19 March 2012

Mike Daisey and Higher Truths

UPDATE: A take on Daisey worth reading here.

Last week NPR's This American life retracted one of its most popular episodes ever after it was revealed that the story contained significant fabrications based on "reporting" by Mike Daisey. The retraction episode is remarkable and should be heard and read in full (transcript here in PDF) to be appreciated.

The Daisey case raises all sorts of interesting questions about journalism, but also more generally about the nature of argument, facts, data, persuasion and politics. For his part, Daisey sees little wrong in his fabrications, justifying them based on their political effect:
I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China.
Part of the strength of Daisey's reporting was the simple narrative that he presented, with good guys and bad guys, leaving little room for complexity or nuance. Writing at Reuters, Felix Salmon says that this itself should have been a tip off:
Real life is messy. And as a general rule, the more theatrical the story you hear, and the more it divides the world into goodies vs baddies, the less reliable that story is going to be.
Recall that in the aftermath of initial revelations about Peter Gleick's phishing of the Heartland Institute, we heard defenses of his action that included claims that he was only doing the same thing that journalists do to the importance of looking beyond Gleick's misdeeds at the "larger truth." Consider also what was described in the UEA emails as "pressure to present a nice tidy story" related to climate science as well as the IPCC's outright falsification related to disasters and climate change. Such shenanigans are so endemic in the climate change debate that when a journalist openly asks whether the media should tell the whole truth about climate change, no one even bats an eye. 

But some people do feel that certain issues are so important that there should be cause in political debates to overlook lies or misrepresentations in service of a "larger truth" (Yellow cake, anyone?). I have seen this attitude for years in the climate change debate (hey look, just today), and often condoned by scientists and journalists alike.

I even wrote about this problem back in 2001 when I was invited by the National Academy of Sciences to be among a small group of experts to brief several Senators and the new Secretary of Treasury:
As I prepared for the Senate Forum a number of colleagues expressed concern that my work might be used (or misused) in the political process to support particular positions. In a nutshell, my position, shared with a number of colleagues, is that the "global warming: yes or no?" debate has become an obstacle to effective policy action related to climate.

Several of these colleagues suggested that I should downplay the policy implications of my work showing that for a range of phenomena and places, future climate impacts depend much more on growing human vulnerability to climate than on projected changes in climate itself (under the assumptions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).

One colleague wrote, "I think we have a professional (or moral?) obligation to be very careful what we say and how we say it when the stakes are so high." In effect, some of these colleagues were intimating that ends justify means or, in other words, doing the "right thing" for the wrong reasons is OK.

. . . I likened this situation to the following hypothetical. Imagine that as policy makers are debating intervening militarily in a foreign country, the media report that 1,000 women and children were brutally murdered in that country. This report inflames passions and provides a very compelling justification for the military intervention. A journalist discovers that, contrary to the earlier reports, only 10 soldiers died. What is the journalist's obligation to report the "truth" knowing full well that it might affect political sentiments that were shaped by the earlier erroneous report? When science is used (and misused) in political advocacy, there are frequent opportunities for such situations to arise.
The Mike Daisey case ought to prompt some soul-searching among scientists (who seek to communicate to the public and policy makers) and journalists more generally, as the issues implicated by his fabrications are far more common than many would like to admit.


  1. From Keith Kloor by email for posting:


    I don't think you're being fair to Mike Lemonick. In the article by him that you cite, MIke's provocative question was framed in the context of an analogy he was making to the risks of smoking. For example, in that article, he also says:

    "So should the overall message be that nobody knows anything? I don’t think so. We would never want to pretend the uncertainty isn’t there, since that would be dishonest. But featuring it prominently is dishonest ,too, just as trumpeting uncertainty in the smoking-cancer connection would have been."

    Thus, I think you're reading way too much into Mike's piece. That said, I do agree with you that there are implications of the Daisey case for climate communicators and climate journalism. My own related post is here: http://www.collide-a-scape.com/2012/03/19/the-seduction-of-narrative/"

  2. -1-Keith

    Thanks ... we will have to agree to disagree, Lemonick asks "So where’s the right balance between telling the whole truth and being truthful in an effective way?"

    And he clearly defines "effective" in terms of getting people to act in a certain way -- which is clear from his smoking analogy: "But nobody even considered the possibility of headlining the whole truth about smoking, because that could have muddied the essential, and utterly valid message: smoking is really dangerous, and you’re crazy to do it."

    I don't want journalists shading the truth in a desire to be "effective" in some way. That is Daisey's tradeoff too.

  3. .

    "...Daisey sees little wrong in his fabrications, justifying them based on their political effect..."

    Well the political effect is to make Daisey's claims and those that repeat them come off as a pack of bald faced liars.

    All Daisey showed is you can make a good living selling anti-capitalist lies to people who are desperate to believe them.

    Kind of like Gleick but without the financial motivation.


  4. I'd add that the retraction piece is remarkable AND ADMIRABLE, I couldn't think of a question related either to Daisey, the original broadcast, or the real facts of the case that it left unanswered.

  5. Great cite to yellow cake. Even after it was established conclusively that Joseph Wilson was lying, the media pushed his narrative for months (many to this day). Even after we found that Saddam was funding nuke development in Libya, the media narrative of no nuke program continues.

    Obama's claims re: Obamacare are riddled with blatant fabrications. Where is the media outrage?

    Last year, millions of people have their homes, farms and businesses damaged by massive flooding directly caused by changes to dam priorities demanded by environmental activists during the Clinton administration. Compare and contrast to coverage/blame re: Katrina.

    Oh, and Katrina -- where the coverage was so ridiculously riddled with errors as to be a laughingstock, yet the media had an orgy of self-congratulation for their coverage. Modern journalism is the most incompetent and most corrupt profession afflicting Americans today.

  6. Roger,

    I don't think it is arguable that the news media has worked a lot harder digging into the background of Joe the Plumber than they did Barack Obama. Anyone with a genuine interest in honest and effective govt has to shake with fear when contemplating that fact.

    You are to be cheered for taking this stand against those who believe that news coverage should be massaged into effective propaganda by our journalistic betters so as to influence the public's attitudes and beliefs.

  7. -6-Stan

    Thanks for the kind words, to be clear, I think that the media overall has done a nice job on the climate issue (see our sea level rise paper for some evidence). At the same time there is also some pathologies in that community, as I discuss here. Thanks!

  8. The sorry tale of Mike Davey's fiction masquerading as fact reminded me of these remarks by David Hume:
    'David Hume (http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hume/david/h92pm/chapter9.html):
    ‘Inward peace of mind, consciousness of integrity, a satisfactory review of our own conduct; these are circumstances, very requisite to happiness, and will be cherished and cultivated by every honest man, who feels the importance of them. Such a one has, besides, the frequent satisfaction of seeing knaves, with all their pretended cunning and abilities, betrayed by their own maxims; and while they purpose to cheat with moderation and secrecy, a tempting incident occurs, nature is frail, and they give into the snare; whence they can never extricate themselves, without a total loss of reputation.’
    Quite a few in the climate hoo-ha of the past 30 years or so have shown how 'nature is frail, and they give into the snare'. The snare is the attraction of being 'economical with the truth', and often generous with the emotions. Fortunately, while human nature may be frail, Mother Nature is not so fragile and has been doing a pretty robust job of helping those who value the search for truth over the search for impact.

  9. WELL SAID, Roger (and Stan)! The problems are even more blatant among today's unbelievably corrupt and dishonest politicians.

  10. Would we be having this conversation if we were discussing truth in labling for prescription drugs? Would we be discussing the ethics of not providing patients with all information regarding contraindications and other risks/dangers associated with taking a drug (uncertainties)?

    NPR recently changed its policy and decided to no longer seek balanced and objective reporting. Incidences such as this only serve to reinforce that NPR have become nothing more than a political extension for support of liberal thought and liberal politicians. Their focus is limited to conveying the interests of only a small elite segment of society rather than the interests of all Americans. It is only a matter of time before the Amerivan public at large says enough is enough and pulls funding.

  11. On the Op Ed pages of a recent NY Times quoted a March 2 paper in Science on ocean acidification. It said that the Oceans were acidifying the fastest in 300m yrs. It also had the usual clarion call to action. In the "this week in Science" pages for March 2 it had a summary of the article. here is the relevant part.

    "The current rate of anthropogenic CO2 input into the ocean is faster than any other instance in the past, but yet it is unclear whether or not future ocean pH will be significantly affected"

  12. Roger wrote, [my interjection]:

    "But some people do feel that certain issues are so important [and they are so right about them] that there should be cause in political debates to overlook lies or misrepresentations in service of a 'larger truth'"

    In my experience this temptation, to fake or exaggerate, arises out of an overweening sense of the infallibility of one's own position; [have you ever noticed the similarity between 'infallibility' and 'fallbeil'?] which becomes the real fuel of the rationalization for fakery or deception.

    It is a very seductive reasoning, if I'm right anyway what difference does it make in the long term if a 'greater truth' is served later? Unfortunately people are rarely so correct as they and their cohorts suppose. Additionally, this logic can be highly self-reinforcing, as Roger describes:

    "As I prepared for the Senate Forum a number of colleagues expressed concern that my work might be used (or misused) in the political process to support particular positions."

    Hmm... maybe people aren't so certain of their correctness after all, Truth can's stand on her own legs it seems.

    Roger, as an aside, I also wish you would use the word 'nuance' less often, I think it a vastly over used word and very often there is a better one available. For instance if the 'depth' or 'detail' were not left out of the reporting, it would then allow the reader to more fully appreciate the 'nuances' [strike that] 'ambiguity' of the situation.

    I also wish you would move to a blogging platform that will accept a blockquote tag once in awhile.


  13. Life is indeed messy, but propagandists don't seem to realize that the public knows that. You don't need a degree to know that life is messy, you just need to have a life.

  14. I think there's an obvious difference here, and it's an important one.

    Gleick has effectively admitted to lying, forgery and fraud in his phishing of Heartland.
    And he has also effectively admitted to lying to and deceiving his ostensible allies (the "15").

    But he has not admitted to anything as regards most important detail - the strategy memo. In fact, he has essentially asserted, he doesn't know if the strategy memo might be genuine (by asserting it came from an anonymous source), and hinted it might be, by saying it speaks for itself.

    And some of his supporters continue to claim it might genuine, or a draft, or some kind of Heartland sting.

    The basis of their claim is they apparently see no reason to disbelieve Gleick (despite his other admitted multiple deceits and frauds), and instead claim Heartland is an inherently deceitful organization that may even have set Gleick up.

    I think that's extremely wishful thinking of their part, but while a substantial number of people continue to assert that the memo might be real, the truth or falsity of the memo remains a contested fact.

    If and when Gleick admits to have created the memo (or if it's proven in court), then the situation will become analogous, and we *may* move into the "fake but true" phase. But we're not there yet.

    Having read a lot of blogs and blog comments, I'm not actually sure we will ever get to "fake but true" even if Gleick admits it or if it's proven in court. A lot of people have so much invested in him not being the creator that I fully expect many of them to argue that he was pressured to confess, miscarriage of justice, etc.

  15. Hi, Roger: Well, communication is "messy" (or complex), too. So the question "is (anyone) is justified in presenting known falsehoods in the name of higher truths?" may not be the right one. E.g., do we think H.B. Stowe should retract _Uncle Tom's Cabin_, because it wasn't T. Weld's _American Slavery As It Is_?

    As you yourself have pointed out, one place to start is to examine what the speaker has taken responsibility for. If she says "this is a novel" we have a good understanding of what ethical framework we should be applying--one quite different from if she had said, "this is reporting" or "I'm an advocate."

    The problems come in when the speaker misrepresents what she is doing (i.e., is "stealthy"), or when we don't have have a well-worked out understanding of the responsibilities of the role the speaker is undertaking. What would I personally expect from a monologuist at an off-Broadway show billed as "nonfiction"? I don't know. (It sounds like both the theater and Daisey are now clarifying their responsibilities.) And I think we're equivalently unclear about the responsibilities of some of the roles we expect scientists to play in policy controversies.

  16. This seems to me to be a straightforward, if not simple, issue: each domain has different standards that practitioners must follow. Confusion arises when a practitioner of one domain dabbles in another. When the practitioner purposefully misrepresents his/her product, fraud is the result.

    A novel is clearly within the domain of fiction, permitting the purveyor wide latitude, even those who hope to capture what they and their consumers might view as truth. Fiction lies within the domain of art, a view or perception of reality or of what reality should be, according to the purveyor.

    The domain of journalism imposes severe restrictions on its practitioners so that consumers should be confident that the material presented is true, based on facts with little interpretation. The related domain of opinion / punditry / editorials, not a subgenre of journalism, but a mix of journalism and fiction, is often confused with pure journalism, much to the dismay of serious journalists and well-informed citizens.

    The domain of science too has its restrictions. After all, it is expected to present its consumers with hypotheses, data, analyses, and conclusions without bias so that its consumers can be confident in its results.

    Mike Daisey presented his work as journalism when it was in fact a form of fiction, a novel of sorts, and “The American Life” folks did not catch onto his misrepresentations at first, but in the end they did and rectified it. There are still a bunch of folks who heard the first part and not the follow-up, so they’ll remain true believers. It was fraud, but we knew who all the players were.

    Gleick committed his fraud surreptitiously, misrepresenting his identity when phishing the documents from Heartland and then sending them a week later with an additional document of dubious provenance to others of presumably like mind.

    Both Daisey and Gleick committed fraud. Both damaged innocent organizations that have tried to maintain the standards of the domains in which they operate. Both individuals have proved untrustworthy and should be barred from participating in the type of organizations they damaged.

  17. "What would I personally expect from a monologuist at an off-Broadway show billed as "nonfiction"? I don't know."

    What Ira Glass (and I, and I assume most of the listeners) expected was the truth. He (and we) didn't get it. (Until the retraction story, when the truth was almost all supplied by Ira Glass and his people.)

  18. E.g., do we think H.B. Stowe should retract _Uncle Tom's Cabin_, because it wasn't T. Weld's _American Slavery As It Is_?

    More pertinent, since Stowe wrote a novel, would be Alex Haley's "Roots". Which pretended to be a novel based on facts. Which facts were later found out to be false.

    Daisy is discovering exactly what Haley found. The public do not like to be duped.