Muddying the waters


A fortnight ago, in what the US vice president billed as a commensal experience, Joe Biden, Eric Holder and Katherine Sebelius hosted senior executives from Activision Blizzard, Electronic Arts and other videogames firms at the White House.

The chief of the Entertainment Software Association, the industry lobby group for firms such as Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo, also attended along with several ‘independent researchers’.

This event was part of the Obama administration’s ‘gun violence task force’, a work of lustration designed to provide uplift after the Connecticut elementary school massacre.

Biden had previously mingled with representatives from the Motion Picture Association of America, the National Association of Broadcasters, Comcast, Wal-Mart Stores and the NRA.

Texas A&M associate professor Christopher Ferguson, whose work on video games I’ve discussed here and here, was apparently one of the ‘independent researchers’ to attend Biden’s meeting with videogames industry CEOs.

Ferguson later described Biden’s remarks to his assembled visitors:

His message, to a large degree, was, ‘Whether or not there are any kinds of evidence linking video games to aggression, what are things the industry could do to improve its image?’…

As much as anything, he seemed to be encouraging them to think about their public image, irrespective of the ‘truth’ of the violence/media debates. I don’t know if they were quite there yet, I think they were trying to emphasize that they are not part of the problem, which is understandable, whereas VP Biden was trying to emphasize that even if they are not part of the problem they could be part of the solution…

I think he was inviting the industry to consider basically ways that it could improve its image among non-gamers.

Ferguson said that ‘Biden encouraged the video game industry to consider ways of better educating the public.’ Biden was quoted as saying: ‘I come to this meeting with no judgment. You all know the judgment other people have made.’

According to the Wall Street Journal:

Ferguson said that today’s conference showed him that the game industry doesn’t ‘necessarily need to change anything they’re doing,’ but instead focus on ‘how they’re perceived by the public.’

‘What the industry needs to do is take the Vice President’s advice and really think about: what are some positive things that the industry can do? Public education campaigns about the ERSB [the self-regulatory Entertainment Software Rating Board] rating systems, trying to avoid some blatant missteps like having a gun manufacturer as part of their website, that kind of stuff,’ Ferguson said, referring to a controversial campaign in which Electronic Arts embedded links to weapons manufacturers’ products in the promotional website for its military shooter “Medal of Honor: Warfighter.”

The key participants in this charade, one can surmise, would rather the public have been spared details of everything but Biden’s puffy platitudes (‘An incident that I think we can all agree sort of shocked the conscience of the American people’, ‘There are no silver bullets’, etc.).

A senior elected official advising corporate executives on how better to manipulate the populace to advance the commercial interests of their privately-owned firms – while no doubt a common occurrence – is not a spectacle intended for transmission to a mass audience via media outlets.

So we have reason to be grateful for the candid post-meeting deposition by the media-friendly Ferguson. (He also was given a platform in Time magazine to defend violent games following last December’s mass shooting. Unsurprisingly, he emitted the conventional wisdom on the topic: Gun control + mental health services! His earlier analysis of the Batman cinema massacre in Colorado: ‘[If] it wasn’t Batman it would be something else… Trying to make sense of it is pointless.’)

Not for Ferguson, it seems, the giddy engouement usually inspired in intellectuals by proximity to wealth and power. Could such intimacies with Top People, of a lesser sort, have become familiar?

Ferguson observed that visiting Biden at the White House had made videogames firms appear ‘helpful’, and declared he was ‘cautiously optimistic’.

Indeed, received welcomingly or not, the advice given by the politician and the academic – that the industry should ‘improve its image’ by ‘educating the public’, ‘irrespective of the truth’ – was astute.

How might such a strategy be implemented?

The recent history of corporate PR campaigns – marshalled in defence of a maligned or hazardous product, and deployed to forestall the threat of lower sales revenue, product liability claims, government regulation or outright prohibition – provides the videogames industry with a successful template for muddying the waters.

There exist dedicated consulting firms that specialize in ‘product defence’ and ‘litigation support’, including the Weinberg GroupChemRisk and Exponent.

The work of these firms is nowadays studied under the name of agnotology. It usually involves suggesting that ‘debate’ or ‘controversy’  exists within a scholarly discipline or research community when in fact there is little or none.

‘Manufacturing uncertainty’ may be done by funding or promoting masses of research (legitimate as well as illegitimate, peer-reviewed alongside hackwork), at dedicated think tanks as well as independent academic institutions. Then it is pumped it into the mass media to create an apparent diversity of ‘expert’ opinion.

Cacophony leads to doubt among the lay populace over the true state of scientific knowledge, and thus reduces credence regarding their own inferences: ‘results are inconclusive’, ‘the jury is still out’, ‘the science is unsettled’, etc.

The locus classicus of these ‘epistemic filibuster’ techniques is from December 1953. Then, the CEOs of Philip Morris, Benson and Hedges, American Tobacco and US Tobacco met at the Plaza Hotel in New York, following the publication of research on the carninogenic effects of cigarettes.

There the tobacco executives contracted the PR firm Hill and Knowlton. Hill and Knowlton quickly recommended a strategy:

The underlying purpose of any activity at this stage should be reassurance of the public through wider communication of facts to the public. It is important that the public recognize the existence of weighty scientific views which hold there is no proof that cigarette smoking is a cause of cancer.

The PR firm advised the cigarette manufacturing firms to establish a Tobacco Industry Committee for Public Information. It would promote ‘general awareness of the big IF issues involved’ with the aim of ‘establishing a controversy at the public level.’

Equivocation and doubt about the validity of scientific evidence was created by recruiting well-credentialled scholars.

Since at this time ‘the case against tobacco was far from proven’, these consulting scholars would minutely examine the conduct of epidemiological and animal studies, question the precise shape of the dose-response curve relating exposure to ill effects, highlight ignorance or uncertainty about the specific causal mechanism involved, point to latency in response patterns, and sift through meta-analyses searching for gaps, errors or possible confounds.

The resulting ‘strong body of scientific data or opinion in defense of the product’ helped cigarette manufacturing firms to successfully defend themselves against tort claims for many decades (note, however, that this was not due to a duped public: many ‘landmark’ jury findings that awarded damages for product liability were overturned by appellate judges).

doubt is our product

These same obfuscatory procedures were subsequently used to delay recognition of the existence or harmful effects of toxic waste, the role of CFCs in ozone layer depletion, global warming caused by GHG emissions, asbestos, the nuclear-winter scenario and DDT.

The doubt-mongering agnotological template is followed expertly by the following article on the videogames website Kotaku, a Gawker Media blog.

The article purports to inform readers of the up-to-the-minute scholarly state of play (‘everything we know today’) concerning the psychological effects of violent video games:

‘[The] question of whether violent video games lead to aggression has been hotly debated’; ‘Some scientists have concluded that…’; ‘Others argue that…’; ‘It’s a debate that has been going on for over 25 years. And it shows no signs of stopping’; ‘video game violence has been criticized and scrutinized for decades now. You’ve probably heard the theories, maybe even voiced them… For gamers, this is all tired ground’; ‘On one side of the argument are…’; ‘Then there’s the other side of the argument, supported by… The evidence, this camp says, just isn’t conclusive’; ‘So scientists are divided, to say the least’; ‘Can we really link verbal or physical abuse to a test that seems so strange? It’s measures like this—and really, the ambiguity of “aggression” as a psychological concept—that have made professors like Chris Ferguson skeptical of today’s research, even when the evidence seems conclusive; ‘You don’t need a doctorate to know that the human brain is a complex machine, and that nothing about our behavior is predictable. There’s nothing exact about social science’; ‘Whether you believe that the link between violent video games and aggression is clear or you think the science is too faulty to mean anything—and there are strong cases on both sides…’; ‘So maybe the data speaks for itself: maybe there is a clear link between video games and aggression’; ‘Or maybe Chris Ferguson is right, and today’s research is too inconclusive to determine any causal links. It certainly can’t hurt to be more skeptical about what you see in the media.’

Thus, with perfect symmetry, does a lay audience encounter both sides of the story.

Readers learn of Ferguson’s queries about the relevance of standard psychological experimental techniques, such as word-completion tasks and Stroop tasks. They read his scepticism about the usefulness of such methods for detecting the priming effects of exposure to a presented stimulus (e.g. aggressive thoughts and feelings provoked by playing a violent video game).

They are told about possible confounds and other methodological qualms. They witness Ferguson shuttling between accusations that no media-violence effect exists, and admissions that any effect must, at any rate, be of negligible magnitude or, at least, ‘rather weak’.

Is the average reader of Kotaku equipped to judge this for what it is? Or does he or she instead perceive it as an arcane intra-disciplinary ‘debate’ between colleagues, unresolved and still in progress, with ‘both sides’ worthy of a hearing?

All of this is familiar to the historian of agnotology and ‘product defence’.

But today’s videogame firms have several advantages that their predecessors in other industries lacked.

Due to these advantages, Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony may not find it necessary or expedient to build Potemkin research institutions or fund bogus research by dedicated ‘merchants of doubt’.

In particular, due to the presence of what economists call ‘network externalities’, consumers of video games and providers of complementary products (including firms producing other entertainment and media goods, as well as journalists and even academics) already find it worthwhile to provide the videogames industry with ‘product defence’.

The latter comes free of charge and without needing to be organized directly.

While the market (and the commercialized university) provides a PR service in this costless and decentralized fashion, there is no pressing reason to set up, fund and oversee centralized think tanks or intramural collectives. Why add noise to a communication channel that already is sufficiently contaminated?

I’ll explain and develop this idea in the next post.


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One Response to “Muddying the waters”

  1. Doubt as a free good; or, ‘Product defence’ as an externality « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] Some churls are bigger than others « Muddying the waters […]

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