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SCIENCE, CULTURED

The George Will Scandal

Climate Change, The Washington Post, and the Death of Newspapers

person holding stack of newspapers SOURCE: flickr.com/locator If a major media outlet can't even correct facts about global warming, is it still socially relevant?

Something striking has happened over the past week in the dynamical relationship between the blogosphere and the rather gaunt-looking “mainstream media,” or MSM, with respect to a science controversy. And watching it unfold makes one wonder if we aren’t seeing a kind of turning-point moment in the transition—for better or worse—away from  newspapers as the dominant source of opinion, commentary, and thoughtful analysis in our society.

Science, Cultured

Contributing editor Chris Mooney

Science Progress contributing editor Chris Mooney surveys the interactions between science, politics, and culture. He is the author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.” (Photo: flickr.com/sarahfelicity)

On February 15, as he has done many times in the past, George Will of The Washington Post wrote a howler-filled column about global warming. The gist echoed a point Will has often made: Environmentalist doomsayers like to scare us, but they’re often flat wrong. To this end, the article contained a head-scratchingly long and pseudo-referenced paragraph, making the-oft refuted claim that during the 1970s, the scientific community was convinced that “global cooling” had arrived. In reality, while a few scientists were indeed worried about cooling at the time, and some journalists wrote alarmist stories about the subject, there was no consensus like there is today about human caused global warming.

How to make the case that we still need these hallowed gray newspapers to police our society and discourse?

Will’s column also took several other angular swipes at the mainstream scientific understanding of climate change’s human causation, without directly taking it on. In one case, it cited the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center to claim that “global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.” In other words, we’re not really warming up—the ice is doing fine. (The Arctic Climate Research Center quickly repudiated Will’s assertion.) In closing, meanwhile, Will made this truly extraordinary claim: “According to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade, or one-third of the span since the global cooling scare.” As the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the World Meteorological Organization are central scientific authorities that have long supported the idea of human-caused global warming, this was a particular shocker.

In essence, then, a number of Will’s claims—about “global cooling,” sea ice, and the WMO—were either flatly false or extraordinarily misleading, whether due to dishonesty, ignorance, or some combination of both. This wasn’t necessarily new for Will, any more than it is new for a number of other conservative columnists or pundits who write about global warming. But for some reason, the outrage this time built and fed upon itself. There’s no way to fully list all the things that have since been posted about the matter—the volume is far too great—but Joe Romm of Climate Progress seems to have kicked it off; Adam Siegel of EnergySmart has a very comprehensive overview; the folks at Media Matters and TalkingPointsMemo have driven the story; and Brad Johnson of the Wonk Room has not only written about the controversy in detail but gotten responses from the Post itself. In short, the paper takes the cowardly route and refuses to correct Will’s copious errors of fact, interpretation, and so forth. It equivocates. And it claims that Will’s column was fact-checked by multiple people “to the fullest extent possible.” (Ha.)

But enough blow-by-blow: What does it all mean?

Will is of course an eminence grise of Washington punditry, a regular on ABC’s This Week, and widely regarded as a distinguished conservative intellectual. He is also fatuously wrong about the science of global warming, and apparently impervious to and shielded from correction. Bloggers are now gleefully obliterating both him and the Washington Post, and they are substantively right in everything they’re saying-about climate science, about the stubborn inescapability of facts, and, indeed, about journalistic responsibility.

The Post thus takes a dramatic credibility hit here—and the bloggers a credibility gain—and given the current economic straits facing newspapers and the Post in particular, that’s something it can ill afford. We often hear that “technology” is what’s killing newspapers—innovations like Craig’s List have destroyed the in-print classified advertising market; people have stopped reading physical papers and turned to online headlines from news aggregators or blogs; and so on. But there are also matters of substance and standards, and if the Post editorial page can’t even print correct facts about global warming (or correct already printed errors), then how to make the case that we still need these hallowed gray newspapers to police our society and discourse?

In this sense, I view the George Will affair with sadness. Sure, I share in the temporary glee of the bloggers. But at the same time, I know there are many kinds of journalism, particularly about science, that bloggers will never replace. They’re extremely well-equipped to pounce and skewer a George Will column, but hardly well equipped to deliver an investigative or narrative feature story. We’re watching the media change before our eyes, the science media in particular—and no one can say, in light of episodes like the latest one involving George Will, that much of old media doesn’t in some sense “deserve” what’s happening to it now. Yet if our only sentiment is joy over the bloggers’ latest trophy, or outrage at the Post, we’re missing something deep indeed.

Chris Mooney is contributing editor to Science Progress and author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.”

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