Thought the dust kicked up by George Will’s February 15 column in The Washington Post, “Dark Green Doomsayers,” had settled? Think again.
On Friday, the Post will run a second column by Will addressing the widespread criticism he received for the last one. And while his editor, Fred Hiatt, defends both columns to CJR, the climate world is beside itself, and the case raises important questions about journalistic evidence and inference.
In his first column, Will attempted to argue that predictions of dire, planetary impacts—drought, sea-level rise, etc.—caused by global warming are nothing but paranoid hype. Will used a number of misleading arguments, however. He misrepresented scientific evidence about the state of global sea ice and he resurrected a long-debunked argument about a scientific consensus on prolonged global cooling in the mid-20th century.
A wide variety of scientists, journalists, bloggers, and pundits has refuted Will’s arguments many times over in the week and a half since. A comprehensive list of those rebuttals, including an early entry from CJR, can be found here.
A number of critics tried to reach Will, but to no avail. Then, four days after the column ran, the Wonk Room’s Brad Johnson got a response from the Post’s ombudsman, Andy Alexander, who wrote that the paper “has a multi-layer editing process and checks facts to the fullest extent possible. In this instance, George Will’s column was checked by people he personally employs, as well as two editors at the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates Will; our op-ed page editor; and two copy editors.” Later, Alan Shearer, the Washington Post Writers Group editorial director, told the Wonk Room, “We have plenty of references that support what George wrote, and we have others that dispute that. So we didn’t have enough to send in a correction.”
“There’s a lot of wiggly, lawyerly language here,” science journalist Carl Zimmer wrote in a very well reasoned blog entry about why the Post’s response was inadequate. Three days earlier, Zimmer had published what was perhaps the best case (among the myriad others) for a correction, arguing that opinion pages need to do a much better job with fact checking.
But his point about the wiggly, lawyerly language is especially germane because this is a classic case of evidence versus inference. The Post can argue that, technically, all of the evidence Will presents passed fact-checking; and Will can then infer what he wants about that evidence—even if his inferences differ drastically from those of the scientists who collected the evidence—without journalistic foul.
Undeterred, on Tuesday, the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters, Friends of the Earth, and Media Matters for America sent a joint letter to the Post reiterating the call for some form of correction or clarification. It cited three key problems with Will’s column: that he misused data on global sea ice levels from the Arctic Climate Research Center; that he misrepresented the World Meteorological Organization’s position on global warming and climate trends; and that he “rehashed the discredited myth that in the 1970s, there was broad scientific consensus that the Earth faced an imminent global cooling threat.”
“George Will is entitled to his own opinions, but he is not entitled to his own facts,” the letter concluded. “We respectfully ask that you immediately make your readers aware of the glaring misinformation in Will’s column.” But the Post’s position remains the same.
“We looked into these allegations, and I have a different interpretation than [those who signed the letter] about what George Will is and is not entitled to,” said the paper’s editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt. “If you want to start telling me that columnists can’t make inferences which you disagree with—and, you know, they want to run a campaign online to pressure newspapers into suppressing minority views on this subject—I think that’s really inappropriate. It may well be that he is drawing inferences from data that most scientists reject — so, you know, fine, I welcome anyone to make that point. But don’t make it by suggesting that George Will shouldn’t be allowed to make the contrary point. Debate him.”