Hiatt: Will Challenging Climate Change Consensus Is “Healthy”

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Fred, what gives? You’ll return Columbia Journalism Review‘s calls, but not ours? Where did we go wrong?

Fred Hiatt has broken his silence on that George Will global warming denialist column that set off such a hulabaloo. In an interview with CJR published last night, Hiatt defended the decision to run Will’s column, despite several clear misrepresentations of science that have been thoroughly documented.

Hiatt argued that, rather than trying to prevent Will from expressing his point of view, Will’s critics should take him on.

“Do I think it’s somehow dangerous to have one of our many columnists casting doubt on this consensus?” Hiatt asked. “No, I think it’s healthy. And let the other ones come in and slam him, if they think it’s irresponsible. That’s what an opinion page is for.”

But nowhere in the interview does Hiatt appear to grapple with the actual argument of Will’s numerous critics, which is that the column at issue contained outright misrepresentations of scientific data, on a level that goes far beyond honest differences of opinion.

Here’s the relevant excerpt from CJR‘s report, so you can judge for yourself:

“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.”

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.

“If you’re concerned that readers of The Washington Post don’t get a sense that most of the world thinks climate change is real, I think that’s a misplaced concern,” he said. “And I can tell you: I don’t share George’s view. If you read our editorial pages you would know that we believe that the evidence of climate change is sufficiently alarming to justify major changes in public policy. But, you know what? I think it’s kind of healthy, given how, in so many areas–not just climatology, but medicine, and everything else–there is a tendency on the part of the lay public at times to ascribe certainty to things which are uncertain. I believe, and this me personally speaking, that there is a lot more we don’t know about climatology and there’s a lot more we have to learn in terms of our ability to predict climatological phenomena and how what’s happening in the oceans is going to interact with what’s happening in the atmosphere. And do I think it’s somehow dangerous to have one of our many columnists casting doubt on this consensus? No, I think it’s healthy. And let the other ones come in and slam him, if they think it’s irresponsible. That’s what an opinion page is for.”

Separately, yesterday we got a sneek peak at Will’s latest column, in which he digs in his heels on the issue of global warming. (It’s now up on the Washington Post site.)

We decided to leave the debunking of Will’s self-defense to others more expert in the subject. And Carl Zimmer, who writes frequently about science for the New York Times, has now done so, in a detailed rebuttal to Will posted on the website of Discover magazine, that concludes:

In trying to justify an old error, Will can’t help making new ones. But at this point, I’m not expecting any corrections.

Late Update:
Andrew Revkin of the New York Times has added his own detailed rebuttal of Will’s latest column, which itself was framed as a response to a piece by Revkin earlier this week that criticized Will’s original column.

We await Will’s response to Revkin’s response to Will’s response to Revkin’s response to Will.

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