Breaking: You aren’t allowed to invent your facts!

MONDAY, MAY 5, 2014

In writing opinion columns: Are you allowed to make up facts in writing an opinion column?

Several readers of the Washington Post don’t seem to be entirely clear on this question. For reasons which aren’t entirely clear, the Post decided to publish their letters this weekend.

The most recent flap began with this letter from Brant Olson, campaign director of an organization called Forecast the Facts.

Olson’s organization had petitioned the Post, and other newspapers, not to publish false information concerning climate change. In his April 11 column, Charles Krauthammer referred to Olson’s group as “thought police on patrol.”

Obviously, a newspaper shouldn’t publish false information about any topic. And no—the fact that you’re writing an “opinion column” doesn’t give you the right to invent and publish false facts.

People will often disagree about which “facts” have been established. But no—writers of opinion columns don’t get to make up their facts.

You’d think that everyone would understand this basic idea. On Saturday, the Post published letters from two different people who seemed unclear on this point.

The first letter started like this:
LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (5/3/14): The April 26 Free for All letter from Brant Olson of Forecast the Facts argued that The Post should stop publishing “misinformation” about climate change on its opinion pages. Apparently, Olson thinks there cannot be two opinions on this issue if one of those opinions conflicts with “the conclusions of climate scientists.” He then went on to say that climate scientists have “different answers” as to what civilization will look like in the future based on computer modeling and “educated guesses.” Despite these different answers, he alleged that there is a consensus among climate scientists and that anyone who disagrees with it is spreading “misinformation.”
This first letter struck us as rather garbled. It seemed to us that it muddled the things Olson said.

The second letter was much worse. In our view, it completely misunderstood the nature of Olson’s petition:
LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST: In his April 26 Free for All letter, “Missing the mark on climate change,” Brant Olson of the group Forecast the Facts took issue with Charles Krauthammer’s April 11 op-ed column, “Thought police on patrol.” Krauthammer’s piece appeared on the op-ed page, which is where opinions are printed. Olson wants “The Post’s leadership” to “step in” to stop Krauthammer and others from expressing certain views on climate science, stating that they “should have no place in a space intended to further an informed debate.” This certainly proves Krauthammer correct about the “intolerance” and a “totalitarian” attitude by some with regard to dissenting viewpoints on climate change.
This writer seemed to have no idea about the nature of this problem.

Krauthammer wrote for the op-ed page, this letter writer correctly said—and that “is where opinions are printed.” She didn’t seem to understand a very basic rule of the road:

If you write an opinion column, you aren’t allowed to include false facts. You can state your opinion or view about the problem under review. But in the process, you aren’t allowed to make up bogus facts.

Has Charles Krauthammer published false facts concerning climate change? The question must be evaluated on a fact-by-fact basis.

But we couldn’t help wondering if the Post should have published these letters. They took a basic conceptual point and muddled it up pretty good.

Final point:

In a slightly more rational world, the logicians and philosophy professors would help us sort these matters out.

In our world, the philosophy professors regard such basic matters as being beneath their dignity. Instead, they publish thoroughly incoherent work of their own.

They then accept tuition fees to spread their own forms of confusion around. Parents rush to pay these fees, wanting the best for their kids.


  1. Should people cook their eggs on high heat or low heat? In a slightly more rational world, fire fighters would help us sort this matter out.

    Does it matter that it is the job of cooks to do that instead of fire fighters? Well, heat is involved, at some level. Why not get an expert on fire to help, even if he or she has other important functions to perform and no interest in cooking.

    Professors don't exist to sort out confusions on a newspaper opinion page. Journalists do that, editors do that, publishers do that, writers do that. Professors exist to conduct research and add to new knowledge in a specific field and to teach students to become experts. They do not exist to be public intellectuals or to clarify the nearly continual misunderstandings that occur in daily life.

    When a journalist interviews a professor, it is little different than when a journalist interviews a politician, foreign service official, entertainer or anyone else in life. They are just people being interviewed about their specific area of interest or expertise and their opinions are only valid within that limited area. They have no special role in clarifying anything beyond that. Unless sufficient time and space are permitted for complete explanation, they are not going to be able to clarify anything. Explanations suffer from condensation into sound bites. Somerby seems to expect to understand everything by page 12 or 23 of these books on complex matters.

    Philosophy professors do not publish incoherent works, in general. They do not refuse to clarify op-ed opinion pieces or letters because it is "beneath their dignity" either. They refuse because it is not their job, they are not asked to do so, they have enough to do focusing upon their actual work in life, and otherwise they are just people, along with the many other readers of such pages. Further, there are no thanks for doing so -- you make yourself a target.

    Universities, not professors, accept tuition fees (professors are not paid directly by students or parents). Professors are paid to do their research and to construct and carry out courses of study. They do not pontificate on Godel, except in the context of such a course, which would presumably lay the foundation for understanding it and include an opportunity to ask questions and engage in discussion that would clarify major confusions. That is what makes a university education worth more than buying books and being an autodidact. Feedback. None of that exists with the kind of book Goldstein wrote, but neither is anyone paying anywhere near the fees required for a college course when they buy and read her book.

    As an educator, Somerby should understand the unfairness of laying his own confusions at the foot of whatever college professors he had 40 years ago, even assuming he was a diligent student motivated to understand.

    Arguing that there is no value to higher education is a fool's chore because the payoffs to our society are obvious in the progress over history.

  2. Such tortured language. And from a Harvard grad no less.

    Somerby, there is no such thing as a "false fact." If it is false, it is not a fact. Same goes with "bogus facts," and even to "false information." If it is false, how does it inform?

    If you don't want to go so far as to call it a lie, then don't. But don't, in any way, shape or form, call it "fact" or "information", even with the (non)-qualifier "false."

    To do so cheapens and changes the meaning of the once simple words, "fact" and "information."

  3. I found the first letter (from Robert H. Braunohler) clear. No doubt, that's because I agree with him. To his credit, Brant Olson correctly said that there's a consensus that humans are warming the planet and that it is a fact that global temperatures have increased by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the industrial age. However, his letter included a number of false or questionable assertions:

    -- Olson said it's a fallacy that warming has stopped, because the oceans warmed. However, it's a fact that there has been little or no warming according to various standard measures of temperature for 15 to 17 years. No current climate model accounts for the change in rate of warming.

    -- "notion that the warming “pause” that Krauthammer mentions suggests that climate changes may not be occurring..." That's a straw man. The problem with the warming "pause" is that it pretty much invalidates the climate models used by the IPCC and others.

    -- Olson disputes the claim that "the link between extreme weather events and climate change has not been established with certainty." In fact, this is a finding of the IPCC. They gave low confidence to the idea that climate change has caused an increase in windstorm activity.

    -- Olson said that global temperatures increased of about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the industrial age "is largely as a result of our use of hydrocarbons." If "largely" means "more than 50%", Olson might be correct, although it's not certain. There's a significant natural component in temperature increase. Temperatures have been increasing since before the year 1800. However, climate scientists agree that man's activity didn't affect global temperature until around 1950. So, natural causes were responsible for the entire increase from 1800 to 1950 plus some (unknown) portion of the increase since 1950.

    1. Seems to me you are quibbling over which "facts" advanced are true, not trying to define what constitutes a false fact. Maybe any piece of information that would not be permitted in an informative article (would be rejected by the paper's fact checkers) should not be permitted in an opinion piece either. That would leave opinion pieces for discussing opinions not propagating incorrect info (any more that the news section does). In other words, perhaps the opinion page should be fact checked.

      Thank if you disagree with the facts, you can write a letter to the editor and argue your case.

  4. David in Cal

    Oddly, your claims that Olson presented false assertions are in fact false. You have presented these same false assertions here repeatedly, and repeatedly they have been debunked here. Are you insane?

  5. AnonymousMay 5, 2014 at 7:20 PM -- If I were running an op-ed page, I'd allow opinions, but I'd try to make sure that anything that a columnist or editorial writer stated as a fact was indeed correct.
    Noted climatologist Judith Curry has pointed out,
    there are very few facts in [climate science], and that most of what passes for facts in the public debate on climate change is: inference from incomplete, inadequate and ambiguous observations; climate models that have been demonstrated not to be useful for most of the applications that they are used for; and theories and hypotheses that are competing with alternative theories and hypotheses.

    If I were running an op-ed page, I'd allow all these inferences, deduction, theories, etc. to be presented, but not allow them to be called "facts."

    1. If you look at climate change charts, you can see that the measurements are on a continuing trend. CO2, temperature, ice, sea level.

    2. Yes, indeed. Few people who pay attention would deny these trends. Two other trends to go along with these are increasing food supply and increasing area of forested land. Also, there's been a non-trend in hurricanes and tornadoes.

      The areas of real dispute include:
      1. How good or bad are the climate models?

      2. What is the sensitivity CO2? (It's believed that a doubling of CO2 will cause a fixed temperature increase. that number is called climate sensitivity.) The IPCC doesn't know. They give a wide range of 1.5 to 4.5 deg C., and acknowledge that it could actually be higher or lower.

      3. Mitigation vs. adaptation. Are we better off using our resources to reduce CO2 emissions, or using our resources to deal with adverse consequences of climate change as they arise?

      4. (Related to #3) How big is the impact of various proposed mitigation steps? (Bjorn Lomborg argues that various proposed steps to reduce CO2 would have a negligible impact on global warming. He argues that adaptation is much more efficient than mitigation.)

    3. One correction: Northern sea ice extent has been shrinking, but Southern sea-ice extent has been growing. Total sea ice extent is currently just barely above the average value for 1979 - 2008. See the red line at this chart.

      The alarmists cherry-pick the data they publicize. You can find lots of references to shrinking Arctic sea ice, and lots of references to a particular Antarctic ice shelf that's said to be vulnerable to a thaw. However, the alarmists tend not to talk about total Southern Hemisphere sea ice or total earth sea ice.

    4. Arctic sea ice is hemmed in by continental land masses and circulates much more slowly than Antarctic sea ice, which is exposed to ocean on all sides. As the northern hemisphere warms, Arctic sea ice melts. As the southern hemisphere warms (which it has but more slowly than the northern hemisphere), Antarctica itself warms, losing ice volume to melt and calving. The latter, of course, increases, sea ice.

    5. For all I know, there might be something to that theory. I don't have the expertise to evaluate it. I've also seen the Pacific Decadal Oscillation offered as a reason -- another theory that I am unable to evaluate.

      BTW Arctic sea ice reversed course and expanded in 2013. It's unclear whether this expansion is just a blip or whether it will continue. So far the Arctic sea ice expansion does seem to be continuing. See

      I am suspicious of after-the-fact explanations. I'm more impressed when models predict something years in advance and their prediction comes true. Did the climate models of ten years ago predict that global warming would cause Antarctic sea ice extent to expand? I don't recall such predictions.

    6. DAinCA,

      Let's face it, you're suspicious of any explanations that don't fit your fact-free, preconceived opinions.

      I just don't have the strength right now to talk climate change with someone who gets his information from right-wing political sites.


  6. deadrat, my opinion is close to yours, I think.
    1. Global warming is taking place.
    2. Man's activity contributes to the warming.
    3. The climate models are not too reliable
    4. The key parameter is climate sensitivity. If it's high, there will be bad or catastrophic consequences.
    5. The true value of climate sensitivity is not known. Some models show it to be less than 1 degree C. Other show it to be as high as 5 or 6 degrees C.

    deadrat, do you not agree with these points?

    1. Congratulations, DinC. You have challenged a popular liberal claim that conservatives cannot change their beliefs. You have modified your original position on climate change.
      Do you still believe we should commit no resources to slow carbon emissions until we have conclusive proof?
      I suggest you read up on how planets adapt to change, reach equilibrium, and then pass a tipping point where they then reach a new equilibrium.
      It is that future equilibrium point that will be a small change to the planet, but a sea change (pun intended) to human civilization.

    2. gravymeister -- It's not a binary decision. We are already committing SOME resources to slow carbon emissions. The question is how much should we do.

      From what I've read, the resources we're currently committing are too small to make a noticeable difference. The resources recommended by President Obama and other alarmists are also too small to make a noticeable difference.

      Do you believe we should reduce energy production so much that millions of people die? I don't. But, I don't support spending trillions of dollars on steps that are too small to solve the problem. It makes more sense to me to use those trillions to adapt to climate change effects as they occur, to feed the poor, to bring electricity of Africa, to fight disease, etc.

    3. " It makes more sense to me to use those trillions to adapt to climate change effects as they occur, to feed the poor, to bring electricity of Africa, to fight disease, etc."
      Noble thoughts, indeed, but not followed by noble acts.
      The energy profiteers do NOT contribute to fighting disease or hunger in Africa. To the contrary, they exacerbate those conditions.

    4. Since even immediate and total shutdown of all carbon dioxide-emitting vehicles, power plants, and factories in the U.S. would decrease global warming by only a hypothetical and undetectable two-tenths of a degree Celsius by 2100, it is misleading to imply, as the report does, that the Obama administration’s climate policies can provide any measurable protection from extreme weather events.

      Why do many people push so hard for changes in fossil fuel usage that won't make any noticeable difference in the climate? Are they innumerate? Have they been misled by opinion leaders? Is environmentalism a kind of religion?

  7. The comments here seem to almost always devolve into a discussion of the content of whatever Bob is discussing. In almost every case, the point Bob is actually trying to make is the way the issue is being discussed. In this case, in opinion pieces, should the authors be allowed to make statements that are demonstrably false (not just opinion)? This has nothing to do with whether global warming is real or not or whether Charles Krauthammer had his facts straight or not. If Mr. Krauthammer has stated that the sun rises in the West, should this be allowed, since it is printed on the opinion page and it is his "opinion"?

  8. I'll bite.
    No, Charles Krauthammer should not be allowed to create facts to support his opinions.

    But that statement is in itself an opinion.

    It is better to say. "In an ideal world, the media will verify all of its content."

    Since we don't live in an ideal world, our only alternative is to start our own publication or purchase a broadcast station.

    Most of us can't do either.

    What we can do is write letters to the editors and post comments on blogs such as this one.

    So we do.

    1. As they say in my piece of the planet, if you bite, make sure your choppers are in tight and your jaw is strong enough to last if you bit down on too much.

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