The documentary Merchants of Doubt highlights the extensive efforts that large companies use to intentionally create confusion about what is real. Their methods are complex and pervasive as firms try to create a shadow story about their client’s product in order to prevent regulation or to shift opinion about potential harm. This type of misdirection has been used by pesticides, asbestos, coal, oil, alcohol, tobacco, flame retardant materials and climate change.

Through the use of seemingly neutral frontmen or think tanks, organizations create an illusion of independence which gives credence to the opposing view of so-called “experts.” By sowing seeds of doubt, it’s enough to make people question even the most solid science because “other scientists” are questioning it, too.

The problem is that these efforts are specifically designed to create confusion or misdirection rather than to establish a legitimately valid premise. The firms go so far as to mirror identical layouts of brochures – one from the scientific source and one falsely discrediting it – but using the same typeface, pictures, colors, etc. If you had them side-by-side you’d be hard to tell whether the IPPC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – peer-reviewed scientists) or NIPPC (Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change – an anti-climate change advocacy group) was the official version.

Throughout the film, segments of sleight-of-hand magic were interspersed and the producers drew parallels to the work of the public opinion firm. The work of both is “all about distraction, confusion, gridlock and misdirection. You tell a little lie to disguise the big lie and redirect the focus, then you don’t see anything else.”

The problem comes in when you don’t realize someone is performing a trick. If you watch a magician, and something unbelievable looks real, you still know that it is just an illusion. With deceptive campaigns, it is made to look real but you don’t consider that it isn’t and therefore accept it at face value.

We’d all be better off if we realize that communication magicians are pervasive.

About the Author leadership dots by dr. beth triplett

I'm the chief connector at leadership dots where I serve as "the string" for individuals and organizations. Like stringing pearls together to make a necklace, "being the string" is an intentional way of thinking and behaving – making linkages between things that otherwise appear random or unconnected – whether that be supervising a staff, completing a dissertation or advancing a project in the workplace. I share daily leadership dots on my blog to provide examples of “the string” in action. I use the string philosophy through coaching, consulting and teaching to help others build capacity in themselves and their organizations. I craft analogies and metaphors that help people comprehend complex topics and understand their role in the system. My favorite work involves helping those new to supervision or newly promoted supervisors build confidence and learn the skills necessary to effectively lead their team.

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