The Los Angeles Times faces an interesting dilemma: What do you do when well-meaning readers start parroting the lies about climate change that they hear on talk radio, Fox News and from politicians beholden to the Tea Party? The L.A. paper says that its commitment to not publishing factually incorrect information trumps all other concerns:
As for letters on climate change, we do get plenty from those who deny global warming. And to say they "deny" it might be an understatement: Many say climate change is a hoax, a scheme by liberals to curtail personal freedom.
Before going into some detail about why these letters don't make it into our pages, I'll concede that, aside from my easily passing the Advanced Placement biology exam in high school, my science credentials are lacking. I'm no expert when it comes to our planet's complex climate processes or any scientific field. Consequently, when deciding which letters should run among hundreds on such weighty matters as climate change, I must rely on the experts -- in other words, those scientists with advanced degrees who undertake tedious research and rigorous peer review.
And those scientists have provided ample evidence that human activity is indeed linked to climate change. Just last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- a body made up of the world's top climate scientists -- said it was 95% certain that we fossil-fuel-burning humans are driving global warming. The debate right now isn't whether this evidence exists (clearly, it does) but what this evidence means for us.
Simply put, I do my best to keep errors of fact off the letters page; when one does run, a correction is published. Saying "there's no sign humans have caused climate change" is not stating an opinion, it's asserting a factual inaccuracy.
I have to say I have mixed feelings about this. I certainly applaud the L.A. Times' commitment to truth-telling. Ironically, this letter comes on the same day that a major study published in the journal Nature projects a planet in 2050 with unprecedented tropical conditions and acidic oceans, the result of manmade pollution. In other words, this is a World War II-type situation; just as American newsrooms rallied the nation for that effort, they can't afford to sit on their hands for this battle of human preservation
On the other hand, I've argued that news organizations shouldn't shun their communities -- that's just as true for disoriented Rush Limbaugh listeners as it is for single mothers. The inevitable allegations of censorship only cause these falsehoods to gain strength underground, and under the radar screen. It might be better for the L.A. Times to publish these letters, with pointed editor's notes pointing out the factual errors. To me, the essence of free speech isn't totally silencing the bad ideas, but creating the right climate where the good and truer ideas will win in the end.