Ice, Ice Baby: When Fact-Checking Is Not Fact-Checking

By Carl Zimmer | February 28, 2009 3:09 pm

For the past couple weeks, I’ve been blogging about the problems newspaper opinion pages have with science. The example I’ve focused on is two columns on global warming by George Will in the Washington Post (and syndicated to 300 newspapers). Will claims that scientists who point to evidence that global warming is having an effect on the planet and reporters who describe their research are all hysterical doomsayers. To make his point, Will offers a range of evidence, from accounts in the 1970s about global cooling to statistics about the area of global ice cover recorded by satellites.

I have argued that George Will’s claims would have not have passed the standard fact-checking carried out by many magazines. He even manages to add extra errors in his second column, which is just a defense of his first. A number of other bloggers have also criticized the Post on similar grounds. The Washington Post editorial staff has responded on three occasions, most recently and at the greatest length this morning. As I’ll explain below, it’s not much of a response.

The first reaction was reported last week in Talking Points Memo. Andrew Alexander, the new Washington Post ombudsman, checked with the editorial page editors and told TPM that they have a “multi-layered editing process” in which columns are fact-checked to the greatest extent possible. They had, in other words, been satisfied that the information in George Will column factually correct in advance of publishing it, and now saw no reason to print any corrections. Then the editorial page editor Fred Hiatt was interviewed Thursday in the Columbia Journalism Review, where he stated that Will may have made inferences from the data that scientists didn’t agree with, and that it was up to those scientists to debate Will. Again, he saw no need for any corrections, and even suggested that pieces like Will’s column helped the public appreciate the uncertainty on issues including global warming, along with other fields like medicine.

I’m not going to deal in detail with these responses here, having already done so yesterday. Instead, I want to take a look at the latest response that came out this morning: a full-blown column in the Washington Post by the ombudsman Andrew Alexander–in fact, Alexander’s first official piece in his new job. You can read it here.

As I read it, I kept hitting one puzzling statement after another. For example, Alexander starts out the piece by focusing his column on what he calls “a key paragraph” about the global area of ice. As I’ve explained before, that paragraph is indeed in error, both in the specifics of the data, and in the way Will uses it as evidence that global warming has not been occurring. It became all the more striking because the scientists whom Will named as his source for the data rejected his claims, and, as I later showed, neither Will nor any of the fact-checkers bothered to contact the scientists to confirm their information. Instead, they pointed to another statement from the scientists as confirming Will’s claim–while ignoring the parts of the one-page statement that showed why Will was wrong.

But as vivid as that case may be, it was only one of numerous errors in the piece. If Will’s columns had indeed been properly fact-checked, the fact-checkers would have drawn attention to other errors in his columns.

For example, Will misrepresents an article by the late great Walter Sullivan in the New York Times in 1975, pretending that it trumpets an imminent plunge into an Ice Age:

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 is how that article actually starts:

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

The whole article is here [$]. For more on all this, see here and see “The Myth of the 1970s Global Cooling Scientific Consensus,” (free pdf) published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I write frequently for the Times, although only once about global warming.)

Here’s another error Alexander doesn’t address: Will tries to use a recent satellite sensor glitch as evidence that skeptical scientists get attacked for questioning global warming. I explained how scientists have dealt with that glitch and corrected the record, and how the scientists themselves state that the glitch doesn’t affect their conclusion that the Arctic has shown a three-decade trend of shrinking ice area–a result that also comes from climate models.

But Alexander never addresses anything beyond Will’s claims about the global area of ice now and in 1979. When fact-checkers write up their reports, they do not just look at one paragraph and call it a day. I don’t understand why that is acceptable for a report from an ombudsman about the accuracy of a newspaper column.

But even within this narrow scope, Alexander’s conclusions puzzle me. He states:

My inquiry shows that there was fact-checking at multiple levels.

What Alexander then describes is not fact-checking.

It began with Will’s own research assistant, Greg Reed. When the column was submitted on Feb. 12 to The Washington Post Writers Group, which edits and syndicates it, Reed sent an accompanying e-mail that provided roughly 20 Internet reference links in support of key assertions in the column. Richard Aldacushion, editorial production manager at the Writers Group, said he reviewed every link. The column was then edited by editorial director Alan Shearer and managing editor James Hill.

Next, it went to The Post’s op-ed editor, Autumn Brewington, who said she also reviewed the sources.

Fact-checking descriptions of scientific research involves a wee bit more than perusing Internet reference links. It is not just a pattern-matching game, where you see if a sequence of words is the same in two places. Anyone who has actually fact-checked for a magazine like Discover (where I fact-checked for a few years) can tell you that you need to get familiar with the scientific research to see if the description is a good representation of the science itself.

And one essential part of getting familiar with it is calling scientists who live day and night with that research (especially if those scientists were cited explicitly in the piece being checked). A call to the scientists would have immediately sent up red flags (as I found when I got in touch with them on February 21 to satisfy my own curiosity and clear up some questions of my own).

This is not a criticism of the people Alexander names in his column. Newspapers and magazines are responsible for establishing procedures for fact-checking, which staff members must then follow. What I don’t understand is how Alexander can offer us this account of what happened and call it fact-checking at multiple levels.

Even more puzzling is Alexander’s account of his own research into the narrow question of the ice.

The editors who checked the Arctic Research Climate Center Web site believe it did not, on balance, run counter to Will’s assertion that global sea ice levels “now equal those of 1979.” I reviewed the same Web citation and reached a different conclusion.

It said that while global sea ice areas are “near or slightly lower than those observed in late 1979,” sea ice area in the Northern Hemisphere is “almost one million sq. km below” the levels of late 1979. That’s roughly the size of Texas and California combined. In my mind, it should have triggered a call for clarification to the center.

But according to Bill Chapman, a climate scientist with the center, there was no call from Will or Post editors before the column appeared. He added that it wasn’t until last Tuesday — nine days after The Post began receiving demands for a correction — that he heard from an editor at the newspaper. It was Brewington who finally e-mailed, offering Chapman the opportunity to write something that might help clear the air.

Readers would have been better served if Post editors, and the new ombudsman, had more quickly addressed the claims of falsehoods.

I know that I may be sounding a bit Talmudic by spending so many blog posts on this one bit of information, but examining how these Post editors have dealt with it has proven to be very revealing. They never bothered to check with scientists about the validity of a statement in a column, and after thousands of people have complained, they recognize that there was something so amiss that should have called the scientists. But they still can’t manage to make a decision about whether the statement requires a correction.

What’s more, they continue to ignore the broader, more important problem with Will’s discussion of sea ice: the facts that picking out two days from a thirty-year time series is not a meaningful way to look at climate trends, and that climate models do not, in fact, lead you to expect a decrease in global ice cover. And they have not even taken any notice of all the other errors in Will’s two columns.

Alexander’s prescription for the Post is this:

On its news pages, it can recommit to reporting on climate change that is authoritative and deep. On the editorial pages, it can present a mix of respected and informed viewpoints. And online, it can encourage dialogue that is robust, even if it becomes bellicose.

I don’t see why the news reporters at the Post have to recommit to anything. They’ve been doing their job. What really has to happen is for people who claim to be fact-checking to really do some fact-checking. It’s that simple.

Update, Sunday 3/1: In my initial version of this post, I sometimes referred to Andrew Alexander as Anderson by mistake. When I first noticed this mistake, I thought I only did it once and fixed that error. But commenters have kindly pointed out I had left several Andersons behind. I’ve now fixed them all. Apologies for the confusion.

Update later Sunday: Via Andy Revkin, I came across what is essentially an independent fact-check. It’s from Walt Meier of NSIDC, responding to a question about Will’s column

Basically, Mr. Will made three mistakes:

1. He was factually incorrect on the date that he reported his “daily global ice” number. However, he was merely out-of-date with his facts (it was true on Jan 1, but wasn’t 6 weeks later). This is somewhat nit-picky, though it illuminates how fast things can change in a relatively short period of time, meaning that one should be very cautious about drawing any conclusions about climate from an isolated event.

2. Related to that, it is easy to cherry-pick one date here and one date there to compare to support most any view. The important thing is to look at things in the context of long-term changes. That is what NSIDC always tries to convey by comparing to long-term averages.

3. “Global sea ice” simply has no meaning in terms of climate change. The Arctic and Antarctic are unique and separated environments that respond differently. It would be like taking a drought in Georgia and torrential rain in Maine, adding those up and claiming that “rainfall is normal” in the eastern U.S.

Update, 4/7/09: Alexander’s use of “Arctic Climate Research Center” is incorrect.

Comments (31)

  1. Carl: Don’t apologize for obsessing about this. It’s the only way we’re going to get through the powers that be.

    I want to address the expectations that many non-journalists have of fact-checkers. While Discover fact-checks in a thorough manner much of most of what it publishes, the same is not the case at daily newspapers, where such practices would make a joke of the publication schedules and resulting deadlines. What surprises me is the Post’s editors and ombudsman would claim that they do engage in fact-checking.

    Copy editors at daily papers review a story for style, grammar, libel and logic. Period. If we’re lucky, a copy editor might know enough about a subject to catch errors of fact, but that’s rare. George F. Will clearly doesn’t employ fact checkers, but fact suppliers, who then are responsible for producing source references after publication to defend the use of the material. None of this is fact-checking in the way most people, journalists and non-journalists alike, use the term.

    Daily papers trust their reporters and columnists not to incorporate errors deliberately, and then rely on post-publication corrections to correct the record. That’s the way it works, for better or worse. So let’s criticize the Post not for failing to fact-check, but for pretending that they do fact check.

  2. I agree, don’t apologize for writing so much on this! It’s very illuminating. I know little of the process of science writing. When your research gets picked up by the news media, a researcher’s big worry is that it won’t be communicated properly. Especially for students and postdocs who are new at this. This is a process that we need to understand, too.

  3. onymous

    Anderson writes: “The column triggered e-mails to The Post from hundreds of angry environmental activists and a few scientists”. Seriously? Hundreds of environmental activists (described as “angry”, as if that is their permanent state rather than a reasonable response to Will’s column), but only a few scientists? I find that hard to believe. I sent him an e-mail, and I’m a particle physicist, for god’s sake. Surely a lot of actual climate scientists and others whose work are closer to the field in question wrote him? By this point you can definitely attach the label “angry” to this scientist. The Post has really dropped the ball on this one.

  4. Please keep writing on this issue as long as need be. It is only because people have been hammering away at this one George Will column that the Post Ombudsman has addressed it at all. That’s huge.

    Look at it this way: If all the factual errors about global warming were removed from Will’s columns, what would be left?

    See what I mean?

    (And for crying out loud, I wish Will would stop beating on the “global ice age.” That horse is So Dead.)

  5. Carl, thank you for your talmudic tendencies. Proper fact checking is the most important ingredient in science communications.

  6. Will’s column in defense ignores the real elephant in the room. Even if he accurately quoted the one little factoid he is so exercised about, it is one little token of data taken out of context and misused to bolster a vacuous argument. The people who are doing the actual work of gathering the mountain of information from which political opinionators like Will are cherry-picking have pointed out this ruse time and again. At this point it is impossible for Will not to be aware that he is misusing the data — his defensive column is the final proof that he is aware of this. So it’s hard to draw any other conclusion than that he is deliberately, consciously lying. He’s got his knickers in a twist because his journalistic bona fides have been questioned, but the question is not about this little data point, the question is about his intellectual integrity.

  7. David B. Benson

    What all the previous commenters wrote.

    Since this “ice age coming” junk keeps being repeated, I’ll point out what is factual. Orbital forcings are well understood. The next chance, only a chance mind you, at forming a stade (massive ice sheets) is not for at least 20,000 years. The certainly will be a stade about 50,000 years from now.

    Nothing sooner.

  8. Todd

    The goal of George Will and the Washington Post isn’t to inform people about facts. There concern is maintaing social control in the wealthy elite and ensuring the continued existence of a class based society.

  9. Did you mean to replace all references to “Anderson” with “Alexander”?


    [Carl: Indeed. Thank you for pointing that out to me. I’ve fixed the post.]

  10. Carl,
    I join those who encourage you to keep at the Will Affair as long as necessary. It encapsulates so well what is wrong with the treatment of global warming in the press. Two point:

    1. From a report described on the IPY (International Polar Year) site dated 2/25/09: “Snow and ice are declining in both polar regions, affecting human livelihoods as well as local plant and animal life in the Arctic, as well as global ocean and atmospheric circulation and sea level.” Will Will (not a typo) read this report and comment on it in his column? I will be surprised. He is interested in discrediting scientists and science itself, not in maintaining an accurate record. That leads to:

    2. What I find most important about this is that Will and other skeptics are in effect saying that scientists have been and are wrong and the skeptics are right. How could that be possible? The skeptics could be saying that they are smarter not only than individual scientists but all of us collectively. We are so dumb that we missed evidence so obvious that they can unmask it with a stroke of the pen. Since this strains credulity beyond the breaking point, the alternative is that scientists have deliberately misled the public about global warming. To accomplish this, given the IPCC, there would have be a perfectly managed global conspiracy. Anyone who believes that to be possible has never attended a faculty meeting. But even if such a conspiracy could be managed, why would the vast majority of us join it? Not to get research grants, since in America (until now?) espouse global warming and you were more likely to have your grant funding cut. Not because we are all liberals, because that term does not apply in many of the countries that are members of the IPCC. Thus the idea that Will is right and the nearly unanimous opinion of the international scientific community is wrong, is false on its face. But not to Will, obviously.

    3. Finally, the really interesting point is how and why global warming has become such a thoroughly politicized scientific issue. Can you imagine Will announcing that science has been wrong about, say, photosynthesis?

  11. joe

    The facts say, there is no global warming:

    http://nsidc.org/data/seaice_index/

  12. CHuck Cardiff

    I’m looking forward to seeing how you dufuses will explain the current and future global cooling resulting from an inactive sun. Better start getting your stories ready.

  13. Longtime Lurker

    As others have said, no need to apologize! Thanks for all the time and effort spent documenting these frauds. You’ve done a great service to people, science, and the world.

  14. Earl_E

    Iron(oxide) Will, uses a common ploy to get headlines and attention due to a plummeting career. I feel sorry for George and the Post.

    News today that the dead-zone layer attributed to the Permian Extinction event may not be what they thought it was…

    Now for chapter two, the great permian extinction hoax. I can’t wait to read it. In fact I’ll start writing it myself, no need for facts, just toss out some names and begin trashing.

    Getting serious about climate for a second, how can I prepare my crops for a sustained 80mph wind that runs for 7 hours? The windbreaks are breaking apart. Never seen so many branches on the forest floor with dead leaves on them. (That means the tree was doing just fine when the wind broke them off.)

    Adapting to the mess we already created is critical or this George Willian Hoax will turn into a surrealistic nightmare.

  15. John Renfro

    Once again, you have proven your idiocy by having zero evidence to back your argument. Typical. My father is a scientist and for the last 35 years has done more research to help our environment in one month than any of your “experts” have done in a lifetime combined and he thinks people like you need your head check (that’s the PC way of putting it). On top of that, he is not finacially backed by academia or coporate interests, so until you have the backbone strong enough to get your hands dirty in the issue, shut up.

  16. neo-anit-luddite

    “On top of that, he is not finacially backed by academia or coporate interests, so until you have the backbone strong enough to get your hands dirty in the issue, shut up.”

    Does that mean that Will should also shut up until he “gets his hands dirty in the issue,” or does comment that only apply to people you don’t agree with?

  17. Hoax

    Antarctic sea ice extent and concentration for January 2009 were up significantly over 1997, 34.8% for ice extent & 22% for ice concentration. Jan 2009 sea ice was also up 23% over 1980. This continues a long trend of increases.

  18. SLC

    Re Hoax

    How about Mr. Hoax given a source for this information. Two bits says it comes from a global warming denialist site.

  19. Trey

    Just FYI to the AGW crown and to support George Will and Lou Dobbs (CNN) there appears to be a shift to global cooling now. MSNBC and Discovery.com are reporting no warming since 2001 and that we’re looking at no warming or even cooling for the next several decades.

    http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2009/03/02/global-warming-pause-02.html
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29469287/

    [Carl: Just FYI, the article does not support George Will:

    “It is possible that a fraction of the most recent rapid warming since the 1970s was due to a free variation in climate,” Isaac Held of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Princeton, New Jersey wrote in an email to Discovery News. “Suggesting that the warming might possibly slow down or even stagnate for a few years before rapid warming commences again.”

    Swanson thinks the trend could continue for up to 30 years. But he warned that it’s just a hiccup, and that humans’ penchant for spewing greenhouse gases will certainly come back to haunt us.

    “When the climate kicks back out of this state, we’ll have explosive warming,” Swanson said. “Thirty years of greenhouse gas radiative forcing will still be there and then bang, the warming will return and be very aggressive.”]

  20. Carl – I’ve referenced your cogent reports in a post “George Will’s Uninformed Denial of Global Warming” [Hake (2009)]. The abstract reads:

    ABSTRACT: The factual errors in George Will’s OpEd denial of global warming titled “Dark Green Doomsayers” have been discussed by e.g., James Hrynsyshyn, Pat Keefe, RealClimate, Nate Silver, and Carl Zimmer. Even the Washington Post’s ombudsman Andrew Alexander has acknowledged the Post’s failure to properly fact check Will’s OpEd, stating that the Post will “recommit to reporting on climate change that is authoritative and deep. On the editorial pages, it can present a mix of respected and informed viewpoint.” So will the Washington Post now finally discontinue Will’s uninformed editorials on climate change?

    To access the complete 12 kB post please click on http://tinyurl.com/cdlpah

    REFERENCES
    Hake, R.R. 2009. “George Will’s Uninformed Denial of Global Warming,” AERA-L post of 3 March 14:18:04-0800, online on the OPEN! AERA-L archives at http://tinyurl.com/cdlpah
    The abstract only was sent to many discussion lists, and is also online with provision for comments at
    http://hakesedstuff.blogspot.com/2009/03/george-wills-uninformed-denial-of.html

  21. Andy Thom

    Mr. Zimmer, I would be impressed by your tenacity if you were attempting to climb a rope in high school gym class, but for a man giving a lecture on fact checking you are horribly off base. I fully appreciate that when you started out with your comments on the Washington Post article by Will it seemed you had him dead to rights. I mean the very site Will attributed his data from was publicly chastising him on its web page.

    However things then changed very abruptly. As had been presumed by many who were tracking sea ice extent, the data posted by the Arctic Research Climate Center was significantly wrong. Correspondingly the comments made by Will in relation to ice extent were indeed correct and are easily verifiable.

    The logical thing to do at this point would be to concede this obvious fact. You steadfastly refuse to do this. Instead you attempt to grab every straw around you to deflect from the painfully obvious. The most glaring example of this is your discussion with Bill Chapman of the Center in question as some type of vindication of your original position. First, have you considered how poorly Bill Chapman looks in all of this when the website ran a very unprofessional comment calling out Will about ice extent and then had to admit two short days later that they, the data keepers were actually the ones out to lunch on their numbers? Second, why is it not acceptable to use historical information posted? Do you call the authors of a paper or do you quote the paper like everyone else?

    Your first post was a gotcha that went wrong. Hardly your fault. The following posts are because you have abandoned scientific inquiry and are embracing scientific tribalism. You are wrong to challenge Will on fact checking because his facts were right, whether from solid investigation or from dumb luck.

    My view is you have pretty much written Will’s column for him in six months. The odds are in his favor ice extent will be up over last year for the arctic minimum even if the trend is lowering arctic ice. One year’s trend doesn’t mean much – just as only 30 years of ice data doesn’t mean much – but your inability to state you were wrong when you are clearly wrong will nullify your other tangible arguments.

    I have no idea why this global warming issue makes usually intelligent people put themselves on such intellectually “thin ice.”

    [Carl: Andy, things did not change abruptly, and therefore I am not wrong. Please see this post for an explanation. And as for whether I would call a scientist I was writing about for a national newspaper? Of course I would. I do it all the time. That’s just basic journalism. George Will, on the other hand, did not rely on a paper for his claim. He relied on a blog, as he admitted himself.]

  22. Neil

    I’ve only just caught up to this little debacle, having read George’s columns an hour ago and then followed the outcry trail to here.

    It’s worthwhile calling out his manifold errors of fact, and reasoning, and I find the definition of ‘fact checking’ as supplied by the WaPo ombudsman to be appalling, really no better than junior high-school level.

    But to me the worst aspect of his argument is the underlying proposition that science has been wrong before and therefore must be assumed to be wrong on every issue for the rest of time. What else is he trying to say if not that?

    This is really just Will playing to his crowd, because I would bet a significant number of his fans are serious Christians who find science in general to be tiresomely opposed to most of their dearly-held beliefs.

    These people would be thrilled to have someone like Will telling them that Science is incapable of reaching the correct conclusion most of the time and should be tolerated only to the extent necessary to get new iPod models on a regular basis.

    It really is staggering to me that someone like Will would tell people that Science is almost certainly wrong on global warming… not because of any particular evidence, but simply because they were wrong 35 years ago. If you really take him seriously, there seems to be little choice but to close all universities and research organisations, and return to getting all scientific information from the Bible.

    That’s what Will is suggesting, as far as I can tell. What an idiot.

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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