Post Ombudsman Responds, Unconvincingly, On Will Column

After days of radio silence from the Washington Post, the paper’s ombudsman, Andy Alexander, has sent out the following statement (via Think Progress) about the George Will column that misrepresented the facts on global warming:

Thank you for your e-mail. The Post’s ombudsman typically deals with issues involving the news pages. But I understand the point you and many e-mailers are making, and for that reason I sought clarification from the editorial page editors. Basically, I was told that the Post has a multi-layer editing process and checks facts to the fullest extent possible. In this instance, George Will’s column was checked by people he 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. The University of Illinois center that Will cited has now said it doesn’t agree with his conclusion, but earlier this year it put out a statement (http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/global.sea.ice.area.pdf) that was among several sources for this column and that notes in part that “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.”

Best wishes,
Andy Alexander
Washington Post Ombudsman

Hilzoy at the Washington Monthly shows that the statement Alexander cites in fact points to the opposite conclusion from the one Will drew from it.

But engaging at this level of detail is sort of beside the point. As the Post knows, every reputable scientific organization that has studied the issue has confirmed that global warming is occurring. Will’s column was intended to mislead readers into believing that not to be true. That’s the case whether or not it contained a statement that meets the Post‘s criteria for factual inaccuracy.

Late Update: Matthew Yglesias at Think Progress says it better than we could:

As for why it’s okay for Will to write stuff that isn’t true, the Post didn’t have much of substance to say. They picked one of debunked subsidiary claims, and said they think Will is right, though they acknowledge that the very organization Will was citing as an authority says Will is wrong. One could say that on this subsidiary point, Will perhaps made an honest mistake that the Arctic Climate Research Center has since corrected. But the Post instead says that Will is right and the Arctic Climate Research Center wrong about what the ACRC’s own research says. Meanwhile, they have nothing whatsoever to say about the other problems with the column.

These problems, it should be said, include Will’s overarching thesis. Will wrote, and is trying to get readers of The Washington Post to believe, that there was a scientific consensus about global cooling in the 1970s. This is false. Post readers are being deceived. And the Post is standing by the deceivers.

This started as a problem for Will, his direct supervisors, and the Post’s ombudsman. But now that the Post as a paper is standing behind Will’s deceptions, I think it’s a problem for all the other people who work at the Post. Some of those people do bad work, which is too bad. And some of those people do good work. And unfortunately, that’s worse. It means that when good work appears in the Post it bolsters the reputation of the Post as an institution. And the Post, as an institution, has taken a stand that says it’s okay to claim that up is down. It’s okay to claim that day is night. It’s okay to claim that hot is cold. It’s okay to claim that a consensus existed when it didn’t. It’s okay to claim that George Will is a better source of authority on interpreting the ACRC’s scientific research than is the ACRC. Everyone who works at the Post, has, I think, a serious problem.

Late Late Update: Carl Zimmer, who writes frequently about science for the New York Times, goes into more devastating detail to show that the very statement the Post cites rebuts Will’s point.

If someone from the Post’s crackerjack multi-layer squad of fact-checkers had bothered to pick up the phone, they could have simply asked, “Is it indeed true that global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979?”

And they would have probably gotten an answer like this: “Well, what do you mean by now? Today? And what do you mean by 1979? Exactly thirty years ago today? If that’s what you mean, the answer is no.”

A good fact-checker would then say, “Well, it seems this claim is based on an article that came out January 1.”

To which the scientist would say something along the lines of, “At that point it was near or slightly lower what was observed in late 1979.”

At the very least, that discrepancy would have to be corrected. But a good fact-checker would see a deeper problem, saying, “Whoa, that changed a lot in a month and a half.”

Which would then lead to a discussion of the fact ice cover is such a noisy process that picking out a single day to compare these numbers does not say a lot about how it is affected by climate change. Climatologists look over longer time scales.

A good fact-checker would also learn that almost all climate models project that increasing greenhouse gases will cause a decrease in the Northern Hemisphere sea ice area over the next several decades, but the response of the southern hemisphere is less certain. In fact, evaporation caused by the warming might lead to more snowfall onto the sea ice. If the southern ice expands, it cancels out some of the retreat of the northern ice. And lo and behold, the northern hemisphere ice is almost a million square kilometers smaller than it was in late 1979, and the Southern Hemisphere ice is about half a million square kilometers bigger than in late 1979. So not only is Will wrong on the particulars of his statement, but he’s wrong on what it means about climate change. A good fact-checker would make sure that this was fixed too.

How can I be so confident that a good fact-checker would learn this? Because it is in that same January statement from the Center that the Post cited as “evidence” that Will was correct.

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