04/02/2009 09:48 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Will-fully Distorting ... despite being publicly corrected

Alarms should be going off whenever George Will sets his pen to paper with words "climate change" or "global warming" anywhere near the subject line. In today's Climate Change's Dim Bulbs, Will launches deceptive broadsides at compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL), using "facts" to pander truthiness and confuse the public discussion on energy issues. In this case, his column pulls mainly from a marginal NY Times article examining the mixed record of CFLs. (Why marginal? In short, because it upfronts shallow problem discussion, perhaps as a teaser, with the substance toward the back end of the piece. A useful piece for those open to looking toward improving the situation, which isn't perfect, and also a useful piece for Luddites like Will.)

A small example of 'distortion' flowing from the Times into Will's column:

Although supposed to last 10,000 hours and save, the Times says, "as much as" $5.40 a year in electricity costs, some bulbs died within a few hours. Some experts, reports the Times, "blame the government for the quality problems," saying its push to cut the bulbs' prices prompted manufacturers to use inferior components.

Have to hand it to Will for his skillful skewing of discussion. So much to dissect in so few words.

1. "Although supposed to last 10,000 hours ..." Well, CFLs are typically branded for 4500-6000 hours, last time I looked across multiple brands' packaging. 10,000 hours as average claim? Not from my experience.

2. "Some bulbs died within a few hours ..." Okay, so 5000 hours is the expected AVERAGE life of the bulb. Some will last 10,000 (and, actually, some (FAR FEWER) will likely last 100,000+ hours). With many technologies, the failure rate is curved, with the highest percentage failures at the very earliest usage points. Faulty manufacture or materials' problems and the bulb might blow when put in the socket. (Of over 150 CFLs that I've tracked, three died within less than 30 minutes. All three were the same bulb type, from two packages totaling six bulbs, from a buy at Walmart. With years of usage, have had 21 total die -- with some of those for reasons outside the bulb, itself. (Water leak shorting a socket.) I am not tracking exact hours / bulb, but it is clear that replacements are occurring far less frequently than was the case with incandescents.

3. "save "as much as" $5.40 a year in electricity costs ..." Let's take a look at the likely basis for such a comment. Two comparisions are in order between incandescent and CFL bulbs. We're going to use a standard of 40 hours per week of lighting usage (a reasonable moderate+ home use, low office use for a bulb) at a cost of 10 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity. A 40 watt incandescent bulb (low level of light) would burn 1.6 kilowatt hours/week or 83.2 per year for a total electricity bill of $8.32. A CFL equivalent would burn 11 watts or 0.44 kwh/week and 22.88 kwh/year for a total electricity cost of $2.29. A difference of $6.03, or more than 10 percent higher than the figure the Times used and Will emphasized. But how many of your bulbs are 40 watt (or 40 watt equivalents)? Let's up the lighting a bit, why don't we? What happens at 100 watts? In this case, the incandescent is 4 kWh/week or 208 per year, which translates to $20.80 on the electricity bill. The 27 watt CFL equivalent is 1.08 kwh/week, 56.6 kWh/year, or $5.62 of electricity payments annually. That is a $15.28 reduction in electricity costs annually -- for just one bulb. So much for "save "as much as" $5.40 a year in electricity costs" be a reasonable statement.

4. Of course, it is all the governments' fault rather than the businesses who have made poor products and have inadequate quality control. Have to wonder whether George Will endorses expanded government inspection to assure that private manufacturers are meeting the government standards.

The New York Times article, Do New Bulbs Save Energy if They Don't Work?, is worth reading, even if there are problems with it, as it highlights some real issues and provides some paths for learning lessons to reduce future problems.

The rest of Will's piece is simply deceptive and misleading. What a surprise.

Surprised that I am surprised ...

What is perhaps surprising is that The Washington Post and The Washington Post Writers' Group are again complicit in enabling Will-ful deceit on an issue for which they were so badly burned in February and March during The Will Affair. Despite The Washington Post's editorial board's implicit acknowledgment of error in allowing Will's distortions into their OPED pages by publishing, on facing pages, two pieces shredding Will's distortions on 21 March, Will's column today repeats the deceitful material directly tackled by World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Secretary-General Michel Jarraud in his extensive letter responding to Will's citing the WMO. Will's column today:

"[r]educing carbon emissions supposedly will reverse warming, which is allegedly occurring even though, according to statistics published by the World Meteorological Organization [WMO], there has not been a warmer year on record than 1998."

From Jarraud's 21 letter: "[i]t is a misinterpretation of the data and of scientific knowledge to point to one year as the warmest on record ... and then to extrapolate that cooler subsequent years invalidate the reality of global warming and its effects."

Yet again, despite publishing a letter from the head of the organization that Will is citing stating that this is a misuse of the data, The Washington Post publishes his distortion. Clearly the Washington Post editorial board has not learned a lesson and are not interested in holding George Will to any reasonable journalistic standard.

UPDATE: Chris Mooney, author of the other 21 March Washington Post publication tackling Will's Will-ful deceit, has a reaction:

Congratulations, Mr. Will-your statement is no longer factually incorrect! However, you still appear to reject statistical reasoning about temperature trends. How else to explain this silly fixation on 1998 being the warmest year? This isolated factoid does not cast any serious doubt on the idea that we're in a warming trend. It's absurd to assume that we'll set a new temperature record each year, and that if we don't, there's nothing to worry about.

Carl Zimmer has weighed in with George Will, Now With Misleading Links!

There's a lot of dismally wrong coverage of global warming these days. But the way global warming gets treated on the op-ed pages of The Washington Post-particularly by George Will and his enabling editors-is particularly exquisite. For my little Ahab-like obsession with the editorial process there, check out this string of posts. Many other observers have made similar points, so you'd think that somebody over at the Post might have learned something from the experience. Today, we see that they haven't.

And, Joe Romm weighs in forcefully with The Washington Post, abandoning any journalistic standards, lets George Will publish a third time global warming lies debunked on its own pages

Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me, fool me three times, shame on the media.

In a move that calls into question the journalistic integrity of the entire Washington Post editorial staff -- especially editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt, who should be fired -- the newspaper has published a third disinformation-pushing op-ed by George Will ... The bottom line about the Post is that it would appear to have no journalistic standards at all for what it publishes on its editorial page and its letters page ... The Washington Post editorial staff has flunked journalism 101.

I repeat, editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt, should be fired.

NOTE: Several related discussions on CFL payback periods: