“If you’re concerned that readers of The Washington Post don’t get a sense that most of the world thinks climate change is real, I think that’s a misplaced concern,” he said. “And I can tell you: I don’t share George’s view. If you read our editorial pages you would know that we believe that the evidence of climate change is sufficiently alarming to justify major changes in public policy. But, you know what? I think it’s kind of healthy, given how, in so many areas—not just climatology, but medicine, and everything else—there is a tendency on the part of the lay public at times to ascribe certainty to things which are uncertain. I believe, and this me personally speaking, that there is a lot more we don’t know about climatology and there’s a lot more we have to learn in terms of our ability to predict climatological phenomena and how what’s happening in the oceans is going to interact with what’s happening in the atmosphere. And do I think it’s somehow dangerous to have one of our many columnists casting doubt on this consensus? No, I think it’s healthy. And let the other ones come in and slam him, if they think it’s irresponsible. That’s what an opinion page is for.”
Many would disagree with Hiatt, however. The Oregonian, for instance, declined to run Will’s column, which is widely syndicated. And, according to Talking Points Memo, which got a leaked copy, part of Will’s Friday column is expected to address an article by Andrew Revkin in The New York Times, which argued that Will had misrepresented scientific evidence in his first piece. Ironically, however, Revkin’s article, published Wednesday, has drawn a considerable amount of criticism from Will’s critics, too.
The piece’s central tenet was that there is an ever-present temptation to make exaggerated arguments, which either overplay or underplay the likely impacts of global warming, in an effort to influence public opinion. As case in point, Revkin cited both Will’s column and an overstatement about impacts made by Al Gore at the recent meeting American Association for the Advancement of Science.
During a presentation, Gore showed a slide that illustrated a sharp spike in weather-related disasters around the world and warned the audience that global warming was responsible. Gore removed the slide from his presentation after the Belgian research group had that assembled the disaster data said he had misrepresented their research, and that global warming’s relative contribution to the extreme events remains uncertain.
A few of the bloggers—most notably Joe Romm and Brad Johnson—who had been criticizing Will, along with a number of Revkin’s readers, immediately criticized the article for “lumping” Gore with Will, which they described as a “false equivalency.” And they have a point. Revkin’s Gore-vs-Will frame was certainly not the best choice for conveying his argument about the dangers of hyperbole. Though both men have committed the same mistake—misrepresenting scientific research—there is no question that Gore has demonstrated a far superior understanding of climate science than Will, and treated it much more accurately over many years of public discourse. In a response to readers’ complaints posted at his Dot Earth blog, Revkin wrote that:
In a longer story, I might have included some of the biographical background showing just how different these two men are on the issue … But the differences in the mens’ backgrounds, expertise and reputations were not at the heart of this piece. It was about the realities of climate science and long-term risk assessments and how they are a bad fit for the policy arena, no matter what your worldview or level of knowledge
Fair enough, but background, expertise, and reputation were certainly close enough to the heart of the piece to merit consideration. And even with such context, the choice of frame still seems questionable. Revkin’s main point, that we must not overplay or underplay the impacts climate change is incredibly important, but using Gore and Will to illustrate that point seems to be a case of needlessly politicizing climate issues in order to get space in the newspaper, which Revkin has deplored many times. Again, a backgrounder might have helped, but the result—a lot of heat and no light, as they say—might have been the same regardless.
Along that line, Revkin quoted American University communications professor Matthew Nisbet, who argues that the wave of criticism of Will “only serves to draw attention to his claims while reinforcing a larger false narrative that liberals and the mainstream press are seeking to censor rival scientific evidence and views.”