed the UCLA “findings” challenging the whole concept of sex addiction make it clear that as Dr. Donald Hilton concludes:
“To trivialize, minimize, and de-pathologize compulsive sexuality is to fail to understand the central biological role of sexuality in human motivation and evolution. It demonstrates a naiveté with regard to what is now an accepted understanding of current reward neuroscience, in that it pronounces sexual desire as inherent, immutable, and uniquely immune from the possibility of change either qualitatively or quantitatively.”
The earmarks of commercially manufactured ignorance
The earmarks of bogus science in all other fields seem to me to be much the same as those in the recent attempts to prove that sex addiction doesn’t “exist”.
- They are usually not attempts to prove that something exists (like the Higgs particle) but to prove that something doesn’t exist (like the holocaust). In general the denials, like the UCLA study on sex addiction, make unjustified assertions that something is not the case. They make an unproven claim which is sensationalistic but does not really offer much except a denial of connections that are just coming to be understood.
- Misinformation often plays to fear. It can be the fear that something is going to harm you (like a vaccination) or the fear of a conspiracy to take something away from you (like cigarettes or sugar). In the denial of sex addiction there is a kind of conspiracy theory that treatment professionals are out to label you as an addict so that they can make money by curing you. This was particularly evident in the posting on the website of the UCLA researchers which purported to advise those wrongly labeled as sex addicts of their legal rights.
- Sowing doubt and promoting a phony controversy is self-serving in some way. This is obvious in the case of big tobacco and big pharma. In the case of the anti sex addiction zealots it is apparent that the highly publicized denial of something can easily become a cottage industry. The claim “Study proves sex addiction doesn’t exist!” gets a lot of attention. It not only creates a bogus controversy. Books are written which gain notoriety and research careers are built and supported based in part on the celebrity status conferred on the “denier”.
Hiltzik talks of the “torrent of misinformation washing about the public space”. A better educated public seems to be the only possible answer. Hiltzik’s cites one note of hope from Professor Proctor who says: “There is opportunity to expose these things through good journalism, good pedagogy, good scholarship. You need an educated populace.”