George Will and The Washington Post – Reputations gone up in smoke over global warming denialism

This is my response to Will’s pathetic attempt to defend his climate change denial offal [you can see more reactions here]:

Few phenomena generate as much heat as disputes about current orthodoxies concerning global warming.

While it is true that deliberate disinformation campaigns regarding climate change are met with some hostility in science circles, this “dispute” has become about Will’s serial falsehoods and moreover his and the editorial board of The Washington Post’s refusal to correct them. This story has become a poster child for the decline of print journalism. Rather than correct his untruths and own up to his dishonesty, Will is ignoring the real issue and enjoys the full backing of Fred Hiatt in doing so- showing that in the pages of The Washington Post, “facts” are what op-ed writers claim them to be and there is zero accountability for deceiving the public. It is sad but fitting that this is the route The Washington Post wants to go as the demise of traditional newspapers looms on the horizon.

This column recently reported and commented on some developments pertinent to the debate about whether global warming is occurring and what can and should be done. That column, which expressed skepticism about some emphatic proclamations by the alarmed, took a stroll down memory lane, through the debris of 1970s predictions about the near certainty of calamitous global cooling.

This is a blatant lie. There is no argument to be made about this. Will leaves himself no wiggle room and touts the cooling myth as reality. Not once, but twice- calling it a scientific “consensus” at the end of his column. The Washington Post is happy to not only print lies, but reprint them with the blessing of Fred Hiatt.

Concerning those predictions, the New York Times was — as it is today in a contrary crusade — a megaphone for the alarmed, as when (May 21, 1975) it reported that “a major cooling of the climate” was “widely considered inevitable” because it was “well established” that the Northern Hemisphere’s climate “has been getting cooler since about 1950.”

Here Will is engaging in obvious, pathetic quote mining. Setting aside that a single article in The New York Times is not itself sufficient evidence today or 20 odd years ago to proclaim the “near certainty” of anything- what does the NY Times article actually say? [following emphases mine]

The very headline of the article directly contradicts Will’s assertion: “Scientists Ask Why World Climate Is Changing; Major Cooling May Be Ahead.”

The opening graph: “The world’s climate is changing. Of that scientists are firmly convinced. But in what direction and why are the subjects of deepening debate.”

Yes, this is the story that Will flatly claimed as a “[prediction] about the near certainty of calamitous global cooling”.

This story, like several others championed by denialists, was trying to make sense of a number of disparate phenomena impacting the climate at the time. Orbital mechanics, particulate/aerosol dimming, and enhanced greenhouse warming are all real, climatically significant phenomena. Despite what Will’s first column would have The Washington Post’s readers believe and what he is ignoring here, these phenomena operate on different timescales and the scientific community was in no way proclaiming the “near certainty” that catastrophic cooling was imminent (the burgeoning consensus at the time was in fact already concerned with enhanced greenhouse warming). Will elides the distinctions between the mechanisms and timescales of aerosol dimming and orbital forcing to conflate the eventual inevitability of cooling caused by the latter with the immediate and observable impacts of the former. The New York Times article closes with a paragraph headed “Can the truth be learned?” detailing the significant uncertainties regarding climate dynamics expressed in the National Science Academy report from 1975. Quite the certain prediction indeed.

Will continues:

Now the Times, a trumpet that never sounds retreat in today’s war against warming, has afforded this column an opportunity to revisit another facet of this subject — meretricious journalism in the service of dubious certitudes.

When faced with his own ideological slatternliness, Will seems to have little to offer but projection.

On Wednesday, the Times carried a “news analysis” — a story in the paper’s news section, but one that was not just reporting news — accusing Al Gore and this columnist of inaccuracies. Gore can speak for himself. So can this columnist.

Reporter Andrew Revkin’s story was headlined: “In Debate on Climate Change, Exaggeration Is a Common Pitfall.” Regarding exaggeration, the Times knows whereof it speaks, especially when it revisits, if it ever does, its reporting on the global cooling scare of the 1970s, and its reporting and editorializing — sometimes a distinction without a difference — concerning today’s climate controversies.

I have little to add to Will’s sniping at Revkin and The New York Times, other than to note that Revkin’s column (which I certainly disagreed with with regard to its false equivalence between Gore and Will’s mendacity) came on the tail end of an avalanche of criticism from scientific and political circles, none of which Will addresses even though WaPo itself was forced to offer mealy-mouthed non-apologies in response.

Which returns us to Revkin. In a story ostensibly about journalism, he simply asserts — how does he know this? — that the last decade, which passed without warming, was just “a pause in warming.”

Our planetary energy imbalance? Basic physics? Crack a text book, George. Or at the very least a reputable journal article.

His attempt to contact this writer was an e-mail sent at 5:47 p.m., a few hours before the Times began printing his story, which was not so time-sensitive — it concerned controversies already many days running — that it had to appear the next day.

Revkin’s criticism, again, came late in the game and (inadequately in my mind) merely cataloged the list of falsehoods already pointed out by many, many others- starting as soon as Will’s column was up.

But Revkin reported that “experts said” this columnist’s intervention in the climate debate was “riddled with” inaccuracies. Revkin’s supposed experts might exist and might have expertise but they do not have names that Revkin wished to divulge.

Revkin cited the ACRC among others. I don’t want to get into an equivocation battle over what Revkin meant by “expert”, so I will leave it there but note that there are plenty more to be found.

[UPDATE: Revkin responds: Experts: Big Flaw in Will’s Ice Assertion]

As for the anonymous scientists’ unspecified claims about the column’s supposedly myriad inaccuracies: The column contained many factual assertions but only one has been challenged. The challenge is mistaken.

This, too, is a lie. The number of assertions challenged and debunked depends on which criticism one feels like reading, but Joe Romm, for example, challenged the article pretty much in its entirety on the day the column ran, certainly more than just the sea ice claims.

Citing data from the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, as interpreted on Jan. 1 by Daily Tech, a technology and science news blog

Will’s original column ran February 15th. The sea ice data is continually tracked and updated. Will stated in his column, on February 15th:

According to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.

Will says “now”. He makes no reference to the month of January, nor to “Daily Tech”. He cited as his source the Arctic Climate Research Center. He made the claim as true “now” on February 15th, not as of the previous month. Regardless, anyone who has taken an intro-level stats class could tell what is wrong with making a claim based upon such a ridiculous method of analysis. And it’s not as though Will was merely observing an isolated point and implying nothing about it- he offered this “factual assertion” as evidence against the reality of anthropogenic warming, prefacing it with: “as global levels of sea ice declined last year, many experts said this was evidence of man-made global warming.”

Will goes on in a longwinded attempt to justify his cherry picked claim, presented as current even though it was scrounged from a blog without citation about the previous months data, and falsely attributed to the Arctic Climate Research Center itself. I have no interest in going over it here. I’m sure others with more time and zeal will have at it at some point if they haven’t already. [UPDATE: Revkin’s latest column has a full refutation by Bill Chapman and Mark Serreze]. I will leave it at the end of this column for completeness, as a reminder to Will that when one doesn’t engage in cherry picking, accusations of lying aren’t a concern.

That Will was dishonest many times over is not in dispute. That The Washington Post has chosen not only refuse to remedy the situation, but to defend Will’s perpetuation of his falsehoods is a testament to Fred Hiatt’s complete lack of journalistic integrity. It has become “one of those things” many have resigned themselves to that pundits like Will lie, misrepresent issues, and are flat out factually bankrupt in their columns. It is something else altogether to witness the naked encouragement of this from an internationally renown newspaper.

I am not hoping that The Washington Post joins The Rocky Mountain News as another casualty of print journalism collapse. I, as I assume most would, would rather see the Post acknowledge its egregious failure here, learn something from it all, and emerge a better institution because of it. With contributors like Will and editorial heads like Hiatt however, I can’t say that I will be saddened or surprised if it too goes under.

The rest of Will’s column:

the column said that since September “the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began.” According to the center, global sea ice levels at the end of 2008 were “near or slightly lower than” those of 1979. The center generally does not make its statistics available, but in a Jan. 12 statement the center confirmed that global sea ice levels were within a difference of less than 3 percent of the 1980 level.

So the column accurately reported what the center had reported. But on Feb. 15, the Sunday the column appeared, the center, then receiving many e-mail inquiries, issued a statement saying “we do not know where George Will is getting his information.” The answer was: From the center, via Daily Tech. Consult the center’s Web site where, on Jan. 12, the center posted the confirmation of the data that this column subsequently reported accurately.

The scientists at the Illinois center offer their statistics with responsible caveats germane to margins of error in measurements and precise seasonal comparisons of year-on-year estimates of global sea ice. Nowadays, however, scientists often find themselves enveloped in furies triggered by any expression of skepticism about the global warming consensus (which will prevail until a diametrically different consensus comes along; see the 1970s) in the media-environmental complex. Concerning which:

On Feb. 18 the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that from early January until the middle of this month, a defective performance by satellite monitors that measure sea ice caused an underestimation of the extent of Arctic sea ice by 193,000 square miles, which is approximately the size of California. The Times (“All the news that’s fit to print”), which as of this writing had not printed that story, should unleash Revkin and his unnamed experts.

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10 responses to “George Will and The Washington Post – Reputations gone up in smoke over global warming denialism

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