Do Quotes Grow on Plants?

October 20, 2009

Romm has stepped on the toes of journalists and academics in the past, and he’s just recently done so again by allegedly planting quotes.  Roger Pielke Jr. has the scoop, and Keith Kloor follows suit, and Brad DeLong is all crazy up in the house.  Fascinating reading, all told… but the jabs are thrown almost too fast to catch up.

The finger-pointing stems from the claim that Joe Romm over at Climate Progress prodded Ken Caldeira to say that Levitt and Dubner’s new book is an “inaccurate portrayal of me,” where “me” = Caldeira.  I’ll be honest and confess that I don’t have a clue what current journalistic standards are.  That’s not my area.  But it does seem to me that Romm could’ve been quite a bit more cautious with his language.  At the same time, I’m not sure that his lack of caution implies much about any of his other points on Levitt and Dubner’s book.  I’ll have to read the book to see.

The sideshow, if I’ve gathered correctly — and I gather primarily from Roger — is that Romm sent out a fishing line to Caldeira saying “I’d like a quote like ‘The authors of SuperFreakonomics have utterly misrepresented my work,’ plus whatever else you want to say.” Apparently, this quote was not to be had.  Instead, what he got was some kind of agreement (tacit or otherwise) from Caldeira that Romm then translated into a flashy headline on his blogpost.

As a philosopher, I’m not one to throw out charges of spinning and lying as easily as some. I can think of several explanations for Romm’s actions that don’t fall into the lying category. It’s harder to think of explanations that remove the charge that Romm was spinning.  Even still, as I’ve mentioned multiple times in the past, I prefer the principle of charity.  I think we can give Romm the benefit of the doubt.  Roger likes to tease me about the principle of charity, but I take it pretty seriously, as do many philosophers.

So here’s my thinking.  It was wrong for Romm to put Caldeira’s words in quotes, but it was not wrong to attribute the position to Caldeira.  There’s a use-mention error here.  Though not truly a use-mention error, I think it’s close enough to get the point:

(1) Caldeira says his work was utterly misrepresented

(2) Caldeira says his “work was utterly misrepresented.”

Statement (1) is True.  Statement (2) is False.

Romm could’ve done far better by simply saying that Calderia agrees (provided that Caldeira does agree) that the authors of Superfreakonomics had utterly misrepresented his work.  In both cases, of course, the view can be attributed to Caldeira.  It’s not clear what Romm gains, apart from a shorter title for his blogpost, by using the quotation marks instead of the attribution.  It is very clear that he loses a great deal by using the quotes improperly.

IMHO, there’s nothing to get one’s feathers ruffled about here, but the kerfuffle does raise questions not so much about journalistic integrity, as much as about the extent to which truth claims can distract from the main issues.   Quoting is tricky business, as is making a cogent argument.


  1. Ben,

    For a fuller ethical discussion of Romm’s behavior, you should take a look at the context in which he went fishing for that quote. I didn’t think it got quite the attention it deserved yesterday, so I flogged it today:

    Bottom line: Romm wanted that canned quote so he could “trash” Dubner and Levitt.Not to rebut them-to “trash” them Does that qualify as unethical in your line of work?

  2. Perhaps, but that’s a different question too. I’m just talking about the quote. I guess I don’t feel hostile to the notion of trashing somebody’s position. The question is whether Romm wanted to trash Levitt and Dubner, or whether he wanted to trash the position that they advance.

    • You are indeed a most charitable chap.

  3. I just try to keep everything separate. Not always the best strategy, but I think it makes for clearer analysis.

  4. Joe’s quote-fishing isn’t very interesting, albeit that it’s apparently not a method taught in j-school. It would be a different matter were he in a position to influence Caldeira’s decision to agree with that quote or an equivalent, but in fact the latter is a big boy with much media experience under his belt.

    Speaking of influence on Caldeira, what I find interesting is that nobody seems to have mentioned that he seems to be on IV’s payroll. It looks as if he was trying to protect his academic credibility on the one hand while avoiding being seen to join in on Dubn and Dubner’s (couldn’t resist – h/t Michael Tobis) well-deserved general thrashing.

    Levitt at least probably cares a lot more about the treatment he got from Krugman and DeLong.

    Now, how ethical were Levitt and Dubner? Not so much from Keith and Roger on that.

  5. Steve,

    Sorry that my blog posts are not all-compassing for you. The fact is, I haven’t read any of the book yet. I had not planned to weigh in on the whole fracas until I saw that Romm wasn’t content to merely criticize the book, but felt compelled to “trash” the authors with a canned quote he hoped to elicit from Calderia.

    That Romm believes this is standard journalistic practice is what bothers me. I’d like to comment on the book after I’ve had a chance to read it.

    • I think there are definitely interesting questions both about standard journalistic practice and about ideal journalistic practice, but I think those may even be different than other normative questions about the right or wrongness, maybe the justifiability, of trashing someone over someone’s idea. I also think the question of use and mention deserves a bit of analysis, as it’s a common confusion. I guess what I should say above, and maybe I’ll say in a different post, is that the real problem with what Romm is doing is that it shifts the locus of the argument from Romm to Caldeira. Suddenly it’s Caldeira speaking and not Romm attributing a position to Caldeira. This insulates Romm from criticism and then brings the crystallizes the claim about utter misrepresentation as report about one person’s word over another. That also insulates the claim from critical analysis.

      • But Ben, bear in mind that from the perspective of the climate science community this is all about Caldeira. Don’t mistake it for an academic tempest in a teapot. Caldeira is the leading scientist in this area, L+D managed to get his views completely wrong (along with much else), and it would have terrible consequences if society were to take their advice. Romm’s “crime” is to have wanted to get the message out ASAP and with the strongest possible punch.

        If you haven’t already, read RealClimate’s take (and note the link to the chapter).

    • Basically the RPJ defense when someone asks him what he thinks of uncle Fred. Haven’t read that, don’t know. We will get back to you Keith.

  6. Big-time journalist Eric Pooley weighs in. He finds Romm not guilty, Caldeira a victim and L+D too eager to overlook reality in favor of a contrarian meme.

  7. Steve,

    Instead of linking to Joe Romm’s interpretation via his post, why not link to the actual Pooley story?

  8. Possibly because at the end of the post Pooley directly defends Romm on the “quote planting” issue? I know you wouldn’t want anyone to miss that.

  9. Steve,

    Okay, I see what you’re referring to and you still get it wrong. Read it again. But for the benefit of Ben’s readers who can’t spend an afternoon reading through yet another one of Romm’s Moby Dick posts, here’s the full response Pooley gave when Romm asked him if he did anything wrong:

    “I don’t think journalists should rough out quotes in advance for their sources. Some folks do it; I never have. I think your case is a little different, not because you’re a ‘blogger’ and not a ‘journalist’ (those distinctions are fading fast!) but because you’re an expert who was already having a conversation with Caldeira on this subject and could see that Dubner and Levitt had misrepresented his views.

    That said, I think everyone’s rule needs to be, don’t put anything in an email that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the Times. If you had emailed Caldeira and said, ‘It seems clear to me that they utterly misrepresented your work; if you agree and are willing to say so, I’d like to quote you on it,’ then no one could say boo.”

    So Steve, how do you possibly interpret that as a defense of what Romm did?

  10. Let’s see Keith, what part of “I don’t think journalists should rough out quotes” but “I think your case is a little different” don’t you understand? Different in what way? He did go on to suggest that Joe do otherwise in the future in order to avoid the possibility of misinterpretation, but that’s in no way a statement that Joe erred in substance.

    Eric also noted that some journalists do indeed suggest quotes to interviewees. Hadn’t you claimed that it was a rare to non-existent practice? BTW, as someone who’s been interviewed a fair amount over the years, I much prefer a straight-up suggestion of a summarizing quote to a “subtle” attempt to steer me into one. Had L+D taken that approach with Caldeira rather than cherry-picking from a day-long discussion, a lot of this imbroglio could have been avoided.

    Speaking of which, have you read the chapter yet?

    (Semi-OT: There’s been a lot of discussion about a contrarian style of journalism originating in the ’80s, but no one has mentioned the earlier “gonzo” journalism. L+D read a bit like Hunter S. with fewer drugs — or perhaps just different ones.)

    • Pooley was being charitable to Joe. Slap on the wrist. He basically said what Joe did was wrong but then qualified that by saying his case was different.
      In other words, Romm isn’t a journalist so as Ben said somewhere, let’s not judge him by the same standards.

      Sorry, that doesn’t work for me. I’ll explain why in a follow-up post.

      • No, he wasn’t being charitable at all. He identifies Joe not as a journalist but as an “expert,” i.e. a colleague of Caldeira’s acting as an advocate. I think that’s basically correct. Unlike L+D, RP Jr. or you for that matter, Joe’s background is such that Caldeira could interact with him and expect that both the science and the policy nuances wouldn’t get screwed up in the telling.

        And Keith, you are really going far, far out of your way to avoid addressing what L+D did. Be serious.

  11. […] over at Real Climate, more or less following up on the Romm/Levitt&Dubner/Pielke/Caldeira flap from earlier in the week. A lot of my scholarly work explores the ethical dimensions of various remediation technologies […]

  12. […] didn’t actually say that.  I paraphrase.  But, as we’ve seen, quotes can be a barrel of fun.  Singh actually said this: “”Developing countries cannot and will not compromise on […]

  13. Nope, they’ll cave.

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