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.