I was a bit taken aback on Wednesday to read a piece by a Kate Sheppard in Mother Jones—a smart climate reporter for a smart progressive magazine–trying to gin up the kind of phony controversy I would have thought beneath either the author or the outlet. The story focuses on a draft of a report prepared by some of my Cato Institute colleagues, which attempts to rebut the findings of a 2009 study by the U.S. Global Change Research Program titled “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States.” It’s an example of the type of “shadow report” that NGOs of all sorts often issue when they want to highlight perceived flaws in official governmental reports. As you can see from the image here, the cover (as well as the layout of the report itself) deliberately mimics the original—with the subtle but significant difference that that the ominous graph projecting sharp temperature spikes in the original is replaced by one depicting the far milder fluctuations that the Cato authors believe are likely.
Sheppard concludes that this makes the Cato report a “rip off,” and quotes various critics—including some of the authors of the original, official report—calling it “a counterfeit” and “deceptive and misleading” even before its release. The implication is that Cato is trying to perpetrate some kind of sinister hoax. I’m not entirely sure why Sheppard thinks this is so outrageous, given her sympathetic coverage of “pranks” by groups like the Yes Men, which unambiguously do try to deceive people with counterfeit reports and press conferences, but let’s stipulate that such stuff should indeed be frowned upon in most cases.
What’s really odd is that Sheppard seems so enthusiastic to run with this “hoax” narrative—without bothering to ask anyone at Cato for comment, as far as I can tell from the article—that she doesn’t stop to consider how little sense it makes. The cover of the report says “Cato Institute.” Every other page of the report says “The Cato Institute” at the top. The introduction makes it perfectly clear that this is a Cato publication in which Cato scholars critique the conclusions of a government report. And the whole text of the report is a sustained criticism of the USGCRP and its study—so it would be pretty weird for anyone reading to think it was written by the USGCRP. Sure, you could imagine someone mistaking a hard copy for an official follow-up at first glance, and then doing a double-take as they look more closely—and I assume that’s an intentional attention-grabbing gimmick. But I can’t see how anyone could labor under that misapprehension once they actually picked it up and started reading. And if you don’t actually pick it up and read it, you don’t get the content, so it’s not clear what the point of that would be.
Moreover, since I rather doubt this one will show up in a lot of supermarket checkout lines, almost everyone who reads it will either be a Hill staffer, writer, or bureaucrat who gets mailed a hard copy by the Cato Institute, in an envelope that says “Cato Institute,” or will be reading it on Cato’s own website. And those readers are going to be the sort of folks who are disposed to read a 200-page, heavily footnoted response to another long and copiously footnoted study: This is aimed at a pretty wonky audience. So Sheppard’s theory, as I understand it, is that this is designed to bamboozle people so steeped in this issue that not only are they interested in reading it but also get the visual reference to the government’s 2009 report, yet who don’t realize that the Cato Institute is not part of the federal government. Are the circles in that Venn Diagram even on the same page? Who would this actually be looking to fool, and what would the benefit even be? Like, if some sloppy journalist somehow did mistakenly run with a story on this as though it were a government report (and real papers sometimes pick up Onion stories, so I guess it’s not beyond the realm of possibility), wouldn’t they just be angry at Cato when they realized the mistake and had to issue a correction? This is the most inept hoax ever!
Well, either that or it’s a totally commonplace “mimic the thing you’re critiquing” design gimmick we see all the time, usually without resorting to convoluted theories about vague but sinister deceptive intent. Just to pick a couple examples that come readily to mind: The editors of The Nation did it a little while back when they released a book of essays on Sarah Palin that aped the cover (and mocked the title) of her memoir Going Rogue. Adbusters does the same thing, with an annual “Big Ideas” issue styled after The Economist’s year-end roundup. Conservative Bernard Goldberg’s 100 People Who are Screwing Up America (and Al Franken is #37) quickly provoked a book-length response with a very similar cover: 101 People Who Are Really Screwing America (and Bernard Goldberg is only #73). In those cases you could even imagine a few harried consumers mistakenly buying the wrong product (fortunately not an issue with think tank reports). But nobody thinks these—or the dozens of other examples you could probably come up with—are nefarious attempt to con people; we just think they’re smirking visual references.
So why do Sheppard and several of her sources immediately leap to the most strained, least plausible reading of the Cato report’s mimicry, or feel any obligation to check what the author or designer have to say about it? As far as I can tell, it’s because they view the contents of the report as scientifically unsound, and so substantively deceptive, which makes it tempting to project some kind of deceptive intent on the design as well, whether or not that really makes any sense on reflection. Or, more broadly: They know Cato’s evil, so they know some malicious goal must explain everything Cato does, even when there’s an obvious and much more parsimonious alternative. This turns into a self-magnifying feedback loop: My opponent is evil, therefore all actions are to be interpreted as serving evil ends by default (ignoring all alternative interpretations), which generates a whole lot of data points confirming the original hypothesis that my opponent is evil.
Now, to the limited extent I have concrete views on this issue, they’re actually probably closer to Sheppard’s than to those of my colleagues, but I’m confident that everyone concerned genuinely believes the position they’re taking. And even if Sheppard doesn’t believe that, it seems like the thing to do is still to cut to the chase and explain what she thinks is wrong with the contents. In this case, it looks like a principle of interpretive anti-charity motivated a weird hunt for a sinister motive behind an otherwise unremarkable design choice. Which is good for clicks, I guess, but not a very useful way to have a conversation or form accurate beliefs.
Update: Since commenters keep mentioning this, let me say it clearly one more time: Yes, I absolutely concede that if you just look at the cover, you could easily mistake it for an official follow-up report. And while I haven’t talked to the art director, yes, I assume that’s at least partly a deliberate attempt to snag the initial attention of people who might not otherwise pick it up. Is that kind of a cheap marketing gimmick? Sure. But it’s not the same as trying to deceive people who do pick it up about the nature or origins of the contents—which, on top of being grossly immoral, would be an insane act of reputational suicide for no possible benefit.