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George Will Column Sparks Outrage, Enviro Groups Write Joint Letter To Post

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Pressure on the Washington Post over a controversial George Will column, entitled "Dark Green Doomsayers," has escalated from being the passion project of media watchdog groups to a core concern of environmental leaders. These figures have launched a coordinated campaign against the Washington Post, seeking a correction of the record:

Today, Media Matters for America President Eric Burns joined Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope, League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski, and Friends of the Earth President Brent Blackwelder in issuing a letter to Washington Post ombudsman Andy Alexander asking him to address several blatant falsehoods in George Will's February 15 column about global warming.

The basic thrust of the column in question, published on February 15, 2009, goes something like this: a long time ago, scientists thought that the planet was poised to undergo a calamitous period of "global cooling," and also some other scary stuff about armadillo migration and the price of copper, and all of this proves that as the scientific community is so prone to lapsing into trendy, chi-chi "doomsaying," there's no real need to heed any concerns about global warming.

Basically, it's an attempt to zero the balance of Will's objections to environmental initiatives by asserting, "once upon a time, these higher minds thought precisely the opposite, so this is just some great comedy." In reality, the article only proves that if you multiply a germ of scientific inquiry with George Will, you get zero. Throughout his piece, Will misuses his cited sources, misrepresents their findings, and omits the essential conclusions they reached.

The letter penned by Burns, Pope, Karpinski, and Blackwelder responds to Will's argumentative tactics and the false conclusions drawn from them:

Andy Alexander

Ombudsman
The Washington Post
1150 15th St. NW
Washington, DC 20071

Dear Mr. Alexander:

We are writing today to express urgent concern over your refusal to correct George Will's February 15 column, "Dark Green Doomsayers." Will used his nationally syndicated column to make several clear distortions about global warming.

First, Will misused data on global sea ice levels from the Arctic Climate Research Center (ACRC), wrongly suggesting that ACRC data undermine the overwhelming scientific consensus surrounding "man-made global warming." In fact, the ACRC says the opposite is true -- the sea ice data Will cited actually support the scientific consensus that humans are causing global warming.

Second, Will claimed that "according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade." Will cited no source and provided no quote for this claim. In fact, last year, the WMO stated that the "long-term upward trend of global warming, mostly driven by greenhouse gas emissions, is continuing." And just last month, WMO secretary general Michel Jarraud reportedly said: "The major trend is unmistakably one of warming."

Third, Will rehashed the discredited myth that in the 1970s, there was broad scientific consensus that the Earth faced an imminent global cooling threat.

Will's column has sparked widespread criticism. Yet, the only response from the Post seems to be to defend Will with further misinformation. When Brad Johnson from the Center for American Progress Action Fund contacted you to correct Will's distortions, you reportedly refused to acknowledge that they exist.

Global warming is one of the most urgent issues facing our country and the entire world. In dealing with an issue of such magnitude, the Post has a duty to provide the truth to its readers.

George Will is entitled to his own opinions, but he is not entitled to his own facts. We respectfully ask that you immediately make your readers aware of the glaring misinformation in Will's column.

Thank you.

All of this gets blown out in exacting, lovely detail by Hilzoy in this Washington Monthly post. Let me give you a taste:

Here's how George Will cited the Arctic Climate Research Center:

"As global levels of sea ice declined last year, many experts said this was evidence of man-made global warming. Since September, however, the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began. According to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979."

Here's the statement Mr. Alexander cites as "one of" Will's sources, including the sentence he specifically references. It's a response to an article in the Daily Tech called "Sea Ice Ends Year at Same Level as 1979":

"One important detail about the article in the Daily Tech is that the author is comparing the GLOBAL sea ice area from December 31, 2008 to same variable for December 31, 1979. In the context of climate change, GLOBAL sea ice area may not be the most relevant indicator. Almost all global climate models project a decrease in the Northern Hemisphere sea ice area over the next several decades under increasing greenhouse gas scenarios. But, the same model responses of the Southern Hemisphere sea ice are less certain. In fact, there have been some recent studies suggesting the amount of sea ice in the Southern Hemisphere may initially increase as a response to atmospheric warming through increased evaporation and subsequent snowfall onto the sea ice. (Details: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/06/050630064726.htm )

Observed global sea ice area, defined here as a sum of N. Hemisphere and S. Hemisphere sea ice areas, is near or slightly lower than those observed in late 1979, as noted in the Daily Tech article. However, observed N. Hemisphere sea ice area is almost one million sq. km below values seen in late 1979 and S. Hemisphere sea ice area is about 0.5 million sq. km above that seen in late 1979, partly offsetting the N.Hemisphere reduction."

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.

Where I went to school, you did get flunked for this sort of nonsense. And that's what you do to preserve a community of thought. The Post, however, has made no effort to correct the record. As Matt Yglesias points out, their refusal to address the controversy in a substantive and specifically corrective way harms the overall Washington Post's "community":

As you can see at this suggested correction for George Will's witless climate change column, the reason the Post can't offer a correction is that absent the errors there's basically nothing left. But to reiterate my earlier point, everyone who writes for the Post has a problem now. The Post is standing foresquare behind the errors, which makes it very difficult for any writing that appears in the Post under any byline to have credibility or be taken seriously.