It takes less than a minute to tell a lie that can spread around the world, yet it can take days, months, or years to correct it. Sometimes the truth never catches up to the lie.
As Newsweek’s Sharon Begley wrote this past weekend, nowhere is this challenge demonstrated more clearly than in the wake of the ‘Climategate’ stolen emails controversy and the recent retraction by the Sunday Times of London surrounding its bogus ‘Amazongate’ reporting.
Begley details how, despite multiple investigations concluding that climate science remains on solid ground and exonerating the main climate scientists targeted in the University of East Anglia attacks, the “highly orchestrated, manufactured scandal” still manages to fool a large portion of the public into thinking that climate change warnings are overblown.
A lie can get halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its boots on, as Mark Twain said (or “before the truth gets a chance to put its pants on,” in Winston Churchill’s version), and nowhere has that been more true than in “climategate.” In that highly orchestrated, manufactured scandal, e-mails hacked from computers at the University of East Anglia’s climate-research group were spread around the Web by activists who deny that human activity is altering the world’s climate in a dangerous way, and spun so as to suggest that the scientists had been lying, cheating, and generally cooking the books.
But not only did British investigators clear the East Anglia scientist at the center of it all, Phil Jones, of scientific impropriety and dishonesty in April, an investigation at Penn State cleared PSU climatologist Michael Mann of “falsifying or suppressing data, intending to delete or conceal e-mails and information, and misusing privileged or confidential information” in February.
Climate deniers were quick to pick up the Climategate story when it first emerged, and their efforts to spread lies about climate scientists and the integrity of climate science as a whole – aided and abetted by right wing bloggers and Fox News – have played an integral role in driving public opinion in the wrong direction on the critical subject of climate change.
The Sunday Times of London, which back in January helped to spread another denier myth known as “Amazongate,” recently ran a lengthy retraction, disappeared the article and apologized to Dr. Simon Lewis, the scientist whose work and quotes the paper mangled.
Yet the Times’ retraction begins by repeating the lie:
"The article "UN climate panel shamed by bogus rainforest claim" (News, Jan 31) stated that the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report had included an “unsubstantiated claim” that up to 40% of the Amazon rainforest could be sensitive to future changes in rainfall.
That could further confuse the public, which has been proven to be susceptible to such instances of mixed-messaging.
Joseph Romm from ClimateProgress.org refers to several examples of this, noting:
“One of the strongest, most-repeated findings in the psychology of belief is that once people have been told X, especially if X is shocking, if they are later told, “No, we were wrong about X,” most people still believe X.”
While it is always important to set the record straight – even that effort carries significant risks. Sometimes clarifying the truth “can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths,” as the Washington Post pointed out several years ago. Efforts to debunk false accounts can counter-intuitively help perpetuate the myth rather than clarify the facts. Numerous psychological studies have shown how people struggle to separate lies from facts. When presented with evidence refuting persistent myths, people often misremember the false statements presented to demonstrate the myth as true.
In the case of myths perpetuated by climate deniers, Media Matters for America notes: “that's what right-wing media outlets and figure are counting on -- setting public opinion against science before the truth gets in the way.”
This pattern is so effective that ethically-challenged public relations professionals and corporations have institutionalized the practice.
Take for example BP’s stubborn insistence that its disastrous gusher in the Gulf of Mexico was initially only leaking 1,000 barrels a day – or that there are no large plumes of oil beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico.
Because if they stick to it long enough, the lie will have spread around so widely that the public will accept it as fact, even in the case of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. That could help the company save some face, and perhaps avoid some of the mounting legal actions against it.
The Sunday Times’ retraction is an important example of the key take-away lesson for media outlets. Had the Times’ editors bothered to verify the story before running it, we may never have seen this level of confusion in the public about threats to the Amazon from climate change. Ditto for the entire Climategate saga – had reporters read the emails themselves and investigated the context of statements cherry-picked by deniers to fuel doubt, Climategate would have fizzled out quickly under scrutiny. But that’s not how it happened, and we will continue to face the consequences of the mythical tale spun by deniers for the foreseeable future.
Lies are terribly difficult to correct – a stark reminder to all involved in covering the events of our time that getting the story correct is always better than being the first to spread a rumor or lie that might never be fully debunked. Get it right the first time, and communicate honestly with your audience. Don’t we all owe each other at least that much?