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C&en and Opinion Editor's Note:

May 31, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 22

C &EN and opinion

Editor’s Note: C&EN received more than 60 letters on the Editor’s Page titled “The Role of Opinion in C&EN” (April 26, page 3)—which discusses Lois Ember’s Insights “Intelligence Failure or Political Malfeasance?” (March 15, page 34)—and the letters that piece provoked (April 26, page 4). The following is a representative sample.

I want to commend the staff at C&EN for publishing Lois Ember’s Insights on Iraq, Rudy Baum’s editorial regarding the letters the article provoked, and your many articles concerning global warming and the Union of Concerned Scientists’ criticism of the George W. Bush Administration. All three of these topics have prompted numerous letters to the editor lambasting C&EN for having the gall to wade into “politics.”

Reactionaries seem to have unlimited time on their hands to write violent and nasty letters to any organization that exhibits any independent thinking in its actions. What’s so depressing is that most of these organizations have, in response, chosen to placate these people so as to maximize their profits, often casting journalistic integrity or thought-provoking programming aside (for example, the CBS Ronald Reagan miniseries, the war in Iraq, Janet Jackson, and so on). Far fewer subscribers likely take the time to thank you for printing Ember’s insightful article (even though many are likely grateful), and virtually none would have written to request such an article had it been omitted.

That C&EN, a publication that I feel toes the conservative “what’s good for the chemical industry is good for you” line far too often, has had the courage to display the kind of skepticism and integrity that both the Congress and the national news media have not is astounding! The writers of these letters fail to realize that all writing can have political content, no matter how “objective” it may seem. Silence is a powerful political statement, and silence in the face of tyranny, slaughter, and deceit has repeatedly had profound historical consequences.

Thank you, C&EN, for not being bullied by right-wing censorship and for daring to be journalists and not merely entertainers.

David J. Combs
Santa Cruz, Calif.

I, too, was upset at Ember’s “editorial” in the March 15 issue, but refrained from writing until reading your rationalization. The problem with Ember’s original column was not that it was her opinion, not that it bashed President Bush, and not that her opinion differed from mine. The real problem was that the column had nothing to do with chemistry but instead dealt with perceived intelligence failures. Those may have spanned a variety of professional disciplines, but chemistry isn’t one of them. As such, it had no place on the pages of C&EN.

If Ember wants to render her opinions on the merits or lack thereof of government policy related to chemistry, that is a different matter. For example (and I am making all this up for the purpose of example), maybe she feels nerve gas is a greater threat than anthrax, and feels the Administration is ignoring nerve gas in its preoccupation with anthrax, or something of the like. Those types of opinions would be appropriate for C&EN.

D. Thomas Terwilliger

C&EN has a long history of reporting news about the development and monitoring of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. That is a serious chemical subject. Ember published an analysis seeking to understand how the Bush/Cheney Administration could have inaccurately launched a $200 billion war, killing hundreds of Americans and thousands of Iraqis.

Letters to the editor writers James B. Patrick, Walter S. Creasy, Christopher C. Cook, and Geoffrey Lindsay did not object to any fact reported by Ember. They objected to the reporting of those facts! I disagree with their analysis.

It is a fact that no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) have been found in Iraq. It is a fact that weapons and manufacturing facilities that existed in 1991 at the premature end of the first invasion of Iraq were destroyed by UN inspectors. It is a fact that Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers and Kurdish civilians during his 1980–88 war against Iran. It is a fact that Saddam was at that time a U.S. client who enjoyed clandestine support from the Reagan/Bush Administration.

In light of these published facts, it is vital to ask whether the incorrect information that the Bush/Cheney Administration announced as a basis for unprovoked invasion was a big mistake or a pack of lies. In either case, steps must be taken to prevent a similar reoccurence. This is a job for chemists, biologists, and physicists.

Eric Wickstrom

I don’t usually write in to the editor and don’t have the time to be as eloquent as your typical letter writer. I just want to weigh in as an 11-year member of the society and a weekly reader of C&EN. I am not satisfied with your editorial response pushing back on a couple of letter writers upset over Ember’s Insights regarding Iraq.

I think your editorial misses the point. I, as a reader, turn to many sources of information. For example, I use Fortune and Money (along with others) to guide my investments. I use a variety of news websites, National Public Radio, local city newspapers, television news, and a few newsmagazines for my general political news.

I always appreciate it when C&EN treats everyday news items from a “chemist’s” perspective. I think it is appropriate and gives the chemist-reader a good perspective. I think C&EN and Ember overstepped the reasonable scope of the magazine in the particular Insights in question. I don’t see any chemistry in the article at all or a spin on this piece of important political news from a reasonable “chemist’s” perspective. Your editorial fails to even address the letters from a position of the appropriate purpose/scope of the magazine’s contents—perhaps it is because on rereading you see that the piece has no place after all.

Let me state that I don’t support what has happened in Iraq. I hold many of the same views as Ember. I think this was inappropriate for the magazine and not what I pick it up to read about. If Ember wants to write this stuff, she should go to work for the appropriate outlet. If the editors want the magazine to go in this direction, they should redefine the scope of the magazine and not take random potshots on hot-button issues. There is the issue of consistency here, as well as scope. I think she added insult to injury by using some tough language—not that it isn’t deserved, just not in this magazine. Words like armchair warriors, house of cards, etcetera, lack respect and are tasteless.

I guess the reason I am writing is that the letters of protest you published were apparently by right-wingers. I just want to let you know that someone to the left or middle can see this as out of place as well. I agree that C&EN should be able to publish opinions. The magazine has already aptly covered the chemical side of the Iraq question, so why does the magazine and its writers/editors feel compelled to comment on intelligence in the absence of chemistry? Last time I checked, this was a magazine for the chemical professional, not the intelligence community. Maybe the coverage is a result of sitting inside the Beltway and being too close to ground zero in the now-becoming-epic battle between Democrats and the GOP this fall.

Fortunately, I don’t see things like this that often in the magazine and hope I won’t again. This will force me to be much more selective with the magazine and reduce its relevancy to me.

Allen C. Templeton
Fort Worth, Texas

It is always amazing to me that different people can look at the same information and reach completely opposite conclusions. Seldom do the “facts” of the case change our preconceived opinions, and often the same “facts” are used to support both sides of the issue. I find this to be the case with both Ember’s March 15 article on Iraq and its WMDs and the negative responses to it that were published in the April 26 letters.

I applaud C&EN for printing both. There is no question that Saddam Hussein and his government were perpetrators of the most horrible crimes and would have done the same or worse again if given the chance. At the same time, a great many people have the uneasy feeling that the Bush Administration “oversold” the WMD connection. It is very important that this issue be explored, because it was one of the main reasons most of us supported going to war.

Most of the letters suggest that C&EN never should have published Ember’s article. I disagree. Thank you for providing the opportunity for this discussion to take place.

Mark Ogzewalla
Winter Haven, Fla.

I wish to warmly applaud your editorial. The ability to criticize any Administration for its misuse of scientific and technical information is exactly the role of opinion pieces in a scientific newsmagazine such as C&EN. I urge you to continue this practice no matter the political party in the White House or in Congress.

President Bush’s policy of preemptive warfare must be scrutinized very carefully. Such a policy cannot be pursued without information of the highest quality, since the lives of many U.S. soldiers hang on this intelligence. Many times, this intelligence information has a scientific component (as in the false claim that Iraq was attempting to get uranium yellow cake from Africa ). Thus, I think that Ember’s article was right on the mark.

Seymour Pomerantz
Rehovot, Israel

In a dangerous world, C&EN provides important analysis of science and technology in global security. It is not just “irresponsible” for C&EN to avoid reporting and commenting on politics, it is essential that C&EN’s editors and correspondents inform the debate—the irreducibly political debate—on security.

The flap evoked by Ember’s commentary brings to mind a precedent—another “intelligence failure” that led to criticism and dodging in high places: the 1998 bombing of the El Shifa Pharmaceutical Industries plant in Khartoum, Sudan. The analysis of intelligence data advanced in justification of that attack also was reported and commented on by Ember and Maureen Rouhi (C&EN, Aug. 31, 1998, page 6; Feb. 15, 1999, page 11; Feb. 22, 1999, page 37).

Perhaps I reach too far, but I wonder, what if the lessons of l’affaire El Shifa had been heeded by the current Administration? Would we now be mired in such a desperate fix in Iraq? Regardless, C&EN is upholding its responsibility to elicit scrutiny of and comment on the technical justifications for war making.

Ember’s commentary escapes the chest-thumping rhetoric of the April 26 letter writers intact. Had they subjected her argument to the critical reading it deserves, we might understand things a little more deeply. Sadly, they made schoolyard taunts (“violently partisan political propaganda,” “pathetic,” “irresponsible junk”). They also admonished C&EN to stay out of politics. Yet have they ever taken a C&EN commentator to task for the offense (in their logic) of committing political implications that happen to reinforce their own political passions? I doubt it.

Our need of a healthy polity compels C&EN commentary that occasionally will be as incommensurable with the views of some C&EN readers as the Copernican worldview is with the Ptolemaic. So be it. Thank you for giving agitated readers the opportunity to state their cases so that others may judge them on their merits. Even more, thank you for analysis and commentary that may help make our dangerous world a little less so. Keep it up.

Christopher Ritter
Bern, Switzerland

Your editorial is entirely wrongheaded. You may continue to disagree with your readers, but you should take your campaign to another venue. C&EN should be focused on technical and business aspects of chemistry. It is not a forum for your political views or those of your staff.

You seem to have missed an important and obvious point about Saddam Hussein’s WMD. Of course, we know he once had chemical weapons. We have seen pictures from their application. But the reason it made sense to presume he still had them is that he refused to cooperate with the inspections program. He resisted inspection to the bitter end, even to the point of getting his country invaded. Until you have an explanation for that well-established fact, you should revise your opinion that “none of these weapons existed” and start asking yourself where he put them.

Of course, we shouldn’t even be arguing these points in C&EN. If you want to do opinion pieces, write a letter to the editor in your local newspaper. It is unseemly to take unfair advantage of your position at a chemistry magazine to proselytize about “preemptive war.” It is time for the ACS Board to review the terms of your employment.

Thomas H. Ledford
Baton Rouge, La.

I am not the chemist in the family, but I look forward to every issue of your magazine. I learn so much important information from it.

I hope you never stop writing editorials about important issues. Those of us who wish to be informed regardless of partisan politics will read them for the information they provide, enabling us to be a responsible electorate.

I find, as your editorial stated, that there are those who support anything and everything President Bush does and who are not interested in knowing how his decisions affect not only Americans but people throughout the world. They are extremely sensitive to any criticism of Bush but had no problem bashing President Clinton over what should have been a personal issue.

To those of us who care, finding or not finding the weapons of mass destruction that took us into a preemptive war is a critical issue. We want our politicians to be honest with us, whoever they are.

Please continue your timely editorials, and hats off to an excellent, informative publication.

Carol J. Scholz
Payson, Ariz.

I have been a member of ACS for more than 25 years. I object to the recent liberal political slant your editorials have taken. They have no place in your magazine. You should refrain from political articles and partisan criticism.

Contrary to what you say, Ember’s Insights is below your past performance and should never have been published. You are in danger of becoming just another liberal political magazine if you continue to publish biased material like that article.

Billy H. Marlow



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