When editors must say, "You don’t know what you’re talking about"

My professional copy-editing work includes a daily publication looking, through brief summaries, at the nuclear energy industry. Editorials and guest columns on the idea of nuclear energy are a major part of industry news because, well, there hasn’t been a new nuclear plant built in a while.

Often, those op-eds are by experts in the field, or they address some financial or legislative aspect, sidestepping technical issues. Then, there’s what the Buffalo News recently did:

Time to go nuclear

Yes, that was the headline. It’s become a reference to many things that aren’t nuclear, and was really a weapons reference, not a nod to nuclear energy. I have larger issues, however. In the order that they appeared:

  •  Metaphors — too many and too disturbing: The first sentence:

    Just about everyone agrees that the nation’s dependence on oil is a double-barreled shotgun aimed at the head of Uncle Sam.

    The third sentence:

    And on the other hand, we are slitting our throats as some of this money goes to the regimes that hurt us the most. 

  • Hyperbole without factual basis: Certainly, there are some OPEC countries are generally anti-U.S., and some proceeds from oil sales may be funneled, directly or otherwise, into terrorist activities. But the Buffalo News, probably unintentionally, conveys that this is the main use of our dollars spent on oil:

    The Muslim countries that use our hard-earned cash to finance mosques and madrassas schools are turning our money against us: They keep their youth ignorant, fomenting hatred for the United States and enticing them into jihads to kill our troops overseas and blow up civilians in the United States.

    Not only is this a difficult claim to make without context, it ignores who really sends us the most oil.
    Through the end of October (most recent data), the top importers of oil this year were Canada and Mexico, followed by majority Muslim nations Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, and then Venezuela. No one else had even half the total of Venezuela, which imported less than half as much oil as Canada.

    Certainly, this is not a list of entirely friendly countries. But we are more dependent on neighbors in our hemisphere for oil than we are on far-flung majority-Muslim nations.

  • Mistaking electricity output for fuel consumption: Nuclear energy is a great provider of electricity, solidifying the power grid without the emissions of coal or natural gas. It’s not much good at powering motor vehicles, making plastics, etc. On the other hand, while oil makes up 37.1% of our consumption as of 2008, it only makes up 1% of our energy consumption. Cutting back on oil imports — great. Expanding nuclear power — great. Certainly, a larger use of nuclear may influence a reduction in oil consumption, but replacing oil? It’s not quite as simple as these editorial writers imagine.

I don’t pretend to know what the process is for thinking up, writing or editing the editorials at that newspaper. But clearly, there are opinions being published that don’t necessarily have the facts, logic or discipline-specific knowledge to justify them. If there is an editing process, it should, perhaps, be redirected (and allowed to evolve) from being a glorified spell-check to a tool for intense vetting and verification.