Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Why is it so Easy to Lie to Us? The Case of the Russia role in Climategate

Our media feed us routinely with lies and the story of the involvement of the Russian Secret Service with the Climategate hack is just one of them. I thought it was worth discussing it here in light of the fact that it is one of the most blatant lies I could ever find. Also a good illustration of the incredible persistence of legends in the mediasphere.

Last week, I cited the Climategate story, noting how it was part of a wide-ranging anti-science propaganda effort and that it must have involved some professional hacking work to break into the server of the East Anglia University. On that point, I received a comment from "Andy Mitchell" that went as:
The Climategate hack has only one suspect: the Russian Petrostate. There are no other suspects.
Note the absolute certainty of this statement: it is a typical characteristic of legends. So, I thought it was intriguing enough to deserve a little examination.

The origin of the story of the involvement of Russian Secret Services with Climategate is easy to find: it is an article of the Daily Mail dated 6 December 2009. Then, debunking legends normally takes a little work but, in this case, it is remarkable how there is nothing to debunk: the Daily Mail article contains no facts, no evidence, no data.

You can read the article yourself, and you'll be amazed at how obvious it is that it was invented out of whole cloth. The only vague connection of Climategate with Russia is that the stolen files may have been stored for a short time in a private server in Tomsk, a Russian town. Saying that it proves that the hackers were Russian follows the same logic as saying that, since Jesus Christ was born in a stable, then he had to be a horse. And, of course, these smart Russian hackers were nevertheless dumb enough that they didn't think that storing their data in a Russian server would have pinpointed the origin of the hack to the even smarter journalists of the Daily Mail!

Among the funniest things of the article, one is the mentioning of "a leading world expert on the subject [climate change], Professor Sergei Kropotkin" who has strictly nothing to do with the hacking story, but whose large size picture appears in the article. Apparently, they had to reach a certain length for their piece and they couldn't find anything better than fill the space with whatever they could find. I can imagine that they reasoned in terms of something like "he's from Tomsk, he says something about climate, so he will do." That shows, incidentally, what they think of the level of intelligence of their readers.

As I said, this is a vintage story, but we can still learn something from it just because almost ten years have passed from its first appearance in the memesphere and we can see it in perspective.

1. Lies appearing in the mainstream media can be invented out of nothing -- they don't need to be connected in any way with reality. The fact that they appear on a tabloid, the Daily Mail, well known for being a source of fake news (including telling us of a restaurant selling human meat in Nigeria) means little or nothing. It is sufficient that the legend agrees with some widespread perception, in this case, that the Russians are evil and deceptive.

2. There was no significant attempt to debunk the story in the Western Press. It was reproduced nearly verbatim in other press outlets, the Telegraph, for instance. Even the Guardian reported the story as an attack of the Russian secret services. I couldn't find skeptical comments to these stories: maybe they were censored out or, simply, there were none.

3. Legends are also unbelievably persistent. The rumor that the Russians created the Climategate scandal keeps reappearing. In 2016, Mother Jones ran an especially convoluted piece in which they tried to demonstrate that, since the Russians had hacked the 2016 US elections, then it was also true that they had created the Climategate scandal seven years before, (or the reverse, I am not sure) apparently believing that two fake news could be more believable if they confirm each other.

This story is impressive not so much because it is false. For what I know, the hackers could have come from anywhere in the world -- they might have been Russian, why not? It would change nothing to the fact that it IS easy to lie to us. It carries no penalties and the most outrageous lies will be normally believed by almost everybody if they appear on a major media outlet.

Our media have been lying to us, they keep doing that, and they will continue to do that. There is a problem, though: associations based on lies can't last very long, be they marriages, business agreements, or whole societies. Empires based on lies are destined to fall. It happened in the past and it may well happen to us in the near future.


  1. I am sure there is plenty of nonsense published by a lot of media, but what alternative is there? One can't personally be present for every event that happens in the world and most people like to know what's going on.

    It is incumbent on everyone who sees or hears anything from media, or even directly from other people, to develop the ability to sort the wheat from the chaff. Yes, there is plenty of blame due those who would deliberately publish falsehoods, but there is also plenty of blame for those who are gullible enough to believe them.

    Children as young as five years old are adept liars, but we don't send them packing; we just use our adult judgement to verify what is really going on. If the truth of something is really unverifiable, suspend judgement for a while. It's not that hard to do.

    1. Any printed media,has only two things which are printed & true ??
      #1. The price of it ?
      #2 The Date of it, but must be still subject to double check ?
      What remanin is as we say, bovine excrement ??

  2. Why is it so easy to lie to us? Because we're an empire now, etc.

    A better question is why do we so easily fall for lies? And the answer their is because we've been groomed and trained and conditioned to trust untrustworthy sources. It's naive to believe anything published by the government, corporations, the media, or anyone else, without checking to see whether it's compatible with your current understanding of the world.

    Ron Suskind on Carl Rove:
    The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore." He continued "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
    Suskind, Ron (2004-10-17). Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush. The New York Times Magazine.

  3. >Our media have been lying to us, they keep doing that

    Well, yes... but they always have. Thomas Jefferson 'The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers. Winston Churchill similarly and Mark Twain's observation that "those who don't read the newspapers are uninformed, those who read the newspapers are misinformed'. I am sure there are a plethora more

    This has also been a particular bane of Chomsky's since... forever.

  4. Slowly at first then all at once. I know that is in reference to how someone lost all their money but it seems to apply here.

    We have been lied to for so long that we have started to abhor truth, we ask them to lie to us to make us feel better. Rather than actually doing something that would make things better we accept the lie while things keep getting worse. I try and talk about relevant issues with some folks and they ultimately respond with "well gee, I just don't see that". So I get frustrated and think to myself how is it possible to not "see" all of what is coming down on us?

    This is when I understand that most people don't want to see bad things and therefor they go looking for comfortable lies to support their comfortable views.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)