This American Lie: Is It O.K. For Climate Science Deniers To Lie And For Journalists To Quote Those Lies?

This is a post about people who tell lies to fabricate a narrative, and the journalists who lazily cite them.

But it’s not just about the climate science deniers and their enablers. It’s also about NPR’s This American Life, which retracted a powerful episode about Apple workers in China after learning their key source, Mike Daisey, fabricated key details in the interest of a better narrative and what he saw as a good cause.

I’m a big fan of the show, but even if you aren’t, I’d urge you to listen to the retraction show (audio here, transcript here).

The whole episode is a cautionary tale for all journalists, including those in the climate arena — at least for those who don’t draw the exactly backwards lesson from it, such as NY Times blogger Andy Revkin.

The point of the story is that some sources consistently make up crap in the interest of a larger narrative. That was Mike Daisey. It is also what most climate science deniers do, which is why I prefer to call them disinformers.

The lesson is for journalists is to avoid those folks like the plague since you can’t trust anything they say, quoting them will probably screw up your story, and consistently relying on their perspective may harm your reputation.

Now here is where the story gets weird. Instead of drawing the obvious analogy between what Daisey did and what the disinformers do, Andy Revkin and others are actually trying to compare Daisey to … wait for it … climatologist Peter Gleick! As we will see, this is, ironically, how a desired narrative trumps all plausibility.

Here is Revkin in his all-too-aptly-titled post, “Other Voices: When Narrative Comes Before Truth“:

Kloor’s post also draws parallels between the Daisey affair and the saga of Peter Gleick, the water analyst and climate communicator who lied to obtain documents from the Heartland Institute, his arch foes in the climate communication wars.

Kloor’s piece closes with a quote from Times reporter David Carr, musing on Daisey and the radio program:

Is it O.K. to lie on the way to telling a greater truth? The short answer is also the right one.


I agree with Kloor that this comment also applies to climate discourse, although, as I’ve said before, the Gleick affair was not simply a matter of ethics, but also efficacy.

If one’s goal is to build public trust in climate science, and to demand an ethical approach to tending the global commons, demolishing one’s credibility and handing ammunition to foes is probably not a viable strategy.

This may be the second worst analogy in the history of climate discourse.

What Gleick did was unethical, as he acknowledges, and I certainly agree. But it bears little relationship to what Daisey did. Gleick wasn’t making up a bunch of crap in order to fabricate a compelling narrative to achieve a political end. That’s what the deniers do. Indeed, that is all they do. Gleick, like every serious climate scientist I know, worked overtime to be as accurate as possible in his explication of the incredibly well-verified theory of manmade global warming.

Again, Revkin’s headline was “When Narrative Comes Before Truth.” Obviously that isn’t Gleick. It is, however, the Heartland Institute. As several leading climate scientists have explained, it is Heartland who spends their time “spreading misinformation” and “personally attacking climate scientists to further its goals.”

Who is guilty of wanting their narrative to trump scientific truth? That would be the professional climate science deniers. They are the Mike Daisey’s of climate discourse.

The shocking thing is that while I’m sure This American Life won’t be quoting Mike Daisey as a source again, leading journalists, including some at the New York Times, keep citing the disinformers no matter how many times they have been caught spreading outright lies (see “False Balance Lives At The New York Times” and “Atlantic Editor Megan McArdle Admits She’s Outsourced Her Thinking to Cato’s Pat Michaels“).

As a student of good and bad metaphors and analogies — I’ll be publishing a book later this year that has a whole chapter on metaphor and another one on extended metaphor — it is safe to say that there is no perfect metaphor almost by definition.

But let’s be very clear here. What Gleick did — misrepresenting himself to obtain information that could help expose misfeasance — is something many journalists have done over the years (see some examples here). Again, I’m not defending what Gleick did, merely pointing out that there is an ongoing debate in journalism over whether such misrepresentation is a good idea.

In contradistinction to that debate, no serious media outlet would knowingly publish multiple falsehoods merely to serve a narrative*[but see below]. Again, the point is, what Gleick did is nothing like what Daisey did.

There simply is no analogy and trying to shoehorn Gleick into that narrative is, well, downright ironic. I’d also add that using this absurd analogy to pile on Gleick yet again is particularly squirrely right now since Gleick is no longer defending himself, no doubt on advice of counsel.

Let me note for clarity’s sake that I’ve never met a journalist or blogger who didn’t have some sort of narrative in mind when they were writing a story. That’s no surprise — “story” and “narrative” are, after all, almost synonyms.  So having a narrative doesn’t make you Mike Daisey. I’ve also never met a journalist or blogger who didn’t occasionally make some mistakes, and due to confirmation bias, those mistakes often serve the narrative. Again, that doesn’t make you Daisey.

Heck, even climate scientists from time to time don’t use every caveat they should, they occasionally forget to say “probably,” and no doubt they even make some, shudder, mistakes  in representing the scientific literature. Again, not Daisey.

UPDATE: Don’t miss A. Siegel’s post on this subject, which points, among other things, that Revkin has retracted his retraction about Gleick’s reputation.

Since Revkin and Kloor cite Carr, let’s pick up his description of what Daisey did from the next paragraph:

It’s worth examining that question now that we have learned about the lies perforating the excerpt of Mike Daisey’s one-man show on Apple’s manufacturing processes in China, broadcast in January on the weekly public radio show “This American Life.”

No one is suggesting that everything about Apple’s supply chain is suddenly hunky-dory, but the heroic narrative of a fearless theater artist taking on the biggest company in the world is now a pile of smoking rubble.

Mr. Daisey’s one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” closed its very successful run at the Public Theater in New York on Sunday. The show played a significant role in raising public consciousness, not just about the ethics of offshore manufacturing, but about whether those of us who fondle those shiny new iPads every day are implicated as well.

Daisey was a performance artist. That should have been a red flag. Everything he said should have been double checked. Again, the performance artists in climate discourse are people like Lord Monckton, for whom it’s all about the narrative and nothing about the truth.

Mr. Daisey admits to cutting corners, but “stands by his work,” in part because it moved people to care about other people’s suffering in a far-flung land. Unfortunately, the parts of his show with which his audience connected so viscerally were the ones that seem to have been based on nothing more than a need for drama.

That former worker who maimed a hand while manufacturing the iPad, then hovered over that magical device when Mr. Daisey handed him one? Remarkable. And fictional. The 13-year-old who worked the assembly line? The translator does not recall meeting such a person.

Now I get why Roger Pielke, Jr. makes this absurdly forced analogy between Daisey and Gleick — it is another opportunity for him to smear all climate scientists. Pielke was, after all, included in Foreign Policy‘s “Guide to Climate Skeptics”.  Top climate scientists like Kevin Trenberth and Ken Caldeira have called Pielke out for his misleading scientific claims and for his false accusations against climate science experts.

In his Daisey post, Pielke actually manages to accuse the uber-sober meteorologist and former hurricane hunter Jeff Masters of being someone who would “overlook lies or misrepresentations in service of a ‘larger truth’.” Talk about glass houses.

For all his peer-reviewed publications, Pielke remains one of the most debunked people in the blogosphere:

The point is that Gleick is not the guy who wanted some falsehood-filled narrative to trump scientific truth.

Yes, what Gleick did do he thought he was doing in a good cause, but that doesn’t make the analogy. Everyone thinks what they are doing is in a good cause. Last year I posed this quiz — who said:

  1. “For many years, I, my family and our company have contributed to a variety of intellectual and political causes working to solve these problems. Because of our activism, we’ve been vilified by various groups.”
  2. “I have spent the best years of my life giving people the lighter pleasures, helping them have a good time, and all I get is abuse, the existence of a hunted man.”

The first is Charles Koch. The second is Al Capone.

The fact that everyone spins is of course why journalists check out sources.

I wrote earlier “no serious media outlet would knowingly publish multiple falsehoods merely to serve a narrative.”  I attached an * to it because many journalists have a narrative they want to push that would appear to supersede the quest for truth, and that is the quest for “balance.” It’s not that they knowingly publish multiple falsehoods to serve that narrative, it’s that they quote people — the deniers and disinformers — who have a long history of asserting long-debunked falsehoods.

And those disinformers are pushing multiple falsehoods — that global warming isn’t happening or it isn’t primarily human caused or doing nothing certainly won’t be disastrous or that climate scientists are trying to deceive the public. This American lie — most of the disinformers are American and they do most of their damage in this country — is one that will persist as long as those disinformers, those Mike Daisey’s of the climate world, keep getting treated as legitimate sources by the MSM. Why shouldn’t a significant minority of the public think their anti-scientific views are credible as long as they keep getting quoted by credible sources?

It boggles the mind that people who do in fact keep quoting the disinformers as legitimate sources could possibly stare into the mirror of the This American Life episode and not see themselves. Such is the seduction of narrative.

34 Responses to This American Lie: Is It O.K. For Climate Science Deniers To Lie And For Journalists To Quote Those Lies?

  1. Robert says:

    Speaking of false narratives, I’d like to counter the continuing fallacy — being kept alive by people who should know better (Joe) — that Peter Gleick’s behavior was unethical.

    Gleick received information clearly in the public interest, fact-checked it (being about as sneaky as “hey, look, your shoelace is untied”), and published it.

    If Gleick’s minor deception was unethical, then so is lying to a bank robber to get him to hand over the gun (“My, is that a real Smith & Wesson? I’m an expert, let me have a look at that and I’ll let you know how valueable it is.”)

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    I’m afraid that Andy’s reputation was already ruined before this episode. This is a man who is fine with tar sands oil and fracked natural gas. Cognitive dissonance is part of his nature.

    Commenters on his blog, the same ones who constantly parrot claims from the likes of Joe Bastardi and Lord Monckton, have been doing a lot of harrumphing over the Gleick affair.

    The bottom line, sadly, is that Revkin and Pielke are part of the soft denier cadre, who are becoming increasingly useful to the Kochs, the gas companies, and media beancounters. Their protestations to the effect of “I sort of accept the science on global warming as long as it’s not alarmist” are weak and irrelevant now.

  3. This post is getting at something I still don’t understand: why, after all the nonsense the deniers pull, are they still considered credible sources in the mainstream media? This is a question worthy of deeper and more sustained inquiry…

  4. Dick Smith says:

    Revkin’s analogy is so twisted that I find it hard to believe that the NY Times ever employed him.

  5. Thorn says:

    It is sad to see Revkin throw away any remaining credibility.

  6. M Tucker says:

    “There simply is no analogy and trying to shoehorn Gleick into that narrative is, well, downright ironic.” I would have said criminal.

    “…it is another opportunity for him [them] to smear all climate scientists.” All involved, Revkin and Kloor are participating in the smear. They want to keep the lie alive. They want to continue the mass confusion. They want to delay any action on climate change for as long as possible…simply criminal.

  7. Joe Romm says:

    Gleick himself said his behavior was unethical, personally and professionally. From my perspective, the point is that while he does act as a blogger/journalist occasionally, he is in fact a professional climate scientist.

  8. Robert says:

    I understand Gleick himself has issued a mea culpa. Nevertheless, he’s got it wrong. There may have been better ways to go about this, but to call his behavior ‘unethical’ is a gross distortion, if not outright misrepresentation, of the situation.

    I’m not sure what being a professional climatologist has to do with it. Would lying to a terrorist to get bombing plans be unethical for a climate scientist, too? The only differene here: Heartland’s actions endanger far more people than those of any terrorists to date…

  9. Robert says:

    That ship sailed long ago…

  10. Tom King says:

    Every personality type has its own strengths and weaknesses. I wonder if there might be an unrecognized vulnerability in minds of journalists? I imagine that journalists would need to possess effective bamboozle detectors, but maybe the denier crowd has found away to short circuit those detectors. I’m thinking that to the right person a denier might be appear to be an underdog or maverick. And an apparent battle of personalities might appear more real than a battle of data points.

    What we have then is a sort of biological battle where the deniers plant factoids in the minds of unsuspecting journalists who then publish and thus propagate the factoids into the brains of others. How can we strengthen the intellectual immune systems of journalists?

  11. Pennsylvania Bob says:

    Peter Gleick is a climate hero in my book. He brought the truth out into the open. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. We need more like him with that kind of courage….or we’re cooked.

  12. Thorn says:

    I’m not so sure about Gleick’s self-analysis. While unprofessional, a case could be made that his actions were not actually unethical, or any more unethical than your average whistleblower. I really don’t understand how illuminating deception by Heartlead, even if by false representation, is any where comparable to promoting the deceit, itself.

  13. Hot Rod says:

    It’s an ok analogy in that both parties damaged the cause they wanted to serve. It’s what happens when you go too far in stretching the truth, or further than that. Daisey hasn’t, in the end, helped factory conditions in China if he makes people sceptical of allegations of bad practice, and the same applies to Gleick. All of that on the basis that you’re not just preaching to the choir. It pisses people off.

  14. A Siegel says:

    Well, Heartland Institute is “Narrative Without Truth” not “before …”

    And, Peter Gleick’s actions — despite his own mea culpa(s) — are not a priori “unethical” once we look at the definition of ethics: Ethics

    * Moral principles that govern a person’s or group’s behavior.
    * The moral correctness of specified conduct

    Was uncovering and bringing to light likely illegal (tax fraud) activity and efforts to undermine the nation’s educational system not “morally correct” and, well, guided by moral principles that merit respect. At the strongest, what Gleick is a great case study for graduate school ethics classes because it is not a clear cut situation.

    In any event, with these issues aside, another amazingly strong (and on target) post.

    A question: Is Andrew Revkin more scared of the deniers than of those who are trying to get him to be truthful? Is this why he bends (so far) backwards to show that the disputed two-page Heartland memo might have been accurate in terms of his malleability to facilitate their anti-science messaging?

  15. ltr says:

    Revkin started to write like a fool when he stopped reporting for the New York Times, and the fool’s writing has only worsened. Suddenly Revkin had no editor to control his absurdity, and so we have only the fool’s writing left.

    What a horrid blogger. Yuck.

  16. A Siegel says:

    Another interesting angle — if one reads solely Revkin’s piece, one (at least this one) certainly has an impression that Kloor focused his piece significantly on Peter Gleick.

    In fact, while I think the aside misguided, Kloor’s commentary relating Gleick to Daisy is an 11 word parenthetical comment in a 750 word post.

  17. owlbrudder says:

    Because they sound aggrieved, scandalised and controversial. MSM does not sell Truth, it sells Titillation: “Oooh, look! A scandal!”. All the better if the titillation acts to make the editor’s political agenda look good.

  18. Sasparilla says:

    So well said Mike.

  19. Sasparilla says:

    Excellent piece Joe. I’ve been listening to TAL on and off for a long time and was happy with how they handled the source problems they learned they had with the Apple story.

    Thank you for picking apart the illogic of the folks trying to tie that issue of source disinformation with Gleick’s obtaining information.

    Great quote of the Koch’s – by their actions I’m sure they see themselves as victims…

  20. John Hollenberg says:

    Mind boggling that Revkin could turn the analogy on its head… or perhaps not surprising at all. The analogy would fit very well if applied to the Heartland Institute instead.

  21. Andy Heninger says:

    Money is, I suspect, a big factor. Media outfits can’t afford to lose the advertising from oil and energy companies, and there’s little doubt that advertising would be pulled in response to hard hitting climate reporting.

    It’s the same reason there was little media coverage of the health hazards of cigarettes in the 40s and 50s.

  22. EmuBob says:

    The differing views about whether or not Peter Gleick acted unethically clearly reflect differing ethical systems. At a guess, I would say that those who think he acted unethically are believers and those who say otherwise are not.

    The one thing that all theistic religions demand of their adherents, above all else, is obedience. The last thing that the Catholic church wants is for Catholics to make up their own minds what is right and what is wrong. Accordingly, Catholics are ideally brought up to follow their simplistic rules-based moral code (Thou shalt not etc. etc.). In this system, known as deontological ethics, right and wrong are mainly determined by the act, with consequences playing little part. So as far as good Catholics are concerned, because Peter Gleick lied, he was morally wrong, never mind that he was trying to help save humanity.

    Those of us who can’t understand the hand-wringing about a minor deception undertaken to unmask an incalculably greater one, are applying what is known as Consequentialist ethics. In this humanist system, the consequences of an act play the major role in judging whether the act is right or wrong. The end can justify the means. According to this view, Peter’s act is completely justifiable in the light of the greater good he was seeking to achieve, whether he thinks so or not.

    Those who have judged Peter Gleick and found him guilty of acting unethically should perhaps ask themselves if it would be wrong for them to break a commandment to save their family, their neighbour, their country or indeed humanity.

  23. Paul Magnus says:

    Surely, his action was ethical? They are as far as I see it.

  24. Paul Magnus says:

    Most of us don’t want to accept the grim reality go GW. It’s human nature.

  25. Paul Magnus says:

    Bravo joe. I am glad to see you now using direct terms like liars. I hope we see criminal being used more forcefully as well.

  26. Frank says:

    Reinstate the True in News and Politics law
    which was removed during the Reagan years (1986)

  27. a face in the clouds says:

    Behind the reporter whose name is on the story are newspaper department editors and television/radio news directors on all shifts including weekends. Many have chief assistants. They give out assignments or approve story ideas and edit the final product. Everything goes through them. They should be remembered when making corrections or suggesting your own story ideas.

    Remember that you are speaking to someone who is dealing with a wide range of subjects and people all day long. “Newspeak” is the common language, but it’s similar to the one people use when writing the Mayor about the garbage pickup. Or just pretend you are teaching a class of eighth graders. Perhaps more importantly, the shorter the letter is, the longer their attention span gets.

    There are some things that should be mentioned to everyone from the reporters to the newspaper board of directors. The most obvious (at least to me) is the subject of “Fake” or “False Balance” because I still don’t think they get it.

    There’s more, but for the time being the other members of the news assembly line mentioned above need to be asked to step forward and account for themselves.

  28. Timeslayer says:

    Sure did. At least three years ago.


  29. Layzej says:

    It should be remembered that Andy Revkin was implicated in the leaked memo. It is no surprise that he has done everything he can to disparage the source of the leak.

  30. Oggy Bleacher says:

    Isn’t it understood that This American Life is good radio entertainment like The Shadow and The Lone Ranger? And they do a story about a theatrical production that turned out to only be a theatrical production. I don’t know why they’re retracting anything since they reported the fact that someone is performing a show that is a creative expression of an individual’s collective experience, research and imagination. Yes, underage workers make iPads. Yes, workers have been crippled, killed, demoralized and exploited by Apple. No, tree Gnomes don’t grow our cell phones from a silicone patch.

    Let’s really be hypothetical: If I were sent to a distant Galaxy to plead my [The Earth’s] case to an advanced life form who had the capacity to solve all Earth’s problems including disease, warfare, climactic apocalypse, Khloe Kardashian, carbon-based energy, Uwe Boll films, racism, etc, and I only had 45 minutes to do it, then my presentation might be considered a one-man show and it would include a description of damage from tornadoes (that I’ve never experienced), Hurricanes (that I’ve never experienced) Tsunamis (that I’ve never experienced) Nuclear Power plant meltdowns (that I’ve never experienced), sea levels rising, animal life dying, genocide, clips from “A Dungeon Siege Tale”, etc.

    Now, everything listed didn’t happen in one day but for narrative purposes I might decide to present it all as events that happened in 24 hours. Heck, the alien’s sense of time might be so different that it’s safer to just say, “this all took place in the time that it took for me to tell you about it. We are in urgent need of help.”
    Then the alien leader asks the question, “Is all of that true? Did all of that happen to you?”
    And since we’re talking about the salvation of the planet what do you think my response will be?

  31. SecularAnimist says:

    Joe wrote: “This is a post about people who tell lies to fabricate a narrative, and the journalists who lazily cite them.”

    This assumes that the “journalists” in question are in fact “lazy” and not themselves deliberately deceptive and knowing participants in fabricating a false narrative, either on their own initiative or at the behest of their owners.

    It seems implausible that the pervasive, media-wide coverup of ongoing climate change, the continuing “false balance” between scientists and deniers, and the dishonest attacks on the renewable energy industries, are all the result of “laziness”.

    On the contrary, it has the look of people working very, very hard to deceive the public.

  32. Robert says:

    CASE 1: Daisy actually made up stuff.
    CASE 2: Gleick made up nothing (he simply published information provided him by Heartland.)

  33. itsbloodyhot says:

    I totally agree. There’s nothing unethical about deceiving the deceiver to uncover the truth _ even law agencies do it. When an undercover agent infiltrates the mob, is he unethical? I think it’s a ridiculous accusation.