BPSDBClimate change Denier writers and journalists like Jonah Goldberg have a very difficult challenge. How to report a story such that you can end with a conclusion that is the exact opposite of the obvious truth?
Often they don’t have the luxury of too much outright lying such as much of the Denialosphere practices, at least if they write for publications that hope to retain some shred of credibility. So what to do?
I thought it would be useful to look at how National Review Online’s Jonah Goldberg handled one recent Denier meme to underscore the principle techniques used. By being aware of them we are able to pick them out quickly and expose them for others.
A week ago Meehl et al published “Amplifying the Pacific Climate System Response to a Small 11-Year Solar Cycle Forcing” in Science Magazine. This quickly found it’s way into the popular media in articles like ” Study says shines light on sun spot-climate link” (???) and and the even more poorly titled (in terms of accuracy, not grammer) “How Sunlight Controls Climate.” From there it jumped to the Denialosphere as the standard ‘It’s all just the Sun’ meme … again.
Not to be left out, Goldberg wrote “Global Warming and the Sun” which is a fairly impressive piece of dishonest reporting. Impressive because he admits the fact that the study is largely irrelevant to our current anthropogenic climate change. Even so, based on the article uninformed readers would be more than excused for concluding that solar variability is driving climate change, or at least that we are far from certain about what is causing it.
The Way Things Break does not so much debunk as demolish Goldberg in Jonah Goldberg’s classic know-nothing, non-denial climate denial. Not merely thorough (there are no survivors), but informative about the whole solar variability and climate change linkage, and written with a dry wit that makes it well worth reading.
I will not repeat what has been done well, but I will draw your attention to “Sun teams up with atmosphere, ocean to ramp up Pacific storms“, a highly readable and rational report on what Meehl’s work may mean, and to “Sun, Sun, Sun … here it comes – NOT” for more resources on the issue of solar variability and climate change.
So how does Goldberg manage to report the facts while leading the reader in the opposite direction? Three simple techniques:
- burying the lede
- JAQing off
- inappropriate use of truisms
Bury the lede
Standard journalistic practice is that you want to put the most important information right up front in the lead paragraph. Thus I lead this piece with the fact that it is about Goldberg’s lying about climate change. Generally it is considered a mistake to bury the lede, ie “To begin a story with details of secondary importance to the reader while postponing more essential points or facts.”
From a climate perspective the lead for this particular story might be
“For those wondering how the (NCAR) study bears on global warming, Gerald Meehl, lead author on the study, says that it doesn’t — at least not directly,” writes Moises Velasquez-Manoff of the Christian Science Monitor. “Global warming is a long-term trend, Dr. Meehl says. . . . This study attempts to explain the processes behind a periodic occurrence.”
Of course this is the last thing Goldberg wants you to learn from the article, so how to get rid of it? This is actually a bit of an art form.
As discussed in “Watts to do if you’re not Mann enough?“, Anthony Watts sticks the lie right in the title where no one can reasonably expect it to be substantiated, and then simply never mentions it again. He is aware that most of his readers never read the articles at all, or at least not completely, so what they remember is the title. Not mentioning the facts at all is not as risky as it seems because we are generally less likely to notice what isn’t there as opposed to what is.
The simplest and most common method is to just stick the actual facts right at the end of the article and trust that most readers will never get to it. This is standard media and web practice when trying to create a controversy over a non-issue or to blatantly lie about something.
However, this can be risky because some readers do read the entire piece, and since the facts came last they will probably remember most clearly the very thing you were trying to hide. All the more of a problem if your particular readership are the type who tend read entire articles rather than browse headlines and/or skim.
Apparently Goldberg believes his readers fit this latter description so he buries it in the standard place for this type of reader, about 1/3rd to 1/2 of the way through the article. This is deep enough that the browse/skim type of reader will miss it entirely, while still leaving plenty of time to obfuscate the ones who actually are reading the piece.
Burying the facts in a concise, focused article is obviously not going to work since they will still stand out. To hide them it is necessary to create a smoke screen of bafflegab sufficiently dense to bury the facts in. This presents a further challenge when all of the seemingly relevant information connected to your main lie also undermines it, so it is necessary to employ other techniques as well.
Usually JAQing off (aka a type of Playing Devil’s Advocate) is a form of Trollism where rather than make declarative statements that you might then have to defend, you disguise the statement as a question and coyly claim that “I’m Just Asking a Question.” For example, in climate Denial you can JAQ off the false statement “CO2 is insignificant as a greenhouse gas” by simply prefixing it with “but isn’t it true that … ?”
JAQing off has several advantages:
- you get to make the claim without having to defend it beyond the initial statement;
- it can make Trolls indistinguishable from people who are legitimately curious or confused and hence are less likely to be simply dismissed as a Troll;
- If the Troll is dismissed without an answer it will look as if the science proponent is intolerant and/or unable to answer the question;
- if the science proponent cannot answer the question, the point goes to the Troll;
- it will pull the science proponent into a long explanation of the facts if they are able to do so, at the very least wasting their time if nothing else.
The disadvantage of JAQing off is that the questioner cannot pretend innocence and then suddenly start responding to the answer, at least not without exposing themselves as a Troll. To engage in any depth it is necessary to pretend a series of linked “yeah, but…” questions, and those can only be carried so far without exposing the deceit.
For the Troll another problem is that “the question” is necessarily limited in the amount of alleged information that it contains, at least if it is to remain plausible as an innocent question. However, it creates a context where the science proponent get’s to lay out as many facts as they are able in order to answer “the question”. As a form of public theatre this can backfire badly. As such JAQing off is not that effective a technique when engaging informed science proponents.
In print form JAQing off obviously does not suffer from the disadvantages associated with a back and forth exchange. However, it is not credible to JAQ off an issue in depth without revealing that you are being duplicitous, so it is not useful to approaching the main subject this way. Instead the way to do it is to JAQ off a number of associated issues with only one or two questions each such that they cast doubt on the actual facts.
This is the approach Goldberg uses, but takes it one step further. He disguises some of his JAQing as cursory observations and seemingly innocent innuendo. For example, he prefaces the dangerous core facts (quotes above) with “what I find interesting is the eagerness of the authors and the media to make it clear that this doesn’t have any particular significance for the debate over climate change.”
In effect he is saying “methinks they doth protest too much”, cuing the reader to wonder “why are they protesting so much?” The obvious answer, ‘because predictably Trolls like Goldberg will do everything they can to make it look as if it is relevant” will not occur to most readers, particularly NRO readers.
Other examples include:
“I applaud Meehl’s reluctance to go beyond where the science takes him. For all I know, he’s right.”
“Of course, it could have been a coincidence.”
“What does it say that the modeling that guaranteed disastrous increases in global temperatures never predicted the halt in planetary warming since the late 1990s?”
and so on
As The Way Things Break documents, all of Goldbergs “questions”, insinuations and implied points have answers, answers easily found with simple internet searches. However, because Goldberg is JAQing off he can claim the plausible deniability of ‘they were not the main point’, ‘I can’t know everything’ and ‘I was Just Asking Questions!’
Inappropriate use of truisms
To complete the smokescreen Goldberg uses the standard technique of throwing out truisms (can also be axioms, aphorisms, proverbs, vague abstractions, etc). Truisms have the great advantage of being (almost) universally true. This gets the reader conceding your point, usually without thinking whether the truism was even relevant, much less used appropriately.
It’s true, what more need be said? These are things like ‘honesty is the best policy’, which when placed carefully can imply that someone is lying without actually saying so. There are several subtle ones throughout Goldberg’s piece, but he concludes with the Denier standard:
“I don’t know what it tells you, but it tells me that maybe we should study a bit more before we spend billions to “solve” a problem we don’t understand so well.”
Ah yes, so true, how well we know that “you can’t be too careful”, “best to be sure”, “try before you buy”, and so on.
Except what does “caution” mean when we are more than 95% certain that we are headed towards global apocalypse? Wouldn’t caution suggest that we try to avoid what is most likely?
There are other proverbs that address the Denier “reasoning”, “penny wise, pound foolish” (ie save a little, lose a lot) and “a stitch in time saves nine” (ie deal with a problem when it’s relatively easy and cheap), but you never hear those from them.
Whenever reading any article that you suspect of being authored by a Denier Troll, just check for:
- burying the facts
- JAQing off
- inappropriate use of truisms
Chances are good you will find all of these techniques being used.
The Way Things Break states that Goldberg is a “know nothing.” As part of his JAQing off Goldberg tries to make the same claim “What is the significance of all this? To say I have no idea is quite an understatement, …” The Way Things Break is wrong and Goldberg is lying.
Goldberg has written a finely crafted propaganda piece that required knowledge of the issue in order to frame all of the facts in such a way that they would lead the reader to a completely erroneous conclusion. Goldberg is lying and he knows it, but that’s what JAQ offs do.
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