Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans was recently awarded an Honorary Doctorate by TU Delft for flagging the climate crisis in the EU. As a concerned student, I am very glad to hear that TU Delft is taking a proactive role in climate politics, and I hope to see more of this. Unfortunately, not everyone was on the same page. A petition against the Honorary Doctorate was signed by nearly 23,000 people, largely anonymously, but also includes a couple of former students and doctoral candidates.
It won’t come as a surprise to people that the petition was widely shared on climategate.nl (in Dutch). For readers who do not know this website, it acts as an open forum where anyone can express their doubts about our approach to climate change. However, the website largely centres on a conspiracy theory in which it is asserted that a small number of scientists are exerting influence behind the scenes to spread fear around climate change. This website frequently publishes pseudo research, disseminates fake news about politicians, and casts doubt on our scientific institutions.
The person who started the petition, Dr Jan Asselbergs, says in an interview in Delta that he is not a climate change denier, but a concerned alumnus. He says that he is concerned about issues such as biomass and nuclear energy, and used the petition as an ad hominem political tool. What is alarming now is that Asselbergs’ petition is being used as ammunition by conspiracy thinkers. That both he and the media forgot to mention this is worrying, in part because the views expressed in the petition match those of Climategate. The latter uses standpoints from the petition to sow confusion about the energy transition without addressing the problems surrounding these views in any depth. For example, Asselbergs forgets to mention that it often takes more than 10 years to build a nuclear power plant (in Dutch), and that means that we will not achieve our climate goals. Further, Professor Andy van den Dobbelsteen rightly emphasises that Timmermans is working on adjusting the rules around biomass.
‘Delta is guilty of ‘bothsidesism’’
It is disturbing that Delta interviewed Asselbergs without mentioning climategate.nl at least once and what they are trying to do by spreading this petition. In a letter, the Student Council even suggested that the award ‘has sparked several discussions and insights on issues like nuclear energy, biomass and wind turbines’. In doing this they ignore what makes conspiracy theories so dangerous for societal debate.
This makes Delta guilty of ‘bothsidesism’, whereby all ideas are given equal value and deserve equal attention. But not all ideas are equal, and that is why science is essential. Many studies have concluded that climate change is an existential problem for humanity, but people do not need to look far to find scientific articles that cast doubt on this position. Do both ideas carry equal weight? No. The number of studies that assert that climate change is a problem is so great that you could say that there is a scientific consensus. It is therefore not fair to treat both ideas equally, and definitely not to give the sceptics a stage. By acting as though all diverging views move the discussion forward, dangerous ideas such as climate denial or climate scepticism are given a free hand on the market. To see how bothsidesism can harm society, we need only look at the anti-vaccination discussion.
Climategate.nl is accusing Frans Timmermans of not being open to the debate about the role of humans in climate change, but he is absolutely right. Human induced climate change is a proven problem. Acting as though this is still open for discussion leads to discord (in Dutch) around a problem that we need to work hard on together. Frans Timmermans knows this.
Professor Andy van den Dobbelsteen called on everyone to express their support for Rector Tim van der Hagen. My request to Delta is to handle these types of situations more carefully. Explain the background of these types of themes more and go into them in greater depth. We can only make sound judgements and protect ourselves from misinformation if we can place ideas in their true context.
- Mels Habold is a master student of Applied Physics.
You address our reporting on the outcry about Timmermans’ Honorary Doctorate and ask us to do our journalistic work more carefully. We should not partake in ‘bothsidesism’ and always clearly describe the interests at play behind the scenes. Your call urges self-reflection on our part so let me start by explaining how we went to work in this case and why.
A couple of days before receiving your email, we had decided to add a sentence about Climategate to our update on the petition. For the sake of completeness, we needed to add that the climate sceptics’ website had shared the petition. As we are always careful about what we do, the decision to add that sentence – and no more than that – was the last in a series of decisions we took since the Honorary Doctorate was made known.
We had heard at an early stage that TU Delft had received some emails and telephone calls from alumni who were unhappy about the Honorary Doctorate being awarded to Frans Timmermans. As they were a small group of people, we decided not to cover the issue.
This changed when the petition started to grow. I support your point that we are not only there to pit different opinions against each other. For me, fact finding is a much more important part of journalism. At the same time, we cannot ignore it if the choices TU Delft makes become the subject of discussion and TU Delft responds. The task is then to separate the truths from the untruths and cover the first more extensively. This calls for an open mind.
This is why our editor Jos Wassink visited the initiator of the petition, Jan Asselbergs. From their discussion he concluded that Asselbergs was not a climate sceptic, but more a concerned alumnus that was calling TU Delft to take its responsibility. Asselbergs said that he was afraid that the European Union would continue to burn biomass and not give nuclear energy a chance as Timmermans is for the former and against the latter.
‘We wanted to stay away from putting people into boxes’
Motives and anxieties, however, are different to facts. Our editor thus checked if what Asselbergs claimed about Timmermans was correct, after which he wrote that this was not the case. Through the Communications Director Joost Ravoo, TU Delft could then address the importance of speeding up the energy transition (the Dies theme) and the associated Honorary Doctorate for Timmermans. Is this approach whitewashing dubious arguments as you imply? To my mind we actually counter them against the backdrop of the science that TU Delft itself is doing into new types of nuclear power plants.
Back to Climategate. When our editor interviewed Asselbergs, to his knowledge this website had not yet picked up the petition. Even when it did, in our mind that did not detract from the newsworthiness of the subject. Nor did the interference of ClimateGate in itself make Asselbergs a climate denier; we explicitly wanted to stay away from putting people into boxes. So I do not see where we gave climate sceptics a stage in these articles, as you write. Even more so, we did not name Climategate earlier so as to avoid this. I do see that this is problematic as without Climategate the petition may not have been signed so often. But do note that we always stressed that a very high proportion of the signatures were anonymous. This is why we added to a previous update on the petition on 17 January, as I mention above.
I suspect that our reporting on the Dies itself should also have been done differently in your eyes. As how did the couple of tractors and that one demonstrater – not Asselbergs himself as he was at home – know to come to the Aula where the celebration was held? We did not describe this as the answer seemed so obvious: they were present because of the petition but had little else to do with it. In our report their demonstration was the setting within which the relevant issue, the Dies, played and this is how we framed our report. Next time we may handle things differently and zoom in on the powers behind a demonstration. If so, this will in part be because of your letter, so thank you.
Saskia Bonger, Chief Editor of Delta
PS: Your point about the letter submitted to the Student Council is for them to answer. I evaluate letters that we receive on their writing style and factual argumentation of opinions and not on the opinions themselves.