My Washington Post Answer to George Will

By Chris Mooney | March 21, 2009 6:26 am

As any reader of this blog knows, I was for a while very critical of the Washington Post editorial page amid the George Will affair. Now, my view has changed.

Today the Post publishes, replete with links to many scientific sources, my op-ed answering three claims Will made in his now infamous “Dark Green Doomsayers” column, and also making a broader point about why we need standards in science-centered journalism and commentary.

I’m extremely heartened that the Post ran the piece, and has at least allowed me to correct Will–or, to “debate” him. Without further ado, the oped begins like this:

A recent controversy over claims about climate science by Post op-ed columnist George F. Will raises a critical question: Can we ever know, on any contentious or politicized topic, how to recognize the real conclusions of science and how to distinguish them from scientific-sounding spin or misinformation?

Congress will soon consider global-warming legislation, and the debate comes as contradictory claims about climate science abound. Partisans of this issue often wield vastly different facts and sometimes seem to even live in different realities.

In this context, finding common ground will be very difficult. Perhaps the only hope involves taking a stand for a breed of journalism and commentary that is not permitted to simply say anything; that is constrained by standards of evidence, rigor and reproducibility that are similar to the canons of modern science itself….

You can read the rest here.

I spent a weekend doing this column, wondering if I was wasting my time. Now I’m very glad I did it.

UPDATE: I didn’t realize it until just now, but my column is paired with a letter from the secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization, Michel Jarraud, further debunking Will. In combination, this is a pretty powerful riposte, to say the least. Read Jarraud’s letter here.

UPDATE II: Wow. Over at the Post there are already over 80 comments (as of 9:30 ET)…now there are 200 as of 12:30 ET….

UPDATE III: Linkage: Adam Siegel, Joe Romm, Michael Tobis, John Fleck, Think Progress, Mike Dunford, Tim Lambert, Abel Pharmboy, Carl Zimmer, David Roberts, Matthew Yglesias, Atrios, Brad Johnson (Wonk Room), Jamison Foser (Media Matters), Steve Benen, Simon Donner, John Fleck (again)…..

Comments (51)

  1. benjdm

    Excellent work, Chris!

  2. MikeMa

    They printed that? On real paper? In a regular edition?

    Huh, who would have thought. A weekend well spent, Chris.

  3. Wes

    Very well written article, Chris.

    Unfortunately, I fear that the people who really need to read it won’t. But then, I’m a pessimist.

  4. There is never had so much of ice in the antartique since its discovery by James Cook in 1770. To go out 1000MW in photovoltaic panels, it would be necessary to have a 50 mile ground ². Expense: + of 60 billions $ + 70 billions $ installation of stocking.
    In equal or lesser expense there is the nuclear power station which would develop 20 times more (20000MW)

    ?????!

  5. Don Beattie

    Mr Mooney: Did you cover the recent Heartland Conference in NY? If not why not? Instead of critiquing Mr. Will, a non-scientist, why not critique REAL scientists. For instance Dr. Richard Lindzen, MIT. Are you aware of the REAL controversies concerning the CO2 data collected at only one data point in Hawaii used in most climate change models? Are you aware of the REAL data concerning CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels? Are you aware of any data on climate change other than predictions made from models that are based on controversial assumptions. Do you know how mathematical models are constructed and operate? I could add many more questions, however, if you are not prepared to deal honestly with these questions, then you should not consider yourself a honest reviewer of climate change literature. Be aware that organizations such as AAAS (of which I am a Fellow) have taken policy positions of not accepting studies that will indicate contrary positions to IPCC. Respectfully submitted

  6. Chris

    It is an excellent piece. It is, as always, a bit of a distressing eye-opener to read the denier responses, such as the comparison of publishing you to publishing material from the Taliban.

    The publication of your piece and the WMO letter (which are among 1000s of pieces that Hiatt and the Post received), together, is a strong implicit statement by the Post editorial board, perhaps reflecting some serious internal discontent over publishing Will’s deception. Have to wonder, however, if there will be a formal statement (an editorial) to reinforce your two pieces.

    FYI: Have added both pieces to my attempt to keep up with the Will Affair: http://getenergysmartnow.com/2009/03/04/the-will-affair-struggling-to-keep-up/

  7. Jon Winsor

    Did you cover the recent Heartland Conference in NY? If not why not?

    I thought Tim Lambert did a good job covering it.

  8. Jon Winsor

    Congrats, Chris! Very well done from start to finish.

  9. Your and the WMO notes are good. But the cynic in me notices that it took the Post 5 weeks to run the responses, and when they did run, it was on Saturday, not a Sunday as Will’s ran. If I remember correctly, Saturday circulation is 1/2 to 1/3rd of the Sunday circulation.

  10. Erasmussimo

    Mr. Beattie, if you would like to make a case, then make it. The questions you ask insinuate much but substantiate nothing.

  11. Everyone who lives in a community where the local newspaper carried the George Will column needs to be pushing their local editors to publish Chris’s answer. I have discussed this with the Opinion Page Editor at the San Jose Mercury News and it quickly became an issue of syndication agreements, rights to reproduce, etc.

    Chris, we need to understand how we might do this that is fair to you.

  12. Wes,
    If any paper wants to run my piece just put me in the email loop and we’ll figure this out.

  13. The Post has for the last week and a half been running lots of science.

  14. Chris;

    Congratulations on a weekend of time well spent!

  15. Arianna Huffington wrote a piece some time ago on the limitations of newspapers:

    http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/03/31/080331fa_fact_alterman?currentPage=all

    They are not a great place for real debate. You risked a lot of time hoping they would post your letter. I would like to see a long internet debate between George and you that runs for a week. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

    http://www.biodiversivist.com

  16. Don Beattie

    Per question of my comments: It would take too much space to answer the questions I raised. If you truly want to understand the differences between the two sides of climate change researchers, suggest you visit the Heartland Conference website and begin reading presentations made at the conference. Or, if you don’t have enough time to read many of them in order to try and understand the science behind observing and understanding climate change, suggest you just read the presentation made by H. H. Schmitt (former scientist- astronaut). Or, if you would be interested in reading a compendium on the politicization of climate change, read Dr. Lindzen’s paper: Climate Science: Is it currently designed to answer questions? If you don’t take the time to become familiar with problems of modeling the huge atmospheric and ocean systems that partly control climate, and which the IPCC relies on to make its predictions, then you will not be in a position to critique what is being reported. You will be no better than a parrot.

  17. Nemo

    Unfortunately it seems that they are, as you say, presenting it as a debate, rather than making a correction. So Will still gets to pretend that his points are debatable.

  18. vanderleun

    “Unfortunately it seems that they are, as you say, presenting it as a debate…”

    Well, we certainly wouldn’t want that to happen, would we? After all, the seance is settled. Isn’t it?

  19. SLC

    Re Don Beattie

    Mr. Beattie suggests that Mr. Mooney report on a conference sponsored by the Heartland Institute. Of course, the Heartland Institute relative to global warming is about as reliable as the Discovery Institute relative to evolution, global warming, HIV/AIDS and the Holocaust.

  20. Erasmussimo

    Mr. Beattie, I went to the Heartland Institute website and proceeded to the material on the conference. I was dismayed to learn that there were no scientific papers published; all that was available were videos and Powerpoint presentations. Let’s dismiss the videos out of hand as useless sources of scientific reasoning — I don’t want to get into silly arguments as to whether the speaker said “warming” or “farming” or suchlike. So I downloaded three of the most likely looking Powerpoint presentations and delved through them.

    Even these weren’t enough to derive any useful conclusions. The presentation by David Evans seemed more political than scientific, and none of its scientific claims were presented in a manner that permitted rigorous analysis. There were just lots of pretty pictures with cute labels and statements that “this proves IPCC wrong”. WHAT proves it wrong? Where’s the line of reasoning? It just isn’t there.

    So I moved on to Tom Segalstad’s presentation. It has a nicely technical sounding title: “Carbon isotope mass balance modelling of atmospheric vs. oceanic CO2″. And in fact it is certainly the most technically impressive presentation I saw; there’s a lot of data in there. Unfortunately, figuring it out is rather like watching a movie with no audio; lots of crucial logical steps simply don’t show up. The author comes to some rather startling conclusions, such as his claim that the half-life of CO2 in the atmosphere is only 5 or 6 years instead of the several hundred claimed by the IPCC, or his claim that the IPCC underestimated the absorption capacity of the oceans for CO2 by a factor of 20. I would have like to see these claims substantiated, but the substantiation just isn’t there; there are only charts and diagrams.

    So I turned to Fred Goldberg’s Powerpoint presentation. This was an embarrassment; there was no clear train of thought. If this weren’t a computer presentation, I would have thought that perhaps he spilled his slide tray and re-assembled his slides in random order. For example, one of slides makes the point that only one in 10,000 atmospheric molecules is CO2 — insinuating that this somehow argues against the AGW hypothesis. Are we supposed to take this seriously? There are a variety of other blunders of similar magnitude. What really threw me for a loop was a photograph of some damaged prickly pears in the middle of a discussion of El Nino. What do THEY have to do with any of this!!?!?!

    So my conclusion is that the presentations at the conference were pretty lightweight stuff. I was hoping to find some real science, but in fact all I found were some a bunch of incomplete Powerpoint presentations.

    Perhaps you are aware of something more substantial that came out of that conference. If so, I’d sure like to see it. What I did see was mostly fluff.

  21. Erasmussimo

    Oh, I forgot to mention, Mr. Beattie: I attempted to access the video for Mr. Schmitt’s presentation because you particularly recommended it. However, when I clicked on the link to play the video, I got the audio for Myron Ebell’s presentation. I downloaded the 98 MB video file, but it would not play.

  22. Jon Winsor

    I think Tim Lambert (whom I linked to above) did a good of showing that the “debate” as the Heartland Institute wanted it has jumped the shark. (Actually, they jumped it a long time ago. But this time they did even from a crude PR standpoint.)

  23. For Don Beattie:

    There’s more than one station measuring CO2:
    CO2 Measuring Stations

    and there aren’t any controversies about CO2 on Mauna Loa:
    Mauna Loa Volcanic Emissions 1958-Present

  24. goose step

    Hey Chris:

    You’re bullshiting people as usual. There was a cooling scare in the 70′s promulgated by dipsticks like the idiot that lost the best to Simon over resources depletion.

    Like in your turgid book, stop pretending you’re fair minded on these issues as you’re basically a hard left political activist pretending otherwise.

  25. Tom

    Mr. Beattie: are you the same chap listed by Google as having given a $1000 US donation to the Republican National Committee (“Donald A. Beattie, retired, Jacksonville FL 32259″) last May? The AAAS lists as a Fellow a Donald A. Beattie in Jacksonville, a retired NASA manager…maybe there is more than one retired Donald A Beattie in Jacksonville, but…
    If you are the same Donald A. Beattie, do you think your politics are somehow influencing your ability to weigh good science versus the non-science that comprised the Heartland propaganda conference? Just asking.

  26. SLC

    Re goose step

    Mr. goose step (by the way, a good moniker, considering that Mr. goose step recalls one Josef Goebbels and the big lie theory) repeats the big lie that scientific consensus in the 1970s pointed toward global cooling. This lie has been refuted by numerous commentators. The fact is that the global cooling theory was proposed by a small minority of climate scientists at the time, just like it is now being proposed, mostly by whackjobs like Mr. goose step.

  27. Deech56

    Wow. Chris, that was excellent. Very well written and direct.

    One would hope that The Post learned something about fact-checking from the Will episode. Besides the scientific aspect, the fact that the authorities that Will cited pointed out his errors undermines his objectivity and scientific rigor.

  28. Let’s hope George Will finally understands the difference between polemics and science. He wrote the article as a polemic, but was duly taken to task by the science.

  29. Don Beattie

    As I do not claim to be a climate scientist but one who attempts to understand important issues, a few final thoughts. Heartland Conference, that I did not attend but discussed with Jack Schmitt and Richard Lindzen, was a venue to discuss other opinions on an important issue. Don’t know why Schmitt’s presentation not available, he told me it would be.

    Next, could not find any reports in the scientific literature on climate change authored by Tim Lambert. Perhaps he is just a commentator like journalist George Will. Will does write interesting stories about baseball, a subject that he appears to follow closely.

    Of course CO2 is measured in many places. However, the Mauna Loa measurement that I understand is often used in climate models, is a high reading compared to other stations, and there are questions about the readings. Based on my understanding of atmospheric CO2 analyses, there is data that supports questioning origin, types, and concentration. Atmospheric dwell time is also debatable.

    I find it amusing that critics hide behind anonymous names: Tom, Oaken Wolf, SLC, Erasmussina. What are they hiding? Perhaps they are AIG executives keeping their heads below the trenches.

    Many years ago I had a yellow-head parrot. I taught it to repeat many funny, short, sayings that entertained friends and guests. When returning to the US for a position at NASA, I gave the parrot to a friend staying in country. I did not want it subjected to the required long, isolated, quarantine. Even parrots should be able to live a happy life.

  30. SLC

    Re Don Beattie

    Let’s see about the Heartland Institute. Attached is a link to a web site, which undoubtedly will be denounced as a bunch of left wing pinko commies by Mr. Beattie, which discusses the associations and views of this institute.

    http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Heartland_Institute

    A nice juicy tidbit from the site.

    Although Heartland calls itself “a genuinely independent source of research and commentary,” its has been a frequent ally of, and funded by, the tobacco industry. According to a 1995 internal report by Philip Morris USA (PM) on its corporate contributions budget, the company uses its contributions “as a strategic tool to promote our overall business objectives and to advance our government affairs agenda,” in particular by supporting “the work of free market ‘think tanks’ and other public policy groups whose philosophy is consistent with our point of view. … [W]e have given general support over the years to such groups as the Heritage Foundation, Heartland Institute, Americans for Tax Reform, Citizens for a Sound Economy, Washington Legal Foundation and a variety of other organizations that help provide information about the ultimate course of legislation, regulation and public opinion through their studies, papers, op-ed pieces and conferences.

    In fact, not only is the Heartland Institute a shill for global warming denier special interests, it is also a shill for the tobacco companies.

  31. Erasmussimo

    Mr. Beattie, I do not believe that you are correct in stating that only the Mauna Loa measurements are used in the various climate models; certainly the IPCC does not rely on only those measurements. In Note a to Table 2.1 of the AR4, they state:
    “Data for CO2 are combined measurements from the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) and SIO networks (see Section 2.3.1); ”

    Section 2.3.1 describes at length the many sources of data used; most significant is the fact that a New Zealand station has been gathering data for a long time and its data series is important because it provides a southern hemisphere measurement.
    Moreover, you have provided no substantiation for your claim that the Mauna Loa data is higher than the measurements at other stations. You point out that the volcano itself releases CO2, but that does not necessarily mean that the CO2 data is compromised. It should be easy for you to produce the source of your information on this point. Please do so.

    Mr. Beattie, why do you find it amusing that participants in this discussion “hide behind” user names? The practice is universal on the Web, largely because the Web is stalked by radicals who sometimes harass individuals of opposing political beliefs. I myself have been subjected to such harassment. If you find this practice amusing, political blogs must be a laff-a-minute experience for you.

  32. SLC

    Re Richard Lindzen

    Regarding Prof. Lindzen, as we sit here today, he is a reputable climatologist who dissents from the scientific consensus about global warming. However, in associating with a disreputable organization like the Heartland Institute, he is in grave danger of entering Peter Duesberg/Arthur Butz territory.

  33. DavidCOG

    SLC:

    > …Prof. Lindzen … is a reputable climatologist…

    That’s debatable: http://www.logicalscience.com/skeptics/Lindzen.htm

  34. Gary Bohn

    Don Beattie:

    I find it amusing that critics hide behind anonymous names: Tom, Oaken Wolf, SLC, Erasmussina. What are they hiding? Perhaps they are AIG executives keeping their heads below the trenches.

    This is about the strongest argument you have put forward, and it is nothing but an ad hominem, a weak attempt to redirect the argument away from the evidence.

    You didn’t attend the conference, but you rail against everyone else that didn’t attend. You snark about Tim not publishing while telling us we should listen to a bunch of non-climatologists who also have not published on climate.

    Since you like to play the appeal to authority card, list the names of the scientists at that conference that have published on climate.

  35. SLC

    Re DavidCOG

    Apparently, Prof. Lindzen, like Fred Singer, has already entered Peter Duesberg/Arthur Butz territory.

  36. Erasmussimo

    Folks, I’m a bit nervous about attacking Mr. Lindzen. I suggest that we simply dispense with any consideration that he is or is not an authority and instead just concentrate on the science. Similarly, I think that we should address only Mr. Beattie’s scientific arguments.

  37. SLC

    Re Eramussimo

    It’s not a question of attacking Prof. Lindzen. It’s pointing out his associations as they may effect his judgments. The web site linked to by Mr. DavidCOG is quite devastating and indicates that Prof. Lindzen has numerous conflicts of interest.

  38. Goose step

    SLC:

    Stop making idiotic comments. There were gloom and doom pieces in news journals throughout the 70′s warning about global cooling and that we were going to run out of resources in 30 years time.

    Of course Mooney, the English Lit major forgets to mentions or makes light of that.

    Mooney, the English Lit major is now a historian checking out footnotes. :-)

    In reality all Mooney does is write hit pieces for the left. His book was a joke and his article was another typical clownish hit piece.

  39. rfall

    There were gloom and doom pieces in news journals throughout the 70′s warning about global cooling and that we were going to run out of resources in 30 years time.

    And we all know how accurate the “news journals” are in reporting what actually goes on in the scientific world, are’t we?

    Is this the best you can do?

  40. Erasmussimo

    Goose step, the gloom and doom pieces to which you refer appeared in Time and Newsweek. They did not appear in scientific journals. If you’d like to complain to those newsmagazines about their editorial content, feel free to do so. However, it is incorrect to impute that these newsmagazines represented the opinions of the scientific community. If you want to know the thinking of the scientific community, consult the journals of the time. If you do so, you will discover that there was in fact no serious concern about global cooling. In fact, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report on the subject that concluded that we simply did not have enough data at that time to draw any conclusions.

  41. rfall

    @Erasmussimo, you were much more kind than was appropriate, IMO, but thanks for saying much more clearly what I was being snarky about.

    How long shall we now wait for Goose step’s apology for the personal attack on Mooney?

    Money, IMO, is someone whose publications I’ve read, and who gets science and science reporting better than most “science reporters” in the MSM.

    I predict that no apology will be forthcoming from Goose step, as neither corrections nor apologies are something that denialists understand.

  42. Goose step

    Eras:

    Those two magazines were pretty close to the journals of record at the time. Both carried lots of authority. Pre-web media was pretty sparse in comparison. If they suggested that scientists said such and such, then it was pretty certain that scientists were feeding information to them.

    It’s really not much different to now really. James Hansen suggesting we’re past the tipping point, thinks senior executives from the coal industry need to need jailed and democracy is not an effective political system to undo AGW. All that crap gets carried in the media. Hansen is a leading light in the AGW industry so his comments should or shouldn’t be looked on with carrying cache?

    Same goes for an English lit major who writes a book on the GOP war on science and then dishonestly ignores the tripe from the left or changes the goal posts mid stream like Mooney did while pretending he’s a man of science.

    30 years from now people will be looking on and saying what you are… Mooney wasn’t a scientist and Hansen’s bullshit wasn’t peer reviewed. It’s bullshit , right? Both were trying to change public opinion.

  43. SLC

    Re Goose step

    I would suggest that right wing whackjob Mr. Goose step consult the scientific journals published during the 1970s, rather then Newsweek and Time magazines for evidence that the scientific consensus at the time favored global cooling. As others have stated, he will come up empty. I would also suggest that Mr. Goose steps’ smear attacks on Mr. Mooney and Dr. Hanson only show that he is a devote of the Karl Rove school of character assassination. Mr. Mooney doesn’t like the use of strong language on his blog so I will refrain from responding to Mr. Goose step in the manner to which he richly deserves. If this were Ed Brayton’s blog, I would not be so restrained.

  44. SLC

    Re global cooling

    After some cogitating, I seem to recall that the brouhaha about global cooling in the 1970s in the popular press had to do with a phenomena called nuclear winter. This effect was proposed by Carl Sagan amongst others and was based on the following hypothesis.

    Sagan opined that a full scale nuclear war would cause large amounts of dust to be ejected into the stratosphere which would block sunlight from reaching the earths surface and thus shut down photosynthesis and cause a global cooling effect. This was extremely controversial at the time with, interestingly enough, the same right wing whackjobs who today deny global warming, poo poohing the notion.

    However, a partial vindication was discovered in the 1980s with the work of Luis and Walter Alvarez (the former a Nobel Prize winner in physics, the latter, a geologist, his son) who found evidence that an asteroid collision was responsible for the K/T extinction that eliminated the dinosaurs as it forced enough dust into the stratosphere to shut down photosynthesis for several years, in addition to causing an ice age. This is now the scientific consensus as to the cause of the K/T extinction, although, to be fair, there are still a few reputable naysayers like Robert Bakker. The notion of nuclear winter is still somewhat controversial as it is not clear how many nuclear explosions and of what yield would be required to produce the amount of dust that occurred in the K/T asteroid extinction.

    The nuclear winter theory has nothing to do with the current argument as to whether the earth is undergoing a warming or cooling episode.

  45. Nuclear winter: In this context, it is worth taking a look at the paper “Massive global ozone loss predicted following regional nuclear conflict” wherein it is predicted that ozone losses and the ensuing destruction of life will be even more than predicted for past nuclear winter scenarios, even with a “small” nuclear war between India and Pakistan with about 50-100 15 kT Hiroshima type bombs. The paper should be taken with a grain of salt though. This of course has nothing to do with the current warming about global warming/cooling.

    Link:
    Mills, M.J., Toon, O.B., Turco, R.P., Kinnison, D.E., Garcia, R.R. (2008). Massive global ozone loss predicted following regional nuclear conflict. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(14), 5307-5312. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0710058105

  46. By the way I am not too familiar with the media history of global cooling in the 1970s but I am not sure that the debate then had to do with nuclear winter. I only say this because the Sagan et al. paper on nuclear winter was published in Science in 1983, although some discussion on it was taking place a bit earlier (but I doubt whether it was widespread in the popular sources)

  47. Ashutosh: No, the talk of global cooling (a term that was not in use at the time, by the way) was not related to nuclear winter. A rather small number of published papers predicted some cooling, for various reasons. But even then the “coolers” were in the minority. The AMS published a study of the scientific literature from that time showing that many more (5 times as many, in fact) were predicting warming.

    Unfortunately, a few popular publications seized on the cooling hypothesis for some reason, and that seems to be what people remember. I suppose a frozen, icy world is more dramatic than one that’s too warm. (Newsweek more or less retracted its version of the story–in 2006.)

    The AMS study is here:

    http://ams.confex.com/ams/pdfpapers/131047.pdf

    This was, by the way, one bit of Chris’s column that I thought could have been stronger. He says, “Today, most climate scientists and climate journalists consider this a timeworn myth.” In fact, it’s pure malarkey, and I rather wish he had said that.

  48. Thanks for writing that column, Chris! After seeing Will’s column I was hoping someone would rebut it — and you did a great job. I gave you some props today in my EarthSky blog here, http://blogs.earthsky.org/dankulpinski/2009/03/27/clearing-up-climate-change-misconceptions/

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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