Don’t call people liars. That’s a rule. Like all rules, there are exceptions. Sometimes people do lie. It’s fine to point that out. What isn’t fine is to cry “Lie!” every time someone says something you think isn’t okay.
To see what I’m talking about, look at this tweet:
Taken at face value, this tweet indicates anyone who says 97% of scientists agree about global warming is spreading a lie. Not misinformation. Not inaccurate information. A lie.
What is the point of saying something like that? It’s true a person can be fooled by a lie and spread it inadvertently, but lots of people won’t make that distinction. For example:
Whether or not the person was meaning to call @YaleClimateComm liars, the accusation is just stupid. The tweet being criticized was wrong to say “97% scientists,” but not in any significant way. The tweet provides a link as reference. The reference says:
Cook and colleagues (2013) examined nearly 12,000 peer-reviewed papers in the climate science literature and found that of those papers that stated a position on the reality of human-caused global warming, 97% said it is happening and at least partly human caused.
That’s accurate. The tweet was clearly referencing it. The tweet describes it inaccurately, but so what? In what world does saying “97% scientists” instead of “97% scientific abstracts” amount to a lie? Why isn’t that just “wrong” or “a mistake”?
I don’t get it. If nothing else, comments like that are stupid on a tactical level. Most people won’t listen to you if you cry “Wolf!” They’ll tune you out and move on. They won’t look further and see the article is horribly wrong. Calling that a lie means you can’t get them to see the problem I e-mailed @YaleClimateComm about (before even seeing any of these tweets):
I am writing to inform you of errors in a recent piece of yours, titled Public Understanding vs. Scientific Consensus. That piece seeks to examine views on global warming, comparing the views of the general population and those of the experts.
Unfortunately, its comparisons are erroneous. The piece includes these two statements:
Currently, half of Americans (52%) think that global warming, if it is happening, is mostly human caused.
In the latest study investigating the degree of scientific consensus on climate change, Cook and colleagues (2013) examined nearly 12,000 peer-reviewed papers in the climate science literature and found that of those papers that stated a position on the reality of human-caused global warming, 97% said it is happening and at least partly human caused.
The views being compared are obviously different. Believing “global warming, if it is happening, is mostly human caused” is not the same as believing global warming “is happening and at least partly human caused.” The conditional aspect of the former makes it easier to agree to, but the word “mostly” makes it harder to agree to.
This is a problem because the paragraph after the second statement says:
Public understanding of climate change, however, is starkly different than the expert consensus: only 44% of Americans think global warming is both happening and human caused.
You cannot conclude the “public understanding… is starkly different” by looking at views on two different issues. It is perfectly possible the difference you highlight stems largely from the difference between “at least partly” and “mostly.”
The conclusion drawn in that pargraph, and the figure following it, are misleading. Not only are the conclusions not sound, most readers will not notice you are comparing numbers for views on different questions.
The piece was largely based upon a deceptive comparison, but nobody will ever notice that if all people say are things like, “97% scientists is a lie!”