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Counterfeiting Intentions

October 25th, 2012 · 28 Comments

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.

Tags: Journalism & the Media


       

 

28 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Sigivald // Oct 25, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    Which is good for clicks, I guess, but not a very useful way to have a conversation or form accurate beliefs.

    Well, we’re talking about Mother Jones here, aren’t we?

    As far as I’ve been able to tell, it’s always been By True Believers For True Believers*, and not aimed at truth-seeking or other-side-conversation.

    Certainly that’s been what I’ve taken from every excerpt from Mother Jones it’s been my misfortune to be exposed to; they make the National Review look positively ecumenical.

    (Perhaps the Opposite Side equivalent might be the Weekly Standard? Or, worse, WND?)

    (* Not specifically “Climate True Believers”, of course, regardless of one’s views on the issue – I mean True Believers In The Mother Jones Line, which for shorthand purposes we can probably just call Progressives.

    That might do some violence to the shades of strife in the various factions involved, but that’s inside-baseball stuff, and I think the overall label is close enough for all other purposes.)

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Oct 25, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    Well, Mother Jones makes no secret of being a progressive magazine written by and for progressives. But the quality of their journalism—and especially some of their investigative reporting—is typically excellent, and I’m proud to call several MoJo writers friends. They obviously have a strong ideological perspective, but they usually try to advance it through fair and honest (if sometimes strident) argument, which is why I was surprised they went this route.

  • 3 K. Chen // Oct 25, 2012 at 3:35 pm

    For what its worth, the cover certainly looks like it is supposed to be an official addendum to a U.S. governmental report, perhaps one commissioned by the U.S. with Cato working as a think tank contractor. Sort of like RAND Corporation.

    I think the core issue is that it is widely accepted by the reporters and readers of Mother Jones that there is in fact a mendacious, conspiratorial network of business people, scientists, and analysts pumping out deceptive information, and that all involved are 1.) smart enough to know better and 2.) motivated by some combination of greed, job security and wishful thinking. I would go as far as saying that the reporters and readers also think that this is a proven fact, much like climate change itself. In that context, focusing on the conspiracy angle makes a lot of sense, so long as you believe that such a report can only come from stupidity or evil, and you have already proved that an existing evil plan is out there.

  • 4 Julian Sanchez // Oct 25, 2012 at 4:28 pm

    Well, right, as I say, maybe that’s what someone thinks when glancing at the cover—and maybe some people who otherwise wouldn’t pick it up and open it as a result. Kind of gimmicky, to be sure. But I’m not sure why it’s any different from all sorts of viral advertising as long as it’s clear about what it is once you DO actually open it.

    And my own experience is that there’s pretty much no position so transparently bollocks that it lacks sincere defenders.

  • 5 Jim Easter // Oct 25, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    Well, yeah, but … The Cato authors and designers went to a cutesy extreme with the “addendum” conceit, for example with this from the introduction:

    The Center for the Study of Public Science and Public Policy at the Cato Institute is pleased to transmit to you a major revision of the report, “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States”.

    Now, I’ll grant your point that there is probably no one both able to read the document and unable to twig to its nature within milliseconds. However, in my view the original authors have a reasonable case that this is not just mockery, but also a cheap attempt to score some unearned credibility.

  • 6 royal // Oct 25, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    Oooor it’s a simple attempt to ensure that readers understand that this report can only be understood in the context of the original UN report – hence, an “addendum”. But hey, you’re going to interpret it in the worst possible light no matter what, so go right ahead.

    This “issue” is nothing but a trivial and meaningless Rorschach test.

  • 7 Chris Hallquist // Oct 26, 2012 at 12:49 am

    Data point in support of K. Chen’s comment: when I first glanced at the picture on this post before reading the post, I did think “addendum” meant what it normally means, i.e. something written by the original’s authors. Only found out otherwise when I read the post. (This may be affected by the fact that the picture is small, making the words “Cato Institute” hard to read.)

  • 8 Chris Hallquist // Oct 26, 2012 at 12:59 am

    On following the link: I think it’s noteworthy that Sheppard is clearly not the only one upset about this report. She also has links to substantiative criticisms of the report.

    Honestly, Julian, you’ve done some great stuff, but this looks like you getting upset mainly based on someone you like being the target.

  • 9 Ryan Gabel // Oct 26, 2012 at 3:27 am

    This draft from the Cato Institute has a similar relationship the to the original report as a cheap designer knock-off handbag has with the genuine article.

    I should mention that in its current form the link to draft of the “Addendum” from Cato indicates the report is from “Center For the Science: Cato Institute” and the color of the text now matches the color used on the older report.

    Seriously guys, the PDF of the original report is available online. While the report includes some copyrighted material, the majority of the document is in the public domain like all US government publications. It would be perfectly fine and easier to directly copy the layout and style information from the PDF file. It also would have been less work than the current appearance which is well within the “uncanny valley” of the original.

    Granted, obtaining the layout information from a PDF involves at least some work. I’m not an expert on the entire procedure, but what about using a FOIA request to obtain the original Adobe InDesign file from the government? The Cato report uses Adobe InDesign as well.

    Bonus points for stretching the definition of the term “addendum”, the draft is now longer than the original.

  • 10 Tybalt // Oct 26, 2012 at 12:49 pm

    I thought using “Addendum” in the title along with the “uncanny” aping of the look was an infelicitous choice, but it’s no more than that. A bad-but-not-wrongful idea.

  • 11 Barry // Oct 26, 2012 at 1:18 pm

    Julian: “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!”

    The point is that it can be waived and cited and used to impress people who don’t know better.

    The people who know the science know what’s going on, just as with tobacco; the point is to fool others.

  • 12 Barry // Oct 26, 2012 at 1:18 pm

    BTW, have you resigned from Cato yet?

  • 13 Barry // Oct 26, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    “UPDATE: Eleven members of the Federal Advisory Committee that wrote the 2009 USGCRP report have released a statement condemning the Cato report as “deceptive and misleading.””

  • 14 Barry // Oct 26, 2012 at 1:26 pm

    From: http://wwwp.dailyclimate.org/tdc-newsroom/2012/10/cato-climate-science-report

    “The first example is on the cover: Both reports show a satellite image of the United States, with a bar-chart showing temperature changes running along the bottom. Yet the original 2009 report graphs the dramatic rise in global temperatures from 1900 through 2008, while the Cato report uses a much smaller subset – temperatures only from the United States, and just from 1991 through 2010 – to show a seemingly random pattern.”

    Read the rest – this is a quite dishonest piece of work.

  • 15 royal // Oct 26, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    Are you guys dense? Julian’s post is aimed at the specific criticism about the layout of the cover, not the contents of the report.

  • 16 Barry // Oct 27, 2012 at 9:34 am

    No, but Julian is doing a pretty good job of being dense here. In defense of dishonesty, from his employer.

  • 17 J Mann // Oct 28, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    Barry, so if I understand you, the original report included a world data series in a report titled “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States,” and the CATO report included United States data?

    I could see arguing that both sides were applying data to support their point, or even that no graph means anything until you know what data is being presented, but it’s hard for me to see how using US data in a report on the US impact of global warming is MORE deceptive than using world data.

  • 18 John Quiggin // Oct 29, 2012 at 2:57 am

    Julian, you don’t (and can’t) contest the point that the contents of the report are thoroughly deceptive – sadly that has been true of CATO’s work on climate change for a long time (Milloy was the absolute low point, but Michaels isn’t much better).

    So, why get precious about the fact that the deception in the cover and accompanying letter is merely satirical?

  • 19 Barry // Oct 29, 2012 at 8:51 am

    J Mann, if the goal is to try to persuade people that global warming is not really happening, then yes.

    “Yet the original 2009 report graphs the dramatic rise in global temperatures from 1900 through 2008, while the Cato report uses a much smaller subset – temperatures only from the United States, and just from 1991 through 2010 – to show a seemingly random pattern.”

    Did you bother to read my comment?

  • 20 royal // Oct 30, 2012 at 4:36 pm

    Does the report itself not indicate that it uses different data? Are they not allowed to use different data on their own cover? How is dishonest to show temperatures from the US on a report aimed at the impact of climate change in the US?

  • 21 royal // Oct 30, 2012 at 4:46 pm

    Oh, I get it. Because the report advances a position you disagree with, it’s inherently dishonest. How about this as a rebuttal: All progressives and keynesians are dishonest, because I don’t agree with them.

    Look at these dishonest hacks at the Koch-funded conservative thinktank “Nature” try and claim that not all aberrant whether patterns are linked to global warming: http://www.nature.com/news/extreme-weather-1.11428

    Since they take a critical position on the impact of global warming, they are dishonest. Anyone who disagrees or differs on certain points are dishonest.

  • 22 synapseandsyntax // Oct 31, 2012 at 1:13 am

    royal,

    I wouldn’t call that a “critical position on the impact of global warming”. I think the first few comments to the Nature editorial you linked take care of all the points I would make about it: the editorial points out that it is impossible to say that (say) this particular hurricane can be attributed to anthropogenic causes. Which is true. Just as it is true to say that no particular case of lung cancer can be attributed to smoking: some people develop lung cancer whether or not they smoke, but people who smoke are roughly an order of magnitude more likely to develop it. So too with hurricanes.

    The fact that the probability distribution over the strength and frequency of extreme weather events depends on global temp, which depends in turn upon carbon dioxide levels, is not in dispute as far as I can tell. The point of the editorial is that these relationships are complex rather than simple, and statistical rather than causal. For that reason,inter multa alia, they are not really amenable to most conventional legal frameworks. Which is an important point to consider if you think that a reduction in atmospheric CO2 is an important global goal.

    That seems like a fairly straightforward reading of your own source, so I wonder what I’m missing.

  • 23 Barry // Oct 31, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    “Does the report itself not indicate that it uses different data? Are they not allowed to use different data on their own cover? How is dishonest to show temperatures from the US on a report aimed at the impact of climate change in the US?”

    Read my comments above, please, about US temps and timelines.

  • 24 royal // Oct 31, 2012 at 7:07 pm

    Synapse – Re: Nature editorial: By “critical”, I did not mean to imply that Nature was disputing the existence or impact of AGW, but rather was advocating more judicial and precise scrutiny of models linking AGW to specific whether extremes, and how it’s distinctly possible that such phenomena will never be adequately captured. This is relevant to the Cato report and its detractors for two reasons: 1) The Cato report makes similar claims, and 2) The Cato report attempts to do just what Nature advocated.

    When you state ” the strength and frequency of extreme weather events depends on global temp, which depends in turn upon carbon dioxide levels, is not in dispute as far as I can tell” you’re leaving out the fact that CO2 is just a part of the puzzle. There are many variables and phenomena which can effect global temp, some man-made, others not, and disentangling how much each is responsible for what and how this effects whether extremes is precisely the kind of work the editorial advocated (You also leave out that the editorial mentioned policy-making implications of attribution; historically these don’t require the same rigorous standards as strict legal considerations). This is exactly what the Cato institute tries to do with its report. As you can imagine, the Cato report’s conclusions are (paraphrased) “AGW is not a big deal, natural variations more at fault for volatility, governments should not intervene heavily”, and you may disagree with that (I do to an extent), and the methodology and data may be hackishly thrown together (I’ve only skimmed it so far), but simply taking that position isn’t some inherent attempt at deception; in fact it’s part of the process that Nature advocates. That is, unless you’re using a definition of deception (and I get the feeling that this is what this comment thread has morphoed into) that broadly expands to “people disagreeing with [right viewpoint] are deceptive”.

    Anyways, that part of my post was mostly directed at Barry and his “…if the goal is to try to persuade people that global warming is not really happening, then yes [it is deceptive]” statment written above. Which while a nice sentiment, is unfortunately inapplicable to this particular Cato report: On page 12 it outright states “[h]uman activities have lead to changes in the concentration of atmospheric constituents that amplify the natural greenhouse effect”. On page 21: “The global warming of the past 50 years is due to combination of natural vari­ability, human-induced increases in heat-trapping gases, and other human-altered changes to both the atmosphere and the surface.” There is no denial of warming or its human components in the report.

    And again, as long as the report does not try to mislead as to the timeframe and source of the numbers used on the cover graph, that is not dishonest. The 20 year time frame is certaintly myopic for purposes of the AGW debate, but a point could be made out of US temps not showing a consistent trend in the two highest-polluting decades.

  • 25 Barry // Nov 12, 2012 at 4:22 pm

    http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/11/12/1177671/us-on-track-for-warmest-year-on-record-second-most-extreme-year/

  • 26 Barry // Nov 12, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2011/06/11/242903/mother-nature-is-just-getting-warmed-up-june-heat-records/

    A nice one on ratios of high records to low records.

  • 27 prog73 // Nov 18, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    The near consensus of scientists on climate change and global warming is denied only by those with something to gain by doing so, including both the energy industries as well as the free market ideologues. That CATO wants to challenge the current scientific data is par for their course. CATO and free market ideologues cannot accept the near consensus data because it means that if the science is correct governments must address the issue in a way that markets cannot. Such an admission is tantamount to blasphemy by the true believers. When you are so invested in the ideology that government is inept or badly intentioned, AND that free markets are the solution to every problem known to man, then why shouldn’t those of us who do not have a religious fervor in favor of capitalism , view challenges to apolitical near-consensus scientific data with great skepticism.

    For those who would counter that progressives have a political bias in this argument do not get it. The near consensus in science is not political. That progressives use the issue politically is a given, but no less so than the deniers.

  • 28 Barry // Dec 6, 2012 at 3:51 pm

    BTW, the short timeline argument is a standard. See this: http://mediamatters.org/blog/2012/12/05/cnn-gives-climate-change-denial-a-platform/191686

    There’s an animated graph showing the effects of using shorter timelines.

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