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ExxonMobil is known for pumping cars full of gas. But according to a new study, it may have also pumped our language full of BS.

Using machine learning, researchers at Harvard University scrutinized 50 years’ worth of the oil giant’s memos, studies, and advertisements to spot hidden patterns in how the company talked about the climate crisis — in public and in private. The evidence suggests that ExxonMobil used subtle rhetoric to shift the blame for climate change from fossil fuels to individuals and that this kind of “discursive grooming” might have shaped the way that scholars, policymakers, and the public discuss the problem today.

“What they’ve done is skew the conversation and make it much more about you and me than about them,” said the study’s co-author, Geoffrey Supran, a Harvard researcher studying the history of fossil fuel companies and the climate (and a member of the Grist 50 last year). “And that’s very problematic and misleading.” 

In the new study, Supran and Naomi Oreskes, a professor of history at Harvard, used computational linguistics to help reveal patterns in language that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. ... Read more

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