The e-mail blast bore all the signs of news, really big news, but the tell-tale all-caps “BREAKING” had the familiar breathlessness of just one more Marc Morano “news” flash.*
The back story here involves what blogger Morano called an “outpouring” of scientists’ complaints about a long-time Chemical & Engineering News editor’s column. The offending column dealt with what most expert scientists recognize as the growing seriousness of climate change.
Editor-in-Chief Rudy Baum’s June 22 column in the American Chemical Society’s flagship publication acknowledged that the science of anthropogenic climate change “is becoming increasingly well established” and, in effect, that only “diehard climate-change deniers (for brevity’s sake, CCDs)” argue otherwise.
Baum’s take on the deniers’ “derail” strategy: “Sow doubt, make up statistics, call for an ‘open debate,’ claim that you are being ‘silenced and ignored by the media and politicians,’ claim that your opponents are just a ‘few bureaucrats and environmental activists,’ not real scientists.”
It was all raw red meat for the ravenous Morano, previously communications staffer to Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe and now a prolific blogging contrarian. He wrote, perhaps wishfully, of a “climate revolt” at a major science organization. He reveled in exclamation-pointing (!) the words “CLAMOR FOR EDITOR TO BE REMOVED!”
And, insult of insults, he noted a letter writer’s plea that Baum be exiled “to The New York Times or Washington Post,” a seeming insult that many journalists might take to be unintended flattery.
So what gives?
A 34-year ACS employee – 29 of them with C&EN and the past five-and-a-half as its Editor-in-Chief – Baum said the tenor of the reader response to his column was “fairly typical” to what he has seen in regularly writing on climate change over the past 10 years. “What I’ve written has often generated some pretty strong negative responses,” he said in a phone interview. “What was different about this response was the intensity, the number of letters we got on the column.”
Baum said the magazine had received 30 to 40 letters on his column, “the vast majority of the first batch,” during the first four weeks, critical. “There were some supportive ones, but overall they were mostly critical.”
“I do suspect there was some coordination” behind the critical letters, Baum said, but he rejects any suggestions that the mailings had been “ginned-up.” He commented that when he replied to one writer that he would not publish a particular letter, he received four complaints about his decision within an hour or so. “So there was clearly some communications going on among the folks who were writing.” (Baum says he eventually published the letter, by an ACS non-member, in any event.)
Creation, Evolution, and now Climate Change?
“I have a pretty strong rule that when we write about a controversial topic, we publish letters pro and con in roughly the proportion that we receive them.” He makes exceptions, Baum said, when writing about creation and evolution, “because that tends to generate a lot of letters from nonmembers.”
“I’m kind of drifting in that direction, to do the same thing with climate change,” publishing pro and con letters primarily or exclusively from ACS members. “I haven’t done it, but I was moving in this direction.”
Baum said the August 24th issue of C&EN will carry “a very large chunk of letters, in this case the majority of which are supportive.”
Editorial Board Reaffirms Support for Baum
Asked about his column’s consistency with the ACS official policy statement on climate change, Baum said the two were consistent but that the very question of consistency is “completely irrelevant.” He said an earlier ACS policy on climate change had been considerably strengthened in 2007 but that he had been writing on the subject well before the group’s first policy had been adopted.
The ACS official policy “had no influence on what I write about, but it turns out that we are very much in sync,” he said. Baum said he has “total editorial independence,” as specified in ACS’s constitution and bylaws on publications policy.
Baum said the publication’s editorial board, during the group’s biennial meeting in Washington, on August 14 reaffirmed its support for his performance as Editor-in-Chief, and he said nothing has changed, as a result of the letter-writing or the Morano blogs, in how he writes his columns or subjects he writes about. “No, nothing’s changed at all,” he said.
One of the group’s mentioned in Baum’s column, the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, was exhibiting at the ACS Washington meeting in hopes of stirring up signatures supporting a softening of the ACS position paper to reflect greater uncertainty, Baum said. It was not clear whether that effort would have much success.
* Editor’s Note: This story was edited August 19 to correct a typo.
ACS Publications Policies Support
Publications’ Editorial Independence
The American Chemical Society describes itself as “a congressionally chartered independent membership organization which represents professionals at all degree levels and in all fields of chemistry and sciences that involve chemistry.”
Those unfamiliar with the organization sometimes confuse it with the industry trade association, the American Chemistry Council, formerly called the Chemical Manufacturers Association and an entirely different entity.
ACS’s constitution and regulations detail editorial policies related to its publications, including its C&EN, the group’s official organ.
In a section on “rights and responsibilities of Editors,” the group says ACS publications “shall be edited in a manner consistent with the objectives of the SOCIETY”, with editors showing “a sense of responsibility” to members and their conflicting views and interests. Editors “are expected to edit the publications so that the articles, headings, and editorials reflect fairly, fully, impartially, and in balance the facts involved.”
Within those broad guidelines, final responsibility for editorial decisions rests with the editors, “and no attempt should be made by the Board of Directors, its members, its committees, or the Governing Board of Publishing to instruct editors in the day-to-day direction of their editorial activities.”
Editors can be replaced if their decisions “often prove to be questionable or unacceptable” to the ACS board of directors.