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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Shawn Lawrence Otto: An Open Letter to Arianna Huffington [concerning the HuffPo antiscience article "NASA Global Warming Stance Blasted By 49 Astronauts, Scientists Who Once Worked At Agency"]

An Open Letter to Arianna Huffington

How the Huffington Post is still blowing it on science but has a chance to make a real difference

by Shawn Lawrence Otto, neorenaissance, April 17, 2012

Dear Arianna,

Congratulations on the Huffington Posts's Pulitzer prize. That is an important feather in the paper's cap.
I want you to know how much I value your publication, and how I think the dust up over the antiscience article "NASA Global Warming Stance Blasted By 49 Astronauts, Scientists Who Once Worked At Agency" is an opportunity for a broader discussion, which you could lead. The story has garnered wide condemnation in both science and journalism circles.  Why is an important discussion.

It is a discussion that I think is critical to our democracy.

I too wrote about the NASA 49's propaganda stunt in HuffPost, but unlike the staff piece, I used facts and context.  Ironically, I was speaking at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center as the story broke, or I would have sent the piece in sooner. 

My story linked the words "gullible antiscience press" to the staff story, which was surprisingly under the byline of science section editor David Freeman.  Freeman has a brilliant history as one of the best, and it was an impolite thing for me to do, but it made an important point, which I'll discuss in a moment. 

Some hours after my story went up, I got an email from one of your editors, saying the Freeman story "has since been updated to clarify the way it was initially perceived.  Would you be amenable to simply removing the hyperlink on these words, since the purpose of that update was to clear the air of these types of characterizations and set the record straight as to our editorial position?" 

I said "Ok."  But I wasn't happy about it.

I want to let you know why I made the link and why I and many others still don’t think HuffPost’s response was proper or adequate.  I know Mike Mann spoke with Lucia Graves in a followup story, which was quite good, but the problems with the Freeman story are far deeper than the removed reader engagement query your editors portrayed as the problem.  It's troubling that neither you nor your staff seem to realize that there is more to the issue.

The problem is that the article is an outstanding example of false balance journalism.  False balance arises when an equivalence is made between objective knowledge and a contrary opinion that is not supported by the same level of evidence.  This creates the impression that knowledge is partisan and there is a legitimate controversy, when in fact "both sides" do not have equal claim to the truth.  One is based on knowledge, and the other is merely an opinion. 

This is something climate change deniers are particularly adept at using to manipulate the press.  There are no two ways about it: false balance is a false article, and this was a false article.  In other words, your paper disseminated propaganda, not news.

This problem arises from an error in the way many of today's reporters have been trained, and you can do great good by challenging and changing this.  Most reporters, and many reporter guidelines, have adopted the postmodernist view that there is no such thing as objectivity.  This is false.  Science has proven that there is an objective reality.  Using it we have doubled our lifespans in the past 140 years, and multiplied the productivity of our farms by 35 times.  We have altered the face of the Earth.  Failing to acknowledge the fact of objectivity is failing to report on reality.

I would strongly encourage you and David to reject this erroneous view.  My book Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, goes into much greater detail about this confusion in recent American journalism.  The problem is especially important in the realm of science reporting, where it comes to a head, such as in the article in question.  Like Jay Rosen, I have been writing about its various aspects for some time.

In this case, the headline started the problem.  NASA has not taken any “Global Warming Stance.”  This is a false headline.  They are in fact by law forbidden from taking any “stances” on policy issues.  They simply sponsor and report on science.

That’s not a stance, of equal merit in a political debate with someone’s opinion.  It’s based on peer-reviewed knowledge attained from measurements of nature.  

Placing the science denialist meme in the headline itself gave the false impression that this was in fact a matter of opinion and not knowledge, something one could take "stances" on.  I understand the need to drive readership, but it should never come at the cost of journalistic standards of truth.  I'm absolutely certain that wasn't David's intent, but am at a loss to explain what happened.

After the false headline, the piece went on to lead with the opinions in the letter as if they were knowledge and left them unchallenged.  This is at its core the root of the problem and the reason the article was and remains antiscience, and why it continues to upset so many people.  An embarrassment to a science section, and, obviously, it became and embarrassment to your entire publication.

The opening sentence, for starters, suggested that NASA might be “playing fast and loose with the truth.” Unless the Huffington Post has some knowledge to support that opening, it’s antagonistically deceptive and propagandistic — especially for a science section — even more so when written by the editor of said science section.  There are plenty of other angles that don’t involve denial of science in a science section.  
To suggest that NASA might be playing fast and loose with the truth, while providing no evidence, in the lead of the article, is an insult to NASA scientists and belies a tremendous ignorance of the data-gathering and measurement, the intense pressures and harsh scrutiny of peer review, and the lives and reputations that are placed on the line with scientific publication, and the years-long drive to get every detail right.  I am at a loss to understand how an experienced science editor like David Freeman could not know this. I'm sure he does.  And yet, it seems, he entirely forgot it.

Instead, Huffington Post chose to lead with a letter organized by a retired energy industry executive, and led by two climate-change denying Heartland Institute guys, that contains no science whatsoever, and to give it, not the mainstream, peer-reviewed science of NASA, the benefit of the doubt.  To top it off, in your mea culpa, you say you consider such a propaganda stunt “newsworthy.”


Arianna, I very much appreciate your comment in a recent interview about this event.  It tells me you really value getting it right, but I think it also belies some confusion on the subject: “To be able to see clearly where truth lies on one side or the other, as it happened in this particular instance, is not to abandon objectivity — it’s to, in fact, embrace a higher standard of journalism,” you said.  

I don’t know why you would even hint that there could possibly be a question that it is abandoning objectivity or entertain that anyone could even utter that as a rational criticism worthy of mention.  
In fact, it is doing the opposite — it is embracing objectivity, instead of the scourge of postmodernism that has muddied the thinking of a generation of journalism students, whose last science class was often in high school, and which has made them susceptible to manipulation by reality-denying authoritarians.  

Take, for example, these well-intentioned new reporter guidelines, pulled from the otherwise often very good quality Voice of San Diego:
Voice of San Diego: New Reporter Guidelines.

We only do something if we can do it better than anyone or if no one else is doing it.
* We must add value. We must be unique.
Three things to remember for each story:* Context
* Authority
* Not just what is happening, but what it means
There is no such thing as objectivity.* There is such thing as fairness.
* But everyone sees everything through their own filter. Acknowledge that, let it liberate you. Let it regulate you.
* We are not guided by political identification, by ideology or dogma. But every decision we make, from what to cover to how to cover it, is made through our own subjective judgments.
* We are guided by an ability to be transparent and independent, to clearly assess what’s going on in our community and have the courage to plainly state the truth.
If you believe that there is no such thing as objectivity, as these guidelines instruct, then you can easily become trapped by propagandists.  Such a reporter will never dig to get at the objective story of the nation and without that, false balance becomes prevalent and democracy ceases to function. 

The founding fathers conceived of democracy within the age of reason.  The premise of democracy is the well-informed voter who can discern reality for him or herself and so rejects the authoritarian edicts of a king or pope.  That presumes an objectivity that that voter can be informed about.  Without acknowledging the reality of objectivity and striving to capture it from the mists of confusion, we are left simply with the dominance of the most loudly voiced and well-financed opinion, which ultimately leads back to the authoritarianism the founders sought to repudiate.

And this is in fact what we are seeing now, as reporters regard their job as simply reporting on the varying views of a matter, without exercising judgment, as if that were admirable, and neocons adopt the postmodernist doctrine that the winners write the history books, so nothing else matters.  That's a foil to keep the press at bay. 

The consequences of this mistake are frightening. Consider the story of David Gregory and the war in Iraq: Gregory was the NBC News Chief White House Correspondent during the run-up to the war.  After it became clear that there were no WMD and that the reasons for invading Iraq were unsupported, he was asked why the press corps didn’t push President Bush about the inconsistencies in his rationale for invasion: “I think there are a lot of critics who think that . . . if we did not stand up and say this is bogus, and you’re a liar, and why are you doing this, that we didn’t do our job,” said Gregory. “I respectfully disagree. It’s not our role.”

But if it's not the press's role, whose role is it?  And without that accountability and reflection on it by the voter, what cost in life and treasure — and to the people's retention of power?  Objectivity is the life blood of democracy, and without it, a democracy risks slipping into authoritarianism and plutocracy.

The fact that much of the mainstream press doesn’t view it as their role to record the objective story of the nation puts science in the especially precarious position of being just one of many warring opinions, and it erodes our ability to make sound judgments as a country. 

Climate change is the most pronounced example.  But we see it often today in our politics.  Irrational, counterfactual statements that once would have ended a candidacy for president now go almost unchallenged in the media.  And papers like yours, who say they "recognize that climate change is real and agree with the agencies and experts who are concerned about the role of carbon dioxide" nevertheless print propaganda uncritically, making themselves into tools, and argue that it's "newsworthy."

Huffington Post is particularly known among science reporters for often creating a false balance between knowledge and mere opinion, as happened in this case. This has happened with the writings of those who claim that cell phones cause brain cancer, or that vaccines cause autism, for example, and such pieces are equally unhelpful to the ability of your readers to discern reality and make good decisions.

One of the news outlets that has recognized this problem and is taking important steps to end this type of practice is National Public Radio.  As you know, in February they issued new reporter guidelines that say, in part, "Our goal is not to please those whom we report on or to produce stories that create the appearance of balance, but to seek the truth."

Arianna, I know you are personally committed to reality-based reporting, and to public service.  I know you value science and understand the politicization of climate change.  So I urge you to take this unfortunate incident as an opportunity to lead.  To remake Huffington Post into a gold standard. 

Please loudly publish revised and clear reporter guidelines for your staff pieces.  It will help your credibility as a paper and not just an advocacy outlet.  And please read my book, which deals with this issue in far more detail than can be contained in this letter.  I’d be happy to ask my publisher to send you a copy — please let me know.

Arianna, with the new prominence of Huffington Post you have a special opportunity to help wrest America back from the brink.  Seize it.

Thank you for your consideration,

Shawn Lawrence Otto

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