18 October 2009

Anatomy of a Smear

Wow. This has to be read to be believed. According to Stephen Dubner on his blog at the NYT, in the dust-up over the SupreFreakonomics book (which I have not read) Joe Romm manufactures a smear of the book and its authors by making this request of Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at Stanford (emphasis added):
"I want to trash them for this insanity and ignorance. . . my blog is read by everyone in this area, including the media. I’d like a quote like ‘The authors of SuperFreakonomics have utterly misrepresented my work,’ plus whatever else you want to say."
Caldeira did not provide the requested quote, what he did say according to Dubner was:
“The only significant error,” he wrote to Romm, “is the line: ‘carbon dioxide is not the right villain in this fight.’ That is just wrong and I never would have said it. On the other hand, I f&@?ed up. They sent me the draft and I approved it without reading it carefully and I just missed it. … I think everyone operated in good faith, and this was just a mistake that got by my inadequate editing.”
Is that the story that you get from Romm? Not even close. Romm spins and lies instead. Dubner explains how Romm didn't report the full story from Caldeira, but instead twisted it into a smear by reporting an untruth: "Levitt and Dubner didn’t run this quote by Caldeira . . ." We know from Dubner and confirmed by Caldeira that

. . . Caldeira did see that line, and the rest of the chapter too, not once but twice.

But that didn’t seem to matter. While Romm’s post never actually delivered the Caldeira quotes teased in the headline – that it was “an inaccurate portrayal of me” and “misleading” – the point was clear to any reader: everything SuperFreakonomics says about global warming must be wrong because the main climate scientist they write about has refuted what he said. It’s hard to blame the bloggers who subsequently repeated this story: if you didn’t know it was false, it would have seemed pretty newsworthy. It’s also hard to misinterpret what’s going on here. Now that global warming has transcended science to become a political issue, the rules of politics apply: if you don’t like someone’s position, attack their credibility.
For his part Caldeira expresses some regret at being drawn into the dispute:
“I was drawn in by Romm and Al Gore’s assistant into critiquing other parts of the chapter. Rather than acting deliberately, I panicked and commented on things that I now wish I would have been silent on. It was obviously a mistake to let myself get drawn into this, and I learned a quick and hard lesson in public relations.”
Caldeira also said of the book and its authors:
“I believe all of the ideas attributed to me are based on fact, with the exception of the ‘carbon dioxide is not the right villain’ line,” he wrote. “That said, when I am speaking, I place these facts in a very different context and draw different policy conclusions.” He added that “I believe the authors to have worked in good faith. They draw different conclusions than I draw from the same facts, but as authors of the book, that is their prerogative.”
Dubner accepts Caldeira's critique, and even though Caldeira had two chances to correct the text before publication:
I understand why Caldeira now feels that the “villain” line overstates his position. I certainly wish we had discussed amending it earlier, and it’s probably a good idea to change that linein future editions of the book.
The story here is a climate scientist being played as a fool in the political battle over climate change. Joe Romm often engages in some pretty dirty politics in smearing the credibility of people whose views that he disagrees with, which in the past has included me. That people play dirty politics is not a surprise. That Joe Romm is taken seriously by the mainstream media and the mainstream scientific community says a lot about them as well.