The (actually not so) “excellent” fact check

There was some controversy related to the third fact check of SER on energy. This fact check is titled “Nearby residents have mostly nuisance and little benefit from windmills(Dutch). Two action groups opposing wind mills read the fact check and were not amused. They claimed that the information of the fact check was not objective and incomplete.

Rightfully so. That fact check exaggerated the advantages of wind energy and minimized its disadvantages.

This is no big surprise. This kind of framing is not only done in this fact check, but also in the four other energy fact checks of SER. I would even say that this framing is endemic in alternative energy reporting. The advantages are being emphasized and the disadvantages minimized or even ignored. Being confronted with the nuisance of wind mills first hand, it was probably not that hard to notice for those two groups.

They prepared a list of 38 instances in the fact check that were incorrect or incomplete and first contacted the chairman of the Standing Committee and later the chairman of the SER with their remarks on this fact check. Their goal was to get a factual reaction to their objections.

When they didn’t get such a reaction, they filed a complaint with the National Ombudsman and initially he said the complaint was founded in his report of October 25, 2016 (Dutch). He concluded that the SER (which is the main advisory body to the Dutch government and the parliament on national and international social and economic policy) published a fact check that was not appropriate and in violation of correct supply of information and adviced the SER to change their fact check accordingly on basis of the complaint letter of the two groups. He also delved a bit deeper in two of the 38 points of the list.

So far, so good.

However, at the end of January 2017, the Volkskrant (a Dutch newspaper) wrote an article titled “Ombudsman: SER was honest about windmills after all” (Dutch). This is what they wrote about it (translated from Dutch, my emphasis):

The ombudsman initially agreed. He concluded in November that the SER provided incorrect, incomplete or outdated information about those windmills in a fact check on their website. But he had neglected to ask the SER for a response. Now that he received a reaction, he comes to the exact opposite conclusion: it is a excellent fact check, based on insights of external scientists who earn our confidence.

Interesting. This made me curious exactly what arguments or new information convinced the ombudsman to change his mind and come to the exact opposite conclusion a couple months after his initial report. Time to go the the website of the ombudsman and read the changed conclusion (Dutch) myself. This is the summary of the new conclusion (translated from Dutch):

The website http://www.energieakkoordser.nl informs the public about the Energy Agreement. Two action groups complain that the information about the advantages and disadvantages of wind turbines is not objective and is not complete. The National Ombudsman notes that a procedure has been agreed with an independent third party for the preparation of the texts on the website. Doing so, the SER (or the Standing Committee) took sufficient action in order to avoid any form of prejudice or (the appearance of) partiality.

Confirmed by the conclusion at the end of the report. That is something completely different from what the Volkskrant wrote. They wrote that it was now believed to be an excellent fact check, suggesting that it was changed on the merits of the arguments and that is how I understood it when I read their article. Yet the report now shows that the ombudsman said that the fact check was not written by the SER, but was outsourced to an external organization: Het Groene Brein (literary: The Green Brain). The information in the fact check was the responsibility of this external organization and SER could rely on the integrity of the scientists of this external organization. Therefor the ombudsman considered the SER unprejudiced in this case and the complaint unfounded.

This explained the disclaimer above the fact check website, linking to the procedure and mentioning that the fact check will not be updated. Which, at the time I first read the fact check, made no sense to me. Looking at the Wayback machine, this disclaimer wasn’t there initially and was added only after December 23, 2016. Probably as a result of the report of the ombudsman. It just clears them of any responsibility and allows them to avoid discussing the arguments.

Contrary to what the Volkskrant suggested, this rejection was not based on the arguments. It was an administrative rejection: the SER could not be hold responsible for incorrect or incomplete information because they didn’t write the fact check themselves. They outsourced it to an external organization that is supposed to have the necessary expertise.

There were no new arguments (except that the fact check was written by an external organization) and still none of the arguments provided by the two action groups were addressed. Apparently, the two groups will write back to the SER (Dutch), now asking to pass the list of 38 points to that external organization, so the writers of the fact check could respond to the actual arguments of the two groups.

I don’t hold my breath that they will get a satisfactory answer though.

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