It all started in February when George Will penned a column in the Washington Post titled "Dark Green Doomsayers." Bloggers jumped all over Will for his cherry picking of scientific data to support his position that people are overreacting to the threat posed by climate change. Will stood tall under the onslaught, but now even his own paper is calling him out.In Will's February 15th piece, he wrote:
"As global levels of sea ice declined last year, many experts said this was evidence of man-made global warming. Since September, however, the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began. According to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979."
What's misleading about this is that it's well understood that on a warming planet, sea ice in the North (Arctic) is expected to melt while sea ice in the South is expected to remain constant or even grow. Today, Post reporters Juliet Eilperin and Mary Beth Sheridan wrote a disturbing article about diminishing Arctic sea ice, writing:
The satellite data released by NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center show that the maximum extent of the 2008-2009 winter sea ice cover was the fifth-lowest since researchers began collecting such information 30 years ago. The past six years have produced the six lowest maximums in that record, and the new data show that the percentage of older, thicker and more persistent ice shrank to its lowest level ever, at just 9.8 percent of the winter ice cover.
But what's really weird is that later in the piece, they take time to mention Will's misleading statements:
The new evidence—including satellite data showing that the average multiyear wintertime sea ice cover in the Arctic in 2005 and 2006 was nine feet thick, a significant decline from the 1980s—contradicts data cited in widely circulated reports by Washington Post columnist George F. Will that sea ice in the Arctic has not significantly declined since 1979.
Eilperin and Sheridan's article comes after another Post writer, Andrew Freedman, wrote a long blog on Will's mishaps and used the story as a teachable moment about how science and journalists often have a hard time getting along. Writes Freedman:
George Will's recent columns demonstrate a very troubling pattern of misrepresentation of climate science. They raise some interesting questions about journalism, specifically concerning the editing process. Editors and fact checkers are there to ensure that publications like the Washington Post don't print factually incorrect information. But how much oversight should there be of opinion pieces that address scientific subjects such as climate change, particularly when they are written by persons with little scientific training? Is there any additional role for editors to play in ensuring that scientific facts are not manipulated into making assertions that most scientists say are misleading, and essentially inaccurate? Or is it necessary to err on the side of allowing opinion writers flexibility in how they use facts to present their point of view, regardless of whether their argument may be viewed as flawed in the eyes of the mainstream scientific community?
All excellent questions. As newspapers go under, reporters look for other careers, and the earth warms, it's important to keep all those questions in mind. I certainly will. And I, for one, hope Mr. Will will too.
More on the media and climate change
Both Scientists and Media To Blame For Climate Change Miscommunication: Elizabeth Kolbert
Article Argues for Press Freedom to Stop Climate Change