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Friday, July 24, 2009

Carl Zimmer: George Will’s crack fact-checkers at the Washington Post continue their nap

George Will’s Crack Fact-Checkers Continue Their Nap

by Carl Zimmer, The Loom, a Discover blog, July 23, 2009

There is no way to keep up with all the bad reporting on science these days, but I cannot resist certain egregious cases. As Loom readers know, George Will writing about global warming is one. This morning brings fresh evidence of his trouble with the facts–and, more importantly–the empty claims of the Washington Post’s editorial page that they respect the time-honored art of fact-checking.

In a nutshell, George Will wrote some columns starting in February 2009 in which he claimed that scientific evidence shows that all the heat-trapping carbon dioxide we’re putting in the atmosphere is having no effect on the planet. He claimed as proof that global ice levels had not changed in thirty years and that in fact there has been no global warming since 1998, just to name two.

giss440.jpgThe Loom and many other blogs pointed out why these claims were in error. Will ignores the fact that climate change is a noisy, long-term process. Today it is cooler at my house than it was yesterday. That does not mean that next week I will wake up to find snow on my doorstep. If you look at the annual mean temperature of the planet, you can cherry-pick one year, such as 1998, in order to make the false claim that there is no global warming. Of course, you could just as easily pick 1999, in which case the same logic would force you to conclude that there has been a staggering increase in temperature. But that’s not how climate scientists actually study global warming. They look at long term patterns, such as the red line in this graph from NASA, which represents the five-year mean since 1880. And when they do, they recognize a long-term trend of rising temperatures.

This somehow slipped through the multiple levels of fact-checking carried out by the editorial page staff at the Washington Post. Nor could they catch the other errors Will made on the science. So my fellow blogger Chris Mooney and the secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization made it easy for them, by writing a column and a letter respectively, to set things straight. The Post even saw fit to run both.

They did not, however, issue any correction on Will’s claims. Ombudsman Andrew Alexander, who claimed that there had been fact-checking on multiple levels, did acknowledge things might have been handled a wee bit better, and then offered this sunny thought for the future:

On its news pages, it can recommit to reporting on climate change that is authoritative and deep. On the editorial pages, it can present a mix of respected and informed viewpoints. And online, it can encourage dialogue that is robust, even if it becomes bellicose. [Emphasis mine]

As far as I can tell, Alexander’s wish is being ignored. Today Will has published a column about recent negotiations on controlling carbon emissions. He considers them a bunch of empty promises, which seems to be just fine with Will, because there is no global warming to control anyway. Here’s how Will closes his latest piece:

When New York Times columnist Tom Friedman called upon “young Americans” to “get a million people on the Washington Mall calling for a price on carbon,” another columnist, Mark Steyn, responded: “If you’re 29, there has been no global warming for your entire adult life. If you’re graduating high school, there has been no global warming since you entered first grade.”

Which could explain why the Mall does not reverberate with youthful clamors about carbon. And why, regarding climate change, the U.S. government, rushing to impose unilateral cap-and-trade burdens on the sagging U.S. economy, looks increasingly like someone who bought a closetful of platform shoes and bell-bottom slacks just as disco was dying.

In earlier days, Will liked to claim the World Meteorological Organization as an authority when he wrote that there has been no global warming since 1998. Now that the World Meteorological Organization has set things straight, he’s claiming a columnist at National Review as his authority. That’s quite an upgrade.

The most urgent question today’s column raises is not about Will, but about how media organizations decide how to present science to the public. If the Post’s editorial page editors really do believe in fact-checking and in “respected and informed viewpoints,” I can only conclude that they slept in very late this morning.

Update: A commenter below accuses me of intellectual dishonesty for not showing a graph with a longer time-scale, which, I guess, would show that there’s no link between between carbon and climate. Ummm…like this one? (CO2 levels as black curve, temperature grey. Source pdf.)


July 23rd, 2009 10:24 AM by Carl Zimmer in Meta, The George Will On Ice Affair | 28 comments | RSS feed | Trackback >

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