Sunday, March 29, 2009

An op-ed isn't a fact-free zone

I've recommended before that The Elements of Journalism should be essential reading for both citizens and journalists. The first element of journalism listed is that "Journalism's first obligation is to the truth." The third is that journalism's "essence is a discipline of verification."

These elements apply to all forms of journalism, including op-eds. The authors explain that just because someone is writing an opinion piece that does not free them from an ethical obligation to verify facts.

I mention this because of the recent controversy that has resulted from George Will writing a global warming denial op-ed for the Washington Post that had it been fact-checked, it would not have been printed. Among his numerous falsehoods, Will only cited two scientific sources. And in both instances those sources have responded that their data does not say what Will claims it does. Yet the Post has stood behind Will's column, justifying it by saying that Will provided "sources" that contradict the work of climate experts, i.e. Will relied on the work of pseudoscientific cranks and corporate propagandists.

Carl Zimmer, who has worked as an editor and author for the excellent science magazine Discover, understands that science writing requires science fact-checking. Which is why his examination (also see here, here, here, and here) of this topic is so illuminating, and why I'll quote part of his omnibus post on this at length.

What has kept me hooked on this saga is not George Will’s errors. Errors are as common as grass. Some are made out of ignorance, some carefully constructed to give a misleading impression. What has kept me agog is the way the editors at the Washington Post have actually given their stamp of approval on Will’s columns, even claiming to have fact-checked them and seeing no need for a single correction.

The climax to this part of the story came yesterday, when the Columbia Journalism Review was finally able to get Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor at the Post, to speak directly about the ice affair:

It may well be that he is drawing inferences from data that most scientists reject–so, you know, fine, I welcome anyone to make that point. But don’t make it by suggesting that George Will shouldn’t be allowed to make the contrary point…I think it’s kind of healthy, given how, in so many areas–not just climatology, but medicine, and everything else–there is a tendency on the part of the lay public at times to ascribe certainty to things which are uncertain.
I’ve heard that line before…the one about how people can look at the same scientific data and make different inferences.

I’ve heard it from creationists. They look at the Grand Canyon, at all the data amassed by geologists over the years, and they end up with an inference very different from what you’ll hear from those geologists.

Would Hiatt be pleased to have them writing opinion pieces, too? There is indeed some debate in the scientific community about exactly how old the Grand Canyon is–with some arguing it’s 55 million years old and others arguing for 15 million. Would Hiatt consider it healthy to publish a piece from someone who thinks the Grand Canyon is just a few thousand years old, with just a perfunctory inspection of the information in it?

At this point, it’s hard for me to see how the answer could be no.
I've drawn this parallel before myself, noting that just like the Creationist who believes that scientific facts are atheist bias, global warming deniers consider the established science relating to AGW as liberal bias.

Another science journalist, Chris Mooney, was allowed to publish a rebuttal to Will in the Post, and his conclusion makes this point

Readers and commentators must learn to share some practices with scientists -- following up on sources, taking scientific knowledge seriously rather than cherry-picking misleading bits of information, and applying critical thinking to the weighing of evidence. That, in the end, is all that good science really is. It's also what good journalism and commentary alike must strive to be -- now more than ever.
As Mooney says, this is not an issue that only applies to science writing. Critical thinking, weighing of evidence ... verification of empirical claims should apply to all news writing, period.

You might recall that last Monday I took issue with several b.s. claims that were made by Andrew Breitbart, one of which was the assertion that Rush Limbaugh has never said anything racist. Now I see, via Media Matters, that Andrew Klavan was given an op-ed in the LA Times in which he asserted that Limbaugh critics:

don't need to listen to him. You've heard enough to know he's a) racist, b) hateful, c) stupid, d) merely an outrageous entertainer not to be taken seriously or e) all of the above.

Now let me tell you the real answer: You're a lowdown, yellow-bellied, lily-livered intellectual coward. You're terrified of finding out he makes more sense than you do.

I listen to Limbaugh every chance I get, and I have never heard the man utter a single racist, hateful or stupid word. Do I always agree with him? Of course not. I'm a conservative; I think for myself. But Limbaugh, by turns insightful, satiric, raucously funny and wise, is one of the best voices talking about first principles and policy in the country today.
At which point he goes on to issue the "Limbaugh Challenge" to listen to Limbaugh for an hour a day for several days and think about the intellectual arguments he makes.

Ok, this is another op-ed that should have never seen the light of day. It has about as much merit as if the Times had published Kent Hovind challenging readers to take his bogus evolution challenge to provide any evidence of the theory. The point of the challenge, in both instances, is not an intellectually honest effort at inquiry, but to provide propaganda for a predetermined conclusion that is at odds with the facts.

I have listened to Limbaugh. Frequently. Which is what led me to come up with the 30 second rule of thumb for listening to Limbaugh: "turn to Rush Limbaugh's radio program randomly at any moment and he'll either be lying, or will tell a lie within 30 seconds." I've found this to work virtually every time I tune in.

A stupid word: Limbaugh tells his audience that carrots are deadlier than second hand smoke and trans fats, having previously told them that nicotine is not addictive and that cigarettes do not lead to emphysema and other diseases. Limbaugh says that outrage over torture at Abu Ghraib "is an example of the feminization of this country" - I suppose retired major general Antonio Taguba just isn't as manly as the chronically fat, draft-dodging, pill-popping hypocrite, chickenhawk Limbaugh.

A hateful word: Limbaugh says that Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden are Democrats. Limbaugh equates liberals (and Carl Sagan) with cockroaches.

A racist word: Limbaugh characterizes both opposition to genocide in Darfur and apartheid in South Africa as a Democratic plot to get blacks to vote for them, with opposition to apartheid also being described as a communist ploy. Other instances include Limbaugh saying we shouldn't provide food assistance to the starving in Africa because they're getting too fat like Americans and Limbaugh denigrating and mocking efforts to put a stop to the blood diamond trade, which Limbaugh described as "mindless twaddle" which:

is typical of a bunch of weak kneed liberals trying to make a difference, and trying to make themselves feel, the new castrati [Blogger's Note - this is Limbaugh's preferred pejorative label to denigrate liberal males as being insufficiently manly] on display, make themselves feel noble and moral and superior.
See any sort of pattern developing regarding Limbaugh's views towards Africa?

On Limbaugh's supposed brilliant principles and policy proposals: Limbaugh promotes bullshit to trick people into voting against their interests. Limbaugh's notion that "Wouldn't it be great if anybody who speaks out against this country, to kick them out of the country?" Limbaugh tells his audience that Democrats are the second front in the War on Terror.

Look: one could go on and on. Limbaugh's factually-challenged pathology is no secret.

The LA Times and other news organizations should not be be in the business of treating Limbaugh's lies, bullshit, and misinformation as a "point of view" or a difference of opinion. This break down in the discipline of verification contributes to an atmosphere in which "truth" becomes the subject of political manipulation for partisan gain, and our ability to act rationally based on consideration of an emipirical reality is reduced.

1 comment:

spocko said...

HG: I love your "30 second rule"
I think I've done that myself but never actually named it that. From now on when I do it I'll tell myself
"Remember Hume's Ghost's 30 second rule!"