More on George Will

Much, much, much more… All tolled, (and not yet all told) this is the first major league blogstorm emerging from the non-denialist climo-blogosphere and is thus a historical event regardless of your position on it.

If there’s one thing you should understand about this event it is this one: Jonathan Schwarz tells an old Noam Chomsky story about George Will in an article entitled “So Much Nicer To Be George Will Before The Internet”.

So she looked it up and called me back, and said, “Yeah, you’re right, we found it there; okay, we’ll run your letter.” An hour later she called again and said, “Gee, I’m sorry, but we can’t run the letter.” I said, “What’s the problem?” She said, “Well, the editor mentioned it to Will and he’s having a tantrum; they decided they can’t run it.” Well, okay.

Of course there’s more from Joe Romm. Especially consider this comment from “agog”:
The great mystery to me is why in the age of the interweb does anyone bother with US journalism. As disgraceful as these George Will columns have been, after its support for the Iraq war how could any sentient reader of WaPo have credited it with any journalistic or moral integrity? The NYT and WSJ are no better and anything on US television is a waste of time.

For English speakers surely the FT, the Independent, BBC, Channel 4 or Al Jazeera are better alternatives: none of them come close to being perfect but if one consumes critically it is possible to cherry pick the best of them depending on the issue. And, of course, there is the blogosphere where sites like this usefully both contribute and critique.

Americans seem to be living in an information bubble (or is it vacuum?): their own version of The Truman Show. From abroad, the world looks very different. Equally f**ked, but somehow in a way that one can make more sense of.

Then there is Curtis Brainerd on no less than the Columbia Journalism Review. This mostly consists of a clear and cogent history of the episode, but ends with a jawdroppingly muddled piece of journalism-insider blathering:

Revkin quoted American University communications professor Matthew Nisbet, who argues that the wave of criticism of Will “only serves to draw attention to his claims while reinforcing a larger false narrative that liberals and the mainstream press are seeking to censor rival scientific evidence and views.”

There is some truth to that. Indeed, because of the hullaballoo, Will is now writing about climate change for the second time this month. On the other hand, this whole affair raises a number of important questions about how the press, particularly columnists, cover climate change. The most important seems to be: can inference rise to the level of such absurdity that it becomes subject to the same rigors as evidence?

Carl Zimmer

What has kept me hooked on this saga is not George Will’s errors. Errors are as common as grass. Some are made out of ignorance, some carefully constructed to give a misleading impression. What has kept me agog is the way the editors at the Washington Post have actually given their stamp of approval on Will’s columns, even claiming to have fact-checked them and seeing no need for a single correction.

The climax to this part of the story came yesterday, when the Columbia Journalism Review was finally able to get Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor at the Post, to speak directly about the ice affair:

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…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’ve heard that line before…the one about how people can look at the same scientific data and make different inferences.

I’ve heard it from creationists. They look at the Grand Canyon, at all the data amassed by geologists over the years, and they end up with an inference very different from what you’ll hear from those geologists.

Would Hiatt be pleased to have them writing opinion pieces, too? There is indeed some debate in the scientific community about exactly how old the Grand Canyon is–with some arguing it’s 55 million years old and others arguing for 15 million. Would Hiatt consider it healthy to publish a piece from someone who thinks the Grand Canyon is just a few thousand years old, with just a perfunctory inspection of the information in it?

At this point, it’s hard for me to see how the answer could be no.

Senator John Kerry makes a sympatico pronouncement on HuffPo:
Let’s be very clear: Stephen Chu does not make predictions to further an agenda. He does so to inform the public. He is no Cassandra. If his predictions about the effects of our climate crisis are scary, it’s because our climate is scary.

Amen. Even the best of our J-school friends seem incapable of getting a grip on that.

Andrew Siegel has more and a huge supply of links, enough to fill your whole rainy day if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere they still have those.


  1. Credulous belief in Cassandra canoes aside, the MIL has taken to watching BBC world news, because even she has had it with Murrican journalism, and this is a woman who leaves the room when Obama is on TV.Best,D

  2. I don’t know who Joe Romm is but he should go on the music hall:”For English speakers [seeking “journalistic or moral integrity”] surely the FT, the Independent, BBC, Channel 4 or Al Jazeera are better alternatives”The Independent, which isn’t, and the BBC, known here as ‘the Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation … what a hoot! And Channel 4 news with that ‘uber’ Lefty Jon Snow in charge … hilarious! And for a side-splitting punch-line, Al Jazeera … oh my giddy aunt, no more please, it’s hurting!As for arctic ice, perhaps you should get in touch with that British Green idiot who set off in December (I think) in a blaze of publicity to paddle his canoe to the North Pole because he had read of “the April of 2008 pronouncement by National Snow and Ice Data Center scientist Dr. Mark Serreze of an ice free north pole in 2008”. Guess what? He had to be rescued after a few days because he was stuck in the ice!Oh dear, I’m off again … too, too screamingly funny!

  3. Thank you for posting Hiatt’s remarks, Michael. I find them truly frightening as they illustrate the profound misunderstandings of the epistemology of science and the scientific method. In an age where a number of environmental issues are going to require close attention and political action, such ignorance is both frightening and inexcusable. My undergraduate students routinely tell me their science classes consisted of memorizing facts and formulae. Very little time spent in labs. Almost no time learning about the scientific method and practicing the arts of theory development, hypothesis generation, experimental design to test the hypotheses, observation, analysis, and developing conclusions to support or refute the hypotheses and further develop theory. This just staggers me. We seem to live in an era where opinions matter above all else. Worse, they all seem to be regarded equally.

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