Tuesday 30 April 2024

Lying via selective truth-telling


The above article is a classic in the genre of lying via omission and careful selection of what truths are allowed to be mentioned (as well as the occasional straightforward traditional untruth). Consider (somewhat in the order of mention in the above article):

  1. No discussion at all of why the state power company is failing to supply enough power. What factors might be involved? Is a state monopoly an inherently bad idea? What has the level of corruption been in the last couple of decades? How much has been lost over the years to human wickedness? How does level of investment match with growth in level of demand? Is anything being done about any of these issues, really, or is it "same old, same old, don't rock the boat"? Why are none of these questions worth investigating?
    Here, as with many issues, you suspect that the issue contains a substantial man-made component.

  2. It's the hot season in West Africa. It comes every year, at this time, and the temperatures are in the 40s every single day. This, apparently, was also not a piece of context that BBC readers needed to be given. Where's the editor?

  3. Note that the scale of the problem is related to urbanisation and development. People living in the village sleep outside and don't have back-up generators for when the state power company lets them down, and have thus slept and thus lacked diesel generators for several hundred years, since before any state power company existed. But in those days, it was easier to sleep on top of your house (best not to sleep on the ground if there are hyenas or other predators around), and there weren't huge numbers of concrete buildings (and air conditioners from those who do have them) emitting heat into the outside air. i.e. Some problems in developing-country cities are problems of development and symptoms of progress. This context gets mentioned.... nowhere.

  4. "At night it can reach 46C" - no, it can't. That's absurd. How did this line get in the piece? You'd have thought that given that a few paragraphs earlier 48C was given as the maximum temperature reached anywhere at all, in the day, during a heatwave, a journalist or editor might have paused to wonder how it can be reaching 46C at night. Perhaps they could have looked at the BBC Weather page for Mali?

  5. "Since March, temperatures have soared above 48C in parts of Mali, killing more than 100 people" - unlike an earlier, similar, BBC article, this article has slipped in a mention of Ramadan, a few paragraphs later, but you'll have to join the dots yourself. This is a month-long Islamic festival (and the majority of Malians are Muslims - the writer forgot to mention this) in which the Muslim faithful abstain from both eating and drinking (and even in many cases from swallowing their own saliva, which is seen as breaking the fast) between dawn and dusk. This year the festival has - the article omits to mention - coincided with the hot season. The temperature is over 40C in the day, every day. "We were seeing about 15 hospitalisations a day," says Prof Yacouba Toloba, who works at the university hospital in Bamako. "Many patients are dehydrated". Well, yes. And yet the article heavily emphasises that the message for its readers that it's human burning of carbon-based fuels since the Industrial Revolution that is the main reason why Malians have suffered during this time.

  6. "Schools in some areas have closed as a precaution, and people in the Muslim-majority nation were advised not to fast during the Ramadan period which ended recently". Advised by whom? How widely known was this advice? How widely was it followed? Did the 15 hospitalisations a day come from people who followed it, or who didn't? Nobody reading the article will find out, because the journalist had no interest in these questions.

  7. ""We need to plan more for these situations, which will perhaps come back. This time it took us by surprise," adds Prof Toloba." Words fail me.

  8. We are then treated to the scientifically entirely bogus claim that it's possible to determine what the temperature would have been in Mali in March 2024, if we'd burned less carbon-containing fuels in recent centuries. Such claims are based upon computer models, whose results can tell you nothing other than how the computer model behaves. So, a modeller runs the model, then sees what the real-world results were, and then learns how good his model was. He doesn't learn about the real world from this. A perfect illustration of this is the UK Covid-lockdown-that-wasn't in December 2021, when the modellers predicted doom and health-system collapse in the UK if no (fourth) lockdown took place. No lockdown did take place, and the case numbers, deaths and consequences predicted did not happen. From this, any rational modeller learns that his models were severely defective. (Bit of a shame for those who endured the previous three lockdowns and their consequences, and we're still waiting for someone in authority to issue a few mea culpas over that, but I digress....). The idea that you can model the counter-factual of the weather in a particular city in a particular month is a complete inversion of the truth, and the BBC should be ashamed for making this the climax of their piece (the one that, we deduce, they want the reader to go away most impressed by).

  9. "With temperatures expected to remain above 40C in Bamako over the next few weeks, people are trying to adapt to their new normal." The temperature is over 40C in Bamako at this time of year, every year, and has been for the last few centuries. It's West Africa, on the edge of the Sahara desert (where, being a desert, by definition, it's 50C every day) and this is the hot season. There is no basis at all for the BBC to tell its readers that temperatures over 40C are a "new normal". This is simply a gross untruth.

  10. "As sun sets in the capital, Ms Konaté Traoré takes several large mats outside to her yard and lays them down." This is what many people in several West African capitals have been doing every hot season of their lives, or as much of their lives that they've lived in urban centres since moving there from the village. This is because people being able to afford electricity (whether via the state company, or solar panels with attached storage batteries) and afford fans is something that can only happen together with a certain level of financial progress and development. Without that privilege, in the city, you're surrounded by concrete, tin roofs, and other things not conducive to buildings being cool inside. The journalist doesn't deem these things worth mentioning.

  11. "The heat is showing no sign of letting up" - which isn't that surprising, given that the article has been published in the last week of April, and the rainy season arrives at the end of May, or the start of June.

In reality, the principle thing that cools people down in the Sahel area at this time of the year, and has done throughout all the years of urbanisation, is the energy that comes from burning carbon-based energy sources. It's carbon-based energy that allows millions of people (not just 15 a day here) to live in the otherwise unnatural setting of the West African city at all. Even if they have got a solar panel and battery, then this was almost certainly produced in a mine and in a factory and with transport using a lot of carbon-based energy (which they may very well never generate as much power as used in the production and transport). Otherwise, they get cool using water and being outside, as they have done for many centuries. The real threat to people's ability to cool down in the context of current urbanisation is the refusal of Western banks, NGOs and donors to fund the development of better grids because they refuse to fund projects that aren't sufficiently green according to their new standards. But solar farms don't produce at night, and power storage is very expensive (whether in Africa or in the West). As such, in West Africa, "green" power is currently not economic, and not being able to access funds unless the power is sufficiently green means that grid capacity isn't growing at the same rate as demand is, resulting in more power cuts and being very hot at night. The BBC doesn't see this as worth discussing.

You may have different views about the some of the questions above to me. Perhaps you believe that mass-scale green power can be made available in West Africa, at night times, quite easily, in a short time. I'd be glad to have that explained to me, but that's not really my point. My point is that the BBC has an agenda, and they're willing to repeatedly lie by serial omission to push it. These lies don't concern small details. They concern massive gaping facts that are evident to anyone after a few minutes. If you're a professional journalist, these aren't the sort of mistakes you can make by accident.

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