Received an e-mail over the weekend from a concerned reader under the subject heading "xxx
x is out of touch with reality!"
The reader was going after a frequent letter writer and online commentator for his views questioning the science behind climate change and global warming.
"It's time to stop publishing climate change deniers letters," the reader demands. "Man-made climate change is a fact and denying that is a lie! The Los Angeles Times has started to stop printing these types of letters and it's high time The Citizen do the same."
The reader provided a link that does indeed show that the Los Angeles Times is doing so. "Saying 'there's no sign humans have caused climate change' is not stating an opinion, it's asserting a factual inaccuracy," wrote one of the paper's editors in a blog.
With all due respect to the L.A. Times, I take a broader and more inclusive view towards letters to the editor. This space in the newspaper and the online commentary belong to the people who take the time to express their opinion, so long as that opinion is expressed politely (not calling anyone who disagrees with them "out of touch with reality"), tastefully (no foul language and no bullying) and without violating any laws concerning hate speech, uttering threats and libel.
Notice there's no mention about having all of the facts straight.
Put another way, my view towards letters to the editor in the paper and online commentary is this: if residents want to step up and inform the rest of the community that they are ignorant of the facts and have based their opinion on incomplete or incorrect information, that is their business.
While we will always publish corrections for our reporting mistakes, we do not for letters or online comments. We certainly publish submitted letters correcting our work or the facts stated by other letter writers and will continue to do so, so long as the response doesn't call the original writer names, such as idiot or moron. If you want to do that on your Facebook page or your Twitter feed, that's your business but The Citizen is under no obligation to repeat your name-calling. And just so you know, your Facebook page and Twitter feed fall under the laws limiting free speech and fair comment. Saying "so-and-so" is "out of touch with reality" is libel, which is the written form of slander. You're just asking for so-and-so to sue you for damages to their reputation.
Back to the facts, which are never as cut-and-dry as they seem. A lawyer representing B.C. health workers said on CBC Radio Tuesday morning that there are no solid numbers on how many Canadians die each year of influenza or complications brought on by the flu. Rather, she said, those numbers are based on estimates pulled from statistical models. A public health official said that was wrong but then explained that the statistical models are based on testing to confirm whether the patient really does have the flu and not just flu-like symptoms. Because the testing is expensive and treatment is the priority, the official said, the positive tests for the flu are combined with hospital and doctor reports of deaths from flu-like symptoms to reach an estimate of how many Canadians die each year from the flu.
The lawyer is factually correct but neglected to mention that the estimated number of flu deaths is not pulled out of the air, it is an educated guess based on samples and statistical analysis.
A newspaper editor denying publication of an opinion that insists humanity has not contributed to climate change is no better than the lawyer on the radio. The "fact" is correct on its own but to ignore the context and complexities behind it is dishonest.
Rather than get mired in a never-ending debate over what separates fact and opinion, I believe keeping the conversation alive, even if parts of it are wrong, is better than no conversation at all. Well-meaning individuals who insist that no one gets to speak unless they have all of their facts straight frighten me.
Having the right to be wrong is a right, too.