Maimed economic structures use scholarly research to induce social blindness

David Blankenhorn, Deseret News, 8/17/2015

I doubt that anyone running for president or Congress in 2016 will even mention this problem. But I think we should be marching in the streets. We should be ashamed to live in a society where public expertise is largely shaped by and for private interests. We should refuse to grant the people who help to cause the problem the nearly exclusive right to name the problem. All of us -- and particularly scholars -- should refuse to be complicit in economic structures that use guided scholarly research to induce social blindness.

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Subjects: Gambling Corporations , Gambling Research, Gambling

More by: David Blankenhorn

If you're regularly around cigarette smoke and want to protect your health, scholarly research has the answer. Better ventilation. Open those windows! Turn on that fan! Blow that irritating smoke right out of the room.

Do you question this solution? You shouldn't! The research comes from credentialed scholars who publish their work in peer-reviewed academic journals. Many of them are associated with the Center for Indoor Air Research, an independent research group devoted to cleaner air.

Still doubtful? Well, you should be. It turns out that the best solution to indoor smoke is the rule of no smoking indoors. These ventilation-is-the-answer studies are artifacts of the 1980s and 1990s, and were funded almost entirely by U.S. tobacco companies.

According to a recent story in the New York Times, something similar is happening today at Coca-Cola, the world's largest producer of sugary drinks. Research funded by Coke has examined the problem of obesity and has come up with the answer. More exercise. Take a walk each day! Do some push-ups! Follow the advice of the Global Energy Balance Network, a research group (funded by guess who) which informs us that "consume less" is a bad approach to weight control, whereas "move more" is a terrific one! To turn this research into action, Coke also sponsors fitness centers and funds an "Exercise is Medicine" program to urge doctors to prescribe exercise to patients.

But none of this actually wins the prize. Compared to that big dog gazing at us now, yesterday's tobacco companies and today's Coca-Cola are like puppies struggling with their first yelps. If you're curious to see the nearly complete victory of corporate-guided research, the big dog today is the U.S. gambling industry.

Over the last several decades, a large network of research groups, university-based think tanks, academic journals and public education projects (all funded by guess who) has examined the problem of gambling and has come up with the answer. Counseling for gambling addicts. If you are one of those (very few!) Americans suffering from a mental disorder called addictive or pathological gambling, pick up that phone! Help is on the way! Counselors are standing by.

Does such intensive scholarly output focused on only one possible answer to the question of gambling strike you as odd? Like researchers discovering that the solution to secondhand smoke is better ventilation? Or that the solution to sugary drinks is more exercise? Well, it should. We're seeing three examples of one strategy.

The strategy is to name the problem. Once you've publicly named it to your liking, everything else tends to go your way. In all three of our cases -- cigarettes, sugary drinks and casinos -- the industry strategy was to name the problem as the private failings of individuals. Choking on smoke? Open a window. Getting fat from sugary drinks? Join a gym. Losing your retirement savings at the casino? Call a psychiatrist.

When an industry is able to name its core problem in this way, a miracle happens. People stop looking at what you're doing. When it's time to specify what might be wrong with your industry, it's as if your industry itself no longer exists. Other than playing the role of good neighbor, you've disappeared.

As a result, people who guzzle sugary drinks may still have health problems, but from now on those problems are entirely their problems, having nothing to do with Coca-Cola, who after all is encouraging them to take more walks. A slot machine is a computerized cheating device programmed by its owners to ensure that the more you play, the more you lose. A person who regularly puts her money into slot machines can experience serious financial problems, but from now on those problems have nothing to do with the people who created the machine and took out the money that she put in, and who after all are happy to refer her to a social worker. What a miracle of social perception! Suddenly it's all their money and all other people's fault.

An added benefit for the industry is that once the problem is suitably named, the studies parsing the problem can be paragons of scholarly integrity. No one needs to misrepresent data or suppress evidence, because it's not necessary. The miracle of invisibility has already occurred.

I doubt that anyone running for president or Congress in 2016 will even mention this problem. But I think we should be marching in the streets. We should be ashamed to live in a society where public expertise is largely shaped by and for private interests. We should refuse to grant the people who help to cause the problem the nearly exclusive right to name the problem. All of us -- and particularly scholars -- should refuse to be complicit in economic structures that use guided scholarly research to induce social blindness.

This article originally appeared here.

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