Glaciers and Electrons

By Carl Zimmer | March 21, 2009 4:46 pm

Thirty-four days ago, George Will published a column in the Washington Post that was loaded with erroneous statements about global warming. Many people, your humble scribe included, laid out the fact-checking. The Washington Post editorial page editors claimed that they checked the column repeatedly, yet their ombudsman granted that perhaps it might have been a nice idea if somebody had called the scientists Will invoked as his authorities–scientists who themselves refuted him. Yet the Post has not published a correction to Will’s column. Instead, they published a second column on the subject from Will, in which he reiterated some of his earlier misleading statements and even managed to slip some new ones in.

Today, at last, the Post published an “opinion” piece by science writer Chris Mooney in response. I use quotation marks because most of his piece is actually a concise fact-checking report. The same issue also includes a letter from the Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization, Michael Jarraud, who rejects Will’s characterization of the WMO’s work on global warming.

Chris says that this experience has changed his previously critical view of the Post editorial page. I wonder how far it changed. It is certainly to the Post‘s credit that they published these pieces that are so critical of a column’s accuracy, even after they claimed it was factually accurate. But they’re presented today in the standard op-ed debate format, as if Will was arguing in favor of health savings accounts and Mooney and Jarraud are responding with arguments in favor of a single-payer health system. This situation is very different. Will made statements that would have not made it past a fact-checker who bothered to call up the experts Will cited. Only 34 days later do the readers get an inkling that this is the case. In an age of electrons, that’s a glacial pace. There is still a lot of room here for improvement.

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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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