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.


Comments (10)

  1. Charles Schmidt

    His points on Mr. Will’s errors were good but a reader most often does not have time to see if what is said is close to right. That should be done by the paper but most often the have another agenda and it is not getting the facts right but pushing the point of view they want people to believe and that is the real problem. Those that know must come forward with the real facts to the people.

  2. I’m in agreement, Chris is too generous to the Post.

    Now, the important element is the publication of the WMO (Jarraud) letter on the facing page. My take:

  3. Don

    The key here is that the WaPo and many other newspapers are fearing for their fiscal lives, severely injured by the internet. Their strategy is to publish what readers want to hear, and the WaPo has a large contingent of reactionary readers. By giving Will two shots, then stalling the reply, the readers pleased by Will did not have their satisfaction challenged before they had largely forgotten the episode. The paper also can now say that they are airing both sides of the issue by publishing Mooney and Jarraud. Carl is on target pointing out that this is not actually an op ed issue but one of fact against ideological and partisan misrepresentation of fact. The Wall Street Journal follows a similar strategy.
    One of the insights that I took away from Mooney’s first book is that the Bush administration was adroit at passing off matters of science as matters of opinion, simply a point of view.

  4. We are enjoying the deepest solar minimum since 1913. Might you suspect trumpeting empirically weak, politically convenient facts (the Carbon Tax on Everything!) increasingly contradicted by common observation worldwide is not the most clever path to pursue? One eagerly anticipates a “fact-finding mission” to the Officially defrosted North Pole freezing to death. Political response will sum to “those who criticize are thereby proven unfit to jduge.” Besides, that’s weather not climate – and we all know Global Warming causes colder winters.

  5. johnk

    A bit off topic.

    The Washington Post has a nice article today on left handedness. The lead-in is that, although only about 10% of the population is left handed, 5 of the last 7 presidents have been left handed (Obama, Clinton, Bush elder, Reagan and Ford – quick quiz: what is the likelihood of this by chance?)

    David Brown creates an excellent piece of science journalism. Lots of cool questions and some cool answers. Even talked to scientists. By appearances, there was actual fact checking.

    But I guess handedness is not a political hot-button issue.

  6. james wheaton

    I predict Will will respond. Based on the comments I saw in the WaPo from Chris’s article, he has a huge throng of angry unconvince-able deniers who will gobble up any response regardless of its accuracy. WaPo will think it helps sell newspapers which is all they care about. And I agree Chris is too kind to WaPo.

    What should be coming to a head now is science’s inability to stem this huge wave of denial and mistruth. It is so strong in this country (and others apparently) that it threatens to doom us all. I believe the climate science community has an obligation to do everything it can to set the record straight and debunk these all-too-believable opponents. To an uneducated populace this is a confusing issue – the denial machine has done its job very well indeed.

  7. David B. Benson

    Uncle Al — From solar minimum to solar maximum, the global temperature goes up about 0.17 K. And then back down. Add to that the effects of ABC from Asia.

    Actually, global warming brings warmer nights and, on average, warmer winters.


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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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