Little Black Lies

Thu, 2013-02-07 06:00Jeff Gailus
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When War is Peace and Dirty, Clean

Every communications expert knows that truth is rarely self-evident. Indeed, no matter how hare-brained or incredulous an idea is, if it serves the interests of a particular group of people who want it to be true, they’ll ignore any and all evidence to make it so.

Paul Krugman, an influential economist and columnist for the New York Times, recently wrote about this problematic phenomenon in the American military, where it is known as “incestuous amplification.” “Highly dubious ideas become certainties,” he wrote, “when a closed group of people repeat the the same things to each other – and when accepting the group’s preconceptions itself becomes a necessary ticket to being in the in-group.”

He refers, as an example, to the early days of what he calls the Iraq debacle, “where perfectly obvious propositions – the case for invading is very weak, the occupation may well be a nightmare – weren’t so much rejected as ruled out of discussion altogether; if you even considered those possibilities, you weren’t a serious person, no matter what your credentials.”

If this sounds eerily familiar, you might be thinking of the protracted campaign by Big Oil and the Alberta and Canadian governments to brand tar sands oil as a “clean, responsible and sustainable” source of energy. Earlier this week, I visited the Alberta government’s oil sands website to read about “Alberta’s clean energy story,” where we learn that Albertans “are doing our part to move the world towards a clean energy future.”

Fri, 2013-01-11 09:46Jeff Gailus
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The Biggest Little Black Lie of 2012

In a culture awash in bullshit, it’s no easy task to identify the Little Black Lie of the Year. It’s like choosing the most beautiful butterfly or the most violent criminal. There are just so many to choose from, and who’s to say?

Still, it behooves us to try, so I solicited input from people who pay attention to such things. There were numerous contenders. In a deceit of geologic magnitude, Enbridge erased 1,000 square kilometres of islands from the Douglas Channel to make the tanker route out of Kitimat Harbour look much safer than it really is.

Then there’s the patently misleading claim by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, almost a year to the day after Canada’s outspokenly belligerent Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver said “we are supportive of the [Northern] Gateway [pipeline] project,” that “the government doesn’t choose particular projects.”

South of the border, the ever-dubious Fox News reported that the Keystone XL pipeline would create “a million new high-paying jobs,” when the reality is no more like 4,600 temporary constructions jobs and just 50 permanent jobs.

There were dozens of others; the competition was stiff. But the New Year brought the release of a new scientific study that sets one Little Black Lie above – or below, depending on your perspective – them all.

For years, the Alberta government and the oil industry have maintained that tar sands mines and bitumen upgraders were not polluting the land and water in northern Alberta, that development was being conducted in a “clean, responsible and sustainable” manner. Despite research published by David Schindler and his colleagues in 2009 and 2010 that found elevated levels of a variety of toxic chemicals in the snowpack and waterways around the mines, and despite numerous studies that found the monitoring program in the tar sands region to be egregiously flawed, the Alberta government’s messaging remained the same: any and all pollution found in the area was from “natural” sources. 

Today, and every day in 2012, the government’s “oil sands” website reads: “Monitoring stations downstream of mine sites show industrial contribution cannot be detected against historically consistent readings of naturally occurring compounds in the Athabasca River.”

But now the cat’s out of the bag, and this Little Black Lie has been exposed once and for all.

Tue, 2012-12-18 04:00Jeff Gailus
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Little Black Lies: Manufacturing Irony

If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you’ll know that the Alberta government is suing the tobacco industry for $10 billion. What may be less clear is how ironic this gesture of fiscal responsibility is, coming, as it does, from a government that happily perpetuates the same transgressions that got Big Tobacco in trouble in the first place.

Each year, approximately 3,000 Albertans die from tobacco-related illnesses,” Premier Alison Redford said when she announced the legal action last May. “This lawsuit, to be clear, is not about banning cigarettes or punishing smokers. It is about recovering health-care costs as a result of the misconduct of the tobacco industry.”

The issue, Redford reminds us, is not that cigarette smoking kills thousands of people, and costs taxpayers millions of dollars, every year. No, Redford, like others who have sued the tobacco industry over the last 30 years, are outraged that these purveyors of America's most widely used addictive drug lied and lied relentlessly to the North American public.

Rather than come clean and acknowledge the scientific evidence that cigarette smoking caused various illnesses, the tobacco industry embarked on an insidious campaign to discredit the science and foul the public airways with deceptive advertising, all so innocent smokers would keep buying their deadly products (a crime that was sardonically portrayed in the hit movie, Thank You for Smoking).

This strategy, which has been used by other industries that make dangerous or polluting products, became known as the art of “manufacturing doubt,” after a now infamous memo from a senior tobacco official. “Doubt is our product,” the anonymous tobacconist wrote, “since it is the best means of competing with the 'body of fact' that exists in the minds of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”

It sounds complicated, almost impossibly so, but it’s actually rather simple if you have enough money. Corporate collectives have been doing it for decades: funding bogus science and investing in think tanks to produce dubious research results that cast doubt on legitimate research findings, from cancer-causing tobacco to global warming carbon emissions.

Add well-funded advertising campaigns that create a new reality irrespective of the truth, and corporations have been able to thwart government regulations that might otherwise damage their bottom lines – or at the very least make them fess up to the less savoury impacts of their products and services.

If this sounds eerily familiar, it should. The Government of Alberta, in cahoots with the oil industry, has been using a similar strategy to promote tar sands development in northern Alberta. The first step was to create a monitoring system that was incapable of detecting pollution in the land and water in the tar sands region.

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