It's Supposed to Be Wrong, But Effective

One thing that I would point out is that it’s very important for people to be skeptical and anticipate that people will be misleading to the public. Some of the misinformation that’s out there is not accidental. I think there’s quite a bit that’s put into the public discourse in order to have a political effect. It’s supposed to be wrong, but effective.

What our research shows is that if people are aware of the possibility that they might be misled ahead of time, then they’re much better at recognizing corrections later on.

That's a quote from Stephan Lewandowsky, a psychologist at the University of Bristol and co-author of The Debunking Handbook. It is taken from an interview of Lewandowsky titled "How to debunk false beliefs without having it backfire."

The quote above speaks to a point I often try to drive home: That some misinformation is not accidental. 

My very first post on this blog examined what I considered the worst and most misinforming energy chart of 2013. Part of the story is to examine the chart and understand WHY it's misinformation. But the next question, the question rarely asked, is the WHY of the chart itself. You have to go out of your way to produce the chart like that. Someone has the intent to make the chart like that. Someone signs off on it and commands the graphics staff to make the chart like that. The question is why?

Here on the blog I also often discuss the changing definition of "oil" over time. And two classic articles by Chris Nelder and Kurt Cobb examine the differences between how we used to discuss oil data previously and how that has changed. And it wasn't industry groups changing the presentation of data to bolster numbers - this was the EIA and the IEA themselves, organizations that hold almost universal trust from a public that would never question their data or motives. The result of the change is the well-known talking-point that the United States is now the number one producer of oil. Is that talking-point true? Again, it all depends on how you choose to define oil. 

The latest piece this week from Cobb actually looks at the growing movement to go around the EIA and IEA in pursuit of energy data (and a couple of weeks ago, Cobb also looked at the dangers that arise when EIA forecasts are wrong - as they frequently are).

The question again, is why. Why change the definition of oil to include various other liquids? What was the catalyst over the past 15 years that caused and explains this change? Satisfactory answers to these questions are rare.

It's like the old-saying says: Sometimes you have to revert to a child-like mind and be willing to ask WHY five times in order to get to the truth of a matter.

Merchants of Doubt (2015) - A documentary that looks at pundits-for-hire who present themselves as scientific authorities as they speak about topics like toxic chemicals, pharmaceuticals and climate change.