How Big Tobacco invented Donald Trump and Brexit (and what to do about it)

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If I’m understanding what he means by “scientific curiosity,” this show did much to foster it in me when I was young.

And if not, it’s a great TV show IMHO.



The lead industry was also pretty good at this.


Fucking hell, Hans Rosling is dead. I didn’t know that.


Sometimes I think there was a tobacco industry meeting in mid-century America where the executives said “sure, our product kills millions of people a year, but if we’re going to beat out munitions as the most evil industry ever we really have to step things up and set the standard for doing evil in other industries.”


So, Shankar Vedantam.


a playbook that dismisses individual harms as “anaecdotal” and wide-ranging evidence as “statistical,” and works in concert with peoples’ biases (smokers don’t want cigarettes to cause cancer, Brexiteers want the UK to be viable without the EU, Trump supporters want simple, cruel policies to punish others and help them) to make emprically wrong things feel right.

Seems to me people have been doing this kind of thing quite effectively for a couple of centuries now.

What we need is a Carl Sagan or David Attenborough of social science — somebody who can create a sense of wonder and fascination not just at the structure of the solar system or struggles of life in a tropical rainforest, but at the workings of our own civilisation: health, migration, finance, education and diplomacy.

Social science is a good deal more malleable than anything Sagan or Attenborough ever dealt with, is it not?


That show was amazing, even when I watched it as a teenager in the 90s. Connections2 was alright, but tried to hard.

We need more of this.


And IIRC, Burke’s writeups for that series came from his pieces at the end of Scientific American. And as you mention, they were always fascinating reads.

Hearing his pieces regularly on national NPR, if not my local station. And while I don’t always agree with his analysis, I like his reporting.

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So the more the snowflakes complain about something like defunding meals on wheels or microwaves, the more empowered the selfish and sadistic will feel.

We are playing right into the narrative, we need to ignore him somehow.

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Give your throat a vacation, switch to Camels for just one day. Then leave them – if you can.

First the denialism – then the naked truth.


This is a powerful refutation to critics of “scientific storytelling” (like Radiolab) as trivializing science by always reducing it to a human drama – it’s precisely that connection to science and identifying with the heroes of those stories that seemingly immunize us from harmful delusions, especially those that are weaponized by people with a financial interest in them.

  1. The problem with the emotional connection is that the whole point of science is to suppress the emotional connection to try to prevent the scientists’s pre-existing beliefs and biases from interfering with the results. This is incredibly hard to do – hence the replication crises among all the social sciences and even much of medical and nutrition research. Once you reintroduce an emotional connection to scientific conclusions, you also reintroduce motivated reasoning which undermines people’s abilities to change their minds in response to evidence – probably the most important thing anyone can do in science. It also creates a sense of understanding where all you’ve really understood is the explanation, not the evidence behind it. As a result, it creates epistemic arrogance on the part of the junior science fan “I fucking love science” types.

As an example, Cory posted a study before about cavities in a locale where they had stopped water fluoridation. I responded by citing evidence that Cory’s study was anomalous – most studies on fluoridation don’t find such a big effect as was attributed in this study, and science has to be based on multiple studies not single ones. I also pointed out the simple fact that drinking tap water – or even occasionally swishing it around on your mouth – can’t possibly have very much effect on number or severity of dental caries given the short exposure time and low concentration. I also cited other studies implicating water fluoridation in cases of oral fluorosis and possibly lower IQs. I argued on the basis of evidence that water fluoridation is a tradeoff, and individual municipalities should be allowed to decide democratically which side of the tradeoff they prefer.

The response here was mostly people calling me anti-science. I pointed out that I was the only one in the discussion actually citing scientific studies to support my position. People continued to call me anti-science. So does all the “scientific storytelling” that gets pushed around here on BoingBoing contribute to people’s critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning? The evidence suggests otherwise.

I’m all for scientific storytelling that promotes epistemic humility, but whatever you guys are huffing is not that kind of scientific storytelling. What’s being encouraged here is a false sense of confidence in scientific conclusions that happen to be convenient for liberal politics. That’s pretty much the opposite of what science should be about.

  1. The opposing side will have their own pet experts, so this becomes a popularity contest. Radiolab will impress anyone who’s sympathetic to the personae of the presenters, but the people you’re trying to convince aren’t. Moreover, Radiolabs’ listeners’ false sense of confidence in their liberal-compatible “scientific” worldview will only inspire the “other side” to double down on their beliefs, creating a whole market for fake conservative experts. Now instead of one problem (properly interpreting scientific evidence) you have three: properly interpreting scientific evidence, liberal “scientific storytellers” pushing their biases, and conservative “scientific storytellers” pushing theirs.

You can already see this at work with Watts Up With That. Probably one of the most popular climate science blogs around. I’m guessing not too many people around here would read it with an open mind.


Great example of motivated reasoning among “I fucking love science types” there. Science is supposed to be about skepticism, but when I express skepticism about renewable energy and someone else responds with the liberal conventional wisdom, they get a whole bunch of “likes”.

“Yes, yes, give me the conventional wisdom, shut down the scary ideas that challenge me and force me to reconsider my biases!”

If that’s where Radiolab gets us, then maybe it’s not such a force for good. It gives the illusion of understanding, and that only undermines critical evidence-based reasoning.


I missed out on those, but if you like Burke, you might want to check out Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast. He’s interviewed Burke and cites him as inspiration for his history show, which I honestly find to be on par with Sagan, Attenborough, etc. His political podcast is good as well.


Excellent choice.

If there was a Kickstarter to bring this back with a new host, I would be there.

I’d like to shout out to another great podcast, You Are Not So Smart (part of the boingboing family of podcasts, actually). I like it better than Radiolab - not to denigrate, but I find their sound editing as a bit precious and calling attention to itself. YANSS is modestly produced and the host is charmingly thrilled by the guests and subject matter. Another is Invisibilia - again, since it’s half Radiolab, it’s not my cup of tea, but it’s still interesting.

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Who knew that Big Tobacco hired New Wave doctors?

His name has become a killing word.

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