Science Lesson: False Consensus, Centrism And The Reality Of Tobacco Control

Carl V. Phillips | Contributor

Most humans believe that others share their opinions and beliefs to a much greater extent than is really true. This has been labeled the false consensus effect, and it usually makes life happier. It is easiest to not realize that someone you are interacting with on one matter has views on some other matter that you find repulsive or loony. The tendency to assume shared views is undoubtedly evolutionarily adaptive, both at the species and the society level, because it facilitates cooperation. But when dealing with opponents, overestimating how much everyone agrees can be quite costly.

One reason social media seems to create so much divisiveness is because it breaks the illusion of false consensus. This is not actually creating points of conflict, but merely making it difficult to not recognize they exist. I recall from decades ago, at the dawn of online social interaction (before it was turned into a way to exploit our personal information), watching participants in a discussion group about vegetarianism and animal rights stray into talking about abortion rights. Many were genuinely shocked that opinions differed. Some participants were sure that the same beliefs and reasoning that led to support of animal rights must cause someone to oppose abortion. They did not realize that people followed different paths to shared conclusions about animal rights, and those had different implications regarding abortion. More interesting, other participants were sure that everyone would support abortion rights, because they were on the same side of another issue that is typically considered progressive or liberal. The latter is a more generic form of the false consensus effect, a tendency to think “I know there are people who disagree with me, but they are all cartoon villains, not those decent people I have nice conversations with.”

A decade or two ago, people could gather for an advocacy group meeting or a gaming night without anyone learning that someone else in the room had political or moral views they considered objectionable. This insulation is responsible for the cliches about Thanksgiving dinners, where people with deep disagreements are brought together in a setting where they are inclined to speak freely. Stories about about first dates are similar, because that is a rare occasion when strangers intentionally seek to identify their points of serious disagreement. This is also the reason for old cliches about never discussing religion; it was often the only point of strong disagreement among white middle- and upper-class Americans circa 1965. But now social media accounts are used for multiple interactions, including  support of multiple political causes, hobbies and chatter among friends. The information spillover makes it more difficult to overestimate consensus.

Because of this, social media often makes plain the flaws in “centrist” positions, beliefs that differences in political views are relatively minor and mostly technical, and that there is a middle ground that everyone can be happy with. In the current debate about gun control, the centrist positions include statements like “no one wants to ban guns; we all want to ensure responsible gun ownership.” But it is easy to observe, as simple matters of fact, that some people do want to ban private ownership of guns and others want to brandish guns as an act of political intimidation. It may be that there is a compromise position that supported by a substantial majority, but suggesting everyone supports it is a false belief in consensus.

It is bizarre this belief in false consensus persists when some people openly express their disagreement with the centrist view, and yet it does. In the case of tobacco product politics, the typical centrist position is that “everyone agrees” about the following, or at least most of them: improving people’s health is the top priority; policies should be judged primarily on whether they improve health outcomes; smokers should be pushed to stop smoking; quitting entirely is best; and for those smokers who do not quit entirely, a low-risk alternative is a good choice. Many commentators believe these statements, of course. But many of them have fallen victim to the false consensus effect. It is no secret that many others, including people who have given the matter a great deal of thought, disagree with some of these claims. (For what it is worth, I personally disagree with four of the five and have qualms about the way the fifth is usually phrased.)

The centrist claim that “we all agree with these” sometimes serves its evolutionary purpose, providing the social lubricant that lets us ignore disagreements that distract from opportunities for cooperation. When arguing the merits of keeping vaping legal it seldom hurts to recite the false consensus, “we all agree that quitting entirely is best, but many smokers cannot or will not quit, so….” Not everyone agrees, but often that illusion is common among the target audience, and shattering it would needlessly interfere with the immediate goals.

But false consensus ceases to be a political tool and becomes a self-defeating liability when it is actually assumed to be accurate. As previously reported, tobacco controllers are going to farcical lengths to try to silence the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. The centrist response to this has been, “hey, guys, why all the hostility? We are all just trying to improve public health and put an end to smoking.” But that is simply wrong, and hoping that tobacco control will come to “understand” this is a waste of time. Tobacco control’s political goals are not the ones described in the centrist position. In addition, tobacco control is desperate to keep their near-monopoly over research funding in the field, lest honest researchers start noticing just how shoddy and biased all of the research is.

A common result of a belief in false consensus is thinking that anyone with a different political goal is merely not understanding something. Thus, the reasoning goes, all we have to do is correct their misperceptions and we will all be on the same page. (If you observe political discussions with this observation in mind, you will notice many examples.) Tobacco controllers are primarily concerned with hurting industry and eliminating all tobacco product use, not about reducing harm or reducing smoking specifically. They consider hurting product users (and anyone who supports product users) to be a benefit rather than a cost. It does not take detective skills to figure this out. These are not secrets. Tobacco controllers say as much. Often. Loudly and explicitly.

It is always possible to defeat people with extremist goals in the political arena. It is possible to pry loose their useful idiots, people who do not really agree with the extremism but have been tricked into supporting it (e.g., correcting misperceptions about the risks tobacco controllers use to support their extremist agenda). It is possible to persuade some extremists to fundamentally change their goals, based on ethical arguments or social connections (e.g., anti-LBGT positions often fade when someone realizes they care about a person who happens to be gay). But what is not possible is to “correct” the misunderstandings of the extremist true believers; their beliefs are not the product of misunderstanding.

Consider this tweet:

A common centrist position is that tobacco controllers have lost their way. It is true that tobacco control was, three decades ago, a socially responsible political movement, primarily about health and helping people. But that is ancient history. Trying to block adoption of vaping and other low-risk alternatives has been central to their mission for two decades. (The quoted tweet refers to the previously reported lawsuit that is intended further FDA’s efforts to ban vaping.) Rapid adoption of low-risk alternatives in rich countries is a threat to several of tobacco control’s real goals; they are not erring or misunderstanding when they try to stop it. While the lawsuit might be considered a low point from the perspective of vapers or centrists, it would be a mistake to think that the extremists would be embarrassed about it. Calling attackers in a militarized struggle “cowardly terrorists” might be cathartic, but it is not going to somehow persuade them to feel bad about tactics that further their goal.

Getting trapped in the false consensus illusion, and thus trying to “correct” political opponents, is sometimes merely a waste of time and effort. But it can be much worse. Centrist rhetoric can undermine potentially effective tactics. A decent person who supports tobacco control might be persuaded to renounce the extremists, but not if he can take psychological refuge in the centrist claim that they are really compassionate public health supporters who all want the same things he does. Assuming good intentions and seeking common ground with an enemy who just grabs every offered concession and then demands more — as happens with tobacco control every single time — is self-defeating appeasement.

Probably most important, the false consensus illusion and centrist rhetoric make it more difficult to pry loose tobacco control’s useful idiots. This is a category that includes not just random supporters with a bit of influence (e.g., medics), but influential politicians and real public health people whose good reputation tobacco control is abusing. Quite a few of them would end their support, or even join the resistance, if they understood tobacco control’s real goals or deplorable tactics. If you try tell them, however, they are unlikely to believe it. To some extent, this is the false consensus effect itself. But it is abetted by centrist claims by tobacco control opponents. Taking a centrist position means not making the effort to lead the useful idiots toward the truth. It is a problem of clinging to a false consensus rather than focusing on those who might share a genuine consensus. 

Carl V. Phillips



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