52 Responses to In a blunder reminiscent of Janet Cooke scandal, the Washington Post lets George Will reassert all his climate falsehoods plus some new ones
[Please Digg this post by clicking here. Updates are at the end. The NYT’s Andy Revkin has a very good debunking of Will with detailed comments from leading cryosphere experts, “Experts: Big Flaw in Will’s Ice Assertions.” Sadly, Andy continues his refusal to correct the harm he did to Gore by equating him with Will. In a day or two, I will attempt to untarnish Gore’s reputation to make clear that he did nothing whatsoever wrong — intentionally or unintentionally — as opposed to Will who has done multiple things wrong intentionally.]
“When a reputable newspaper lies, it poisons the community; every newspaper story becomes suspect,” declared a New York Times editorial. “Great publications magnify the voice of any single writer. Thus, when their editors or publishers want or need to know a source for what they print, they have to know it and be able to assure the community or the courts that they do. Where this is not now the rule, let this sad affair at least have the good effect of making it the rule.” That editorial was published on April 17, 1981 about the transgressions of a Washington Post reporter named Janet Cooke [who fabricated a story, which the Post later submitted for a Pulitzer Prize “despite the growing signs of problems” with the story’s veracity].
Incomprehensibly, the Washington Post — after being roundly criticized for having senior editors and fact-checkers (and then their ombudsman!) sign off on (and then defend) George Will’s error-riddled global warming column — has allowed George Will to reassert in a new column (here) that every single one of his falsehoods was factual. [For a point-by-point debunking of the original February 15 piece, see CP and Wonk Room and this joint letter to WP].
And in what seems to be Alice-in-Wonderland journalism, a senior editor at the Washington Post now asserts it is perfectly reasonable for a non-scientist Post writer to reinterpret a prestigious source’s scientific data to support his or her conclusion — after those sources have repeatedly stated that their data is consistent with the exact opposite conclusion and without telling readers of that disagreement. And not only did Will do that multiple times in his first piece — the Post still let him do it again after he was called on it by multiple writers (see Washington Monthly and CP).
Much as I would like to spend my time writing about the strategies needed to prevent business-as-usual warming of 5°C to 7°C, both of my parents were award-winning professional journalists, and I think this story is simply too important not to focus a maximum spotlight on.
I will go through Will’s new and old falsehoods at length here because, as I noted above, the NYT editorialized on the Post’s infamous Janet Cooke scandal, “When a reputable newspaper lies, it poisons the community; every newspaper story becomes suspect.” Just as with the Janet Cooke scandal, this is about a major Washington Post writer fabricating and misusing soucres.
Media Matters saw Will’s column in advance and debunked it here, showing how Will doubled down on his previous global warming distortions and cited a document on sea ice trends as evidence against human-caused global warming when that “document actually states that the sea ice data are consistent with the outcomes projected by climate-change models.” And Will cited the U.N. World Meteorological Organization [WMO] — with no source citation — saying “there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade,” when, as Media Matters showed, as recently as January 7, Agence France-Presse quoted WMO secretary general Michel Jarraud as saying, “The major trend is unmistakably one of warming.” I have similar quotes from WMO in my original post.
The abuse of sources in Will’s columns — signed off on and defended by the Post’s editors (and ombudsman) should be a cautionary tale equal to the Janet Cooke story. One can only assume, sadly, that given the controversy, Will’s new piece was as at least as fact-checked as the original, which, according to the Washington Post ombudsman was “checked by people he [Will] personally employs, as well as two editors at the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates Will; our op-ed page editor; and two copy editors” (see here).
And yet the fact-checkers let through a lie so egregious that it would seem to utterly vitiate the credibility of the Post all by itself. Will was allowed to publish the following statement:
The [February 15] column contained many factual assertions but only one has been challenged. The challenge is mistaken.
Science journalist Chris Mooney wrote in a Science Progress piece, “The George Will Scandal … that “Joe Romm of Climate Progress seems to have kicked it [the debunking] off.”
In a post published a few hours after the the Will piece was published, I challenged essentially every single major assertion in the piece — as did multiple bloggers that Mooney identifies. Heck, the Post was even sent a joint letter rebutting several falsehoods.
So how could Fred Hiatt or any fact checker let a lie that blatant pass uncorrected? Seriously. I’d like to know.
I should also note that the second sentence of the Will piece is “This column recently reported and commented on some developments pertinent to the debate about whether global warming is occurring and what can and should be done.” So the senior editors of the Washington Post are allowing Will to assert that his first column was not merely an opinion piece, but actually in part a piece of reporting. So this assertion certainly demands that the original piece — and the followup — be held to the highest scrutiny
Let me start with Will’s defense of the one “factual” assertion he claims was unsucessfully challenged.
BLATANT REPEATED MISUSE OF A SOURCE — AFTER BEING CALLED OUT ON THE DECEPTION
After the paragraph above, he writes:
Citing data from the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, as interpreted on Jan. 1 by Daily Tech, a technology and science news blog, the column said that since September “the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began.” According to the center, global sea ice levels at the end of 2008 were “near or slightly lower than” those of 1979. The center generally does not make its statistics available, but in a Jan. 12 statement the center confirmed that global sea ice levels were within a difference of less than 3 percent of the 1980 level.
So the column accurately reported what the center had reported. But on Feb. 15, the Sunday the column appeared, the center, then receiving many e-mail inquiries, issued a statement saying “we do not know where George Will is getting his information.” The answer was: From the center, via Daily Tech. Consult the center’s Web site where, on Jan. 12, the center posted the confirmation of the data (http://arctic.atmos.
uiuc.edu/cryosphere/global.sea.ice.area.pdf) that this column subsequently reported accurately.
The scientists at the Illinois center offer their statistics with responsible caveats germane to margins of error in measurements and precise seasonal comparisons of year-on-year estimates of global sea ice. Nowadays, however, scientists often find themselves enveloped in furies triggered by any expression of skepticism about the global warming consensus (which will prevail until a diametrically different consensus comes along; see the 1970s) in the media-environmental complex.
Media Matters easily refutes Will’s claim and trashes his misuse of this source — so easily that it boggles the mind anyone at the Post would let Will have made it in the
first second place:
But Will did not “accurately” report on the January ACRC document in either of his columns. As Media Matters and others noted when Post ombudsman Andy Alexander reportedly cited the same document in response to complaints about Will’s February 15 column, that document actually says that the ACRC data are consistent with global warming predictions and that it is important to distinguish between sea ice in the Northern and Southern hemispheres when discussing global warming. The full document states that “[a]lmost all” climate models project that human-caused global warming will result in decreased sea ice in the Northern Hemisphere, but that some recent studies have suggested that warming might initially cause sea ice to increase in the Southern Hemisphere, and that these projections are consistent with observed sea ice data.
COOKE-LIKE FABRICATION OF A SOURCE
Then Media Matters makes the obvious point:
In addition, Will’s claim that his sea ice distortion was the “only” assertion from his February 15 column that has been “challenged” is itself false. For example, Media Matters and others “challenged” Will’s assertion that “according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization [WMO], there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade.” Will did not cite a source or provide a quote to back up that claim. In fact, as recently as January 7, Agence France-Presse quoted WMO secretary general Michel Jarraud as saying, “The major trend is unmistakably one of warming.” Similarly, the WMO issued an April 4, 2008, statement saying that “[t]he long-term upward trend of global warming, mostly driven by greenhouse gas emissions, is continuing” and quoting the following statement from Jarraud: “There has always been and there will always be cooler and warmer years, but what is important for climate change in the present context is that the trend is still upwards; the global climate on an average is warming despite the temporary cooling brought about by La Ni±a.”
Rather than provide evidence to support his claim about the WMO, Will simply asserts in his new column that “the last decade … passed without warming.”
Indeed, Will asserts, without a trace of irony:
Which returns us to Revkin. In a story ostensibly about journalism, he simply asserts — how does he know this? — that the last decade, which passed without warming, was just “a pause in warming.
Yet if the last decade “passed without warming,” how is it that the last decade is the hottest decade in the historical record — according to the WMO itself??
The decade of 1998-2007 is the warmest on record, according to data sources obtained by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). The global mean surface temperature for 2007 is currently estimated at 0.41°C/0.74°F above the 1961-1990 annual average of 14.00°C/57.20°F….
Since the start of the 20th century, the global average surface temperature has risen by 0.74°C. But this rise has not been continuous. The linear warming trend over the last 50 years (0.13°C per decade) is nearly twice that for the last 100 years.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 4th Assessment (Synthesis) Report, 2007, “warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global average sea level.”
Seriously, what exactly are the Washington Post standards for sourcing and fact checking?
NO SOURCE TO BACK UP HIS SMEARING OF STEVEN CHU
As I wrote, Will “dismisses the science-based warnings of Steven Chu (see Wake up,” America, “we’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California”) without actually citing any evidence whatsoever against Chu’s claim.” Here is what Will wrote in the original piece:
Chu recently told the Los Angeles Times that global warming might melt 90 percent of California’s snowpack, which stores much of the water needed for agriculture. This, Chu said, would mean “no more agriculture in California,” the nation’s leading food producer. Chu added: “I don’t actually see how they can keep their cities going.”
No more lettuce or Los Angeles? Chu likes predictions, so here is another: Nine decades hence, our great-great-grandchildren will add the disappearance of California artichokes to the list of predicted planetary calamities that did not happen. Global cooling recently joined that lengthening list.
The thing is, in the interview (which was published), Chu was directly quoting a scientific study, one that can be found on the web in 10 seconds, as I documented here. Since when does no source beat a source?
BLATANT FABRICATION ABOUT 1970s GLOBAL COOLING MYTH
In the original piece, Will spends a long paragraph recycling the long-debunked denier talking point that the scientific community believed in the 1970s that we were headed into another a long period of cooling. At the time I write that “I don’t know whether it is more pathetic that Will believes this or that the Washington Post simply lets him publish this lie again and again.” Then I point to a 2008 review article in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society that demonstrated definitively (see “Killing the myth of the 1970s global cooling scientific consensus“):
There was no scientific consensus in the 1970s that the Earth was headed into an imminent ice age. Indeed, the possibility of anthropogenic warming dominated the peer-reviewed literature even then.
Now here is the shocker. Even after Will’s original claim was challenged by me — and by many others, including the joint letter to the WP — Will was permitted by the editors and fact-checkers to repeat the myth in even stronger form in the opening paragraph of the new piece:
That column, which expressed skepticism about some emphatic proclamations by the alarmed, took a stroll down memory lane, through the debris of 1970s predictions about the near certainty of calamitous global cooling.
One thing is crystal clear from the scientific sources, there was nothing close to a “prediction about the near certainty of calamitous global warming.”
BLATANT MISUSE OF A SOURCE TO PUSH 1970s GLOBAL COOLING MYTH
But Hilzoy of the Washington Monthly goes one better. After presenting a similar analysis to what Media Matters did above on the misuse of the sea ice source, Hilzoy writes [of the original piece]:
Where I come from, when someone writes something of the form: “P is not evidence for Q, and here’s why”, it is dishonest to quote that person saying P and use that quote as evidence for Q. If one of my students did this, I would grade her down considerably, and would drag her into my office for an unpleasant talk about basic scholarly standards. If she misused quotes in this way repeatedly, I might flunk her.
Will does this more than once. Since it’s Will’s only citation of a peer-reviewed journal I recognize, I checked the quote from Science in this passage:
“Although some disputed that the “cooling trend” could result in “a return to another ice age” (the Times, Sept. 14, 1975), others anticipated “a full-blown 10,000-year ice age” involving “extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation” (Science News, March 1, 1975, and Science magazine, Dec. 10, 1976, respectively).”
It’s from this paper (pdf, subscription wall.) Here is the bit Will cited in context:
“Future climate. Having presented evidence that major changes in past climate were associated with variations in the geometry of the earth’s orbit, we should be able to predict the trend of future climate. Such forecasts must be qualified in two ways. First, they apply only to the natural component of future climatic trends — and not to such anthropogenic effects as those due to the burning of fossil fuels. Second, they describe only the long-term trends, because they are linked to orbital variations with periods of 20,000 years and longer. Climatic oscillations at higher frequencies are not predicted.
One approach to forecasting the natural long-term climate trend is to estimate the time constants of response necessary to explain the observed phase relationships between orbital variation and climatic change, and then to use those time constants in an exponential-response model. When such a model is applied to Vernekar’s astronomical projections, the results indicate that the long-term trend over the next 20,000 years is toward extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation and cooler climate.”
So that “extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation” is (a) supposed to happen “over the next 20,000 years”, not imminently, and (b), more importantly: it’s a prediction that does not take into account anthropogenic changes in climate, like, um, those “due to the burning of fossil fuels”. Which is to say, the kind of global warming we’re now talking about.
The fact that this prediction specifically excludes anthropogenic climate change means that you cannot use it to say: those silly scientists; they used to believe that the earth was cooling, and now they think it’s warming. When scientists say “if we don’t take man-made changes to climate into account, the earth will get cooler over the next 20,000 years”, this is completely consistent with saying: “however, when you factor in those man-made changes, the earth will get warmer”, or “when you factor in those changes, we don’t know”, or any number of things.
If Will actually read these two articles, it’s hard to see how he’s not being deliberately deceptive by citing them as he did. If, as I suspect, he just got them from some set of climate change denialist talking points and didn’t bother to actually check them out for himself, he’s being irresponsible. All those people who supposedly fact-checked Will’s article as part of the Post’s “multi-layer editing process” — “people [George Will] personally employs, as well as two editors at the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates Will; our op-ed page editor; and two copy editors” — should be fired, either for not doing their job or for doing it utterly incompetently. These are hard times for newspapers; I wouldn’t have thought they could afford more than one layer of an editing process that produces no discernible improvement in quality.
Yet even after this widely cited critique, the Post decided to let Will re-assert the factual nature of his entire first post.
NON-DEFENSE DEFENSE BY HIATT
In Hiatt’s defense of Will quoted in the Columbia Journalism Review, he says:
“We looked into these allegations, and I have a different interpretation than [those who signed the letter] about what George Will is and is not entitled to,” said the paper’s editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt. “If you want to start telling me that columnists can’t make inferences which you disagree with–and, you know, they want to run a campaign online to pressure newspapers into suppressing minority views on this subject–I think that’s really inappropriate. 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.”
As Media Matters writes:
But this controversy is not about “inferences” by Will with which others “disagree.” It is about Will spreading falsehoods. And it is about the Washington Post standing by those falsehoods – a rather large gamble for a newspaper that cannot afford to lose readers or credibility.
This controversy is most certainly not about inferences with which some people disagree. It is about the fabrication of some sources and the blatant misuse of other sources. And, of course, it is about outright lies by Will that the Post simply chooses to ignore after multiple warnings.
The CJR article continues:
Hiatt said that he has invited both the World Meteorological Organization and the Arctic Ice Center at the University of Illinois to write a letter for publication taking issue with anything that George wrote, but neither organization has taken him up on the offer. Hiatt added that he doesn’t think Will has an obligation to point out, “in every column he writes about climate change,” that such organizations disagree with his interpretation of their data.
So it is the stated policy of the Washington Post that a non-scientist Post writer can reinterpret scientific evidence to claim that a prestigious scientific source has data that demonstrates humans aren’t changing the climate — even though that source interprets their data as supporting the view that humans are changing the climate? And the average reader is supposed to have any faith whatsoever in how the Washington Post cites expert sources?
This is Alice in Wonderland journalism. It is the paper’s stated policy that the Post feels free to reinterpret whatever anybody says to fit whatever storyline they are pushing. This suggests the Post has advanced far from the Janet Cooke days.
UPDATE 1: I should have mentioned last night that TPM Muckracker first broke this story here. You can read Adam Siegel here and in the comments. Discover Magazine’s blog has an excellent post just on the ice issue, “Unchecked Ice: A Saga in Five Chapters.”
UPDATE 2: The unintentionally ironic final paragraph of Will’s piece deserves special scorn:
On Feb. 18 the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that from early January until the middle of this month, a defective performance by satellite monitors that measure sea ice caused an underestimation of the extent of Arctic sea ice by 193,000 square miles, which is approximately the size of California. The Times (“All the news that’s fit to print”), which as of this writing had not printed that story, should unleash Revkin and his unnamed experts.
Those of you cryosphere buffs who follow the NSIDC data daily noticed that for a few days in February in particular the data seemed to show a sharp drop in Arctic ice. Many people pointed this out to NSIDC, the NSIDC quickly realized that there was a “a malfunction of the satellite sensor,” they stopped reporting the data while they were working to fix the problem, and they reported this to the entire world in a February 18 bulletin, “Satellite sensor errors cause data outage,” which explained how sensor drift let a fairly small error at the end of January turn into a big one by mid February.
Yes, that’s right, the NSIDC, like all serious scientists and most serious journalists, but unlike the Washington Post, checks on what it reports and tells the world whenever it realizes it has made a mistake — even a small, temporary one.
Even though multiple senior editors and fact checkers at the Washington Post must have seen Will’s piece — and even though the WP provided a link to NSIDC (though not to the Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis homepage here which is only a click away) and therefore could have easily read what NSIDC did — the WP let Will leave the impression that NSIDC had somehow made a huge blunder that warranted scrutiny comparable to the scrutiny given to Will’s falsehoods.
And in one of those coincidences that keeps life entertaining, Thursday, the day before Will’s piece appeared in print, the NSIDC issued an update on its Sea Ice homepage here, and explained the whole matter in great detail, noting in particular:
The temporary error in the near-real-time data does not change the conclusion that Arctic sea ice extent has been declining for the past three decades. This conclusion is based on peer reviewed analysis of quality-controlled data products, not near-real-time data.
And, of course, the NSIDC famously believes — like the overwhelming majority of climate scientists — that human-caused warming is a key driving factor behind the decline in sea ice (see NSIDC: Arctic melt passes the point of no return, “We hate to say we told you so, but we did”).
So once again the Washington Post let Will cite and interpret data from scientific sources to cast doubt on the evidentiary basis for the theory of human-caused global warming, when those sources had already publicly explained the data and reasserted the data does not change their core conclusions, which are 180° in opposition to Will.
What a tragedy for journalism this episode has become.