George Will’s irresponsible article denying climate change and the Washington Post’s irresponsible fact-checking

March 4, 2009 | By | 12 Replies More

George Will has written an irresponsible article denying climate change (AKA global warming). Here’s the basic problem with George Will’s writing, as stated succinctly by The Wonk Room:

In “Dark Green Doomsayers,”  Will attacked Secretary of Energy Steven Chu for discussing a worst-case scenario of California drought caused by the decimation of Sierra snowpack, falsely claiming Chu predicted this will come to pass “no later than 10 years away.” Will also incorrectly claimed that “global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979″ — based on a 45-day-old blog post by Daily Tech’s Michael Asher, one of Marc Morano’s climate denial jokers.

Will’s article is riddled with falsehoods. The radically untrue nature of Will’s article is beyond dispute.

Confronted with Will’s cauldron of conservative climate denial propaganda, the Washington Post was faced with a stark choice.  It could either A) confess that it failed to do any competent fact-checking or B) compound Will’s lies with its own by claiming that it did real fact-checking.   It chose “B.”  Here is a description of the WaPo’s pack of lies.   Further, Carl Zimmer of The Loom (at Discover Magazine) has shed lots of light on the WaPo’s decision to compound Will’s lies rather than come clean.  thin-earth-atmosphere-nasa-photo

The Wonk Room has now brought the focus razor sharp by publishing the elaborate throw-yourself-on-the-sword correction that the Washington Post should have published.

Here’s the basic problem with people like George Will.   He’s one of the many too-comfortable celebrities who treat journalism like a game, not a sincere and self-critical search for knowledge.  For many of the celebrity-journalists, writing is a game whereby they consciously decide to parlay their prominent names into cash by pumping drivel into empty column-inches that would all-too-often be better off empty.  Remember that George Will is a guy who could barely summon the courage to speak up prior to the election that Obama’s team was more competent than McCain/Palin.  He finally blurted out enough clues on that issue to let us know where he was leaning, but he had great difficulty holding his head up and saying the obvious. He is much like a traditional politician in that he is ultra-concerned about offending his “constituents.”

Of course, maybe it wasn’t a desire to placate his right-leaning readers this time.  Maybe, this time, the problem was that Will was exceedingly lazy and sloppy. From his article, it’s clear that Will barely dabbles in science; perhaps he doesn’t know enough to know that he doesn’t know enough.   Maybe his column was yet another example of the phenomenon John Paulos terms “innumeracy,” the widespread inability to deal comfortably with the fundamental notions of number and chance, a problem that afflicts even knowledgeable citizens.  Maybe it’s all of the above.

There are two entirely independent problems here.  Nothing about George Will’s conduct explains the entirely independent journalistic malpractice committed by The Washington Post, which, to this day, claims that it actually fact-checked Will’s article, even though this “fact-checking” could have been done better by many fourth graders.  Doesn’t the Washington Post understand that this issue of climate change has immense consequences?  Doesn’t the newspaper care that thousands or millions of lives could be ruined or lost and that trillions of dollars of homes and businesses could be at risk if we get this issue wrong?

The problem with George Will and the Washington Post “fact-checkers” can be spotted in all global warming deniers. We call them “deniers” because they work hard to cherry pick their evidence and then they consciously misconstrue it.  They are also “deniers” in another sense:  they won’t consider the potential consequences of the course they are trying to steer.  What if they are wrong?  Really and truly.  Why can’t they bear to even consider the possibility of half of Florida being under a foot of water.  When faced with even a small risk of immense harm, rational people take precautions.  That’s why we carry spare tires in our trunks.  That’s why rational people don’t let infants play with guns that are “probably” not loaded.

We’ve run into climate change deniers here at Dangerous Intersection.  Here’s a recent example.   When they shovel out their conservative propaganda, we have referred them to the work of serious scientists.  When they have obfuscated and outright lied and we’ve called them on their lies.  We all have full time jobs that divert our energies from this website and we operate this site with a budget of $0 (we’ve only recently incorporated advertising which merely offsets some of the cost of hosting).

Compare that to The Washington Post, arguably one of America’s premier newspapers.  The WaPo employs full-time professionals to do fact-checking.  If those fact-checkers are over their heads, scientifically speaking, they can get world-class scientists on the phone in the blink of an eye.  Unless, of course, The Washington Post would rather not know, which is what really happened in this case involved George Will.  It would rather not know because it doesn’t have the cojones to confront and thereby embarrass a writer who draws considerable traffic, even when that writer is way out of line.  That’s how I see it.

The Washington Post can do better than it did regarding George Will’s decision to serve as a megaphone for the many climate change deniers out there.  The Washington Post can do much better.  It’s time for the Washington Post to have pride in what it allows to be published on its pages.  It can start by publishing the Wonk Room’s correction and signing it.

[Photo of Earth’s thin atmosphere from NASA’s archives].


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Category: American Culture, Environment, global warming, ignorance, Media, Science, snake oil, Statistics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (12)

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  1. Karl says:

    George Will is not off his rocker, He admits what needs to be admitted when the evidence is or is not present. Call him what you will but his media image has been more correct than most for many years.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Karl. Well-stated for a guy who was at his most dishonest on this exact same issue. You are, in fact, the poster boy, for dishonest climate change denial. Follow the linked example from this post and there you are desperately trying to misrepresent the findings from other sites and trying to pawn off the information from other deniers.

  2. As has been pointed out in other posts, the problem is one of identifying causes. That global warming is occurring is indisputable. Whether what humans are pumping into the atmosphere is the cause or merely exacerbating an otherwise natural cyclic phenomenon is still (marginally) debatable. The question then arises: would curtailing our own emissions do anything to roll back global warming?

    There are two ways to look at this. (A) To declare a failure to try is morally culpable or (B) accept that it might do nothing at all and continue on as we have been.

    To do (A) would engender huge and expensive effort that, best intentions notwithstanding, will cause enormous convulsions in the industries that supply us with many of the things we've come to rely on to live, not least of which would be Jobs. How much is your morality worth?

    To go with (B) however is to ignore all the other problems that attend unbridled emissions which we have known about for many decades. We must not forget that global warming is only the latest in a catalogue of problems connected to how we supply ourselves with energy and equip our lives. We threaten to poison ourselves slowly over time, regardless of the causal connection to global warming.

    Will, like most conservatives, is leery of convulsive society-wide changes, and he's not off his rocker to be that way. Revolutions—and the size of the problem in fact calls for revolution if it is to be seriously dealt with—create victims. You might rightly say that doing nothing also creates victims, but for now of a wholly known quantity and type.

    So he cherry picks his facts—as do most of us depending on the topic. The problem is that he has a pulpit. People credit his words more than most. But it was probably not laziness. Rather, he's patting the air with both hands, palms downward, and saying "Now, let's not panic, it's not so bad."

    He's wrong about that, of course, but consider how much worse a situation might be made by feeding any kind of panic. To someone like Will, jobs may seem more important to preserve—especially now—than the dubious possibility of turning back something that might not be within our power to address.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Mark: You've nailed George Will's thought process, I do believe. Non3theless, he is a conscious liar and I detest that. Climate change is an important issue where smart people like George Will shouldn't conflate their hopes with the facts. If Will wants to communicate more responsibly, he should have written something like this:

      I'm going to tell you a bunch of lies about climate change in order to convince you to not make any drastic changes to our economic system because the ensuing stress (and potentially, panic) will result in short term job losses and other bad things, I believe.

      Therefore, here are my lies that I am using to obfuscate inconvenient facts . . .

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Carl Zimmer has taken the time to respond further regarding George Will's despicable op-ed. Despicable because he is a prominent writer who has deliberately lied or chosen to not be informed before weighing in on a critically important topic. Here's Zimmer's meaty post.

    Seeing the energy required to correct the lies reminds me how easy it is spread ignorant populism compared to taking the time to communicate hard-earned scientific results. I really appreciate Carl's energy and dedication to exposing Will's effort to correct the record.

    On further thought about Will, I'm wondering further about his motives. He probably took quite a few hits when he refused to support McCain. I'm suspecting that his awful op-ed about climate change is a conscious attempt to win back some of his conservative audience.

  4. Tim Hogan says:

    Mr. Will no longer has my support for Commissioner of Baseball. Shame on you George Will! Shame!

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    The Washington Post is starting to get the facts right. That's a step in the right direction.

    MAKE NO mistake, Arctic Sea ice is melting. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the maximum extent of the winter sea ice cover for 2008-09 was the fifth-lowest on record. Underscoring their point, the agencies added, "The six lowest maximum events since satellite monitoring began in 1979 have all occurred in the past six years (2004-09)."

    Now they need to fact check George Will's future columns.

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    It's not all just jabber. There is some real science in climate science, as Chris Mooney points out.

    The Washington Post still doesn't get it. George Will misstated facts, and neither Will nor the Washington Post has been willing to own up to it.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    The Washington Post apparently loves the ad revenue it generates when it publishes junk science. The most recent incident is an op-ed piece by climatologist Sarah Palin.

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    The climate deniers need to look at the graph that is part of this post:

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