The WSJ describes how idea laundering works:
Here’s how it works: First, various academics have strong moral impulses about something. For example, they perceive negative attitudes about obesity in society, and they want to stop people from making the obese feel bad about their condition. In other words, they convince themselves that the clinical concept of obesity (a medical term) is merely a story we tell ourselves about fat (a descriptive term); it’s not true or false—in this particular case, it’s a story that exists within a social power dynamic that unjustly ascribes authority to medical knowledge.
Second, academics who share these sentiments start a peer-reviewed periodical such as Fat Studies—an actual academic journal. They organize Fat Studies like every other academic journal, with a board of directors, a codified submission process, special editions with guest editors, a pool of credentialed “experts” to vet submissions, and so on. The journal’s founders, allies and collaborators then publish articles in Fat Studies and “grow” their journal. Soon, other academics with similar beliefs submit papers, which are accepted or rejected. Ideas and moral impulses go in, knowledge comes out. Voilà!
Eventually, after activist scholars petition university libraries to carry the journal, making it financially viable for a large publisher like Taylor & Francis, Fat Studies becomes established. Before long, there’s an extensive canon of academic work—ideas, prejudice, opinion and moral impulses—that has been laundered into “knowledge.”
They then have an answer when one asks the obvious question: “How could fat be just a narrative? There’s overwhelming medical evidence—A1Cs, the surge of type-2 diabetes, demonstrable risk factors—reliably indicating that excess fat is a health hazard. This has nothing to do with ‘stories we tell ourselves’ or ‘societal power structures,’ and instead directly corresponds to facts about the human body.”
In response, grievance scholars point to articles in the peer-reviewed journal Fat Studies: “Toward a Fat Pedagogy: A Study of Pedagogical Approaches Aimed at Challenging Obesity Discourse in Post-Secondary Education.” Not knowing any better, and seeing a veneer of scholarly rigor and scientific peer review, people reasonably assume that such articles are trustworthy sources of knowledge. (They assume this because it’s how the peer-reviewed process has traditionally worked: Academics try to disconfirm or falsify claims, as opposed to seeking support for them.) These articles tell us that obesity is but a narrative and there are other narratives, such as being healthy at every size, and there’s no reason to “privilege” one narrative over another.
Now that may well be a trivial example. But this sort of thing does happen. Many years ago Australia passed plain packaging laws for tobacco products. The popular view is that these laws have been remarkably successful in inhibiting tobacco consumption. That idea was laundered – first through the peer review process and then the courts.
Here is the introduction paper of the special edition of Tobacco Control that published the peer-reviewed literature declaring the policy to be a glorious success.
Plain packaging in Australia has been a casebook example of effective tobacco control—a policy measure driven by evidence, carefully designed and implemented, and now rigorously assessed. Further, it is set within the context of wider Australian tobacco control, reinforcing the most basic lesson learned over the last half century: action has to be strategic and comprehensive. There are no silver bullets. This issue demonstrates that plain packaging is beginning to deliver on its promise, and an important step forward, but it is still only part of the solution. Australia has learned and applied this lesson well and that is why it has one of the lowest smoking prevalence rates in the world.
Here is the judge in the UK plain packaging case:
More generally, the methodological criteria used to reject evidence on standardised packaging is inconsistent with the established peer-review standards used in scientific journals. Indeed, several of the reports challenge the integrity of the peer-review system and the credibility of some of the most respected health journals in the world.
The evidence appeared in peer reviewed literature and must be true. Astonishingly the judge also claimed:
I am not (remotely) in a position to decide who is right and who is wrong. I can, however, conclude from this that the process of peer review is an important one with serious implications for the issues arising in the present litigation.
Yes. Well. It turns out that the judges at the World Trade Organisation were in a position to form an opinion as to the results of the research and not just the fact that they had been peer reviewed:
120. With this in mind, and based on the studies and expert reports before us and discussed above, the empirical evidence available to us regarding quitting-related outcomes and other distal outcomes, which is sometimes scarce, suggests that:
a. The impact of the TPP measures and enlarged GHWs on adult cigarette smokers’ quitting intention and quitting-related cognition reactions is limited and mixed.
b. The TPP measures and enlarged GHWs have had a statistically significant positive impact on avoidant behaviours, such as pack concealment, among adult cigarette smokers, while their impact on stubbing out and stopping smoking is much more limited and mixed.
c. Although the TPP measures and enlarged GHWs have statistically significantly increased calls to the Quitline, the observed impact of the TPP measures and enlarged GHWs on quit attempts is very limited and mixed.
d. The empirical evidence of the impact of the TPP measures and enlarged GHWs on adolescents’ quitting-related outcomes is limited. This evidence suggests that the impact of the TPP measures and enlarged GHWs on adolescents’ refraining from smoking cigarettes and thoughts about quitting is statistically not significant. No empirical evidence has been submitted to us on pack concealment among adolescent smokers.
By then, however, it didn’t matter – the idea that the peer-reviewed evidence supported the policy had taken root and is now widely accepted as being true.
So the problem is that extremist academics can generate a ‘peer-reviewed’ literature on any point that will become ‘knowledge’ and can undermine social and business practices.