May 15, 2013
Commonality is a concept the Risk-Monger has been articulating over the last year to assess the communications tools used by certain activists to manipulate policy debates and gain influence without the support of credible science, evidence or facts. It involves the manufacturing of a perception that we all agree on something and no longer need discussion, but simply need to act now (usually in a precautionary manner). By using group-reinforcing communication tools and a precautionary logic that emphasizes the virtue of concern and care, there is little that scientific evidence can do in emotion-laden debates. Commonality has been well played out, for example, in debates around chemicals.
During the REACH debate in the mid-2000s, facts and evidence gave way to emotional presentations of evil chemicals (those made by man, not natural chemicals) contaminating our blood, fetuses and the environment by an industry driven to pollute for profit. The more the chemical industry tried to respond and deny activists’ baseless claims, the more culpable they looked (the “I don’t beat my wife” syndrome). The more people shouted in Brussels (or in the case of activist-prone Commissioners, cried at press conferences), the more irresponsible the chemical industry was portrayed. Who would bother to stand up and support society’s need for innovative chemicals? Not even the supply chain risked stopping this Kristallnacht frenzy: Nokia, for example, stated their intention to develop biodegradable phones; Unilever stated they were looking at making detergents without chemicals. We all agreed that chemicals were bad things and suddenly the word “substitution” found its way into the REACH acronym. No one complained: commonality completed.
Ban Pesticides: We all agree
Today it is pesticides. Since we all agree that pesticides are bad for health and the environment, who would possibly interfere with activists and bent Commission officials from removing pesticides from the market. Which ones? All of them! But let’s start with neonicotinoids because the plight of the bees and colony collapse disorder (CCD) provides the opportunity. Now the Risk-Monger has blogged on this issue several times in the last year, predicting with accuracy what would happen.
- Scientists had confirmed earlier studies showing that CCD was caused by the Varroa mite virus.
- As expected, activists upped the intensity of their campaigns linking CCD to pesticides (staging protests with a small number of bee-keepers and large groups of activists).
- A Commission official asked EFSA for advice with an ‘innocent’ question about neonics and bee health, with a reply that there were some data-gaps (just ask a scientist what exactly ‘data-gaps’ mean). EFSA did not link neonics to CCD but it didn’t matter, as no one has apparently read the report (how lazy and ‘willing to be stupid’ have we become?).
- DG Sanco then, with the shield of commonality, jumped to the next stage in the process by calling for the precautionary principle and banning neonics (because of CCD, despite the lack of evidence).
- Avaaz mobilised its storm-troopers to vote online (“expert” advice via social media voting) and it was clear – neonics had to go in order to save the bees.
- The Council resisted but the Commission pushed it through after further pressure in European capitals (including, of course, a spontaneous outburst from “bee-keepers”).
- Only the pesticides industry bothered to fight this great commonality consensus with the science, but nobody was prepared to listen (and they did not help themselves by resorting to scaremongering). The news was not that the precautionary principle on neonics was baseless, but rather, that the evil industry was lobbying.
And what about EU funding to protect the bees from the Varroa mite virus – the credible cause of CCD? Well, we don’t all agree on that, and scientists don’t lobby well enough to merit any attention. Tough luck.
Manufactured Consensus on Endocrine Disruption
Commonality was first developed by Joseph Goebbels in 1930s Germany (although it was called ‘propaganda’ back then). He was able to show how you could create a big lie around the perception of universal agreement, and with enough communications savvy, he could get people to believe and do some terrible things. Truth did not matter (was never part of the equation in commonality campaigns), but rather, it was about winning (the power to persuade people to believe anything). Goebbels did not have the power of social media and the Internet, but if he did, he would nod his head with approval by the tactics exemplified in the most recent case of chemicals commonality: that of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).
For decades now, environmental activists have been campaigning against a slew of chemicals declaring that they are interfering with our endocrine system. Scare stories in the 1990s of the apocalyptic demise of the human race due to a massive wave of infertility and transgenderisation came to nought. Declarations linking endocrine disruption to chemicals were not scientifically validated. While science could never disprove, conclusively, that synthetic chemicals were in any way linked to this catastrophe that never was, the activist arguments were shaky and anecdotal to say the least. So what did the activist community do? Did they drop the issue? Did they apologise to the chemical industries for all of the extra costs from decades of needless risk assessments their campaigns had incurred on them? No. They banded together to form a united front of organisations against what they still claim are endocrine disrupting chemicals and pesticides. Commonality (the manufactured perception that we all agree) can be seen in their single voice website called EDC Free Europe.
By bringing together 20 anti-chemicals NGOs into a single group, they could slam together a collection of very weak arguments and links between chemicals and pesticides, and create an impression of overwhelming evidence on EDCs. Each of the Gang of 20 brings their own bugbears to the table, whether it is pesticide residues, BPA, cosmetics, chewing gum … yes, chemicals in chewing gum will apparently lead to the mass sterilisation of the human race. The group projects an image that we all agree that endocrine disrupting chemicals are bad (look, there are 20 organisations together saying the same thing, and we all agree, so we must be right). They write letters to Commissioners signed by all 20 NGOs, produce films and reference each others’ campaigns to reaffirm potential links between chemicals and the endocrine system. Without validating external evidence, they have created a façade that is meant to impress and impose, in much the same way as Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.
You are not expected to look at the fine details or find independent supporting research outside of that provided by the 20 lobbying organisations. But lack of factual evidence, no matter how well it is communicated, is still lack of evidence. Rather than providing evidence that chemicals are endocrine disrupters, this clever group of communicators have shifted the subject, demanding that industry prove that these chemicals are not EDCs. That is a much harder challenge to researchers. Where are the numbers today on the threat of endocrine disruption? Doesn’t matter, as we all agree that these chemicals must go, and like neonics, who really will cry when they are gone?
What is most dangerous about these 20 activist NGOs banding together to support a bad idea like EDC-Free-Europe, is that they reaffirm and come to believe their misinformation. When someone like the Risk-Monger comes up to them and informs them that natural soy has much greater endocrine disrupting properties than any synthetic chemicals, and presents them with research showing that feeding babies soy milk (a common vegan decision) is like exposing them to the equivalent of five birth control pills a day, the activists, sheltered in the comfort of their shared and reaffirmed bias, can do nothing else but laugh at him. As facts don’t matter in such communications campaigns, the commonality consensus has a way of blocking reality. So we have 20 groups speaking as one, driven by an impassioned eco-religion, protected from interruption by external facts, having an unwillingness to listen to others outside of their comfort circle and with a lobbying voice far more powerful than any industry group could possibly challenge. They will inevitably win, but will they be able to sleep at night?
Disclaimer: It may appear that the Risk-Monger in this blog is likening European environmental activists to the Nazi Party in 1930s Germany. This is not his intention, but rather to show how such activists today have refined and expanded the communications techniques developed during this period, albeit better accentuated with social media tools. While there is no moral equivalent to the atrocities committed by a population that was convinced through such manipulative communications tricks, the Risk-Monger feels that commonality is a dangerous tool and its use, in any form of manipulation (even by those who have convinced themselves that their cause is noble), should be guarded against.