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Think Again: Will-ful Ignorance, Round 26

SOURCE: AP/The Canadian Press, Jonathan Hayward, File

Arctic sea ice is melting so fast it could be gone within 30 years, found a report released last Friday. Stubbornly, George Will refuses to acknowledge the truth about global warming.

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In 2004, George Will wrote of a Michael Crichton novel that Crichton’s "villains are environmental hysterics who are innocent of information but overflowing with certitudes and moral vanity.” The heroes of the book were like Will himself—climate skeptics and denialists. Will added, they “resemble Navy SEALs tenured at MIT, foiling the villains with guns and graphs.”

This alleged alarmism has long been an obsession of Will’s, (one he shares, incidentally, with Nation magazine Stalinist columnist Alexander Cockburn). For years he has been using the same stale argument to make the case that the media’s attention to global warming is, like the “global cooling” buzz of the 1970s, a fashionable but fleeting panic.  Some examples:

Back in 1992, in “Chicken Littles: The persistence of eco-pessimism,” Will wrote: 

“There were ‘many signs pointing to the possibility that the Earth may be heading for another ice age’ (The New York Times, August 14, 1975), heading ‘toward extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation’ (Science magazine, December 10, 1976), and facing ‘continued rapid cooling of the Earth’ (Global Ecology, 1971) and ‘the approach of a full-blown 10,000-year ice age’ (Science, March 1, 1975). It was then said that ‘a new ice age must now stand alongside nuclear war as a likely source of wholesale death and misery’ (International Wildlife, July 1975) and that ‘the world’s climatologists are agreed’ that we must ‘prepare for the next ice age’ (Science Digest, February 1973). Newsweek reported (April 28, 1975) ‘ominous signs’ that ‘the Earth’s climate seems to be cooling down’ and meteorologists ‘are almost unanimous’ that ‘the trend will reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century.’ The Christian Science Monitor reported (August 27, 1974) that armadillos had left Nebraska, retreating south, and heat-loving snails had retreated from central European forests.’”

Five years later, in 1997, in “More Government by Therapy,” Will dumped the heat-seeking snails but stuck with the migrating armadillos: 

“In the 1970s Americans were warned that ‘Earth may be headed for another ice age’ (The New York Times) with ‘extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation’ and ‘a full-blown 10,000-year ice age" (Science magazine). ‘Brace Yourself for Another Ice Age’ (Science Digest). There were ‘ominous signs’ that ‘the Earth’s climate seems to be cooling down,’ and ‘meteorologists are almost unanimous’ that ‘the trend will reduce agricultural productivity’ (Newsweek). Glaciers had ‘begun to advance’ and ‘armadillos were retreating south from Nebraska’ (The Christian Science Monitor). Notify the armadillos to get with the new program.” 

As Brad Johnson at The Wonk Room put it, George Will believes in recycling. In 2004, in “Global Warming? Hot Air,” Will had armadillos on the brain yet again:

“Thirty years ago the fashionable panic was about global cooling. The New York Times (August 14, 1975) reported ‘many signs’ that ‘Earth may be heading for another ice age.’ Science magazine (December 10, 1976) warned about ‘extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation.’ ‘Continued rapid cooling of the Earth’ (Global Ecology, 1971) could herald ‘a full-blown 10,000-year ice age’ (Science, March 1, 1975). The Christian Science Monitor reported (August 27, 1974) that Nebraska’s armadillos were retreating south from the cooling.”

Alas all of the above is but an, um, warmup for Will’s now infamous column of February 15, 2009, entitled, “Dark Green Doomsayers.” Will wrote the same thing all over again, complete with another round of ice ages, snails, and yes, we kid you not, armadillos. (We won’t make you read it again. Three times was enough).

What was perhaps most surprising about the latest column is not the fact that he yet again indulged almost word for word in the same sort of magical thinking about climate science that has so discredited his analysis in the past. (The Intersection’s Chris Mooney explains the misleading “evidence” in Will’s column[s] here). Nor is it most surprising that he thinks there is seriously an ongoing “debate about whether global warming is actually occurring,” as he pointed out in a defensive February 27 column. What’s most surprising is that this time, the world had changed. Not only has man-made global warming become an accepted scientific fact by virtually everyone this side of Sarah Palin’s immediate—or perhaps extended—family, but the blogosophere has blossomed to call out lies, which is genuinely bad news for Will and his editors at the Post op-ed page.

Almost immediately after publication, the paper heard complaints Will was manufacturing and exaggerating his “facts” to support his assertions about global warming. ClimateProgress argued that Will’s abuse of his sources was reminiscent of the Janet Cooke scandal—a Washington Post reporter forced to return a Pulitzer Prize upon the revelation she had fabricated the winning story. On February 26, the editor of the Post’s editorial page, Fred Hiatt, finally felt compelled to respond and defended Will’s articles to the Columbia Journalism Review, arguing the alleged benefits of “healthy” debate on the topic: 

“Do I think it’s somehow dangerous to have one of our many columnists casting doubt on this consensus? No, I think it’s healthy. And let the other ones come in and slam him, if they think it’s irresponsible. That’s what an opinion page is for.” 

On March 1, Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander, who usually only deals with issues arising from the news pages, defended Will as well, revealing that the article had (shockingly) passed the Post’s rigorous “multileveled” editorial process without raising any eyebrows. But Alexander, like Hiatt, appeared to believe that the Post’s failure lay in not facilitating more debate about Will’s column at washingtonpost.com. Alexander wrote

“Thoughtful discourse is noticeably absent in the current dispute. But that’s where The Post could have helped, and can in the future. 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.” 

It’s unclear just what relevance Will’s columns enjoy to the values so described, but at least it brings us closer to the crux of the issue. The problem was not that readers found Will’s viewpoint controversial or uncomfortable; rather they objected to the fact that experts knew his research to be shoddy and uninformed. By letting Will express himself Bush-style, without being inconvenienced by any actual science, The Post was saying, yes, opinion writers are not merely entitled to their own opinions, but also their own “facts.” (Though Hiatt preferred to call these “inferences”): 

“It may well be that he is drawing inferences from data that most scientists reject—so, you know, fine, I welcome anyone to make that point. But don’t make it by suggesting that George Will shouldn’t be allowed to make the contrary point. Debate him.” 

Hiatt’s argument that George Will ought to be able to make a dissenting point, regardless of its basis in reality, is an argument for false balance, he-said-she-said journalism, in lieu of real analysis. On March 23, Chris Mooney asked a smart follow-up question in the Post: “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?” 

As if on cue, George Will answered (No!) with another misleading column on April 2, called “Climate Change’s Dim Bulbs.” But then, something fascinating occurred. The Washington Post’s newsroom chimed in. Juliet Eilperin and Mary Beth Sheridan wrote in a story about Arctic ice decline this week: 

“The new evidence—including satellite data showing that the average multiyear wintertime sea ice cover in the Arctic in 2005 and 2006 was nine feet thick, a significant decline from the 1980s—contradicts data cited in widely circulated reports by Washington Post columnist George F. Will that sea ice in the Arctic has not significantly declined since 1979.”

Over at Grist, David Roberts reported that science editor Nils Bruzelius had “had the idea to reference Will, since the, ahem, ‘data’ Will had distributed got so much publicity and was on people’s minds.” Roberts continued, “[It’s] Hard to read it as anything but a rebuke from the news team to Post editor Fred Hiatt and his editorial page’s ‘multilayer editing process,’ which allowed Will to lie and mislead on climate change three times just in the last few months, even after being corrected, publicly, by multiple sources.”

Andrew Freeman, at the Post’s weather blog, made a similar point: “George Will’s recent columns demonstrate a very troubling pattern of misrepresentation of climate science. They raise some interesting questions about journalism, specifically concerning the editing process. Editors and fact checkers are there to ensure that publications like the Washington Post don’t print factually incorrect information.” The Post even parodied Will’s sketchy endeavors in journalism in a Tom Toles Sketch, with a bow-tied, bespectacled stick man, thinking to himself: “I need an idea on how to follow up on my irresponsible global warming column.” If readers were confused about how the Post news team (and the all-important cartoonist) viewed Will’s “facts,” this week’s work may have helped clear that up.

But it’s still worth pointing out. Back in February, Hiatt told CJR: “If you’re concerned that readers of The Washington Post don’t get a sense that most of the world thinks climate change is real, I think that’s a misplaced concern.” Maybe so, but Will, in his February 15 column, certainly did not share Hiatt’s view. He wrote: 

“A recent Pew Research Center poll asked which of 20 issues should be the government’s top priorities. Climate change ranked 20th. Real calamities take our minds off hypothetical ones.”

Clearly, the economy and jobs (priorities one and two, according to the poll) pose more urgent short-term threats, but the notion that the environment and global warming rank so low on the scale (below moral decline, whatever that means) is troubling.

Yet it’s difficult to decide what is more troubling: that Fred Hiatt doesn’t mind when his columnists purposely mangle evidence (and repeat themselves, over and over, in doing so) or the fact that the same columnist appears to be arguing that only “top priorities” deserve to be treated truthfully. 

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, a Nation columnist, and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, was recently published by Viking. He blogs, occasionally, at http://www.thenation.com/blogs/altercation

Danielle Ivory is a reporter and producer for the American News Project. She lives in Washington, D.C.
 

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