Why don’t op-eds get fact checked?

Debra Saunders is a conservative columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle who has a history of writing misleading contrarian pieces on climate change. She contacted NASA Public Affairs recently for a comment on the initial glitch on the October GHCN numbers (see this earlier post for discussions of that). They forwarded the query to me and since her questions were straightforward, I answered them as best I could. Indeed in her subsequent column, she quotes me accurately and in context. However, the rest of her column shows none of the same appreciation for basic journalistic standards.

She starts by asking why newspapers are no longer trusted – a good question, and one that may indeed be answerable. However the column quickly goes off the rails. First off, her headline “When the warmest year in history isn’t” doesn’t appear to be related to any actual content. Possibly it refers to the 1934/1998 hoohah from last year (again see posts passim for discussion on its irrelevance to global warming). Journalists don’t generally write their own headlines, but a vague connection to current events is the more usual practice.

Next, she gets the Oreskes’ Science and society paper story completely wrong (it was a sampling of literature and survived numerous challenges to its validity – see here and here). Then she uncritically quotes David Bellamy (a late-developing contrarian who used to present natural history programs on the BBC) who appears to think that an anti-GW article he wrote in 2004 is responsible for him not presenting BBC documentaries since 1994 (an event he had previously blamed on his running against John Major (then UK prime minister) in an election). She then throws in a few completely untrue ‘facts’ (i.e. “in every year since 1998, world temperatures have been getting colder” (not) and “in 2002, Arctic ice actually increased” (no it didn’t) or that there ‘has been no statistically significant warming since 1995″ (wrong again: 0.21 +/- 0.13 deg C/dec GISTEMP, OLS, 95% CI)). However, note that she is quoting Bellamy and Lindzen here, so that it can be plausibly claimed that she is just reporting the statements rather than endorsing their nonexistent truth value. Sneaky. She even quotes Marc Morano and the Erika Lovley Politico.com column in support of a contention that the consensus is collapsing. Oh dear.

In fact, the only bit of original reportage in the piece comes from the email from me; the rest of the article is simply a cut-and-paste of untrue and unverified claims strung together in a facsimile of logical argument. Why is it so hard for newspapers to insist that their columnists at least make an effort to check their facts? If she can email NASA about the GHCN issue, she could have emailed any number of people about the other points she made if she’d wanted to get it right.

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