Big Oil's favorite way to lie: paltering
This sneaky form of climate misinformation is everywhere. Here's how to identify it.
Earlier this week, I sent you a newsletter co-written with Amy Westervelt, an investigative journalist who makes a very badass true-crime climate podcast called Drilled.
I briefly mentioned that Drilled has a new season, but I didn’t tell you what the season was about. In Season 8, titled “Light, Sweet Crude,” Amy tells the fascinating story of how Exxon sold the small South American nation of Guyana on oil—and how many of Exxon’s promises to the country wound up being, well, lies.
These weren’t just any type of lies, however. They were complicated. Sneaky. “It's clear that they weren't exactly telling us lies,” Guyanese journalist Kiana Wilburg tells Amy in episode 2, “but they weren't telling us the truth either.” I won’t spoil the specifics for you—just go take a listen—but Amy goes on to define Exxon’s promises as “paltering,” the practice of “using statements that are technically true, but also leave out critical information in order to mislead people.”
If you’ve read any of HEATED’s coverage of oil industry advertisements before, you’ve probably heard this word. Indeed, “paltering” is a common practice in oil industry advertisements, their marketing, and public communications. You hear it in the ads on your favorite New York Times podcasts, and read it in the sponsorships of your favorite political newsletters.
Still, we’ve never devoted a whole newsletter to simply explaining what paltering is, how to recognize it, and what researchers say is the best way to fight it. So that’s what we’re going to do today. Thanks to Amy for the inspiration.
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What is paltering?
Paltering is one of three scientifically-defined forms of deception. Introduced in 2016 by Harvard University and University of Pennsylvania researchers, it refers to the active use of true statements to create an overall false impression. It’s also known as “lying by telling the truth.”
Paltering is sneakier than the other two forms of deception. The first, “lying by commission,” is the active use of false statements to create a false impression. This is when you tell your parents “I finished my math homework,” but actually you did not.
The second type of deception is “lying by omission,” the passive avoidance of true statements to create a false impression. This is when you tell your parents “I’m all set for school tomorrow,” but you haven’t done your homework.
Lying by omission is similar to paltering, as both involve failing to disclose relevant information. But where lying by omission is defined by passively avoiding the whole truth, paltering is defined by actively telling selective truths.
Paltering is when you say, “I finished my math homework,” when in reality all you did was take 5 minutes to write “666” in all of the answer boxes. So you did technically finish your math homework, but you did such a bad job that you’re still going to fail. The only thing you achieved is getting your parents off your back by actively misleading them about your activities.
This is what oil and gas companies do in their advertisements. Technically, they tell the truth—they’re investing in greener, cleaner technology. But the investments are small, the technology is unproven, and their companies are overall failing to reduce their emissions. The selective truth they choose is designed to create a false impression, so everyone gets off their back about climate change. Here are a few examples of what it looks like.
How oil companies use paltering to mislead
To illustrate how oil companies use paltering, let’s look at an ExxonMobil advertisement that ran in The Daily, the New York Times’ immensely popular daily news podcast.
The ad says:
A number of climate experts agree that carbon capture and storage is crucial to reducing emissions to combat climate change.
That’s why ExxonMobil is working to deploy this technology at scale for the highest-emitting sectors.
It can remove more than 90% of CO2 emissions from carbon-intensive industries, which can help lower the carbon footprint of many everyday things,
like the roads we drive on and devices we all rely on.
Learn more about how ExxonMobil is advancing climate solutions, like carbon capture and storage, at ExxonMobil dot com slash solutions.
The ad claims the oil giant is “advancing climate solutions” by investing in carbon capture technology. And technically, Exxon is investing in carbon capture, which is a climate solution.
But this truth is incredibly selective. Because overall, Exxon is doing far more to worsen the climate crisis than to solve it. The company is still refusing to slow down fossil fuel production—in fact, it plans to expand its oil and gas business.
A Chevron ad that ran in Semafor similarly palters. It says Chevron is “working with partners in California to convert the methane from cow waste into renewable natural gas,” and is therefore “working toward a lower carbon future.”
It’s like if the world’s greatest hit man started investing in hospitals, and took out an ad claiming he’s “advancing murder solutions.” Sure, hospitals can prevent murder. But if you’re still going around shooting everyone, your relatively small healthcare investment doesn’t matter.
Paltering helps the hit man give the false impression he’s saving people, when in reality, he still makes all his money killing. Similarly, paltering helps oil companies give the false impression they’re saving the climate, when in reality, they still make all their money destroying it.
The best way to stop paltering? Identify it and call it out
These days, it’s almost impossible to consume the news without also consuming climate misinformation in the form of paltering. The oil industry’s paltering ads are everywhere: on television, on the radio, in magazines and newspapers.
Most of these types of publications have policies that prohibiting misleading advertising. But because paltering is so sneaky that most people who consume it don’t even realize they’re being misled. (This includes the people who work in news outlet advertising departments, who often genuinely believe Big Oil ads are factual and do not violate their policies).
That may sound like worse news than it actually is. Because researchers at Harvard Business School have found that, although people don’t recognize paltering as easily as straight-up lying, they react just as negatively when they do eventually recognize it. People who discover that a potential business partner has paltered to them “are less likely to trust that partner and, therefore, less likely to negotiate with that person again,” the study said.
As people start to learn more about paltering, even oil industry experts are starting to warn Big Oil that there may be consequences for paltering about climate change. “Corporations found to be too egregiously paltering with the truth may find themselves under investigation,” Leonard Hyman and William Tilles wrote for industry publication Oil Price in 2021.
All that’s to say, the more people know about paltering, the riskier it will become for Big Oil to engage in it. So if you see something, say something—and keep saying it until it’s heard.
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If you haven't already done so, please read Harry Frankfurt's "On Bullshit," his 2005 synopsis of the central debilitating theme of modern culture. Far from being an exercise in frivolity or satire, the book strikes to the heart of why our society is so screwed up. Without meaning to, the author identified the primary culprit in virtually every one of today's ills.
Here's a quote from the Princeton University Press synopsis of the book:
"He argues that bullshitters misrepresent themselves to their audience not as liars do, that is, by deliberately making false claims about what is true. In fact, bullshit need not be untrue at all.
Rather, bullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything at all is true. They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant. Frankfurt concludes that although bullshit can take many innocent forms, excessive indulgence in it can eventually undermine the practitioner’s capacity to tell the truth in a way that lying does not. Liars at least acknowledge that it matters what is true. By virtue of this, Frankfurt writes, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are."