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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.

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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.

No.

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.

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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.

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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.