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unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation Paperback – April 24, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

According to Jamieson and Jackson, both of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, "spin is a polite word for deception," and deception is everywhere. As a remedy, they offer this media literacy crash course. The authors explore spin's warning signs ("If it's scary, be wary") and the tricks used to bring people around to a certain point of view ("The implied falsehood," "Frame it and claim it"), as well as the lessons to call on when confronted with conflicting or suspect stories ("Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence"). Although they tackle the checkered history of product pitches (from snake oil to Cold-Eeze), what stands out is their keen insight into Washington politics, where "deception is a bipartisan enterprise," as illustrated by Bush and Kerry in the 2004 presidential election (in which both fudged the facts of unemployment and taxation). September 11 and the run-up to Gulf War II give the authors their most convincing talking points, debunking myths and chronicling Washington's use of "fear, uncertainty, and doubt"-cited so often it gets the acronym "FUD"-to generate public support for the 2003 invasion. However, the rules to avoid these and other carefully enumerated tricks range from commonsensical ("You can't be completely certain") to labor intensive ("Check primary sources"), leaving one to wonder whether the spin doctors have already won out over energy- and time-deficient Americans.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter 1

From Snake Oil to Emu Oil

A century ago a self-proclaimed cowboy named Clark Stan- ley, calling himself the Rattlesnake King, peddled a product he called Snake Oil Liniment. He claimed it was “good for man and beast” and brought immediate relief from “pain and lameness.” Stanley sold it for 50 cents a bottle—the equivalent of more than $10 today—as a remedy for rheumatism, toothache, sciatica, and “bites of animals, insects and reptiles,” among other ailments. To promote his pricey cure-all, Stanley publicly slaughtered rattlesnakes at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

Stanley was the most famous of the snake-oil salesmen, back before passage of the federal Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. And he was a fraud. When the federal government finally got around to seizing some of Stanley’s product in 1915, the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Chemistry (forerunner of today’s Food and Drug Administration) determined that it “consisted principally of a light mineral oil (petroleum product) mixed with about 1 per cent of fatty oil (probably beef fat), capsicum, and possibly a trace of camphor and turpentine.” And no actual snake oil. Stanley was charged with violating the federal food and drug act. He didn’t contest the charge and was fined $20.

Are today’s pitchmen and hucksters any less deceptive? We don’t think so. “Snake oil” has a bad name these days (at least in the United States; in China, it is used to relieve joint pain). But in 2006 we found another animal-oil product that—according to its marketer—is “much better than Botox! [and] Makes Wrinkles Almost Invisible to the Naked Eye! . . . Look as much as 20-years younger . . . in less than one minute.” The maker even claims that the product won’t just hide wrinkles, with repeated use it may eliminate them: “It is possible your wrinkles will no longer even exist.” The name of the product is Deception Wrinkle-Cheating Cream. How appropriate.

According to Planet Emu, the marketer, this scientific miracle contains “the only triple-refined emu oil in the world,” but we quickly determined that this product is nothing more than triple-refined hokum. Emus are those big, flightless Australian birds; the oil is said to be an ancient Aboriginal remedy. But when we asked Planet Emu for proof of their claims, they cited only one scientific study of emu oil’s cosmetic properties, and it had nothing to do with wrinkles. It found that emu oil was rated better than mineral oil as a moisturizer by eleven test subjects. We searched the medical literature for ourselves and found some scanty evidence that emu oil may promote healing of burns in rats. We found no testing of emu oil as a wrinkle cream, much less any testing that compared it with Botox.

That’s where a century of progress in product promotion has gotten us: from baseless claims for snake oil to baseless claims for emu oil. The products change, but the techniques of deception (small “d”) are as underhanded now as they were in the days of Clark Stanley. Meanwhile the price has gone up. “Deception” emu-oil wrinkle cream, at $40 for three quarters of an ounce, costs four times more than a bottle of its snake-oil forebear, even after adjusting for a century of inflation.

Bunk is fairly typical of beauty products. “All the cosmetics companies use basically the same chemicals,” a former cosmetics chemist, Heinz J. Eiermann, told The Washington Post way back in 1982. “It is all the same quality stuff.” Eiermann was then head of the Food and Drug Administration’s division of cosmetics technology. His conclusion: “Much of what you pay for is make-believe.”

Cosmetics advertising is just one example of the rampant deception that surrounds us. Spin pervades both commerce and politics, and most of it is not so funny. As we’ll soon see, any number of products with household names are marketed with false or deceptive advertising. Whole companies have been built on such deception. Elections have been decided by voters who believed false ideas fed to them by manipulative television ads and expressed in “talking points,” and if you voted for a presidential candidate in 2004 the odds are you were one of them. The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq wasn’t the first American war fought with the passionate support of a public that believed claims about the enemy that turned out to be false.

We’ve found that whether the spin is political, commercial, or ideological, and whether the stakes are trivial (as with $40 wrinkle remedies) or, quite literally, life and death, the ways by which we are deceived are consistent and not so hard to recognize. The first step in confronting spin is to open our eyes to how often we encounter it. It’s so common, so all-pervading, that we can’t avoid it.

Prescription-Strength Malarkey

Some examples from commercial advertising:

•Bayer HealthCare once advertised Aleve pain medication as “Prescription Strength Relief Without a Prescription.” It wasn’t. The maximum recommended dose of Aleve is less than half the usually prescribed dose of Anaprox, a prescription counterpart.

•Munchkin, Inc., said of one of its products: “Baby bottles like Tri-Flow have been clinically shown to reduce colic.” But look behind the “clinically proven” claim and you find the test was of a competitor’s similar bottle, not Munchkin’s.

•NetZero claimed its dial-up Internet service allows users to “surf at broadband-like speeds.” It doesn’t. Cable modems are several times faster.

•Tropicana claimed in TV ads that drinking two to three glasses a day of its “Healthy Heart” orange juice could reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. The Federal Trade Commission said those claims weren’t supported by scientific evidence, and prohibited the company from repeating the claims in future ads.

Political Snake Oil

Deceptive product promotion is a minor problem compared with political spin. Compare claims for snake oil and emu oil with those routinely made about crude oil—petroleum. In the 2004 presidential campaign, both John Kerry and President George W. Bush spoke to voters of making America “energy independent.” Toward the end of the campaign, Professor Robert Mabro, who was then the director of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, told The New Yorker magazine: “The two candidates, with due respect, are lying to the people, or they don’t know what they are talking about.”

Our guess is that Bush and Kerry knew exactly what they were talking about. Actually achieving “energy independence” would require huge changes that neither man cared to propose. One independent study, by the Rocky Mountain Institute, projected that the United States could eliminate the need to import any oil from abroad by 2040, if we took such measures as a heavy tax on gas-guzzling vehicles, a federal program to buy and scrap old gas-gulping clunkers, and generous subsidies from taxpayers to help low-income persons buy more fuel-efficient autos. The projected cost of such measures was $180 billion, at least $150 billion more than either Kerry or Bush had pledged, and even so it is probably far too little. Others say that what’s required for independence is a government program on the scale of the project that produced the Apollo moon landings.

Sure enough, oil imports continued to rise after Bush was sworn in for a second term, so much that in 2005 the United States imported 59.8 percent of the oil it consumed, up from 58.4 percent in 2004. The increase came despite enactment of a Bush-backed energy bill, which was predicted only to slow the growth of imports modestly, not to reverse it.

The crude-oil spin continues. In his 2006 State of the Union address, the president said the United States was “addicted to oil.” But this time he set a more modest goal: cutting imports from Middle Eastern countries by 75 percent. That was less deceptive than speaking of “independence,” but deceptive nonetheless. Only about one barrel of imported oil in every five was coming from the Middle East, so cutting that by 75 percent sounded like a bigger step than it really was. The biggest suppliers to the United States actually were Canada and Mexico.

In his speech to Congress, Bush proposed a mere 22 percent increase in government spending for clean-energy research, called “shockingly small” by Severin Borenstein, an energy economist at the University of California–Berkeley. This expert added that Bush’s plan was “hardly the Manhattan Project equivalent on energy that we need.”

It comes as no surprise that candidates want to avoid discussing politically painful solutions during an election year, or ever. But there’s real harm in pretending that there are easy solutions to big problems, or that the problems don’t exist. Accepting the spin means letting the problems fester; meanwhile, the solutions become even more painful, or the problems overwhelm us entirely.

The Profits of Disinformation

Deception is highly profitable. Consider the case of one California huckster calling himself “Dr.” Alex Guerrero. He appeared on TV infomercials claiming that his “natural” herbal remedy Supreme Greens (containing grapefruit pectin) could cure or prevent cancer, arthritis, osteoporosis, fibromyalgia, heart disease, diabetes, heartburn, fatigue, or even “the everyday ravages of aging,” all while promoting weight loss of up to four pounds per week and up to eighty pounds in eight months. A one-month supply cost $49.99, plus shipping and handling. And as incredible as “Dr.” Guerrero’s claims might seem, he sold enough Supreme Greens to drive around in a Cadillac Escalade. When the Federal Trade Commission hauled him into court he agreed to settle the case by halting his claims and either paying a $65,000 fine or giving the government title to his flashy SUV. And he was just one small-timer in the FTC’s bulging case files.

According to the FTC, “consumers may be spending billions of dollars a year on unproven, fraudulently marketed, often useless health-related products, devices and treatments.” Worthless weight-loss products alone have proliferated so wildly that in 2004 the FTC launched “Operation Big Fat Lie” to target them. As of October 2005, the commission said it had secured court orders requiring more than $188 million in consumer redress judgments against defendants. And since the FTC relies mostly on negotiated settlements, which are like plea bargains, that $188 million is most likely a fraction of the actual ill-gotten gains from weight-loss scams.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; First Printing edition (April 24, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400065666
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400065660
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.4 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #53,862 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

102 of 115 people found the following review helpful By Edwin C. Pauzer VINE VOICE on November 13, 2007
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At least I think it's a great book, but now I'm not so sure. The authors, Brooks Jackson, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson have done such an outstanding job of showing me why I bought the electric scissors I didn't need and how I was focusing so much on watching the healthy people on the television doing Tai Chi in the park, I completely overlooked the possible side effects of the drug the commercial was pedaling. Now that I've listened and found out that it may lead to complete loss of body hair, tailbone growth, swelling of the lips and tongue, excessive weight gain, webbed feet, tooth loss, emesis and leprosy, I've stopped taking the drug.

Starting out with the first snake oil salesman making outrageous claims, to political advertisements by republicans and democrats, by Bush and Kerry, we learn that virtually none of them can be trusted because they appeal to our biases, our perception, our experiences, and cynicism with words that are open to interpretation such as clinically tested, larger, better, more people trust or use..., on average, and other caveats that deserve closer scrutiny. (I've also added to the list: "Read with an open mind," and "Only for those who can be objective").

If that isn't bad enough, the authors show us how our personal experiences and eyewitness accounts can be manipulated by others and by our own biases. For example, when subjects were shown two lines of differing lengths, they often reported that the shorter one was longer, once they learned that everyone else (supposedly) had selected the shorter line. An even better one is the neighboring review: One, who has made his conservative feelings clear, felt that there was more "left favoring" bias to this book. A commenter said that he felt there was more "right-favoring" bias.
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50 of 59 people found the following review helpful By doomsdayer520 HALL OF FAME on December 17, 2007
Format: Paperback
As a lifelong skeptic I can get with books like this, in which you can learn the best uses of skepticism against an epidemic of misinformation. This one starts out with some recent scientific evidence on why people believe spin and stick to their beliefs so doggedly when contradictory information is ripe for the plucking. That's basically the most useful aspect of the book, and the rest is a parade of obvious examples of spin and some fairly useful prescriptions for immunizing yourself. The examples given of spin, unleashed by everyone from marketers to academics to politicians (big surprise), are likely to irk the thinking American. But the problem is that the authors assume that all types of public disinformation are equally harmful, from cheesy and harmless marketing like "new and improved" to the worst of political fearmongering. In one ridiculous example, a British commander ploy to keep secret some minor battle plans in the Falklands War is conflated to the same level of distaste as lies about the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians in Iraq. Ironically, the thinking skeptics that the authors are trying to train would be able to parse the world of disinformation more usefully than this book does.

The authors also think that "bipartisanship" is the simple act of critiquing both major political parties, when it would be more useful to critique the system that creates partisanship altogether; while they often recommend that you look at "both" sides of a story, displaying the same systematic tendency of assuming that there are only two ways (left wing vs. right wing) of looking at any complex issue.. Also annoying is the specific recommendation not to assume that one example of spin is a widespread trend.
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27 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Dr. Fred Coles on April 24, 2007
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This is an excellent book for the person who wants to understand how they are being lied to. It is difficult to make sure our biases don't creep in unless we label our comments as opinion. They did a scholarly job here. Nevertheless, their political bias came through. In my opinion this is one of the basic books we all should read.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on June 15, 2007
Format: Paperback
Though it is mostly common sense, most people need to be reminded of their biases and the way they take in information as "fact". This gives excellent examples of bias, misleading info, and info that is "spun" into whatever a person wants. For example, the area on evidence based from research. Even though it may come from a reliable source, was the research peer reviewed? Did it have a reasonable sample? Who financed the research? Now reading through some many of these news articles (like one reviewer stated, the authors claimed that AP was fairly unbiased), I can pick apart the articles in a matter of minutes (using the internet) and go straight to many of the sources (as they instruct you how to do within the book).
Overall, this book is a staple on anyone's desk. It should be required reading for high school and college students.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Lars P. Hanson on August 28, 2008
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I was shocked, *shocked*, to learn that advertisers and politicians had been lying to me.
Actually, no, I wasn't. But it seems too many people are unaware of the degree to which they are being "spun" and the ways in which the facts are being distorted to create a particular impression.
The authors have written a clear, concise, and direct treatise on the subject. This should be required reading for all citizens in this country, and probably also should be taught in the schools. They have organized their discourse into several sections:
* Warning signs of trickery - Seven key warning signs that one is being "spun."
* Tricks - Eight proven tricks used against the public.
* Rules for How to be Sure - Nine invaluable rules to follow when trying to sort fact from fiction.
Each of these signs, tricks, and rules is illustrated with revealing and amusing tales of successful flim-flam.
Between the Tricks and the Rules are excellent chapters on the psychological reasons we fall for such tricks, techniques for avoiding falling for hoaxes, and a clear argument that facts can save your life.
Some, such as William Lutz in "Doublespeak" (1989), have exposed the techniques used and inveighed against them.
Others, such as Farhad Manjoo in "True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society" (2008), have addressed some of the psychological reasons and methods people manage to avoid reasoning based on the facts.
Jackson and Jamieson have cut to the chase and offered a clear and concise manual for understanding the techniques used and making oneself proof against them
This book is a must-read and a real "keeper."
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