Wednesday, March 30, 2011

rhetoric, propaganda, marketing, spin, lies

"The total life of any culture tends to be 'propaganda'…. It blankets perception and suppresses awareness, making the counter environments created by the artist indispensable to survival and freedom."  Marshall McLuhan, 1970.

the sound of science

The co-incidental emergence of superbugs in hospitals and superweeds on factory farms is ominous, and each represents a challenge to human health.

The evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria by the overuse of antibiotics in humans and farm animals has been observed for at least 40 years in the West. Warnings by doctors, scientists, and government agencies in Europe were obscured in arguments and denial in the U.S. Congress. And the controversy still exists with each side citing sound science in support of its opinion.

To this day, antibiotics are prescribed by doctors for patients with respiratory symptoms caused by viruses or mold, microorganisms which are not affected by antibiotics; and some farmers continue to give sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics to cows, pigs, and chickens to fatten them.

Herbicide-resistant superweeds have evolved in fields sprayed with Monsanto’s Round-Up, a glyphosphate herbicide Monsanto’s genetically modified crops have been “engineered” to resist. According to some biologists, this practice, and in general the farming practice promoted by Monsanto, is the perfect way to create plants that herbicides can’t kill. Yet, in January 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Tom Vilsack, under pressure from government and industry, deregulated without restriction Monsanto’s genetically modified alfalfa seed. Then, a week or so later, USDA deregulated genetically modified sugar beet.

Prior to deregulation, as a result of legal proceedings against the deregulation, the USDA was ordered to complete an environmental impact statement (EIS). As a part of performing the EIS, USDA held a public comment period during which concerns about deregulating GM alfalfa could be expressed. The USDA’s final 2300 pages-long EIS document contained many statements of significant concern against deregulation, concerns which the USDA itself acknowledged as valid.

Consequently Secretary Vilsack, though a proponent of biotechnology and a “friend” of Monsanto, sought to mitigate concern by proposing restrictions on the deregulation of GM alfalfa. However, the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, complaining that “restrictions” would require oversight and oversight would cost money and more taxes, and so on, pressured Vilsack to deregulate without restrictions. Led by committee chairman Frank Lucas, the House Agriculture Committee challenged Vilsack saying that GM alfalfa repeatedly had been found safe. In a public statement after genetically modified alfalfa’s deregulation, Lucas said, “I am pleased the USDA used sound science in making the decision to deregulate GM alfalfa.”

Monsanto, by the way, was a major contributor to Lucas’ 2010 election; it was listed as a “Top Five Contributor” by, having given Lucas $11,000 for the 2009-2010 election. On top of that, agribusiness political action committees contributed over $5 million to members of the House Agriculture Committee for the 2010 election cycle. But these figures represent a drop in the bucket, as it were. The practice of special interest groups donating money to support the election of politicians who will carry-out their wishes, of course, is not just commonplace but the way business is done in American politics and governments. Please see

Recall that “sound science” was invoked in May 2010 by the President of the Wisconsin Medical Society in support of then Governor Doyle’s rejection of a bill that temporarily would have legalized raw milk sales in the state. He said, in part, “…the governor acted on behalf of sound science…” in refusing to sign the bill.

In the last few years the phrases “sound science” and “junk science” have been used increasingly by industry propagandists to criticize research that supports environmental concerns and that is critical of irresponsible industry practices. Neither term has technical relevance or true critical value, however. They are rhetorical devices and are rarely – if ever – used by scientists.

The term “sound science”, though it seems to have been in the vernacular forever, dates to the 1980’s and the tobacco industry’s attempts to discredit research that revealed the harmful effects of cigaret smoke. A shill for the tobacco industry and proponent of tobacco’s “sound science” was Steven Milloy, Fox News commentator, president of The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC, a defunct lobby group), and propagandist for various industry concerns. On its inoperable website this “Coalition” says that it advocates “the use of sound science in public policy decision making.”

In a press release in February 1994, TASSC criticized scientists who warned against the use of Monsanto’s rBGH saying "This is a prime example of a special interest group using its own political agenda to drive policy. It has nothing to do with the valid information that sound science has provided." Again, this comment is from a pro rBGH lobby group criticizing scientists who warned against the unwanted side-effects of using the hormone in milk cows – and a demonstration of the power of rhetoric.

In 1937 the Institute for Propaganda Analysis (IPA) began discussing rhetorical devices and techniques that were used in political and commercial promotions. The IPA believed that the increasing amounts of propaganda in media at that time decreased a person’s critical thinking ability. According to Sourcewatch, IPA wanted “to teach people how to think rather than what to think.” Initially successful, the group folded in 1942, however, probably under pressure from the proponents of United States’ propaganda aimed at its war enemies.

Among other things, the IPA developed a list of rhetorical or propaganda techniques with which one could familiarize oneself to aid in identifying and deconstructing the propaganda environment. The original 7 techniques, and a few more recent additions, include: name-calling, smear, glittering generalities, transfer, testimonials, plain folks, card-stacking, bandwagon, fear, double-speak, and junk science.

From the website

With the growth of communication tools like the Internet, the flow of persuasive messages has been dramatically accelerated. For the first time ever, citizens around the world are participating in uncensored conversations about their collective future. This is a wonderful development, but there is a cost.
The information revolution has led to information overload, and people are confronted with hundreds of messages each day. Although few studies have looked at this topic, it seems fair to suggest that many people respond to this pressure by processing messages more quickly and, when possible, by taking mental short-cuts.
Propagandists love short-cuts -- particularly those which short-circuit rational thought. They encourage this by agitating emotions, by exploiting insecurities, by capitalizing on the ambiguity of language, and by bending the rules of logic. As history shows, they can be quite successful.
In The Fine Art of Propaganda, the IPA stated that "It is essential in a democratic society that young people and adults learn how to think, learn how to make up their minds. They must learn how to think independently, and they must learn how to think together. They must come to conclusions, but at the same time they must recognize the right of other men to come to opposite conclusions. So far as individuals are concerned, the art of democracy is the art of thinking and discussing independently together."

rhetorical questions and trivium pursuit

Rhetoric, with grammar and logic, comprise the trivium, the foundation of a liberal arts education in Medieval Europe.

Historically the trivium is traced to the Classical Period of Ancient Greece, to Socrates, his disciple Plato, and Plato’s student Aristotle. Plato and Socrates insisted that rhetoric should be guided by logic and dialog. Aristotle had a lot to say about it in his Art of Rhetoric including how to use emotion, assumptions, and strategy to improve one’s capacity to persuade.

Plato was a strong proponent of literacy, the acquired ability to read and write, even though his dialog Phaedrus displays Socrates’ criticism of it. But Socrates, as the story goes, capitulated after Plato’s rhetorical argument that literacy would not have the unwanted side effects, of which Socrates warned, if a system like the trivium were used in education.

A basic definition of rhetoric, in keeping with Aristotle, is “how to say what one has to say, elegantly, effectively, persuasively, and based on good logic”. “Rhetoric” may refer to the skill, the study, or the language.

Our word “trivial” (meaning “of little importance or significance; ordinary, commonplace”) comes from the point-of-view of those who moved on to the study of the quadrivium (mathematics, natural science, astronomy, and theology) for which the trivium was the foundation. That is, from the point-of-view of high school, grammar school is trivial. However, as the basis for using humanity’s greatest technology - the one that underlies all communication technologies - the trivium should not be trivialized.

“A point-of-view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.” Marshall McLuhan, 1962.

propagate The faith

A strategy of propaganda is to appeal to emotion. This bastard of rhetoric, found most commonly in political, commercial, and religious endeavors, dates to the 16th century and the Catholic Church.

In Medieval Europe (5th to 15th century) education was rooted in the trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. As the primary cultural influence at that time, the Catholic Church used the trivium to teach and preserve the art of writing.

In the early 17th century, the Church, in reaction to the Reformation and to take advantage of explorations around the world, installed the “Sacred Congregation of Propaganda” to propagate the faith – de propaganda fide. In this endeavor, the Church established its college in Rome and printed many books and other materials to support and promote its efforts. In that same period Ignatius formed the Jesuit order, which was dedicated to the propagation of the Church and its ideas. Although known for its scholastic system of education, the Jesuits were vilified in that period for casuistry, the selective application of laws on a case-by-case basis, for example, in allowing priests to defrock themselves temporarily so they could go to a brothel.

Casuistry, in its pejorative sense, refers to a specious argument or one that is intended to deceive, but it also is a branch of ethics that studies the relationship of general principles to particular cases.

The “Sacred Congregation of Propaganda” was renamed “Congregation for the Evangelization of People” in 1982 by the Pope. Its purpose and function has remained the same throughout its history, however.


Chemical Industry Archives notes that in 2002 a jury in Alabama found Monsanto guilty on all six counts it considered including negligence, wantonness, suppression of the truth, nuisance, trespass and outrage in the operation of its PCB plant in Anniston. According to a February 2002 Washington Post article “Under Alabama law, the rare claim of ‘outrage’ requires conduct ‘so outrageous in character and extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency so as to be regarded as atrocious and utterly intolerable in civilized society’.” That is a legal definition, not rhetoric.

In roughly the same time period that the outrage was coming to light - and to court - Monsanto agents, disguised as “food safety experts”, infiltrated FDA and USDA and railroaded through FDA’s approval process Monsanto’s recombinant bovine growth hormone, threatening scientists in the agency who protested the approval.

Currently Monsanto’s “America’s Farmers” website lists the following “pledges”:


Integrity is the foundation for all that we do. Integrity includes honesty, decency, consistency, and courage. Building on those values, we are committed to:


We will listen carefully to diverse points of view and engage in thoughtful dialogue. We will broaden our understanding of issues in order to better address the needs and concerns of society and each other.


We will ensure that information is available, accessible, and understandable.
Again from

[As] the company's own documents show, Monsanto went to extraordinary efforts to keep the public in the dark about PCBs, and even manipulated scientific studies by urging scientists to change their conclusions to downplay the risks of PCB exposure. Monsanto's conduct, throughout the entire period that the company made PCBs, was less than commendable. Their attempts today to backpedal on the science and shirk responsibility for the global saturation of PCBs is equally discouraging, as are their repeated attempts to "green" their image with flashy, expensive PR campaigns.
In 2001 an attorney for Monsanto in the Anniston trial is recorded as saying, “The truth is that PCB’s are everywhere...” in an attempt to demonstrate that PCB contamination causes no significant health problems. Paraphrasing his rhetoric, “Look: We’ve all got PCB’s in us and we’re o.k., right? So what’s the big deal?” And he tried to convince the jury that Monsanto didn’t know its PCB’s were toxic.

However, because of its toxicity PCB production was banned in the U.S. in 1979. Its toxicity was recognized in the 1930’s. A report in 1947 in a chemical industry journal described chlorinated biphenyls, the class of chemicals to which PCB’s belong, as “objectionably toxic”. Internal confidential documents from Monsanto brought forward in the Anniston trial revealed that it knew for decades that its PCB’s were dangerous and toxic to humans and wildlife.

 Until it was banned, Monsanto was the only North American producer of PCB’s.

PCB toxicity is similar to that of other dioxins, which the Environmental Protection Agency identifies as “likely carcinogenic”. Dioxins were a component of Agent Orange, the herbicide made by Monsanto for the U.S. Defense Department during the Viet Nam war. Currently, Monsanto’s glyphosphate herbicide Round-Up and Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready crops are viewed by some in agriculture as responsible for the latest emergence of superweeds.

off the grass!

Grassroots organizations are local, community-based groups that form spontaneously in support of a political issue or politician. Obviously a metaphor, it implies a relationship with the soil, and that which is naturally rooted in the earth and grounded.

Astroturfing is a propaganda technique that a company uses to give support for a cause without revealing its identity. It is a fake grassroots movement that may use a website, or comments on articles or weblogs, or communicates via conversations in social media networks.

Wikipedia makes this distinction between grassroots and astroturfing:

Faking a grassroots movement is known as astroturfing. Astroturfing, as the name suggests, is named after Astroturf, a brand of artificial grass. Astroturfing means pretending to be a grassroots movement, when in reality the agenda and strategy is controlled by a hidden non-grassroots organization. A show is made of individuals pretending to be voicing their own opinions.
The anonymity of the web gives companies and governments the perfect opportunity to run astroturf operations: fake grassroots campaigns that create the impression that large numbers of people are demanding or opposing particular policies. This deception is most likely to occur where the interests of companies or governments come into conflict with the interests of the public.

Astroturf, a brand of synthetic carpeting made to look like natural grass, is installed in sports stadiums all over the country. It was invented in the 1960’s by chemists at… Monsanto. Honest.