Is it still disinformation if the speaker believes it’s true?

Scholars have been debating that question for ages, along with “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around, does it make a sound?” and “Why don’t we see any baby squirrels” and “What the heck is happening on ABC’s Lost?”

[BTW, if anyone actually knows what the heck is happening on Lost, how Sayid ends up being Ben’s hitman (!), let me know — I still believe the “island is purgatory” theory — it certainly is for viewers — even though it has been debunked by the show’s creator. As if! I guess that makes me a Lost denier … but I digress.]


I was inspired to re-examine this age-old question after the recent remarks of the Disinformer-in-Chief in his keynote address at the Washington International Renewable Energy Conference (WIREC), a ministerial-level conference hosted by the U.S. government. He said:

Now, look, I understand stereotypes are hard to defeat. People get an image planted in their head, and sometimes it causes them not to listen to the facts. But America is in the lead when it comes to energy independence; we’re in the lead when it comes to new technologies; we’re in the lead when it comes to global climate change — and we’ll stay that way. (Applause.)

[Side note: The “Is it still disinformation if the speaker gets applause?” question was actually settled by Aristotle himself in his little known book — The Duh of Rhetoric.]

Now I do think that the President actually believes what he is saying — even though he has been no friend of renewables and even though the second sentence obviously applies better to him than anybody in his audience, perhaps than anybody who ever walked the Earth. Indeed, if Bush were on the new reality show The Moment of Truth, strapped to a lie detector, I’m sure he’d break the bank.

If the speaker actually believes the utter falsehoods that he or she utters are true, then technically those words probably qualify as “misinformation.” I am, however, here proposing Romm’s Rule of Disinformation: Even when speakers believe the nonsense being spouted, misinformation becomes disinformation if it meets at least 2 of these 4 criteria:

  1. The speakers ought to know that the words are false — either because they and/or their advisors have been repeatedly informed of the truth or they could find out the truth in under 15 minutes using Google.
  2. The words are not merely untrue but are in fact the opposite of the truth — for instance, not only aren’t we in “the lead when it comes to energy independence,” we are arguably the biggest laggard in the world and we have become steadily less energy independent by all measures under the policies of President Bush.
  3. The speaker is following a well-established disinformation strategy — in this case not only is “we’re in the lead when it comes to new technologies” the exact opposite of the truth (we have been falling farther behind Europe and Asia in clean technology development and deployment under Bush), but Bush is merely echoing for the umpteenth time the “technology, technology, technology, blah, blah” rhetoric recommended by master GOP disinformer Frank Luntz.
  4. The words directly conflict with well-established science.

Bush’s statement meets at least the first three criteria, so yes it is disinformation. I would have said he also meets the fourth criterion, but his final clause is (or was) technically accurate:

we’re in the lead when it comes to global climate change.

Obviously if he meant we’re in the lead when it comes to solving global climate change, that would be contrary to well-established science, which says to solve the climate problem you need to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, rather than increase them [note to self — in the future, avoid humor that is too dry].

But America is certainly in the lead when it comes to changing the global climate — or at least we were the top emitter of GHGs for most of the Bush presidency. I can’t fault Bush for not knowing China has probably surpassed us. In fact, I’m sure Bush never would have consciously let that happen.

Anyway, I hope this post proves useful to future philosophers and rhetoric/media scholars.

15 Responses to Is it still disinformation if the speaker believes it’s true?

  1. Ronald says:

    I think Bush’s speechwriters are putting Bush up to reading this stuff. I think the conversation goes something like this,

    BUSH ‘ are you sure I should say this, won’t it make me look stupid,’

    SPEECHWRITERS ‘Oh no Mr. President, you should say it just as it is written, it’s meant to make you look smart.’ As speechwriters wink to each other.

  2. Paul K says:

    Let’s separate fact from fiction. During the eight years of the Clinton Administration, CO2 emissions increased by 826 metric tons. During the first six years of the Bush Administration CO2 emissions have increased a mere 43 metric tons. That’s right, emissions increased 20 times more when Al Gore and Joe Romm were in charge. In fact, the greatest increase occurred in their last year in office, a sad comment on their policies. It is clear these profligate planet destroyers must never be allowed to return.

  3. Ronald says:

    I suppose everything is as easy as all that.

    Except that the democrats were in charge of the Presidency, but Congress was controlled by Republicans. (6 out of 8 years) There is quite a lot that they wanted to do, but without a Congress that would allow it, it wasn’t going to happen. Examples are proposals to increase the spending on renewable energy research that was gutted by the Republican Congress. President Clinton had a modest carbon tax in his economic stimulus program, but had to abandon it because of Republican opposition and deal making. Just that attempt at that time was courageous although I think some were left politically hanging after that deal.

    Bush’s record of reducing carbon usage has been helped by the increase in cost of oil and other fossil fuels. It’s also been helped by having a recession which decreases fossil fuel consumption. Would anybody argue that the carbon dioxide reductions were because of any of his programs were successful in reducing fossil fuels usage?

    We could go back and forth like this, but there are political realities that shouldn’t be ignored.

    Some Republicans complain that Pres. Clinton didn’t do enough to go after terrorists. But how many hearings did the Republican Congress have on that problem? I’ll help you, none. The Republican Congress was to busy having hearings on other things that had much less to do with what should be the business of the American people.

  4. danny says:

    can you report this little brief item with link:?

    I think we should add Pres Bush to the winner’s circle now. With that fine quote. May I?

  5. John L. McCormick says:

    Paul K.

    You got your knickers in a twist over not very much CO2.

    You said:
    [During the eight years of the Clinton Administration, CO2 emissions increased by 826 metric tons.]

    826 metric tons CO2 = 1,821,018 pounds of CO2

    a gallon of combusted gasoline yield 19.2 pounds of CO2

    Vice Presidnet Gore and Joe Romm are guilty of allowing US CO2 emissions to increase by an amount equal to 95,000 gallons of gasoline?

    You doth protest with too much fiction and without your facts in a row.

    John McCormick

  6. Paul K says:

    John L. McCormick,
    I mistyped. The figures cited are for million metric tons. Please add six zeros to the gallons of gasoline number. Sorry for the confusion. The fact remains that the Clinton Administration was an abject failure in reducing greenhouse gases, while the Bush Administration has been quite successful.

  7. john says:

    Paul K.

    There are several problems with your post — not the least of which is you got your facts wrong (Better check with EIA, again).

    Moreover, what happened on Bush’s watch was not a result of any coherent Bush policy and it was definetely not good.

    First, oil increased in price by 300% — leading to less consumption; second, American manufacturing was eviscerated, and much of it went overseas. Since we upped our consumption, of imported goods, what we really did was export our carbon emissions (along with our wealth and wages) — we are still responsible for those emissions, they merely occurr outside our borders — and GHGs don’t respect borders.

    Nope, a sizable protion of those emissions from China are ours, just as surely as if we’d kept the jobs here. Particularly since we skuttled any attempt to get an international treaty.

    And as others have pointed out, the Republican Congress consistently cut Clinton’s budget for energy efficiency and renewable energy.

    So, botton line Paul K. Don’t mislead, use real facts; don’t ascribe all things good or bad to Presidents.

    Admit the facts — Bush has doomed this country and the world to purgatory; the Republican Congress prevented Clinton from doing what he wanted. (And to be fair, Clinton could and should have pressd the issue more than he did — on the other hand, the Repugs had eviscerated his presidency with the whole inane Lewisnsky thing, so he didn’t have much political capital to play with … but don’t get me started on how reprehensible and hypocritical THAT was — putting the Party before the country seems more like a Soviet thing, but the Repugs keep doing it ).

    But back to the matter at hand — Bush’s purported “success” on global warming — facts suggest otherwise. Facts. Such nasty things to ideaologues.

  8. Nick says:

    Correlation does not equal causation, Paul K

  9. Joe says:

    I have previously blogged on this.

    Bush had 9/11 — which led to recession and a sharp drop in air travel. So starting the Bush GHG trend in 2001 is silly — especially since one can hardly credit any Bush policies for having had any impact in his first year (unless you are attributing 9/11 to him, which I’m sure you’re not). Now we’re in another recession, brought about in part by Bush’s non-energy policy that has led to skyrocketing oil prices and natural gas prices.

    So Bush had 9/11, two recessions, and record high energy prices. Kudos to him for a brilliant strategy to slow emissions growth.

    Clinton had record economic growth and job creation, plus historically low energy prices, and, of course, for 6 years a Gingrich Congress that blocked our efforts to increase in clean technology deployment funding.

  10. Paul K says:

    Go to the link in my original comment. Click on “(CO2) – History from 1949”. Show me where I am wrong. Show me any fact that backs up your contention. I am always open to correction. Thank you, though, for one of the funniest things I’ve read in a long time: “don’t ascribe all things good or bad to Presidents” followed by “Bush has doomed this country and the world to purgatory.” Priceless. None of the excuses, rationalizations and partisan whining from you or Joe changes the fact that, for GHG, Bush has a better record than Clinton. I admit I am more than a little surprised by this too. Consider this. If the emission figures were reversed, is there any doubt you would take it as absolute proof of Clinton’s success and Bush’s failure in curbing GHG.

  11. Dean says:

    Paul may be right that were the numbers reversed, partisans would claim a triumph for Clinton and abject failure for Bush. But if making that claim, without further proof, would be intellectually dishonest, and I agree with Paul that it would, why is making the opposite claim without further proof, as Paul does, intellectually honest?

    Clinton never pushed very hard for policies to prevent climate change, despite his professions, because he faced too much opposition to them in Congress–not only from Republicans, but from Democrats. One of the only bright spots during the Clinton years was Joe Romm’s Energy Department, which (with comparatively little public notice) made a real push to promote new energy technologies.

    Bush, by contrast, for a long time maintained that global warming was not a serious, or at least not an urgent, problem, and the policies of his administration have reflected that position. Reduction in carbon emissions have taken place during his presidency, but no energy policy decision he has made that contributed to that reduction. Had he adopted different set of policies, carbon emissions could have been reduced far more.

  12. Paul K says:

    Do you find it as odd as I do that Bush, by doing nothing, has a better record than Clinton who had both Al Gore Joe Romm at his side? Actually, Bush has done quite a bit, especially in promoting efficiencies which Joe correctly promotes as a key to the solution. While he is not a “warmer” Bush has emphasized reducing our dependence on oil and decreasing the carbon intensity in our economy. Because his reasons are economic and national security rather than climate, he is vilified by those who would rather gain political advantage than find common ground.

  13. Dan G. says:

    Ronald said:

    “Some Republicans complain that Pres. Clinton didn’t do enough to go after terrorists.” NOW they say that, but back then every attempt was greeted with the “Wag the dog” accusation.

    Congratulations to Bush who has shown that carbon emmisions can be SLOWED by digging a big economic hole and dragging the country into it.

  14. Paul K says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with your comment.