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More Hot Air from George Will

Columnist defends errors in climate change column

SOURCE: Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)
2 March 2009
Syndicated Washington Post columnist George Will and the Post's ombud Andrew Alexander are still failing to address the majority of the inaccuracies in Will's February 15 column on climate change.

Facing down critics (including FAIR--Action Alert, 2/18/09), Will claimed in a new column (2/27/09) that his original "column contained many factual assertions but only one has been challenged." Taking up that "one" challenge, Will continued to insist that his summary of research done by the University of Illinois' Department of Atmospheric Sciences was correct--despite the researchers' repudiation of Will's argument.

Of course, critics had pointed out two other inaccuracies: Will had suggested that global cooling was a prevailing scientific concern of the 1970s--a falsehood he repeated in his new column--and claimed the United Nations has found there has "been no recorded global warming for more than a decade," an inaccurate interpretation that the U.N. has tried to correct in the past. How the legion of fact-checkers that (according to Alexander) scrutinize Will's columns managed to miss the fact that Will's critics had cited multiple errors of fact in the previous column is hard to understand.

Will's real point was to criticize a New York Times report by Andrew Revkin (2/25/09) for not naming the experts that Revkin said found Will's column to contain inaccuracies. This, too, is specious, as Revkin noted that the sea ice researchers from the University of Illinois said Will was wrong about their data. (Revkin's piece was troubling, but for a different reason entirely; see FAIR Blog, 2/27/09.)

In his February 27 column, Will added another exaggeration, suggesting that scientists face enormous pressure to toe the line on climate change even though the scientific evidence is questionable:

On February 18 the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that from early January until the middle of this month, a defective performance by satellite monitors that measure sea ice caused an underestimation of the extent of Arctic sea ice by 193,000 square miles, which is approximately the size of California. The Times ("All the news that's fit to print"), which as of this writing had not printed that story, should unleash Revkin and his unnamed experts.

Will seems to be going for a two-fer: This measurement error is alarmingly significant ("the size of California"), and the New York Times ("a megaphone for the alarmed," in Will's view) is not reporting this obviously important news. Except that this doesn't appear to be all that important; as the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center explains on its website (2/26/09), this discrepancy was reported almost immediately, and "does not change any of [their] conclusions regarding the long-term decline in Arctic sea ice extent.... Any discrepancies fall within the margin of error."

That Will would cite scientists who immediately identified and corrected an error is an irony he would be better off not highlighting.

For his part, the ombud dismissively likened the controversy surrounding the inaccuracies in Will's column to being "like watching chairs being thrown in a bar fight," although he acknowledged that Will's reference to sea ice research should have prompted further inquiries by the Post. Alexander also noted that "readers would have been better served if Post editors, and the new ombudsman, had more quickly addressed the claims of falsehoods."

Given that Will's critics are still waiting for a response regarding two out of the three documented inaccuracies in Will's February 15 column, the ombud's call for improved timeliness misses the more important point.

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This story was published on March 2, 2009.