Lying versus “Fact Smuggling” in Climate Politics

It’s a topsy-turvy world.

reddyBack in the early ’90s, a group called the Western Fuels Association took out full-page ads in serious intellectual magazines. (I think I remember it in The Atlantic, but it may have been Harper’s.) Featuring the endearing cartoon mascot “Reddy Kilowatt”, if I recall correctly, its textual content was a paragraph of outright and frank misrepresentation of the state of climate science at the time. I remember being shocked. I would have thought such a thing illegal, or if legal, at least fraught with consequences. I waited for the consequences to hit the Western Fuels Association. I am still waiting.

You would think that in a functioning democracy there would be negative consequences for people in positions of responsibility promoting unambiguous disinformation.

A blog post by Greg Sargent in the Washington Post, entitled “Paying no price whatsoever for climate science denialism” addresses this:

Just to catch you up, LCV recently announced plans to launch a $2 million campaign attacking Republicans in Congress for climate change denialism. …

As I noted here the other day, there’s more to this than you might think. It’s not about electoral politics — after all, Johnson isn’t up for reelection until 2016. Rather, environmentalists view this as a long game designed to change something that’s frustrated them for some time: the fact that crazy climate change denialist statements just aren’t nearly as politically toxic as outsized statements about, say, abortion or immigration often prove to be.

Much more in the posting that’s worth considering. But I couldn’t let it pass without noting this bizarre turn of phrase (emphasis added):

note that LCV’s ads smuggle a few facts into the discussion: both of them note that the overwhelming consensus among scientists is that climate change’s primary cause is human activity.

At this point, has the journalistic community bought so thoroughly into Kahan’s upside-down argument that facts are somehow illicit in politics? How is it that lies or extreme confusion are hunky-dory and facts are something smuggled? I’m sure Sargent was being somehow sarcastic here but the context is baffling.



  1. I agree about limits to the 'upside-down' argument -- which is similar to a 'people can't handle the truth' argument. And somewhere there may be cognitive research showing detrimental effects of too much 'dumbing down,' because of the trope that if you treat people as dumb (or biased), then you're rewarded by them acting the same way.

    Here's a current example from Scientific American (bearing in mind that this will probably be debunked next year, like about 50% of experimental psychology):

    That study is essentially a 'priming' study (related to how placebos work). Priming theory seems to be under fire because of some big claims that haven't been easily replicated, but placebos seem always to be robust.

    In any case, the reverse of the current logic of dumbing down would be to expect more of people, and let them know that you expect more of them. Letting them know about expectations is what makes the priming take place.

    Along with that, reinforce a sense of one's individual command. (This might seem redundant among 'white hierarchal males' with an apparently inflated sense of autonomy, but I suspect not, actually. In the natural experiment that is television, Archie Bunker seemed real to millions of people, and what made him seem real was his insecurity. Not that he would have ever filled out a survey saying that he felt insecure. You had to watch him for years to understand it.)

    Viktor Frankl, channeling Goethe, makes the same point: expect more of people, in order that they can fulfill their own natural potential.
    Archie's wife, Edith, often had the same idea, I think.

  2. Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
    Success in circuit lies,
    Too bright for our infirm delight
    The truth's superb surprise;

    As lightning to the children eased
    With explanation kind,
    The truth must dazzle gradually
    Or every man be blind.


    Motto for the 21st century: "Dickensian politics, Dickensonian journalism"

  3. Careful, Martin. mt and I are also "Merricans"!

    I should warn you that I've linked here and since I'm a kind of typhoid Mary for deniers, you will likely see some activity here from that.

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