George Will, Unplugged

By Keith Kloor | March 7, 2009 9:08 am

It’s easy to dismiss George Will as an ideologue but you can’t dismiss his intellect. He is a bright guy. And he’s been willing to take on his own tribe, as Sara Palin and George W. Bush discovered.

So what causes him to become so muddle-headed when he writes about global warming? I believe this interview, in which he expounds on the uproar over his two recent columns, is quite revealing.  Here’s one exchange:

Q. What disturbs you most about this global warming consensus that seems to be pretty widespread and doesn’t seem to be eroding?

A. Well, I think it is eroding, in the sense that people sign on to be alarmed because it’s socially responsible…(and because it makes them feel good). But once they get to the price tag, once they are asked to do something about it, like pay trillions of dollars, they begin to rethink.

First of all, the consensus is not eroding and Will is smart enough to know that. But I think the rest of his statement speaks to a larger animus he has towards environmentalism in general.  It’s worth reading in its entirety to understand what I suspect is really behind Will’s two recent factually incorrect columns:

I’ve never seen anything quite like this in my 40 years in Washington. I’ve never seen anything like the enlistment of the mainstream media in a political crusade–and this is a political crusade, because it’s about how we should be governed and how we should live; those are the great questions of politics. It is clearly for some people a surrogate religion. It’s a spiritual quest. It offers redemption. But what it also always offers, whether it is global cooling or global warming, is a rationale for the government to radically increase its supervision of our life and our choices. Whether the globe is cooling, whether it’s warming, the government’s going to be the winner and the governing class will be the winner.

There’s a lot of familiar (and outdated) criticism of environmentalism there, such as his harping on the spiritual aspect, but what’s also evident is his deep-seated opposition to the “command and control” paradigm that has largely epitomized government’s approach to environmental regulation since the foundational laws were first enacted in the early 1970s.

George Will’s antagonism for mainstream environmentalism is a matter of long record.  Global warming, because of its recent elevation as a major societal concern, merely provides him the cudgel for his own ideological crusade.

Will’s latest two latest columns on climate change and this interview show how he is allowing himself to be governed by ideological biases, and not his considerable intellect.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate change, George Will
  • http://www.inkstain.net/fleck/ John Fleck

    I think this gets to the heart of the genuine political argument, which is about costs and benefits of the response. What’s odd, given these statements, is that Will chooses in his columns to attack the science poorly, rather than engage the far more useful debate about the appropriate response.

  • vanderleun

    “the rest of his statement speaks to a larger animus he has towards environmentalism in general. ”

    Well,  yes, but that is a very useful and wise animus to have. One hopes that hundreds of millions of others follow that lead and get a similar animus of their own.

  • Steve Bloom

    I’ve made this same general point before.  It’s also worth noting that global warming concerns would first have come to the attention of someone in Will’s position during the environmental antiregulatory frenzy of the Reagan years.  To be fair to Will, the science was far weaker then, in which case an interesting question to examine is how such views tend to become part of what might be called the wingnut “standard model” and how very difficult it is for them to be removed even as circumstances change. 

    Will himself could deal with the problem by just ceasing to write about it, but listening to the extensive ranting of wingnut talk radio on this issue makes it clear that he can’t so long as he sees his primary role to be one of reinforcing the standard model.

    The obvious answer to John’s point is that for people like Will dropping the science objections to focus on the policy response would require such a fundamental modification of the standard model (i.e., abandoning the idea that free enterprise can solve all problems) that he simply refuses to do it.  Necessary to avoiding cognitive dissonance is continued belief in a sufficient degree of uncertainty with respect to the implications of climate science and thus uncertainty in the science itself.  Seen in this light, this weekend’s Heartland conference looks a lot less ridiculous and a lot more dangerous, notwithstanding that every bit of the featured science is ludicrous.

    For the record, add to John Fleck’s experience with trying to set Will straight on the “global cooling” meme John Quiggin’s columnist’s'<a href=”http://johnquiggin.com/index.php/archives/2009/02/26/recycling-in-a-digital-world/”>viewpoint</a> of  Will’s phoning in of prior material.  Facts aside, one would think Fred Hiatt and the WaPo Writers Group would have a problem with that, but apparently not.  

    I also want to highlight this weird assertion by Will: 

    <blockquote>The critics completely ignored — as again, understandably — the evidence I gave of the global cooling hysteria of 30 years ago.</blockquote>

    Critics?  I seem to recall that it was Andy Alexander who did the ignoring.     

  • Thom

    It’s broader than environmentalism.  It’s really science.  Will just doesn’t care for scientific information that implies a need for government action.

    He displayed much of the same animus toward the science on second hand smoke.  The EPA came out with a risk assessment on second hand smoke in 1992.  Nonetheless, Will and many other right leaning columnists continued to repeat tobacco company talking points for years.

  • oso loco

    I find it amazng that this conversation hasn’t died of boredom.
    OTOH Steve Bloom writes:
    Will himself could deal with the problem by just ceasing to write about it,

    And that is the point, isn’t it.  To “teach him a lesson” – like schoolyard bullies ensuring that others fall in line with their wishes.  After all, it’s worked so well in convincing others to not publish or talk about subjects that are not aligned with the views of the “consensus”. 

    In any case, I have yet to see anyone provide any “science” to disprove what Will wrote. And I’ve been looking really hard.
    The only arguments I’ve seen against Will are either ad hominem attacks or arguments by assertion. Argument by assertion is, by definition, not very bright. Kinda like trying to beat your opponent up with a cotton candy bat. 

    Hate to give you bad news, guys, but there’s never been a “consensus” among scientists – only among environmentalists and the media. 

  • Hank Roberts

    > I have yet to see … any “science” to disprove

    How this argument works:

    Deliver a load of fertilizer, announce that there has to be a pony in there somewhere, challenge the scientists to go through it and prove there isn’t a pony, and proclaim they have failed.

  • Hank Roberts
  • oso loco

    Hank –
    Since Walt Meier, the Director of NSIDC, confirmed that Will’s contention about ice area was correct, it becomes incumbent on those who oppose Will’s statements to provide proof that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. 

    And since he’s been proved right on the central point of contention, the only way to do that is to prove that his other statements are incorrect.  As far as I can determine, nobody’s even attempted to do so. 

    Instead it’s come down to the tired old statement “The science is settled so how dare he publish anything that contradicts what everybody knows is so”.   Somehow those who use that line always fail to understand that the science is NEVER settled.   Nor do they understand that saying they’re right doesn’t make them right.  Nor do they understand that if “everybody knows it’s so”, then “it” (whatever “it” is) will shortly be proved wrong.   Life doesn’t offer that much certainty – nor does science.  And if science does so, then it’s not science at all. 

    I don’t look for ponies – nor do I expect you to.   I look for reality.  And reality doesn’t reside in either ad hominem attacks or argument by assertion.  

    Keith –
    I came here once not too long ago.  I came back largely because of the petroglyph in your header.   I’ve spent more than a few months in the last several years wandering the Southwest deserts finding and photographing ruins and rock art.  So your site intrigued me.  But I think you might find me troublesome – I’m a retired aerospace engineer who spent 40+ years working with the basic data that some people believe proves the case for catastrophic AGW.  But it doesn’t.  So if you moderate my posts, I won’t get all bent out of shape about it.
    In any case, I’ll be around only until mid-May – then I’ll be headed west again. 

  • Hank Roberts

    > Walt Meier, the Director of NSIDC, confirmed

    So you say.  Who says this? Where? Why do you believe it?
    Citation needed.

    Can you find that here?
    http://www.google.com/search?q=“Walt+Meier”++NSIDC+”George+Will”

    Suggestion: look for a direct quote beginning:

    Basically, Mr. Will made three mistakes:

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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