Wind turbines rotate as storm clouds pass overhead near Dagebuell, northern Germany on October 28, 2017 as a storm hit many parts of Germany. At least three people died in a windstorm that hit central Europe early on on October 29, 2017, causing widespread power outages and traffic disruptions, rescuers said / AFP PHOTO / dpa / Maurizio Gambarini / Germany OUT (Photo credit should read MAURIZIO GAMBARINI/AFP/Getty Images)
The Internet is to public discourse what pamphleteering was in the 18th century: an outlet for opinions that require minimal input. Using a search engine allows a pundit to find support for almost any opinion, which is very useful if you’re trying to win an argument as opposed to get to the truth. In this post, I will simply show how easy it is to find diametrically opposed ‘articles’ from the internet and many from legitimate news sources (as opposed to blogs).
Let’s start with electric cars. Grist.org notes “Electric cars are so popular we’re running out of plugs” while oilprice.com says “Electric car threat to oil is wildly overstated.” A careful reader might argue that the two are not mutually exclusive: we could be running out of chargers at the same time that the potential oil displacement is being exaggerated. But if you are an advocate of electric vehicles you will cite the first, a skeptic, the second.
At the national level, popular website thinkprogress.org announces “To beat Tesla, China plans to boost electric vehicle sales 10-fold”. For its part, the Financial Times notes that “Subsidies help China sell the most electric cars.” Again, the two might be taken as contradictory, but aren’t really. However, the second is more informative because it highlights the causality, namely that government support is necessary to achieve the goal of increasing electric vehicle sales. The relevance becomes clear when looking at a Technology Review article, “The World’s Largest Electric Vehicle Maker Hits a Speed Bump” describing how reduced government subsidies was threatening domestic EV maker BYD.
Sometimes stories can contradict each other because of a different focus. The Forbes headline notes “Japan’s Solar Boom is Accelerating,” while two months earlier, the Japan Timeshad said, “Sun setting on Japan’s solar boom.” The first post examined solar power capacity in the previous year and projections for the current year, while the second argued that investment would slow dramatically in coming years due to reduced subsidies.
Similarly, a forbes.com blogger complained “China Is Going All In On Clean Energy As The U.S. Waffles. How Is That Making America Great Again?” while three days later, a Bloomberg story noted that “China Says It’s Going to Use More Coal, With Capacity Set to Grow 19%.” The former headline is not wrong but imprecise and refers only to planned Chinese investment in renewable power, while the latter has a focus on the additions to coal power capacity in juxtaposition to the country’s renewable power plans. Both articles are true, but the first has an obvious omission in the body of the story. Of course, the former is advocating a policy, while the latter is a news story, which is an important qualifier. (Although some news stories are incomplete, merely acknowledging contradictory facts: “but some think the world is flat.”)
And coal comes in for its share of often-contradicted opprobrium, my favorite being the Mother Jones headline “Germany’s War on Coal Is Over. Coal Lost.” Almost simultaneously, the Washington Post noted “In shadow of Germany’s climate conference, a village disappears to make way for coal.” Why the discrepancy? The first story describes the closing of Germany’s last hard coal mine, while the second talks about the opening of a new lignite (or soft coal) mine. It is certainly true, as the first article opines, that German coal production has been on a long-term decline, but as of 2016, it was still 175 million metric tonnes, a not insubstantial amount. And consumption is almost the same as at the turn of the century, thanks to the post-Fukushima decision to shutter the nation’s nuclear power plants, apparently fearing a Pacific Rim Tsunami might cross the Eurasian peninsula.
Germany energy policy also features in many conflicting headlines. Environmentalists frequently hail its renewable energy program with headlines like, “The Spectacular Success of the German Energiewende, and What Needs To Be Done Next,” while regular news outlets like the New York Times will report, “Germany’s Shift to Green Power Stalls, Despite Huge Investments.” The same is true for other countries: Greentechmedia.com says “Spain, Portugal Lead the Way on Renewable Energy Transformation” and later, “Spain Is a Case Study in How Not to Foster Renewables.” Here, the difference is twofold: the former is a guest post from 2011, the latter a 2017 article, after problems with the policy had become apparent. The danger is the causal researcher finding the first article but not the second, which simply reconfirms Tom Nichols argument in The Death of Expertise, that too many people with only a passing familiarity with a subject will write authoritatively based on a quick internet search. Experts should not make such a mistake.