Friday, February 27, 2009

What we learn from Mr. George Will.

There has been much press since 15 February about the writings of George Will on climate change. Back then, Mr. will wrote an opinion piece continuing his fight against climate change (and particularly climate change caused by human action) by misrepresenting global sea ice data to try and prove that global warming isn’t occurring, or is at least not the next big catastrophe. If you’ve missed this tempest, I’ve included many links below you can follow for a variety of view points.

I’m not going to spend time rebutting the science – others have done a far better job then I could. I’m also not going to spend too much time dealing with the journalistic ethics, though I did leave a fairly lengthy comment on the Columbia Journalism Review blog about the controversy. There, I wrote in part:

“So, if Mr. Will believe (sic) the science says something that I do not, he needs to do two things. First, he needs to accurately tell us what scientists say, instead of telling us the opposite, and he needs to cite his sources. And for the record, published scientists do not cite blog posts in peer-reviewed literature.”

Having framed my two arguments, now I am forced to ask myself – what do I as a scientist and blogger do about this? What role can I adopt? And what can I carry forward as a lesson for future events like this one?

First, I think it needs to be said that Mr. Will can always be expected to start his columns from a conservative ideological point, not a set of facts. Pundits always start with their worldview. Second, I think I need to remind a few people that we shouldn’t expect Mr. Will to frame the facts he chooses in ways that we recognize or agree with, at least if we come from a liberal perspective. That’s not his job. Third, we do need to be on our guard in our responses. As I have noted before (and so Glenn Greenwald), too many forthright and reasoned responses to conservative opinion makers get shoved aside because they can too easily be accused of being shrill (as if conservatives never are). Finally, we need to make sure our responses not only set the facts straight, but make clear when ethical standards have been violated. This is especially important, since many Republicans rail that liberals do not believe in personal responsibility, the rule of law, or any kind of moral or ethical code.

Having digested all that, I view Mr. Will’s two columns as a cautionary tale for liberals (and climate change scientists especially). We need to get out ahead of these controversies. We need, as bloggers, science journalists, scientists, bureaucrats in science agencies, to start figuring out where we might be confronted by conservative ideologues and run their stories with our rebuttals before they do. This shouldn’t be too hard anymore.

Over at The Intersection, one of Chris Mooney’s commenters, Wes Rolley, notes he has suggested to ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopolous that they have Chris on as a guest to debate Mr. Will. While I’d love to see Chris on that show (he’d thus be in D.C. and we could meet for brunch after), responding to Mr. Will now is too little, too late. Had we been data mining before hand, someone could have put this out on the intertubes, and then when the first column came out, we could have all politely directed the WaPo to the blog post in question, thus making the error not just one of science (where faked controversy helps the Post sell papers) but rather one of process. And journalists, as we’ve seen, love to defend their process.

I’ll grant you I don’t have the time to do that regularly. I don’t have the audience to make that impact. And I don’t have a good command of every aspect of the science. I also can’t easily think like a conservative most days. But I’m betting there is someone out here who can. And they need to start doing so, or we’ll end up fighting rear-guard actions for decades, all the while witnessing the increasing economic, environmental and security demands of a planet driven warmer by our inaction.

One note – my typing isn’t the best, and I have now spotted three typos in my CJR comment, even though I reread through it twice before hitting the POST button. I’d really love to see more spell checking available in blog comment sections for typing challenged folks like me.

Here's a good summary page that gives you the state of Play as of 5 March or so.


A Siegel said...

Everything that Will wrote was debunked time after time, basically, in the past even if Will put new packaging, threw new twists. There was more than adequate material available if Post "fact checkers" were interested in truth and went past the "20 links" Will provided.

Philip H. said...

They obviously aren't. I honestly think Fred Hiatt took a gamble when this blew up that the impact to the Post's reputation would be minimized by the controversy this generated. Put another way - if more pople are reading and commenting on the Post because of this dustup, that's good for business, so let's let it roll.