Denialists’ Deck of Cards: Consumers Want It, Or They Don’t Know What They Want

The spectacle manifests itself as an enormous positivity, out of reach and beyond dispute. All it says is: “Everything that appears is good; whatever is good will appear.” – Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

i-9d936ebcbb671ac98c18d0fb1b4e58c6-4s.jpeg You’ve argued that consumer education can set individuals free. Now argue that because something exists, people must want it. After all, the market is perfect, and even if it produces a seemly odious product, it’s not really a problem. On the other hand, if consumers start making choices that the denialist doesn’t like, the denialist will say that individuals don’t really know what they want. i-4c97633fd541b43d1718e227370307bb-5h.jpeg

So, whether you go with consumers want it or consumers do not know what they want, you conclude with the “no problem” chorus.


Here’s a great example of the second argument: Qwest once argued that the government should not restrict the sale of phone records because it was paternalistic, and because individuals don’t know that they really want their records sold so that they can receive more advertising: “the government cannot depress the communication of lawful speech to potentially interested persons in order to protect uneducated, inattentive adults.”


12 responses to “Denialists’ Deck of Cards: Consumers Want It, Or They Don’t Know What They Want”

  1. Michael LoPrete

    I would suggest pairing the 4 of spades (Consumers want it) with the 4 of diamonds (Consumer freedom). Previous pairings were therefore statements (bad apple, therefore, no problem), and the same could be done with 4/di and 4/sp (Consumer freedom, therefore, consumers want it).

    I.E., when we give intelligent, educated (assumed via previous cards and market idealism) consumers freedom to choose, then the only options that last in the market are the ones demanded by consumers; they know the risks (which aren’t really there), and our product is so good they want it anyway.

    The five of hearts, on the other hand, seems to raise a new line of arguments. There is no “therefore” between the two cards above.

  2. Greece is poised to outlaw genetically-modified food in their country. They argue that their “high-quality” products like olive oil are too important to ever be contaminated with the pollen of GM-food. In this case, I think that consumer demands are worth looking at. Granted, there isn’t a “I want to eat genetically modified food!” lobby. But the public, by and large, will buy the food that is cheapest (all things being equal). And in many cases, that is GM-food. But making GM-food illegal, the government of Greece is deciding for consumers that a whole technology is not allowed, which will ultimately mean that food prices in Greece will be higher than elsewhere. Isn’t this a case where one could legitimately argue that “consumers want it” and it be legit? Sorry, I’m trying to move out of the GM-food debate (I don’t want that to be the sole feature of my posts, but it’s an area that is dominated by shrill and uninformed voices).

    In this case, I think consumer choice is relevant. My position is that organic food should be free of genetic modification, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer. Then let consumers make the choice between cheaper food and more expensive food that fits their value system.

  3. Michael LoPrete


    None of these, by themselves, are necessarily denialist arguments. What is being demonstrated, I think, is that (1) there are certain arguments that should constitute red flags b/c they are so often used by denialists, and (2) there tends to be a progression of argumentation by denialists that moves in a fairly consistent direction that we can identify.

  4. @factician,

    I’ve never understood why many think that GM is a per se evil. It seems to me that we’ve engaged in GM for thousands of years, and so it seems to be okay when done by a farmer, but not okay when done in a lab. It seems to be an area where, if the risks of contamination and homogeneity are managed, people should be able to choose. Of course, the industry wants to avoid things like labeling of GM, making that choice more difficult to make.

    One area where we’ve seen these arguments made less cogently is in trans fats. There was a meme that “if it exists, it must be good.” But in that case, I think the ban was the right thing to do, because of the reduction in heart risk, and the total inability for consumers to choose among restaurants/products free of trans fats.

  5. Another area where I think consumers have it wrong is irradiation… We may be moving there as a result of all the problems we’ve had here in CA.

  6. Mark Chu-Carroll


    GM foods is an area that I think falls right into some of the “denialist” arguments that Chris is talking about in several ways.

    First, you’ve got the “Let the consumer decide” argument in the context of how they want to sell GM foods. The same people who argue to let the consumer decide *also* argue that they shouldn’t have to label GM foods. So it’s “Let the consumer decide, only doing tell them what their choices are.”

    Second, you’ve got the idea that the whole problem is really just economic: the consumers will decide whether they want GM foods or not. But it’s *not* a purely economic thing. We’ve seen numerous instances of gene escapes from GM crops – so that the decision to *permit* GM foods doesn’t only affect the people who decide to buy GM – it affects the entire ecosystem, because we haven’t successfully been able to prevent our modified genes from escaping into wild populations. Even carefully grown organic foods can wind up containing modified genes if the modifications are allowed into the ecosystem. So even if I’m willing to pay a substantial surcharge in order to buy organic non-modified foods, there’s no guarantee that I won’t wind up eating modified food anyway, just because someone allegedly wanted to give me the choice.

  7. There are two critical ways in which GMO differs from selective breeding: The first – genetic pollution – has already been covered by MarkCC et al. I would just like to add something I already wrote elsewhere on the same subject:

    […] for those who argue that for all we know this will be a minor effect, I would like to draw your attention to the history of pesticides and antibiotics. When introducing new factors into a system as complex as the global ecosphere, caution is really, really warrented.

    The second, and in many ways equally important, problem is the degree of homogenity of GMOs. No matter how badly you inbreed your standard pig or cattle or cereal crop, you will never achieve the kind of monoculture that is possible with unrestricted GMO usage.

    Mind you, the monoculture that can be achieved with just ordinary traditional breeding is bad enough – there are multiple occations in history where a single new disease has caused widespread problems for entire countries by devastating a critical food or cash crop due to insufficient biological diversity among the crop in question.

    In the age of global transportation infrastructure, such diseases hit globally and further homogenising the biological makeup of the crops on which we depend for clothing, sustenance, fuel, building materials, etc. strikes me as a supremely dumb idea, unless the gains are fairly substantial.

    And for the record, curing famine is not an advantage of GMO, since modern-day famine is caused not by an inability to produce sufficient food (globally, there is no food shortage), but by patterns of trade that make it impossible for poor people of poor countries to buy the food.

    – JS

  8. Apologies for the double post, but from your post, it seems that you should also be introducing ‘The Market Is Magic’ in the same hand?

    – JS

  9. Mark C. Chu-Carroll


    There’s a difference between “genetic modification” by selective breeding, and “genetic modification” by laboratory gene-splicing. Selective breeding works with the diversity that exists in nature in a relatively simple way. Gene splicing *can* introduce huge differences in the basic biochemistry of the crop that are different not just in magnitude but in kind from the differences we can produce by selection.

    That’s not *necessarily* a bad thing. For example, GM quinoa is great stuff if you can get it – they modified the plant to get rid of the soapy shell around the kernels, which makes it much easier to prepare and cook. (But its hard to find, because it turns out that the nasty soapy shell is what prevents it from getting eaten by the local wildlife.)

    But in other cases, you’re looking at dramatic changes in plants that *may* have the potential to do bad things. But the companies that produce the GM crops try to avoid rigorous testing of their crops to ensure that the modifications don’t escape, and that the biochemical changes in the crop don’t have any negative impacts on the consumers of those crops, whether they’re people or livestock.

    So we’ve seen things like “roundup-ready” crops pushed onto the market, with the companies swearing that they’re safe and that they’ve been testing to ensure that there will be no escape of modified genes – and yet we find that in places where roundup is used extensively, there’s evidence of escape of the roundup-ready gene mod into non-RR crops, and roundup-resistant weeds.

    If we were testing the GM foods as much as we tested foods with additives, and we were doing proper, careful, thorough tests to make sure that escape of modified genes *really* wasn’t possible, and we labeled things so that people could make an informed choice – that would be fine. But that’s not the reality of the present situation – what we have is companies skimping on tests and then shouting both “Let the consumers decide!” (meaning “Don’t ban GM foods”) and “The consumer doesn’t know what they want” (meaning “Don’t make us tell them when we sell them GM foods”).

  10. One area where we’ve seen these arguments made less cogently is in trans fats. There was a meme that “if it exists, it must be good.” But in that case, I think the ban was the right thing to do, because of the reduction in heart risk, and the total inability for consumers to choose among restaurants/products free of trans fats.

    But trans fats also have longer shelf lives and cost less to produce than saturated fats and can have melting points and textures that aren’t available in other fats. While you may not think its worth the health drawbacks, some people may. For example, I eat Hostess Orange Cupcakes despite the fact that I know full well they’ve got trans-fat in them and are aware the averse impacts it will have on my HDL and LDL numbers; it’s simply a tradeoff I can live with. /standard consumer freedom argument

    Which leads to a neat little rhetorical two-step used by advocates of regulation. The response to my comment is that I’m the exception and that most consumers aren’t knowledgeable of the tradeoff, and if they were, they wouldn’t eat the trans fat, so a ban is justifed. There is an optional step here where they could argue that my evidence is ancedotal, but since they don’t have population numbers either (and probably used some ancedotes somewhere along the line too), they’ll often forego it. If they don’t, they’ll typically set up a strawman about me making a claim about frequency in a population while I’m actually trying to demonstrate how it can be a rational preference. If the prospect of consumer education rather than a ban is raised, any failure of it to change consumers choices is evidence supporting that consumers can’t be educated on the subject succesfully and any change is evidence that a ban is necessary because educated consumers don’t want it. Any deviance from the regulator’s preferences is interpretted as some form of “market failure” justifying intervention. Keep an eye out for demands for “perfect” rationality or information – setting an impossible standard for when to trust market outcomes as representative of consumer preferences is key to this strategy.

    The most prominent example of a policy where this logic tends to be employed is within the War on Drugs, but it shows up in most debates where would-be regulators disagree with consumer choices. It also gets employed a lot in debates around food, since it allows advocates of regulation to go after the usual boogeymen rather than deal with the fact that people conciously decide to eat foods that they are aware are bad for them because they enjoy eating them – the failure of the policies to make a substantial dent in the problem will be interpreted as a need for tougher regulations.

  11. I think GM is an interesting case because much of the popular resistance here in Europe doesn’t seem very well-founded, but instead of actual education, the proponents of GM often seem to prefer arguments that smack of denialist tactics, like “you’re keeping food away from the starving third world” or “farmers have always done it so no problem” (sorry, couldn’t resist).

    That suggests three possibilities:

    – Denialist tactics are more effective than just making your case, even when it has some merit;
    – Denialist tactics aren’t so effective, but the companies involved are so used to using them that they don’t know how to argue their case when it inadvertently has merit (my personal pick);
    – Actually, the case for GM as currently proposed is as weak as its detractors believe.

  12. That suggests three possibilities:

    – Denialist tactics are more effective than just making your case, even when it has some merit;

    I definitely think there’s something to that. I’ve recently been noticing that most AGW deniers prefer simple, obviously flawed arguments over complex, semi-plausible ones. I’m suspecting that it’s got something to do with cognitive load – when faced with a complex topic, the impusle is to go for the simple argument (the chocolate cake) regardless of whether it’s any good.

    This is something advertisiers have known for years – you don’t try and sell your product on its intrinsic merits (which may take time to explain, and are subject to rational evaluation), you sell it on the idea of who the sort of person who buys that product is (tribal identification), or some other simplistic, emotional hook. And lets face it, the sort of denialism we’re talking about here is really just public relations (aka advertising, aka propaganda) by another name.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *