Post vs. Post

News article, blog entry criticize Will’s account of warming (one fails)

On Tuesday, an article and a blog entry at The Washington Post both took the unusual step of rebutting one of the paper’s own columnists, George Will, who has drawn widespread criticism for misusing scientific data about global warming.

Will has penned three columns on climate change in the last month, disparaging the scientific consensus that the world is warming and that human industry is the cause. In doing so, he repeatedly mischaracterized research about trends in global temperature and the extent of sea ice. These distortions led journalists, bloggers, and, most importantly, the scientists whose data he abused to call for some form of correction or even a full-fledged retraction. The Post’s editorial page editor stood by Will, however, arguing that his columns were factually correct and that his controversial remarks qualified as inference rather than evidence.

Now, other members of the Post staff are joining the fray by arguing that, all semantics aside, Will is simply wrong. In a Tuesday post at the Capital Weather Gang blog, Andrew Freedman, for instance, summed up the predicament very nicely:

The Post’s ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, found some problems with the piece, but did not find evidence that Will committed factual errors or distorted facts in the February 15th article. However, avoiding those cardinal journalistic sins does not constitute the end of Will’s responsibility to readers. There is another important consideration, which is whether he provides readers with misleading climate science information that conflicts with what scientists know about the climate system. This is more nuanced than blatantly stating falsehoods, but it is perhaps just as important.

In fact, it is just as important. There is no ‘perhaps’ about it. When challenging Will, however, critics must be very careful with details. Take, for instance, an article that appeared on page A3 of the Tuesday’s paper, by reporters Juliet Eilperin and Mary Beth Sheridan. The piece pointed out new evidence “that the maximum extent of the 2008-2009 winter sea ice cover was the fifth-lowest since researchers began collecting such information 30 years ago.” It then went on to note that:

The new evidence — including satellite data showing that the average multiyear wintertime sea ice cover in the Arctic in 2005 and 2006 was nine feet thick, a significant decline from the 1980s — contradicts data cited in widely circulated reports by Washington Post columnist George F. Will that sea ice in the Arctic has not significantly declined since 1979.

But here’s the thing: Will never argued that Arctic sea ice has not declined significantly since 1979; he argued that global sea ice has not declined significantly since 1979. According to data from the University of Illinois’s polar research group, the global winter sea ice cover was indeed lower this year than it was in 1979, but—to be absolutely clear—Eilperin and Sheridan’s sentence about the maximum wintertime extent being the fifth lowest on record applies only to the Arctic.

Of course, it’s easy to understand where the confusion comes from. In the course of discussing global sea ice levels, Will repeatedly cited the University of Illinois’s “Arctic Climate Research Center,” which does not exist. The Wonk Room’s Brad Johnson spotted the error, which dates back to a January 1 blog post at the Daily Tech.

In fact, I made the same lazy mistake a few weeks before Will did while criticizing a number of problems with that post. The University of Illinois team had received a number of media inquires about the Daily Tech headline: “Sea ice ends year at same level as 1979.” The piece had basically spun the researchers’ data the same way Will did, and the 1979 meme quickly died with no further attention from the press. That is, of course, until George Will didn’t bother to talk to the scientists — and it was only in his second column on the matter that he owned up to “citing data … as interpreted on Jan. 1 by Daily Tech.”

The problem with that interpretation—as the polar research group explained (pdf) to all who asked—is that “In the context of climate change, global sea ice area may not be the most relevant indicator.” That is because the impacts of climate change can be highly localized and the relative stability of winter sea ice globally belies the fact it is declining much more rapidly in the Arctic than it is in Antarctica (though there is some evidence—such as the recent deterioration of the Wilkins ice shelf—that the South Pole is catching up).

This brings us back to Eilperin and Sheridan’s article. Their report about the increasingly precarious state of Arctic sea ice should buttress the argument that Will is spinning scientific facts to suit his own point of view. But at the same time, they should have been more careful with their details as well. Will consistently referred to global sea ice extent precisely because doing so masks the impacts of warming. So when Eilperin and Sheridan charge him with making arguments about Arctic sea ice instead, it muddles one of the key things Will did wrong.

Perhaps I’m overreacting. As Grist’s David Roberts pointed out, though, it’s “pretty extraordinary” for a news article to criticize by name a columnist at the same publication. And, “In response to the Will controversy, numerous people have made the point that people who work for the Post … have a responsibility to speak out about their employer’s willingness to mislead readers.”

That is only going to work if those people have all their facts in order. If they flub any detail, their “extraordinary” effort will have the opposite effect and empower Will to spin the science even harder in his next column.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.