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Are We Free Market Energy Types Just ‘Bought and Paid For’? (New York Times, MasterResource weigh in on the bias question)

The public editor at the New York Times, Arthur Brisbane, recently wrote in his weekly Public Editor column about the trustworthiness of Robert Bryce, the nation’s leading energy journalist who has graduated to being a top energy public policy scholar, period. (Hard work, smarts, attention to detail, and open-mindedness earns the latter designation.)

In The Times Gives Them Space, but Who Pays Them? (October 29, 2011), Brisbane laid out a controversy that is worth reviewing. The question is: Does a writer’s paid association disqualify him or her as a reliable source of public policy analysis and opinion?

Here is how Brisbane asks and answers it.

PEOPLE don’t just argue about what is written on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. They argue about who is doing the writing and why.

In a skeptical age, readers and organized groups frequently question perceived hidden interests and agendas of Op-Ed contributors who, unlike the paper’s own opinion columnists, are outsiders.

This month, a government and industry watchdog group called the Checks and Balances Project submitted a petition — signed by more than 50 journalists and educators — calling on The Times to “set the nation’s standard by disclosing financial conflicts of interest that their op-ed contributors may have at the time their piece is published.”

The group pointed at Robert Bryce, author of a June 8 Op-Ed article headlined The Gas Is Greener, which identified hidden costs of wind and solar power. The Times’s italicized author line accompanying the article said, “Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is the author, most recently, of ‘Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future.’ ”

This wasn’t enough for Checks and Balances, which said readers wouldn’t know that the Manhattan Institute got financial support from the fossil fuel industry and that Mr. Bryce was “masquerading as an unbiased expert.”

I don’t think Mr. Bryce is masquerading as anything: experts generally have a point of view. And the Manhattan Institute’s dependence on this category of funding is slight — about 2.5 percent of its budget over the past 10 years. But the issue of authorial transparency is an important one, albeit one that isn’t always simple.

As for Mr. Bryce, Mr. Rosenthal said the Op-Ed article itself made very clear that he was a proponent of traditional energy sources. The Manhattan Institute is “well known for its pro-market stances, including its skepticism of subsidies for alternative energy,” he said.

Certainly, the Manhattan Institute is well-known to some, including organized groups like the Checks and Balances Project, whose Web site’s promotion of green energy makes clear that it is on the opposite side of the energy debate (something its petition doesn’t mention).

But I don’t think every reader knows what the Manhattan Institute is. So, while I recognize that The Times has limited space in print to provide more disclosure, I believe it should do more to help readers learn about outside Op-Ed contributors.

In print, besides noting prominent past achievements, author lines should include the writer’s current paid role, as it did for Mr. Bryce but often doesn’t do. The Times should avoid simply noting that the writer is a “consultant,” as it sometimes does, and provide the consulting firm’s name.

On NYTimes.com, The Times should include links for these organizational ties so readers can investigate, if they wish. Finally, it would be useful if The Times required contributors to provide a document listing all current paid positions, and publish a link to the document. (I should note that The Times has begun to include online links for contributors who have their own Web site, or online biography.)

These steps aren’t as simple as perhaps they sound, and, even if done well, some readers will ask for more. That said, such changes would shed light where it’s needed, in a skeptical age.

Exchange at MasterResource

The issue of funding sources behind the author of an opinion-page became an issue here at MasterResource when David Appell (comments here) recently challenged the author of the post, BEST as Bad: The Irrelevance of Richard Muller’s Vaunted Proclamation (warming vs. catastrophe in a political atmosphere), E. Calvin Beisner.

Appell’s query and four rebuttals follow. (Appell has not responded yet–and he is invited to do so.)

David Appell { 10.27.11 at 11:31 am }

In the interest of full disclosure, can Dr. Beisner please augment his post with a list of who funds the Cornwall Alliance, and the amounts they have contributed?

rbradley { 10.27.11 at 2:54 pm }

David: The author can answer for himself, but I would hope that the contributions are private (from individuals, foundations, and business) and not from government.

Second, I would argue that “socially responsible” business will support free market causes and try to refrain from practicing rent-seeking (political capitalism).

Third, the basic thing about free marketeers is that we have arrived at what we feel is the intellectually correct, moral, utilitarian position–and then we seek funding. We do not just sit back and decide to go with the highest bidder.

Fourth, it is a LOT easier to get government and pro-statism money than it is to get free market money–I have been trying to raise money for 20 years and know!

Fifth, for persons like yourself that have a different worldview, I am less interested in “where do you get your money” than in: what teachers did you have in school, and what self-education have you done to know ‘the science of liberty’ at an expert level in order to compare and contrast it with the ‘Malthusian’ view of energy and climate. Restated, have you studied Julian Simon as much as you have Paul Ehrlich, John Holdren, etc.? I know I have studied my opponents thoroughly and have the publication footnotes to prove it.

Richard Belzer { 10.27.11 at 3:54 pm }

Speaking of Latin, focusing attention on funding is often a way of practicing argument by innuendo. Rob is right that there is a serious simultaneity bias. One cannot easily tell if funding influenced the research or research influenced the funding. One’s first priority should be addressing the merits. If and only if an argument fails on the merits should one delve into whether funding might explain why.

The reason is that all funders have agendas, including (and often especially) the government. There are many competitive government-funded research programs for which compatibility with the agency’s agenda is a transparent criterion for funding eligibility. For some reason, those who object to “industry” funding seem not to object to this. I find this especially ironic given that the prevailing view among free-market types is that “industry” is intensely non-ideological because profit is neither Blue nor Red. Because profit is as easily located in productive activity as in rent-seeking, it is a rare policy issue in which “industry” cannot be found on both (all?) sides.

5 E. Calvin Beisner { 10.27.11 at 4:13 pm }

David: I could hardly have put the answer any better myself than Robert did except to add that (a) we receive no corporate or government donations, and (b) dismissing someone’s views because he stands to benefit from holding them is the logical fallacy of “argumentum ad hominem circumstantial.” It’s better to argue about the truth of premises and the validity of inferences than to attack persons.

6 Roy Cordato { 10.28.11 at 10:04 am }

Calvin: You are way too kind. Questions like Dave’s are offensive. His demand implies that your character is such that your positions on issues are for sale. We should be responding with righteous indignation not reasonable discourse. To Dave I say: How dare you, with no evidence or apparent knowledge of his personal character, impugn Calvin’s integrity like that?

Roy, a Ph.D economist who has been dragged through the ad hominem mud, is right to put the onus on David Appell now that the latter’s fishing expedition backfired rather badly. One might also challenge Joe Romm, the bully of bullies as documented at the Breakthrough Institute by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus.

Can we just get to the arguments please, and can we assume that those engaging in personal attacks are losing the argument as to encourage the perpetrators to open their minds to contrary arguments instead?

8 comments

1 Ken Green { 11.07.11 at 1:52 pm }

In my experience, people who raise the “funding” question are admitting to intellectual and rhetorical impotence:

–If a person publishes something that is logically flawed, point out the flaws.

–If something is factually erroneous, point out the erroneous facts.

–If an article is lacking in some perspective (bearing in mind that not every article can cover every perspective), point out the missing perspective.

If you can’t do these things, you are still free to disagree with an author’s views, but it is an act of intellectual cowardice to attack the person’s integrity.

2 Max { 11.07.11 at 2:11 pm }

This is all pure strategy. The great climate nexus long ago forfeited all rational discourse in favor of employing fallacy because it’s in their strategic interests to do so. Most people don’t understand ad hominem circumstantial is a fallacy. If you want to get the mob on your side, you have to create the appearance of impropriety. That’s why you’ll notice that the dialog has shifted far away from the science and to spinning the master narrative of a big corporate cabal. We can either play their game, or seek the truth while continuing to undermine the credibility of the IPCC and the Climate Industrial Complex by thinking critically and digging deep into their unsavory practices.

3 Iain { 11.07.11 at 10:10 pm }

What about the fact that “alternative” energies are being funded by the fossil fuel industry. Not to mention the fossil fuel industry, as such, is the devil incarnate.

4 rbradley { 11.07.11 at 11:04 pm }

Sure, fossil-fuel companies have ‘rent-seeked’ and ‘greenwashed’ with renewables, but BP and Shell, in particular, have quietly gone back to their knitting.

5 Tom Tanton { 11.08.11 at 8:30 am }

Rob and Iain, fossil companies can and do invest in alternative technologies, sometimes as rent seekers and sometimes as true technology plays. It’d fun to try and figure out which is which. Clearly the old Pickens’ plan was the former, but that was only one of numerous moves by fossil industry.

6 rbradley { 11.08.11 at 8:08 pm }
7 ganv { 11.08.11 at 9:26 pm }

Every now and then, it is useful to check in with reality and see what actually happens when ‘free markets’ are allowed to run the show:
http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/now-archive/20060721/hazardoussites.html
Tar Creek is not far from my family’s home. Please check your ideology to be sure it has ways to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

8 rbradley { 11.08.11 at 10:04 pm }

Ganv:

This is a little curt. One response is that regulation failed you since we have had decades of pretty strict state and federal regulation of toxic substances.

But the other question I have for you is whether private property rights failed you and whether there is redress through tort law.

Look forward to hearing more…..

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