Thursday, April 9, 2009

Will or Will Not

I’m guessing that things are a tad chilly in the Washington Post offices now between George F. Will and Eugene Robinson, Jill Eilperin, Mary Beth Sheridan, and Chris Mooney.

That’s because in February, Mr. Will wrote a column for the Post that very carefully examined historical evidence and came to the conclusion that the shrinkage of the Arctic ice cap was negligible, and therefore climate change, mistakenly referred to by some as “global warming,” was claptrap.

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.

Small problem: The University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center said no such thing, and they even put up a post on their website to refute Mr. Will’s assertion. That, however, did not stop Mr. Will; after all, Rule #1 of right-wing punditry is to never admit that you’re wrong because to do so undermines your credibility. The fact that admitting you’re wrong actually proves that you learn from your mistakes and therefore enhances your credibility would never occur to a right-wing pundit because if it did, well, then you wouldn’t be a right-wing pundit in the first place.

True to right-wing punditry form, Mr. Will uses facts from scientific research that prove the opposite of what he’s trying to prove. He picks and chooses them in such a way that they fit exactly the way he wants them. But again, it’s punditry not science that he’s going for. All of his critics who pointed out — politely or otherwise — that he was playing fast and loose were merely doomsayers churning up fear of hypothetical threats. Calls to the Post’s ombudsman to correct Mr. Will’s story resulted in a shrug: he’s a columnist; we don’t really have to check his facts all that much. And Mr. Will went on his merry way.

It took over a month, but finally Chris Mooney wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post that took Mr. Will’s arguments apart and neatly pointed out that he was mistaken.

Will wrote that “according to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.” It turns out to be a relatively meaningless comparison, though the Arctic Climate Research Center has clarified that global sea ice extent was “1.34 million sq. km less in February 2009 than in February 1979.” Again, though, there’s a bigger issue: Will’s focus on “global” sea ice at two arbitrarily selected points of time is a distraction. Scientists pay heed to long-term trends in sea ice, not snapshots in a noisy system. And while they expect global warming to reduce summer Arctic sea ice, the global picture is a more complicated matter; it’s not as clear what ought to happen in the Southern Hemisphere. But summer Arctic sea ice is indeed trending downward, in line with climatologists’ expectations — according to the Arctic Climate Research Center.

Mr. Mooney is too nice to say that he thinks Mr. Will is willfully playing fast and loose with the facts. But Juliet Eilperin and Mary Beth Sheridan, in an article — not an opinion piece — published on April 7, 2009, cited new scientific data that the Arctic sea ice cover continues to shrink, and they contradict Mr. Will by name.

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.

And then Eugene Robinson, another columnist for the Post, was interviewed on the Rachel Maddow Show on April 8, 2009, and had this to say about his colleague:

What George Will did was cherrypick a sentence in a report, be very persnickety in the way he parsed his sentences, and end up making it sound as if the report had said the exact opposite of what it actually said. He was persnickety enough that his editors, who happen to be my editors, felt he didn’t cross the line. I thought he did.

As Matthew Yglesias points out, this situation puts the editors of the Washington Post in a rather uncomfortable spot:

If they think that Juliet Eilperin […] and Eugene Robinson are slandering Will, then it seems that they ought to do something about that. But if they think that Robinson is right, and Will is cherry-picking phrases in order to make it sound as if reports say “the exact opposite” of what they really say, then it seems that they ought to do something about that.

My theory is that the editors at the Post will give the outward appearance of letting this squabble work itself out without their interference; after all, Mr. Will is an opinion columnist, not a news reporter, and they are given a great deal of latitude as long as they stay out of libel territory. (After all, they just hired William Kristol. What more proof do you need that they believe in fact-free op-edding?) But it’s clear that someone on the editorial staff thinks Mr. Will is full of it; it’s highly unlikely that a news article that contradicts one of the paper’s columnists by name would have gotten into print if they weren’t trying to send him a message. Let him parse that one.