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.
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.