Open letter to Bernice Notenboom: Why should you care your expedition is ‘fake news’? Because people are vomiting on it



You just completed a 200-kilometer ski trip to the North Pole that was difficult, dangerous, and full of scientific and personal discoveries. The comments section of one of the most-read articles about it features an animated GIF of a Muppet turbo-barfing.

You say you don’t care about social media reactions or that the article itself is based on a falsehood. And you say I shouldn’t be reporting that, but am doing so due to a personal bias that feels a need to tear you down.

You should care. For exactly the same reasons I do.

The basics: News reports globally state the world’s northernmost March for Science occurred at the North Pole. That’s based on a Tweet from your account showing your expedition holding an official march banner a day or two before the event (you departed an ice camp to the south of the Pole at about 2 a.m. April 21, but I’ll accept for the sake of this letter you were at the Pole on that date). You participated in the official March for Science in Longyearbyen on April 22 and there are many photos showing you there.

I pointed this out after seeing a barrage of articles headlined “The March for Science stretched all the way to the North Pole” and you got angry with me. You said “I don’t understand why that is such a big issue for you. It just should not even come out,” but ultimate you didn’t care what I, the mainstream media and social media said about the matter.

You should care because the vomiting Muppet is merely a visual representation of the inevitably endless poisonous comments about your expedition, the science it was involved in, and the reports about it by you and news organizations.

You should care because, while you might dismiss such commenters as the nut brigade, they’re the reason people are writing and profiting off the “fake news” you and so many others protested vehemently during the March for Science on April 22.

You should care because those people and the fake news that appeals to them are the reason people like Donald Trump are now in power and deliberately working to prevent/undo the research being done now about climate change and other vital subjects, which also was one of the main reasons for the march.

You should care because they will take any discrepancy they can find – real or perceived – and cite it as proof scientists are liars. They won’t contact you to provide context and nuances. And they’ll find them whether I write about it or not – and probably be far more widely read.

You should care because one of the organizers of the local march (who also got upset with me for asking how the march would result in any meaningful action or impact on policymakers) said the event is part of a long and ongoing process involving small steps. The same applies to those who are trying to discredit you, although their efforts are arguably more effective since their messages generally don’t require people to accept things like sacrifice and unpleasant truths.

You should care because my efforts to contact those publishing the false news and post comments on the articles alerting them to that fact were ignored. You and others involved with science should be among the first to understand what’s it’s like to have an effort to correct an erroneous or misrepresented fact corrected.

You should care because you say I’m obsessed with the literal truth, when what matters is what’s being reported is true in spirit. Would you accept such explanation from me – or Donald Trump?

You should care because you said a Tweet posted on your account with a false claim wasn’t posted by you and therefore I shouldn’t say you made a false claim. Would you care if Donald Trump’s official Twitter account declared all Muslims are terrorists and subsequently blamed it on a low-level staffer?

You should care because if the science community published statements arguing a colleague’s research was wrong, that person would be obligated to retract the claims in the research or show why it’s correct. That’s exactly the position I was in, having published an article declaring the marches in Ny-Ålesund and Longyearbyen were the world’s northernmost. And in both our professions it doesn’t matter if it’s a globally read claim to cure cancer or something about the ice thickness on Lomonosovfonna outlets that is read by none of the general public.

In short, you should care because we are both fighting the same non-partisan battle with a single overwhelming bias: the desire to get people to believe the truth instead of the nonsense (or skewed version of the truth) that is so willingly being gobbled up in an era because it gives so much comfort to those who don’t want to confront and deal with what’s unpleasant. And that means I should point out flaws that involve you – and you should definitely point out mine, even though we both will be sick to the deepest part of our souls when such instances occur.

I welcome your response.