Does a Recent Peer-Reviewed Study Say It’s Okay to Lie about Climate Change?

by Marlo Lewis on April 24, 2014

in Blog, Features

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Does a recent science paper say it’s okay to lie about climate change if that’s what it takes to ratify climate treaties? No. But the study is quite silly, going to heroic mathematical lengths to prove what most of us learned on the playground: liars can win friends and influence people — until they get caught.

Today’s Climatewire ($) reviews the study, “Information Manipulation and Climate Agreements,” which some skeptical blogs had denounced for advocating dishonesty in a good cause.

Climatewire reports that the researchers — Fuhai Hong of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and Xiaojian Zhao of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology — issued a statement online saying their objective was only to explain why certain parties have incentives to exaggerate climate change damages, not to justify lying about climate change.

Critics may have read only the study’s abstract, most of which does seem to take a permissive or even approving view of deliberate exaggeration (i.e. lying):

It appears that news media and some pro-environmental organizations have the tendency to accentuate or even exaggerate the damage caused by climate change. This article provides a rationale for this tendency by using a modified International Environmental Agreement (IEA) model with asymmetric information. We find that the information manipulation has an instrumental value, as it ex post induces more countries to participate in an IEA, which will eventually enhance global welfare.

But the concluding sentence of the abstract hints that honesty may be the best policy after all:

From the ex ante perspective, however, the impact that manipulating information has on the level of participation in an IEA and on welfare is ambiguous.

What are we to make of this kerfuffle?

The study is heavily mathematical, one might say gratuitously so, because the overall conclusion is so obvious: “Information manipulation” – that is, lying – can sometimes fool people into giving you what you want, but it can also backfire and discredit you. The story of the boy who cried wolf leaps to mind (although Hong and Zhao don’t mention it).

Their argument about the downside of “information manipulation” is a bit weird:

Intuitively, in this state people will be aware of the message sender’s signal suppression [i.e. dishonesty], and exhibit rational skepticism even if the problem of climate change is indeed severe.

Translating: If you get caught exaggerating how bad climate change is, then people won’t trust you when climate change turns out to be as bad as you said. That makes little sense.

Consider the case of good old Al Gore, whose film, An Inconvenient Truth, raised “international public awareness of climate change” but “exaggerated” the threat of warming-induced sea-level rise.

In AIT (pages 196-206), Gore warned that “If Greenland melted or broke up and slipped into the sea — or if half of Greenland and half of Antarctica melted or broke up and slipped into the sea, sea levels worldwide would increase by between 18 and 20 feet,” the “maps of the world would have to be redrawn,” and hundreds of millions of people living in the world’s great coastal cities “would have to be evacuated,” “would be forced to move,” and “would be displaced.” Obviously, if any of that actually came to pass, Gore’s status as a visionary, world leader, and spokesman for “The Science” would go way up.

Perhaps the most confusing aspect of the study is all the formal mathematics and computer modeling deployed to package “information manipulation” as some great discovery. H.L. Mencken put the point so much better decades ago:

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

Maybe “Information Manipulation and Climate Agreements” is just another case of academics desperate to publish anything that shows off their methodological chops.

Another factor could also be in play — the desire to avoid retaliation by the authorities. According to a recent U.S. State Department human rights report, “Some scholars suggested Hong Kong-based academics practiced some self-censorship in their China-related work to preserve good relations and research and lecturing opportunities in the mainland.”

For a Hong Kong-based academic, the periphrastic contortions of formal mathematics may be the most prudent format for writing about the uses and limitations of propaganda.

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