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February 23, 2009
Is George Will
Entitled to His Own ‘Facts’ on Global Warming?
If nothing else, the climate debate has provided valuable
insights into how bad information proliferates through the national
dialogue. Case in point: Last week’s column from George Will on global
Will piled up a small
assortment of unrelated talking points around what appeared to be the
central theme that Will thinks global warming is hogwash. Although all
of them turned out to be either patently false or just horribly
misleading, one stands out as worthy of scrutiny because of what it says
not about Will, but about the process by which it entered the public
consciousness. That error claims that an ice research center found that
global sea ice today is the same as it was in 1979.
One of the first voices
of protest to the column came from the University of Illinois’s Arctic
Research Center. This was the outfit whose ice data Will cited, and it
responded by posting on its web site a disclaimer that it had no idea
where Will got his information, but that it certainly didn’t reflect any
conclusion the Center had reached. They trotted out a number, 15.45.
That’s the number of thousands of kilometers of global sea ice recorded
Feb. 15 of this year. They trotted out another number, 16.79, which is
the number of thousands of kilometers of sea ice on Feb. 15, 1979.
“It is disturbing that
the Washington Post would publish such information without first
checking the facts,” the disclaimer concluded.
When presented with this,
Will’s publisher – the Washington Post and its syndication arm –
circled the wagons and claimed that the column’s facts were thoroughly
checked. What none of them apparently did was contact the Arctic
The first person to do
that was science writer Carl Zimmer, who wrote about the controversy
last week as it evolved. Following a comment on his blog that alerted a
reader to a potential glitch in the data, Zimmer contacted the Arctic
Research Center to find out what it meant. Part of the response he got?
“It’s refreshing to have
someone ask about the data before they write about it,” wrote Bill
Chapman, University of Illinois climate scientist, according to a blog
post written by Zimmer.
What is most unfortunate
is that Will’s syndication service, when presented with the possibility
of an error, didn’t. In fact, the Post’s syndication service
content editor insisted that there was no need for a correction or
clarification, since they found sources to corroborate both sides. The
fact that the primary source was one of those insisting that the data
was used inaccurately apparently didn’t matter.
The damage here isn’t
just confined to the pages of the Washington Post. According to a
Media Matters for America study in 2007, Will is the nation’s most
widely read syndicated columnist. Subscribing newspapers pay for not
just the convenience and value of using respected editorial voices on
their pages, but also the efficiency of leaving the fact checking up to
Absent a correction from
the syndication service, there is no way to correct an error.
Subscribing newspapers won’t issue them on their own, which leaves only
letters to the editor, the least effective form of fact checking. Will
and the syndication service are inured from this, and are free to rally
the wagons. The alternative is to issue a correction that might raise
questions of whether Will is a credible voice on climate change.
Accuracy and accountability are lost, swallowed up by the many folds of
the publishing process.
This brings us to an
oft-repeated line . . . people are entitled to their own opinion, but
not their own facts. It’s a no brainer. But it appears that Will’s
employers maybe beg to differ, and see no special reason to see things
differently. The message is that everyone can have their own opinions
and their own facts. Is it a surprise how American politics got so
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