A body of evidence in analysis of the anatomy of a lie

Today, Ivo Vegter posted his version of an impromptu debate with me on Twitter, Sunday June 30. Read all about it.

Anatomy of “a lie” by Ivo Vegter

Yesterday, Jonathan Deal, whom I have reason to believe is no longer the chairman of the Treasure the Karoo Action Group, challenged me on the social network Twitter, demanding that I admit to lying. His quibble? Well, there were two.

In a column for the Afrikaans Sunday newspaper Rapport, I wrote: “Plaaslike prospekteerders het hulself ook daartoe verbind om alle chemiese bymiddels wat hulle gebruik, te identifiseer.” Or, in English, “Local drilling companies have committed to disclosing all chemical additives used in the fracturing process.” As far as I know, it is true that only Shell is officially on record having made this promise, so Deal wants me to admit to a lie. But I’ve heard others say the same in conversations at industry conferences. I have no recorded proof of these conversations, so without admitting to lying, I offered to reduce my claim to “Shell has committed to…”. This would give regulators cover to require such disclosure, in any case. No deal. I’m a liar, says Deal.

His second beef was about this passage: “Lisensieaansoekers sê nou dat hulle selfs brakkerige water uit diep boorgate of selfs seewater in die proses sal kan gebruik. Dit beteken dat hulle nie met die inwoners van die Karoo sal kompeteer vir oppervlak of vars grondwater nie – en dat hulle selfs die Karoo met meer water sal laat as waarmee hulle begin het.”

The second sentence, Deal claims, amounts to me asserting that there will be more water available to the Karoo after shale gas drilling than before. While this claim may well prove true, I asked him not to put Shell’s words in my mouth, because that would misrepresent my view. It is not my assertion nor opinion. I have always reported this claim as being that of the drilling companies, opposing the claim of the environmentalists that there would be less water. I would be satisfied, my argument runs, if the truth lies in the middle and there is no significant change.

He said I put Shell’s words in my mouth myself, and therefore must “own up to a lie”. I pointed out to him that my original English text read: “Licence applicants say they are now able to use brackish water drawn from deep aquifers, or even sea water. Either way, they claim they will not compete with Karoo residents for surface or groundwater, and may even leave the Karoo with more water than when they started.”

I conceded that the translation omits the phrase “they claim”, which makes the second sentence slightly ambiguous on a highly critical reading. It could be read in context as a continuation of what “Licence applicants say”. An ungenerous reading would make it my own assertion. This also was not good enough. Even a minor translation mistake, he believes, constitutes “a lie” on my part. Never mind that “lie” is defined as “a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth”. Clearly, this wasn’t one. Deal demanded a full retraction and apology to be published in Rapport. I notified the editor of the dispute, but did not ask for such a correction to be published, because frankly, this is petty nitpicking.

It is a desperate attempt to poke holes, however trivial, in my arguments, in the hope of discrediting them. “Is your argument based on a lie?” he duly asked. Well, no, it is not. Even if I were to concede both points, which I am not inclined to do beyond what I wrote above, my overall argument would not be affected in the least.

Demonstrating his fragile grip on the logic of rational argument, he compared my position, of being “cautiously in favour of fracking”, to being “half-pregnant”. To him, one is either for or against. Shale gas drilling is either harmless or it will “destroy the Karoo”. Any argument that it might involve manageable risks, or that the benefits might outweigh those risks, or that it can be done fairly safely given a degree of caution, is incomprehensible to his binary, activist mind.

I dismissed this simplistic argument as “juvenile”. He said that was “playing the man, not the ball”. Well, colour me guilty, as far as it goes. I do think his style of argument is childish badgering. “Schoolyard bullying”, another victim of his attacks called it once.

I suppose he’d know about playing the man. It’s not like the Treasure the Karoo Action Group is a stranger to ad hominem attacks. Witness this letter, written by a passionate greenie who vehemently disagrees with everything I have ever thought or said, and is not inclined to credit my inexpert attempts at humour about having had International School of Well Drilling course material as bed-time reading:

An environmentalist reporting on a WESSA debate between Ivo Vegter and Jeremy Westgarth-Taylor, of the Treasure the Karoo Action Group, in a 23 November 2012 letter to the Cape Times.

The TKAG fellow told the audience if I’m not paid by Shell, I must be paid by the ANC. “Character assassination,” Ms Dewberry called it. And Deal, who spent hours on Twitter trying to accuse an independent journalist of lying in a vain attempt to discredit him, accuses me of playing the man. Perhaps that is because there are no balls to play.

A BODY OF EVIDENCE – the response from Jonathan Deal

The facts of the matter, and an alternate perspective of the Twitter debate from my viewpoint, differ from Mr. Vegter’s recollection of the afternoon. For the sake of good order, it may come as a surprise to him, but at present I am still very much the chairman of TKAG. Mr. Vegter is apparently intrigued as to information (or perhaps misinformation) with which he may have been furnished, relating to TKAG leadership. Ms. Jeanie Le Roux, a director
 of TKAG, received an email from Mr. Vegter asking about TKAG’s strategic
 intent, and also enquiring as to what my personal plans are. He was informed
 that TKAG will be issuing a press statement on July 3. Whilst it may appeal to Mr. Vegter in his latest text, to fuel speculation around TKAG leadership, it is of little consequence within the events of Sunday afternoon.

The column for Rapport newspaper is unambiguous. The specific focus of my first ‘quibble’ is, I submit, reasonable. If there are three applicants waiting for exploration rights, (and there are) it is deceiving to repeat the offer of Shell to
 ‘disclose fracking chemicals’[1] and extrapolate that to all of the applicants. Either all of the applicants made this commitment, and that is then provable, or they didn’t. Mr. Vegter endeavours to make my ‘quibble’ trivial but actually, his words commit Challenger Energy and Falcon Oil & Gas, to commitments that they haven’t made, and have the effect of creating, in the mind of the reader, the assumption that a significant element of public apprehension has been dealt 
with. This is not the case and Mr. Vegter is trying to squirm away from the
 truth of it.

Firstly as a journalist, and secondly as an ‘opinionista’ who holds environmentalists to his standard of accuracy, Mr. Vegter should know
 better than to complain when being held to the same standards. Similarly, his
 article reads, and de facto claims, out of his own mouth, “Hulle sal selfs meer 
water in die Karoo agterlaat as wat daar aanvanklik was…”

To address the allegations of lying, Mr. Vegter is on record ahead of me in the Twitter posts of June 30, as pre-empting allegations of lying. My second ‘quibble’ will be evident to anyone reading the article. If Mr. Vegter desired that the text should have been viewed as quoting Shell, then he should have applied quotation marks, to indicate that he is quoting another, rather than forwarding his personal opinion.

In the Rapport article, not only is the text dealing with this issue devoid of quotation marks, but the statement about water surplus is actually in a separate 
paragraph. Now, Mr. Vegter may view this as nitpicking, but I suspect that
 readers will agree that the placement, or omission of quotation marks, or
 punctuation can dramatically change the meaning of a sentence, as can the
  modification of a word by the addition or removal of an ‘s’. Whether this was 
by design or by accident will unlikely be settled. As  one who has constructed a public platform on his ability to wield the pen, Mr. Vegter may wish to reflect 
on the advantages of adhering to accurate presentation of the facts in a public

Mr. Vegter may elect to categorise my argument as having a ‘fragile grip’ on logic, and that is his privilege. I believe, however, that he became increasingly annoyed and emotional yesterday afternoon – a situation that manifested itself in him making [incorrect] assumptions about how I spend Sunday afternoons, while he ‘has to work’, and culminating in him telling me on more than one occasion to ‘get lost’ – a turn of events, which for reasons best known to Mr. Vegter, has not appeared in his rendition of the story today.

Mr. Vegter appears to place much weight on a letter written to the Cape Times by a TKAG supporter who took issue with the conduct of Mr. Jeremy Westgarth-Taylor, who, in 2012, represented TKAG in a debate against him. Firstly, it was not me who made the comments about Mr. Vegter, and secondly, Mr. Vegter appears to forget that on occasion, when he has debated me, members of the audience have berated him for attacking me personally – and not sticking to the issue. I have chosen not to raise those issues, because, quite frankly they do not lend anything to the Twitter debate of June 30.

What actually is taking place, to his obvious chagrin, is that Mr. Vegter’s debating style is militating against his assertions. He is being held to his own standards – and, it would appear, is not deriving much enjoyment at being required to defend statements that he has written – and spoken, such as “A more important reason why poor people have more children is that they grasp the simple economic fact that on average, a person’s potential production exceeds their likely consumption. They’re an economic benefit to their family, their village, and their country throughout their lives.” And, “The inevitable answer to this observation [within the context of global resource scarcity] is that even if people can produce enough to sustain themselves, we’re running out of resources. The problem is, we’re not. [asserts Vegter], This can be reliably concluded from the fact that even if a particular resource were to become particularly scarce, the price mechanism unfailingly makes it worth our while to economise, or seek alternatives, or both. Resource replacement has happened before, and will happen again, but more often, the opposite happens: improved productivity and new finds simply combines [sic] to match growing demand.”

I choose not to respond to the crude placement of an ‘s’ when referring to ‘the man or the ball’ – it is in the same vein as some of his apparent supporters on The Daily Maverick who appeared to derive amusement from the name
of the theatre in Cape Town, at which he screened FrackNation. Mr. Vegter has
 saddled this horse, and now he must ride it.

[1] Footnote
Shell, as far as I am aware, have not offered, to not make use of toxic 
chemicals in the shale gas mining process – merely to disclose what chemicals
 they intend to use. What, may I ask, difference does that make? Your water may still be at risk of toxic chemicals, but at least you will know what they are.

4 responses

  1. Pingback: A body of evidence in analysis of the anatomy of a lie « Jonathan deal

  2. Mr. Vegter, it would appear to me that when a debate does not turn out the way you expected, you exercise a convenient approach – telling me that you are being ‘badgered’, pronouncing what you will or will not be accused of, and under what circumstances, what you will not be taken to task over, and generally turn your anger to characterising my argument as ‘pointless’, simplistic and juvenile, rounding it off by telling me that I should be grateful you didn’t make use of French to tell me what you actually wanted to.

    I have read your bad language on the publicly accessible forum of Twitter before, and the threat to ‘use French’ doesn’t surprise me at all.

    You have chosen to adopt a blatantly pro-fracking stance, and I will exercise my right to engage with you on any forum where I have an opportunity to present my views on fracking, whilst holding you to account if you fail to be truthful.


    Deal: Dear Ivo, since we are now on first name terms, we may achieve a more rational dialogue. Perhaps if you (and some of your erstwhile followers) desist from using scornful epithets for environmentalists, it may also prove to be constructive for the debate. For those readers who may be joining this debate after the fact as it were, I will reply to your text within a copy of it.

    PUBLISHED by Ivo Vegter on Jonathandealblog.com July 7, 2013 at 14:47

    You do that, Jonathan. I shall, in future, own up to deliberate lies whenever a sub-editor or a translator introduces a minor ambiguity in my work, and I fail to catch it, if that makes you happy. And I will in future record all conversations I have with anyone, including you, to defend myself against your curious brand of gotcha politics over the most trivial of issues.

    Deal: My ‘curious brand of gotcha politics’ is based on none less than the standards, Ivo, that you so liberally and scathingly apply to environmentalists. e.g. ‘Scientists’ is too ‘grand a term for environmentalists’.

    You once said, “Perhaps one day you’ll learn to trust me.” I’m afraid that day will never come, so a recorder will have to be my constant companion, I see.

    Deal: Actually Ivo, your trust, or lack of it, is of little concern to me, because you have demonstrated that for you, this debate is a dalliance, an entertainment – as a reader put it – if fracking is a mistake, you can issue a simple ‘mea culpa’ and go back to life in Knysna – for other South Africans, the consequences may be more serious. For you, it is grist to your Daily Maverick mill – an income, a way of becoming a bigger ‘opinionista’.

    I fully understand that your goal is to provoke me, to waste my time, and to try to discredit me in the hope that this will distract attention from my substantive arguments. Your persistent sniping is, I admit, quite annoying.

    Deal: Your full understanding defies logic in that it is simply meeting your witty, sarcastic style of debate via your Daily Maverick column head on. In your view, your arguments are substantive – I disagree. To characterize my responses to your persistent efforts to market shale gas in South Africa as ‘persistent sniping’ is an ineffective attempt to relegate those responses to a lower level of import – actually – it poses a challenge that annoys you because it demands that you defend what may be an ill-considered position.

    But speaking of being truthful and being held to account, permit me to raise a matter of substance, rather than style. Why is it that you still cite studies as undisputed truth on the TKAG website and in your submissions to government, when you know they are not? For example, you are well aware of the grave shortcomings of the Cornell paper by Howarth and Ingraffea on the contribution of fugitive methane to greenhouse gas emissions. You have been told about it repeatedly, the first time by me in July 2011, and again on several subsequent occasions, including after the debate in Prince Albert when you offered to my colleague and partner that you would correct anything on your website that was not true. You cannot have failed to notice that it has been comprehensively shredded by almost everyone, so this must count as a deliberate falsehood, or “lie”, on your part. You have yet to even respond to this question, and routinely decline addressing the issue in debates, calling it “minutiae”.

    Deal: Concluding your diatribe on the Cornell report with the words ‘it has been shredded by almost everyone’ plays to exactly the same tune as all of the so-called ‘relentless body of evidence’ to which you so blithely make frequent reference. Just because you, or industry-paid Universities have denounced anti-fracking literature doesn’t make your viewpoint true. You assume a position that says ‘I don’t trust environmentalists or industry – but in essence, I like what industry does’. Have the guts to choose a side and stick with it.

    Well, the location of your farm, the removal by a translator of “they claim” from a sentence I wrote, and my reference to “applicants” when only the major applicant is formally on the record, strike me as fairly minor issues. I am happy to concede all your points, since I am not this instant able to provide documentary proof of two of them, and admitting to a lie over a minor translation error strikes me as beautifully sarcastic.

    Deal: These may well be ‘fairly minor issues’ if your standards of truth and accuracy were not so unflinchingly applied to ‘greens’, ‘ecomentalists’ and the other labels applied to those who have an opposing view of shale gas mining. The fact is that you are the one that holds yourself up as a beacon of truth and accuracy – if you are proved wrong on a minor issue, how much more serious is it if you turn out to be wrong on a ‘major issue’? You had the Afrikaans translated text of the Rapport article in your hands before the print deadline – or do you deny that? (Do I hear lie #3 coming?)

    None of these concessions substantially affect my argument. None of them trap me in a deliberate untruth, which is the definition of “a lie”. One wasn’t even within my control. One is true but cannot be proven. One might (in the absence of evidence) indict my recollection of what you said ten months ago about the immensely trivial subject of where your farm is.

    Deal: I disagree, for the reasons stated above – if you lied, or at best were inaccurate in such inconsequential detail, how can readers believe what you write? Is this not the litmus test that you apply to the ‘green fish in the barrel’? I know that your statement that I said I lived close to Prince Albert is incorrect, because I have never said it in any place ever in my life. Your insistence on your own Twitter identity that I had said it, and your threat (plus that of the inimitable roobiedoob) to provide the proof failed – because you will never be able to prove it. You turned it into a lie by repeating it and defending it, despite my denial of it.

    They do not make me a liar. In fact, when real error, on a matter of substance, is pointed out to me, or the facts change, I change my mind. For example, I used to dismiss the earthquake claim as ridiculous, but learnt more about it, and have since conceded that it is a valid concern. I glossed over artesian water in my book, because it had never been raised as an issue in shale gas drilling, until after publication. As soon as my over-simplification was pointed out to me, I published a lengthy correction and clarification, and explained in what ways this changed my arguments. When, some time ago, I mistakenly said Lukie Strydom and Doug Stern were funded on a trip to the US by the TKAG, you publicly “put me to proof” in order to embarrass me, and I retracted and apologized within minutes.

    Deal: I think that you ‘glossed over’ a number of issues in your book, but that is something that we will engage on in the future. My silence thus far on your publishing debut, should not be construed as an indication that I have nothing to say – merely a caveat that when the review appears it will be thoroughly researched. You may well find it convenient to ‘relentlessly’ defend your viewpoint, and then conveniently change your mind’ when faced with irrefutable evidence, but as I pointed out above, it may not be so easy for South Africa to simply ‘change its mind’, if the view of you and the ilk of Mr. Simon Lincoln Reader are wrong. By the way, where did you suck out the story that TKAG had funded Messrs.’ Strydom and Stern’s trip to the US? From the same place as your other ‘facts’?

    I am human, and I do occasionally err. When I do, I admit it and correct the record. That is what journalists do.

    Deal: I fear that you do ‘journalists’ a disservice by lumping all into one bundle. I have, in the course of this campaign met journalists who are in favour of shale gas mining – we have a mutually respectful working relationship and I accept their balanced reporting.

    However, discredited science that you present in formal government submissions are not “minutiae”. They are facts, and when you know them to be wrong, they constitute dishonesty on your part.

    Deal:My presentations, in contrast to those of the industry whose technology you so loyally support, will not change from year-to-year. Call me on any detail and for everyone’s sake – get off the Cornell study – because its true – the industry has lied and does lie about fugitive methane emissions.

    Shall I document the Cornell paper’s shortcomings for you again, to refresh your memory? Here are the authors themselves, discussing their own work in a presentation to colleagues on 15 March 2011:

    * Howarth: “They are limited data. These are not published data. These are things teased apart out of PowerPoint presentations here and there. So rather than try to extrapolate based on any complicated formula, we’ve ended up simply taking the mean of those values.”

    * Howarth: “A lot of the data we used are really low quality, but I’m confident that they are the best available data.”

    * Howarth: “Let me just as an aside say that, again, the quality of the data behind that number [methane emissions during well completion] are pretty lousy. You know, they’re these weird PowerPoint sort of things.”

    * Ingraffea: “We do not intend for you to accept what we have reported on today as the definitive scientific study in respect to this question, clearly it is not. We have pointed out as many times as we could that we are basing this study on in some cases questionable data.”

    * Ingraffea: “I hope you don’t gather from this presentation that we think we’re right.”

    * Howarth: “We did not look as carefully at coal. … We didn’t put anywhere near the amount of effort into them [coal numbers], but I’m sure they are lower than natural gas.”

    * Ingraffea: “You can get any answer you want based on modeling and assumptions.”

    Having done most of the discrediting themselves, allow me to turn to some other scientists and regulators. I will acknowledge upfront that you will be able to cite two or three scientists, such as Tom Wigley and David Hughes that support this paper. But against them, I offer:

    * “The use of flaring and reduced emission completions reduce the levels of actual fugitive emissions from shale well completion operations to … substantially lower than several widely quoted [i.e. Howarth’s] estimates.” – Francis O’Sullivan and Sergey Paltsev, MIT

    * “…no evidence that gas is being vented directly into the atmosphere at rates that could justify their conclusions. … [Ingraffea’s and Howarth’s] analysis is seriously flawed.” – Lawrence Cathles et al, Cornell University

    * “We don’t think they’re using credible data and some of the assumptions they’re making
    are biased.” – Paula Jaramillo, Carnegie Mellon University

    * “The recent Howarth … estimates of methane emissions are dramatically overstated and
    it would be unwise to use them as a basis for policymaking.” – Mary Barcella et al, IHS CERA

    * “While I can see an argument for using a time horizon shorter than 100 years, I personally believe that the 20-year global warming potential is too short a period to be appropriate for policy analysis.” – Dan Lashof, National Resources Defence Council, an environmental lobby group that opposes shale gas development and was among the Howarth study’s funders.

    * “This paper is selective in its use of some very questionable data and too readily ignores or dismisses available data that would change its conclusions.” – Dave McCabe, Clean Air Task Force, a lobby group that opposes all fossil fuels, including natural gas.

    * “Bit by bit the Howarth study is being consigned to the junk heap.” – John Hanger, former head of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

    Methinks this fellow just called the TKAG website a “junk heap”. To quote what your site has stated as fact these last two years: “Shale gas may be cleaner burning than for example coal or oil, but if the life cycle emissions are compared to conventional fossil fuels (such as oil and coal) natural gas may be equally harmful to the atmosphere.

    This was confirmed in a recent study by Cornell University in America.”

    Deal: Finally, you’ve started comparing apples with apples. We’ve the data on hand – anti and pro – you’ve saddled this horse – just hope you’re prepared to ride it.

    So, to hold you by your own standards, please explain why you’ve refused, for two years, to answer substantive challenges to your position, dismissing them as “minutiae”. Explain why you’re still citing, as undisputed truth, a paper that has been thoroughly discredited by almost all other scientists, its funders, other green lobby groups, and even its own authors.

    Deal: Anthony Ingraffea has not been scientifically discredited by any of his peers in any of his work, in relation to this debate. The difference in scientific opinion does not make or prove a lie – such as the two lies that you have told in the last week – nor does it make me a liar for quoting it. And excuse me, but the ‘standards’ were defined by you. That’s what you as a ‘two-time’-liar-in-one-week are being held to.

    And please explain why, considering that you knowingly persisted in citing it, without as much as a caveat to point out that it is disputed, you should not be branded a liar. And by liar, I do not mean guilty of minor errors like failing to spot a translation error, or misremembering exact words from a converstaion a year ago, but on matters core to your argument, and contained in your formal representations to the Parliament of the Republic of South Africa.

    Deal: We’ve already dealt with that – at the commencement it may have been as innoucuous as ‘failing to spot a translation error’ or ‘misremembering exact words’ – but your stubborn repetition of the error turned it from an error into a lie.

    Once you’ve done that, we can start on the other cherry-picked, partisan, inconclusive, unrepresentative, unpublished or downright dodgy “science” that you like to cite in support of your position, such as Osborn & Vengosh, Bamberger, Colborn and Van Tonder.

    Deal: ‘Cherry-picked, partisan, inconclusive, unrepresentative, unpublished or downright dodgy “science”’ are, of course adjectives that could be applied to your writings too – we can start on them whenever you are available – over Twitter, Blog, or ‘face-to-face’ – I’ll come to Knysna if you like.

    After all, as you rightly said in debate, this isn’t about Deal vs Vegter. This is about an important question for this country’s energy, socio-economic and environmental future. It is not about raising alarming fears about the Karoo being destroyed, groundwater being poisoned, and our constitution being shredded, as the Lewis Pugh speech that launched your campaign would have us believe, but about rationally assessing risk, evaluating how best to mitigate it, and whether the potential benefits exceed this risk.

    Deal: Ad idem.

    We have gas drillers on one side, and you yelling at them on the other. You’re both well-funded. I’m not. I’m just a journalist trying to cut through the PR dross from both sides. So far, you’re winning hands down in the bully-and-spin department. Not to mention the lies department.

    Can support the first sentence, but after that, sorry – you’ve failed to prove your case. ‘Bully-and-spin’? Brace yourself for my reviews of your false statements in many writings, and on a few more ‘lies’ out of your lips. Fear not, as per the last two lies, I will provide you the opportunity to ‘change your mind’ before calling you a liar. And just for the record, as to ‘well-funded’ my Goldman money went into TKAG trust account, and my own bank account is overdrawn as a result of TKAG expenses. And last Sunday, when you assumed I was having a great time, I was driving back from the Eastern Cape – this is not a ‘dalliance’, or an ‘entertainment’ for me, as it appears to be for you and your fans.

    Ivo Vegter, if fracking in this country goes ahead, you would be well advised to pray/hope/wish that you are right.

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