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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 warming.


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 Research Center.


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 someone else.


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 polarized?


© 2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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