Thursday, January 30, 2014

Fake facts also a renewable resource? (Extended article)

Earlier I wrote of how some opinion columnists take advantage of looser fact-checking rules of the editorial pages to come up with their own facts, either misleading or outright wrong, to give their opinions more weight. I thought it might be useful to provide some actual examples of what I mean.
The first two both come from articles taking Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau to task for some ill-advised comments about green energy in China, which then went on to denigrate renewable energy programs in other countries.
One national columnist stated that China’s solar industry is “collapsing”, and cited the case of a single failed company to prove it. The other went off on a wider tangent about German coal, speaking of an “explosive resurgence” of coal-electricity leading to “skyrocketing” emissions.
What really happened in China was that too many companies sprang up to take advantage of high profits from generous subsidies aimed at jump-starting the solar industry. This created an oversupply of panels, leading prices to drop, and now many of those companies will fold. But that doesn’t mean the industry as a whole is going down the tubes - just that the weakest companies are being weeded out. Demand for new solar, in China and worldwide, remains strong, so companies that survive the shakeout will still have a market to thrive in. China will continue to lead the world’s growing solar industry for some time to come. To paint the failure of one company or a temporary supply-demand mismatch as the decline of an entire industry isn’t an opinion, it’s either ignorance or deliberate misrepresentation.
In the wake of the ongoing Fukushima disaster, Germany has turned away from nuclear power. It’s true that Germany’s use of coal to produce electricity has increased somewhat over the past few years, in particular going from around 161 billion tonnes lignite burned in 2012 to 162 billion in 2013! Skyrocketing? Exploding? Hardly. And this small increase over the past few years, from a low of 140 billion tonnes, is not primarily due to nuclear shut-downs, but a fuel switch because of rising prices for natural gas. The reduction in burning expensive natural gas has been much larger than the reduction of nuclear power, and far more than the increase in use of cheaper coal. Meanwhile, the much-derided German renewable energy market continues to expand in capacity and reliability, providing a decent replacement for lost nuclear.
The third example comes from a local columnist who boldly asserted that wind farms were creating rampant ghost towns in rural Ontario. Now, he is undoubtedly correct that parts of rural Ontario are depopulating, which makes it harder for each next person leaving to sell their home. But there is no evidence that this loss of property value or population has anything to do with wind energy. It’s been a long-term trend that I’ve observed all my life. Growing up in Shelburne, which was within 60-90 minutes of the GTA, I saw how rural communities to the south and east kept growing in population and prices, while those to the north and west shrank. This was long before anyone dreamed that farmland could gain a second use by generating valuable wind power.  Quite simply, rural living near urban jobs & amenities is prized, while rural living far from the bright city lights is a faint attraction. As people leave, local tax revenues drop, schools close, banks and other businesses leave, and the downward spiral continues. Wind farms actually counteract this trend, by putting more money into local pockets and bringing in good trades jobs for construction & maintenance.
When we look at the effect of wind power on property values, there are anecdotal accounts or unrepresentative case studies that show harm, but the major well-designed studies show there is little or no downward effect on land values as wind development arrives. As for the writer’s evidence, he didn’t provide any, and after it was pointed out to him that the population of his example “ghost town” was actually growing, admitted that all he’d done was talk to some friends and look at the info from some anti-wind organizations. All the real evidence shows that the decline in rural populations is a long-term trend related mainly to the loss of factory jobs and service cutbacks by cash-strapped municipalities and school boards, not wind farms. Even anti-wind sites acknowledge this chain of events.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with disagreeing with what a political party leader says or how a government acts, or presenting challenges with renewable energy, or supporting traditional alternatives like coal or nuclear, but backing those opinions with statements of fact that don’t actually state the facts is poor writing, at best. Either they haven’t bothered to do the basic research or don’t want to tell the truth. When you read something in the paper that’s presented as fact, you should be able to trust that it is indeed the fact, without having to do your own research only to find that wasn’t true.
But I’ll let you decide. Is making up facts to back opinions deliberately misleading, or merely lazy?
A shorter version of this was published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner under the title "Making up facts to back opinions deliberately misleading".

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Compare columns to find more subtle biases

Last week I listed ways to watch for bias or misinformation in opinion articles. This week I discuss a more subtle bias that shows itself, not in a single column or article, but when many are compared together.
Government is always a popular target of editorial criticism. And that’s a good thing; holding government to account is a key role of news media in a democracy. The right wing, due to small-government values, is more apt to be critical. But they also support their own side of the political spectrum in government, and that’s where the bias creeps in.
Three main targets of criticism are the governments of Canada, Ontario, and Toronto. Of those, the federal government has been led by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper for 8 years, with Ontario under more left-leaning (but really, centrist) Liberal premiers Dalton McGuinty and Kathleen Wynne for a decade. In that same period, Toronto had a left-leaning mayor, David Miller, then a very right-leaning one, Rob Ford. It’s interesting to see how a stable of writers criticize those governments differently based on where their targets fall on the left-right spectrum.
When these writers discuss Ontario’s problems, fault is tied directly to the premier (McGuinty or Wynne) or a named cabinet minister. It would seem that whenever something goes wrong in Ontario, whether if the screwup occurred at Queen’s Park or in a Crown corporation or the OPP or even an entirely separate organization providing services to government (like ORNGE’s flying ambulances), it is the personal failing of our Liberal premier. A similar pattern was the case in Toronto under Mayor Miller.
Yet when the federal government screws up, right-leaning columnists seem loath to name or blame the captain at the helm, with whose politics they sympathize. Instead, blame falls on “the government” or “Ottawa,” a specific department or agency, or a particular named, but non-elected public servant. Rarely is it acknowledged that after 8 years of government, the Conservatives really should be considered responsible for actions under their watch.
Is it wrong to blame Ontario’s premier when things go wrong? Not always. Things such as E-Health should be top-level files the premier or front bench MPPs oversee directly. They must own those failures. However, with a hundred-billion-dollar budget, Ontario’s government is a huge and complex beast; it’s not fair to lay every frontline failing at the feet of the head honcho.
Bias reveals itself in the inconsistency. If everything that goes wrong in Ontario is the Liberals’ fault, then certainly every failing or misdeed at the federal level is the Conservatives’ fault. Likewise, it makes no sense to credit Rob Ford for every improvement in Toronto during his tenure but not blame him for anything that goes wrong, having done precisely the opposite with David Miller. Either leadership matters or it doesn’t; either elected leaders wear both credit AND blame, or neither.
It’s hypocrisy of the worst kind to give one level of politicians a free ride, and another level a whipping, for the same kind of screw-ups, based solely on which political flag they wave. If you’re going to call it like it is, call it fairly on all sides.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Elected leaders must wear both credit and blame".
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Beware: opinion pages can be loose with the facts

In the Information Age, it’s more important than ever to protect yourself from misinformation and find reliable sources. This week, some tips on reading editorial pages.
National and local newspapers present both news and opinion. In the ideal journalistic model, these functions are separated. Today, however, there are some disturbing crossovers, and unaware readers may find their information isn’t as solid as they might like.
Traditionally the news sections reported facts, while the editorial pages presented interpretations and opinions about those facts. News reporting even uses “fact-checkers”, in major papers at least, to confirm facts, figures, quotes and statements before publication. I don’t think local papers go to quite the same lengths, but at least if you notify them of an error, they will print a correction or retraction, sometimes even years later.
Once, an intern writing an election night story for the Examiner reported erroneously that I was “between jobs”, which I wasn’t. (It was an understandable mistake, as the two main campaign managers were actually between jobs). By the time I noticed it and called the paper, the intern had already moved on, so I didn’t make a big fuss about it (although someone else did, years later). But if I had insisted, I’m sure they would have corrected this error.
But editorial pages don’t have fact-checkers. Opinions are subjective, so they needn’t be verified, merely stated. Which would be fine, except a lot of “opinion” columnists seem to state as fact things that simply aren’t true, to back up opinions they are expressing. But the papers refuse to police this, so columnists are free to keep on misrepresenting the truth to suit their bias, without check, correction, or retraction. (A similar situation appears at some TV news networks.) This is a serious failing; as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously remarked, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, not his own facts.”
So how are you, the reader, to determine if a columnist is presenting reality or spin? Here are some clues. If a column is based entirely on a single report, study, or article, then you should at least find and read the original to see if the columnist is reporting fairly, or if it comes from a credible source. Often, you will find they are misrepresenting what they are attacking, or praising something that was biased in the first place.
A column’s factual basis rests on stronger footing if the writer cites multiple, independent and identifiable sources. Again, it doesn’t hurt to look them up, using basic internet skills. But the best columnists, the ones who base their writing on objective facts, go one step further. They either provide hyperlinks in the online version of their articles, as I do, or include footnotes giving title & author of each supporting document, like respected British columnist George Monbiot. That way you need not guess what reports they are citing, you can go straight to the source. A sincere columnist will also respond to online comments pointing out an error or omission by posting a correction or more supporting information.
On the other hand, a big red flag is when a writer avoids identifiable sources, then attributes contrary opinions or patently erroneous statements to private comments from “friends” who remain conveniently unnamed (and probably non-existent). After all, who can ridicule someone in print and still call them a friend? With friends like that…
In part 2 of this series, I’ll show how to spot deeper bias by noticing the variation in how the same editorial staff report on different governments, depending on where they fall on the political spectrum.

Published in my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Trying to find the truth behind all those opinions", "Weighing all those opinions" and "Finding truth among the opinions"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Deniers getting Dumb and Dumber

I have good news to report: global warming is over, it was just a mistake or perhaps even a hoax. How do I know? Quite simple. Because it’s cold. Today. Where I live. Even world-famous climate experts like Donald Trump have pointed this out.
Wait, is that how climate science works? No, but if your information comes from right-wing columns, blogs and TV “news” channels, you might think so.
Global warming, is, of course, a long-term and, well, global phenomenon; quite simply the gradual increase of average temperatures of the entire planet. Elementary students learn an average is the mathematical blend of a range of numbers high and low. So although global average temperatures are gradually rising, weather continues to fluctuate as weather always has. What’s more, rising air and ocean temperatures trigger a wide range of effects, including heat waves and droughts but also stronger winds, heavier precipitation and floods, even worse winter storms.
Now you ask me, how can global warming cause an ice storm, blizzard, or cold snap? Excellent question! A mild to medium snow storm, at minus 5 or 10 degrees, is a nuisance. But warm the thermometer a few degrees, approaching zero, and that snow becomes freezing rain, a much bigger problem. What could have been a normal day with flurries becomes a catastrophe, turning roads to rinks and knocking out power for days, even weeks! Last year Toronto even issued a report warning of just this risk, but sadly not much was done to prevent the problems we saw over Christmas.
Living in the snow belt, we already understand lake effect snow: cold, dry winds blowing over large bodies of water lift moisture to dump on us as snow. But warmer air holds more moisture, and the warmer winters’ open water feeds more snow than would fall if lakes were iced over. That’s how global warming brings bigger snow dumps to our roads.
What about the “polar vortex” linked to the North East’s current deep freeze and blizzard, and dozens of deaths? Again, look to global warming, as deep cold winds that normally circle the arctic are shoved back south by warmer-than-usual polar temperatures. That’s why, for example, the other day it was colder in Ottawa than at the North Pole!
The right-wing is all atwitter over a recent mission to the Antarctic to study effects of global warming that failed when the ship got caught in unexpectedly early sea ice; the subtext being that global warming must be a silly error if there is more ice! Yet if any of these pundits did a minute’s basic research into global warming and the Antarctic, they’d find a long-term warming trend means less ice on Antarctic land, but more ice on water. For example, melting land ice dilutes the salt in the southern seas, allowing the water to freeze more easily. So although the expedition was hoping to study the effects of climate change on land, the fact that they couldn’t get there through the sea ice actually reinforces the science of climate change!
The real truth of global warming is not that it nevermore gets cold, but that it creates climatic changes or “global weirding”; the same weather system that brought us the polar vortex has left our own BC coast unseasonably warm, and put the entirety of England and Wales under flood alert. Meanwhile, Australia is withering under record heat waves following their hottest year ever.
To understand the reality of climate change we must look past today’s snowbanks to a long-term, global view. That view, more than ever, confirms that our climate, and the weather it spawns, will continue to get weirder until we find a way to pull back the excess greenhouse gases we’ve spent a century emitting.
Publishes as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as 'Global Weirding' will get weirder without changes.
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a certified member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.