the observatory

The George Will Affair

Post stands by climate column despite widespread criticism; clamor spills over to The New York Times
February 26, 2009

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.

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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.”

Hiatt said that he has invited both the World Meteorological Organization and the Arctic Ice Center at the University of Illinois to write a letter for publication taking issue with anything that George wrote, but neither organization has taken him up on the offer. Hiatt added that he doesn’t think Will has an obligation to point out, “in every column he writes about climate change,” that such organizations disagree with his interpretation of their data.

“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.”

There is some truth to that. Indeed, because of the hullaballoo, Will is now writing about climate change for the second time this month. On the other hand, this whole affair raises a number of important questions about how the press, particularly columnists, cover climate change. The most important seems to be: can inference rise to the level of such absurdity that it becomes subject to the same rigors as evidence?

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