Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A single quote does not make a conspiracy

Back in 2009 we were presented with the Climategate scandal which, at first, appeared to be a scandal involving climate change scientists but in fact turned out to be a news media scandal of poor and perhaps even dishonest reporting.  Hacked emails were released to the public and out of 3,000 documents and emails spanning 14 years the news media latched on to two or three sentences that when read out of context sounded damning.  Today the Heartland Institute (famous for fighting against global warming science) has now had some of its own documents released which are being used to imply a scandal.

The original Climategate scandal turned out to be nothing but an embarrassment for the media.  They should have been clued in by the fact that the day to day emails being sent back and forth showed no controversy and that they could only find a controversy by cherry picking a minuscule fraction of what was written. Additionally, the news media failed to take the time to do proper journalistic research and determine what the quotes meant before releasing them. Instead they promoted the idea that there was a controversy.

Thus, when the investigations into the scandal were said and done it turned out that the there was nothing controversial going at all and we learned that climategate was, as the New York Times called it, merely a manufactured controversy.  The reason this controversy existed was because people jumped on the bandwagon too quickly and assumed what single quotes meant rather than taking the time to learn what was being said.

There are serious problems with trying to pick out single quotes as evidence of a conspiracy or cover-up.  First, if we look at single quotes we can never really be sure what they mean in the whole context of not only the document but also the general conversation going on between two people.  People who work closely together or communicate often on a subject will have a history that cannot be understood by people looking in from the outside.  This history is part of the context we need to understand what is being said in private communication and often times a quote that we might see as scandalous might in the context of that history actually be innocent.  Another problem is that no one is perfect.  We don't always type exactly what we mean, and sometimes we make mistakes especially in private conversations where we expect our colleagues and friends to understand what we actually mean.  When we look at these problems together we should realize that a few suspicious quotes is not enough to evidence to prove a controversy.

If only a few lines point to a conspiracy we should wonder why the whole doesn't point to a controversy.  Perhaps the reason is that the conspiracy is well covered up.  But at the same time, we should wonder why we cannot find more of a pattern of suspicious behavior in internal documents.  Of course, the whole point of a conspiracy is that it is covered up and thus we cannot really know whether one exists or not.

In the current leak of Heartland Institute documents people seem to be latching on to this quote:
[Dr. Wojick's] effort will focus on providing curriculum that shows that the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain – two key points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science.
Specifically people point out that it says "dissuading teachers from teaching science."  My point here is that we cannot know what this really means.  It might be damning, but at the same time it might be innocent.  Perhaps if we understood the history of the writers we would know what it meant.  Perhaps it is a typo.  The only sure answer right now is that we can't know what it means so lets not fall into the same trap that embarrassed the media during the Climategate scandal.

The scientific evidence for global warming is sufficient to prove that it is actually occurring.  Thus, we shouldn't need to resort to jumping on single quotes until there has been time to investigate.  We have all seen that the primary tactics of global warming deniers is to use rhetoric rather than evidence.  However, lets be better than them. Lets give them the chance to explain their quote before we claim it is incriminating.  It might feel good to be able to point out the irony and parade around their suspicious quote.  But, in the end, climate change is about the science so lets stick to the science and take the time to see how this pans out.

No comments:

Post a Comment