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The Truth Distortion Field: An Introduction

When organized, powerful forces benefit, independent thought and our perception of reality can be bent in a truth distortion field

This is the intro to my Truth Distortion Field series.

For decades, independent doctors, scientists and tobacco companies had raucous debates in the U.S. about whether tobacco caused harm to one’s health. Considered healthy for much of its history, by the mid-1950s worries began to grow about the health effects wrought by cigarettes.

While it’s hard to imagine today, large groups in the 1950s still depended on tobacco. Three million people depended on money from tobacco cultivation making ~$10 BN annually. Tobacco companies directly employed 100,000, paying ~$3.5 BN annually in salaries.

Cigarette advertisers were the single largest product advertiser on television/radio, accounting for ~1 in 10 ad dollars and countless ad agency campaigns. Political delegations from tobacco states depended on tobacco companies and families working in tobacco to be elected. Tobacco accounted for more than 1% of all federal tax receipts.1 Even in the 1960s, nearly 50% of Americans smoked.

The affected parties had large incentives to challenge the growing consensus among scientists.

In response to the doubts, tobacco companies undertook an organized attack on the scientific evidence, while lobbying their employees, politicians, and the public to their self-serving point of view. Only in the 1990s was legislation passed that curtailed advertising to teenagers and provided healthcare support to affected groups. Even today, non-smoking advocates face threats around the world.

In the time between scientific consensus and broader societal acknowledgement of tobacco’s dangers, millions of smokers worldwide (who might have quit or never started) lost their lives, while select groups benefited. To this day, the tobacco strategy is repeated time after time.

When organized, powerful forces benefit, independent thought and our perception of reality can be bent in a truth distortion field. 2 Sometimes this may be malevolent; other times, this is simply because those at the top subtly favors certain facts over others — influencing those around them. The larger the “mass,” the greater the magnitude of its impact on independent, unbiased discourse.

For industry employees, scientists, and the public, it’s important that we train ourselves to recognize truth distortion fields, why they occur, and how we can inoculate ourselves against them.

Truth Distortion

Beyond tobacco, there are countless examples where the “truth” has been obscured for a period of time, when it goes against established interests:

(Add your own favorite example by sending a pull request)

These examples range from ones with very clear good and bad guys, to ones that elicit substantial debate today. And while some of the industries and narratives I highlight are now discredited (tobacco), newer industries that some laud today (clean tech) will do the same when they are powerful.

In many cases, money or power is at stake with a self-preservation instinct for those involved. If you can delay widespread knowledge of the truth for even a decade, you’ll protect large revenue streams – and maintain the career trajectory of those in power.

I’ve been eager to understand what was going on – for employees, for scientific researchers, and for the public – and crucially, explore what we could do about it.

My goal in this series  is not to address all the issues of science, but look at one specific effect where organized, powerful parties shape the way key societal stakeholders think. And though I generally argue for greater openness for independent thought and the scientific method, this has its own issues when the scientific consensus is wrong. 4

By correcting for truth distortion fields, we’ll collectively make better decisions and positively impact many of those we care about. For example, an old industry favoring its parochial view can set an entire country’s leadership back in the next generation of technology. These better decisions will mean lead to large benefits — but will also come at tremendous cost to select groups.

This is the introduction in my Truth Distortion Field series. The rest of the series is available here. All opinions expressed are solely my own. feedback? drop a note to nemil at this domain

  1. Money values have been changed to 2017 dollars, assuming CPI from the late 1960s. ↩︎
  2. This is obviously a nod to the reality distortion field around Steve Jobs. ↩︎
  3. I know that I’ll evoke controversy by comparing Facebook to the other examples on this list. At the same time, I personally believe that filter bubbles are one of the largest challenges we face as a society in making good decisions - and something that numerous Facebook employees heavily disputed before 2017. ↩︎
  4. A perfect example is the nutritional science consensus in the 1960s-80s that fat is a key culprit in heart disease. ↩︎