Washington Post publishes rebuttal of George Will’s lies

The Washington Post gave over their op-ed page to science journalist Chris Mooney, who took apart George Will’s recent lie-filled column on climate change. The Post also published a letter from the World Meteorological Organization, rebutting Will’s distortion of their own data. Will claimed that the WMO’s temperature record shows “there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade.” According to the WMO itself, data collected over the past 150 years points to an “unequivocal conclusion: The observed increase in global surface temperatures is a manifestation of global warming.”

I have two comments on this.

The first is that the letter-writing worked. It’s unusual for newspapers to rebut their own columnists, but the uproar demanded a response. And beyond the immediate controversy, both Will and the Post are likely to act with a little more consideration before promoting demonstrable falsehoods about climate change.

The second is that this conclusion is wholly unsatisfactory and demonstrates the sharp limits on the effectiveness of dueling op-eds. Part of the imbalance is structural. George Will’s column is syndicated nationally, and Will can push his views weekly on television. Mooney was granted a single column, which wasn’t even enough space to unpack all the dishonesty in Will’s original piece.

But more broadly, Will and Mooney have mismatched aims, and they’re playing on a field that is fundamentally tilted.

Mooney’s goals were two-fold: to correct the specific inaccuracies in Will’s column, and to make a more general point about the misuse of science in journalism. He succeeded in these goals to the degree possible in the space available to him.

George Will also had two goals: to portray environmentalists as scaremongers, and to cast global warming as a confusing phenomenon based on a shaky foundation of contradictory observations. He also succeeded.

That’s the rub. They’re talking past each other, so they can both get their points across, and Will can still win the messaging war despite being wrong in both fact and implication. Will can call environmentalists “doomsayers,” but Mooney can’t call Will a liar. Mooney can point out that the specific arguments in Will’s column are scientifically inaccurate, but he can’t undo the general impression that climate science is inherently uncertain. Round and round it goes.

To end on a slightly less gloomy note: this is last-gasp stuff. We see much less of these out-and-out distortions than we used to (whoops, here’s another one), and I suppose in another ten years we’ll no longer be arguing about the basic reality of climate change, and will instead be arguing about something else entirely. If you wrote a letter, pat yourself on the back. Change comes slowly, but it comes.

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  1. Linda Castillo - March 25, 2009

    Bravo, I avoid reading anything from George Will because I know it is iffy, and usually a right wing rant slant. For a newspaper to stand up to this bully is great!

  2. Monty - March 25, 2009

    I have stood up to a number of anti-greens over the years, and they have a remarkable commonality to them: When you present them with facts, they will tell you that they do not have time to refute your points. So then I ask why they wrote their anti-green argument in the first place, and suddenly they stop communication.
    Your points are dead-on. Their goal is not to prove that climate change is not happening but to simple spread doubt. More troubling is that other anti-greens will use the “doubt” that Will and others spread as evidence of their points, despite the fact that it was shown to be incorrect.
    I hope it will stop soon, but I am not nearly as confident as you are.

  3. Patrick - March 25, 2009

    Amen to that. The unfortunate truth in this argument is that the naysayers do not have to succeed in convincing anyone that global warming isn’t happening. Their goal has been to keep people from taking decisive action, and if you sow enough seeds of doubt, people will sit back and wait for something more certain. It is a game to buy time, but fortunately it looks like we’re near the end of it (in the mainstream media, at least.)

  4. Alan - March 31, 2009

    I think all this is great! Finally people are taking some action to refute the passive aggressive! Let’s leave the partisanship rhetoric out of our comments, though! As a ultra-conservative liberatarian, I do not appreciate the idea that conservatives do not want change with respect to our ecology!
    I have been a conservative, Boy Scout, and Eco-Scientist all my life! Back in the ’80s
    it was the Socialists that didn’t care about the Ecosystem. So, if everyone continues to alienate based on partisan bias, we will continue to fail! Unfortunately, the plane is tilted to dirty fuels. I am a proponent of more nukes! I spent many years in Europe and saw safe and clean use of nuke power in the Netherlands. We could find a new job for our old Cold-War, under-utilized, no longer needed stock piled missles?! If we could get the special interest groups out of Washington, maybe we would actually have a chance at some radical change with respect for our Ecosystem. It not only has to do with the weather, but also our respect for life in general! We were put here to command the Earth, not destroy every living being that ever existed! We just need to put a little forethought into our actions on a daily basis. A life of convenience does not serve us, as the human race, any other animal, or our Ecosystem any good! Not only is action required by us, as the human race, but also a shift in mentality concerning our Environment as a whole! The adaptation of a Socialistic regime is not the answer, look at the old USSR, that regime did nothing but destroy! We have to adapt a mentality of reward for something good! Incintentives for doing a good turn daily! Unfortunately, we, as humans, are by nature greedy, self-centered, selfish and self-indulgent. Maybe the model for which we use to raise our young has become flawed. I was not raised this way and still get taunted for living old school. The old school mentality was to leave nominal impact on the farm, due to the fact that we might need it someday! Food for thought! Take Care.

  5. Alan - March 31, 2009

    Careful how you jade your comments to the political…. I want real change not some political idealism!

  6. Kit - April 15, 2009

    Basically I find sense in many of the earlier comments. I too grew up in the 60s and 70s and remember a simplier life. We have also learned many lessons about the good and bad we were doing and I hope we grow from those lessons.
    My concern about the global warming argument is a general denial by ultra-environmentalists that other factors affect our environment – many more than just human activity. I agree in being much more sustainable, conserving of resources, and that movement in and of itself. However, we see a general denial of other natural events that contribute to global warming – volcanic activity, ocean temperatures, our place in the solar system relative to the sun, evidence of global flips and realignment of the magnetic poles directly affecting our planet’s natural protection from UV. I urge people to assess what they can and cannot affect and to consider all factors pertinent to a discussion, not just the handy, sensational aspects.
    Thank you for your consideration.

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