A substantial number of people don’t understand what “deceit” is, or think that what constitutes deceit isn’t a lie. Deceit, which I used to joke was the official language of Washington, D.C. until it was changed officially to Blatant Mendacity, is when a statement is literally true, but stated in such a way or in a context intended to make the reader or listener believe something that is not true at all. The fact that the statement may have been factual in a pure sense does not diminish its unethical character as a lie. Its intent is to deceive. It is a lie, just a particularly insidious one, aimed at the trusting, unwary, undiscerning and gullible.
I am always looking for a good example of this peculiar form of deception, and they don’t come much better than this.
Drexel University professor Robert Brulle performed a study he eventually called “Institutionalizing delay: foundation funding and the creation of U.S. climate change counter-movement organizations,” and it was subsequently published in Climatic Change. Brulle identified 91 organizations that oppose anti-climate change policies, and added up the annual operating budgets of these groups, many of which are active in many issues and that devote a small percentage of their funding to climate change matters at all. He then characterized the resulting total of about $900 million per year from 2003 to 2010 as representing the resources dedicated to blocking the regulation of greenhouse gas production. Brulle’s study also treats foundation grants to these organizations if every dollar given is earmarked for climate policy opposition. Taking the hand-off from the study’s framing, The Guardian headlined its findings, “Conservative groups spend up to $1bn a year to fight action on climate change.” Notice the “up to,” which would apply if every cent given to organizations like the American Enterprise Institute, The Reason Foundation, The Cato Institute, The Heritage Foundation, the Hoover Institute, the Hudson Institute and many others were only expended or intended to be spent on anti-climate change position papers and advocacy. This isn’t just a gross exaggeration: it’s a lie, intended to be misleading.
Let’s pick one of those organizations at random, say The Reason Foundation. It lists its areas of policy study and activity as
- Criminal Justice Reform
- Culture & media
- Drugs ( industrial hemp, medical marijuana, police raids and militarization)
- Economy and Economics (bailouts, stimulus and debt, banking regulation, finance and markets, consumer credit and borrowing)
- Housing, Mortgages, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac
- Monetary Policy and Federal Reserve
- Trade and Globalization
- Education (charter schools, No Child Left Behind, school choice, school violence and shootings, universal preschool,weighted sudent formula)
- Energy ( electricity, ethanol, hydrogen and hybrid vehicles, oil and gas)
- Environment ( air quality, climate change , endangered species, oceans and fisheries, parks and recreation, recycling and waste, water and wastewater
- Government Reform (California, earmarks and transparency, innovators in action, occupational licensing, pension reform, tax and budget policy
- Health Care (children’s health aare and SCHIP, Universal Health Care )
- Individual Freedom (alcohol, censorship and media, guns, obesity , smoking bans and tobacco
- Politics, Parties, Political History, Political Philosophy, Privatization ….
…well, you can read the rest. The point is that climate change is one of nearly a hundred policy areas the Foundation works in, yet to Brulle and The Guardian it’s just an anti-climate change group, and all the money in its budget either goes to that objective or “could” be devoted to that effort, ein the same way the entire budget of the United States “could” be devoted to the National Parks. And if you give a donation to the Reason Foundation, say, to support its work against marijuana laws, Brulle and the Guardian want the public to believe that you just gave money to oppose climate change.
It isn’t just the Guardian , either. ThinkProgress’s headline is this: “Conservative Donors Pump $1 Billion A Year Into Climate Denying Groups, Study Finds.” Factual, but a lie. The Republican Party opposes climate change policies; it also opposes abortion. By ThinkProgress’s logic, the Republican party is accurately described as a “climate denying group,” though, in fact it does do a lot of other things (and nobody denies the climate…but I digress.) Clean Technica followed the tactic; so did Boing Boing. Here’s Salon’s deceitful spin: “The campaign to fight action on climate change is backed by $1 billion a year in covert donations.” Ah, now that entire billion, is “backing” the fight against climate change, since it supports groups that may do a lot or a little in the area. But you never know—the Heritage Foundation might just chuck its mission and go all in against carbon emissions control—you know, like the U.S. might decide to hand over the Treasury to the U.N.
Salon not only ran a deceitful headline, it engaged in a backtrack and double switch. Writes Salon editor Lindsay Abrams in the article’s very last paragraph (that is, the one least likely to be read),
“Of course, not all of the money was being directly channeled into anti-climate efforts, as many of the organizations funded have multiple focuses. But if climate denial represents one leg of their operations, it’s not hard to guess where the rest of the money goes (hint: it’s not Planned Parenthood*).”
I wait…I thought the headline said that the billion backed opposition to climate change, not “multiple focuses”? My bad—I guess I just misunderstood.
This is why deceit is so insidious. “Oh, you just misunderstood!” is always the defense set up by the tactic. Of course we misunderstood, because you wanted us to.
Writes Jonathan Adler at the Volokh Conspiracy,
“The Brulle study will serve its purpose, and the “$1 billion per year of climate denial” factoid will soon become a regular claim in the climate policy debate.”
* Interesting that she mentioned Planned Parenthood, which conservatives often misrepresent as an abortion-providing group only, and speak about as if its entire budget was devoted to abortion.
Pointer and Source: Volokh Conspiracy