Science outreach of the finger-food variety is often the specialty of a front group or astroturf group. A front group is an organization that pretends to be on the side of the consumer or informed citizen. In reality, it is funded by specific industries or individuals with financial and ideological interests. The group consistently remains loyal to those interests, and not necessarily to the average person.
But although they may be useful allies, not all finger-food outreachers are part of front groups. The front group’s strategies also work for media types. They realize that many people like to have a go-to-guy for science issues because many feel unconfident doing their own research and/or feel overwhelmed by some of the jargon used by specialists, who of course know far more than the outreachers.
A FRONT GROUP’S STRATEGIES
The front group …
- Always denies they are associated with a sponsor in the manner that a devoted spy never reveals his true nature. They cannot admit they are doing public relations.
- Pretends its members are doing “science-outreach” in their spare time, out of the kindness of their hearts, like some obscure bloggers do…. Or if the salaries of members is obvious because they are working full time, then they pretend that funding is from random individual donations —people who want to learn.
- Makes it sound like their sponsors are not principally interested in maximizing profits. The cause is made to seem humanitarian: feeding the world, creating jobs etc.
- Never focuses on the long-range perspective. If the strategy or product being peddled works now, it’s all that matters. To them the precautionary principle is anathema.
- The front group will spend lots of energy attacking easy targets, things that a smart 5th grader knows are bogus such as Flat-Earthism, spoon-bending and coffee-edemas. But they do it to build up credibility among the uninitiated. When subsequently commenting on a more controversial issue, the front group will then have a view that will be seem more objective than it actually is.
- Especially if a critic has a popular voice, the front group does not refrain from using character assassination, regardless of whether the critic is a renowned journalist, reputable scientist, devoted worker etc. They will pretend that the slandering is done in the name of patriotism, freedom or science.
- Tries to make the science around a difficult issue seem totally settled. Uses war-like terminology: “you are either with us or against us; you’re either pro-science or anti-science”.
- If the sponsor has been legitimately accused of unethical behavior or of engaging in propaganda, they pretend it is those who brought evidence against their sponsor who are sleazy and propagandistic.
- Their organizations assume titles that include words sounding either authoritative or patriotic: institute, freedom or American.
- To further create an aura of authority and competence, if a member has a PhD, he will plaster it all over the place and not hesitate to use the title “Dr”. Mere publicists will assign themselves inflated titles such as “Vice President of Scientific Affairs”, or “Vice President of Scientific Communications”. What the public doesn’t realize is that often the PhD of a front member is not related to what he is defending or attacking. His only research paper to date leading to his PhD could be 9 years old and have dealt with gum disease, which means he is no more qualified to give an educated opinion on genetically modified foods, toxicology, epidemiology, climate science, etc than the average person with a science background. Couple that with the fact that he is paid to promote political ideology and the special interests of specific corporations, and his opinion becomes even less scientific than the slogan, “9 out of 10 dentists recommend Crest”.
- A front group that is also ideological will overlook all outrageous comments on their sites and Twitter feeds, as long as the commenter is a political ally. But they will pounce on any unfavorable political views and not hesitate to bring in allies with false identities.