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03/02/2009

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The George Will column contained two howlers. That suggests poor reporting supported by ideological bias, but errors can happen. What was hard to forgive, and what constitutes evidence of dishonesty, is Will's insistence that he was right in the face of clear evidence that he was wrong. That says something very bad about him, and about the Washington Post.

Howler #1: "Global Cooling"

Yes, there were some papers in the 1970s about global cooling as a function of variations in the Earth's orbit. The cooling was predicted to happen on a timescale measured in thousands of years. The models explicitly ignored anthropogenic effects.

Here's the paper from Science:

http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.194.4270.1121

Here's a blog post from James Hrynshyn:

http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.194.4270.1121

And here's the key quote:

****A model of future climate based on the observed orbital-climate relationships, but ignoring anthropogenic effects, predicts that the long-term trend over the next several thousand years is toward extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation.****

So when Will uses "global cooling" to say, "Oh, those silly climate scientists! Always warning about something-or-other!" he is misrepresenting the people he purports to quote, in a way designed to make them appear incompetent.

Howler #2: Sea ice

Will used the sea-ice figures in a way that the document he relied on showed was false. The models predicted a shrinking of Northern Hemisphere sea ice as a result of warming, and that shrinkage is happening. They are ambiguous about the effects of warming on Southern Hemisphere sea ice, which is growing.

http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2009_02/016968.php
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/06/050630064726.htm

To average the two to get stability is like averaging a flood in Bangaladesh with a drought in the Sahel to get normal rainfall.

The main point is not that Will made two howlers; he should have been more careful, but mistakes happen. The main point is that, caught out, he kept insisting he was right, and the WaPo backed him up. Eventually the WaPo ombudsman actually read the University of Illinois report, and concluded that a correction would have been in order.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/27/AR2009022702334_2.html?sid=ST2009022702494

But no correction was issued. That's the strong evidence of dishonesty rather than simple error, and that casts a shadow both over George Will's crediblity (if he had any left to lose) and, more worryingly, over the credibility of the Washington Post. A newspaper that prints claims contrary to fact and then stands behind them is not a reliable source of information.

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