Ooh! Here comes my theoretical physics-based putdown: "You're not even wrong!" Take that, Statesman Journal editorial board.
Today's opinion piece about a proposed Third Bridge in Salem was so confusingly argued, it deserves the "not even wrong" -- a phrase attributed to physicist Wolfgang Pauli when he objected to incorrect or sloppy thinking.
Here's how I put it in my online comment on the editorial, "Third Bridge Remains a Sound Project."
-- It won't be built for 15-20 years.
-- No one knows if it will be needed then.
-- No one knows if it will be wanted then.
-- No one knows if it can be afforded then.
Yet somehow something that is questionably needed, wanted, and afforded is a "sound concept"? This reflects a basic problem with how the Salem establishment (City Council, Statesman Journal, Chamber of Commerce) views the world.
A desired future for Salem is lacking. The public isn't involved in forming a coherent, consensual, community vision for the sort of place we want to become. Instead, we get more of the same -- reactive disjointed planning that responds to short-term "political" pressures (using that term in a broad sense) rather than long-term aspirations.
Playing into this, the editorial urges Salem to pursue a Third Bridge that isn't needed now, isn't wanted now, and can't be afforded now, yet maybe, perhaps, just might be, in 15-20 years -- for reasons unknown and unspecified.
Instead of saying "THIS is the Salem we want to become, and THIS is why the Third Bridge is needed to help make that happen," advocates of the Salem River Crossing rely on vague assumptions about what might occur a few decades from now, hoping that somehow current plans for an unneeded, unwanted, unaffordable bridge will meld with an unknowable future.
Here's an alternative idea: form that future, rather than react to it. Listen to what Salem area residents want. Do we want a strong downtown, alternatives to automotive travel, thriving businesses and residences in walkable communities along the river?
Decide what sort of place we want Salem to be, then, if necessary, design a river crossing that will enhance that vision.
I wrote those thoughts before coming across a Salem Breakfast on Bikes post along the same lines. Here's some excerpts from "SJ Fails to Take Own Advice: Whiffs on Third Bridge."
From an earlier note yesterday [by SJ editorial page editor Dick Hughes] on assault and reporting at Willamette:
But that also was a lesson for student journalists: To be effective, they can't just spout off. They have to back up opinions with evidence and they have to present all sides of an issue.
Instead of talking right over "objections to the project" and dismissing them by fiat and circular logic -"the bridge is needed" because we need a bridge! - the SJ refuses its own advice to "back up opinions with evidence" and "present all sides of an issue."
(At least they did publish a counter-point from 1000 Friends just below the editorial, but is significant they did not hold one of those "editorial board" lunchtime meetings with critics and with supporters. It's hard to see that the SJ has taken strong measures on both the reporting and the editorial side to investigate the project thoroughly.)
...WESD [Willamette Educational Service District] and Courthouse Square have got tons of reportorial resources applied to them. The proposed giant bridge and highway is in cost more than an order of magnitude greater, hundreds of millions rather than tens of millions.
By this calculation it is reasonable to ask whether 10x the staff time should be allocated to investigating claims and intellectual honesty in the DEIS [draft Environmental Impact Statement] about the giant bridge and highway! The case is far from proved, and the SJ has an actual job to do in "backing up opinions with evidence" on a once-in-a-generation sized project.
Maybe most crucially, it is far from proven that Salem has done all it could do.
I'm sure there are good arguments to be made for building a Third Bridge. But I haven't seen them yet, and the Statesman Journal editorial didn't make any.
A trend is evident when the SJ expresses its newpaper'ish collective opinion on important issues: the editorial board takes a position, but not a stand. This deserves the insult, "not even wrong." (See my post about the SJ's endorsement of Mitt Romney in 2012; also "not even wrong.")
Why? Because someone who is open and straightforward in arguing for a position either can convince others that she is right, or can be convinced that she is wrong -- since arguments based on facts and reasons can be rebutted.
The Statesman Journal's shaky "position" on the Third Bridge is that it's worth continuing to look into the possibility of another bridge across the Willamette, because maybe, someday, perhaps 20 years from now, it might be needed, wanted, and affordable.
Though none of those things is true now.
The SJ's maybe, someday attitude is at odds with the Third Bridge timetable on the Oregon Department of Transportation web site. Looks to me like a final decision is scheduled for mid-2014, with design and construction happening immediately after.
As some commenters on the editorial said, given the importance of this issue the newpaper's editorial board should have sat down with proponents and opponents of a Third Bridge. Let each side make its best case. Assess the facts. Ponder alternative futures for downtown, west Salem, and other parts of Salem.
Then write a firm, factual, reasonable editorial that doesn't pussyfoot around.
Should Salem design, build, and pay for a Third Bridge, or not? Explain why the Statesman Journal came down on the side that it did. Then people can debate how valid those reasons were, and how accurate the facts backing up those reasons were.
Instead, readers of the Statesman Journal were given an editorial so wishy-washy it wasn't even wrong. Because being right or wrong means taking a coherent position on some subject, and the SJ didn't do that.