Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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March 22, 2009

THE EQUIVALENT OF A CORRECTION.... George Will's recent commentary on global warming sparked an interesting controversy, not just over Will's errors of fact and judgment, but also on the reluctance of a major media outlet to correct mistakes, acknowledge missteps, and prevent these kinds of errors from taking place.

In Will's case, the Washington Post published a seriously flawed column about a pressing international crisis, and rejected calls for a correction. Yesterday, however, more than a month after Will's column first ran, the Post ran a related op-ed from Chris Mooney.

A recent controversy over claims about climate science by Post op-ed columnist George F. Will raises a critical question: Can we ever know, on any contentious or politicized topic, how to recognize the real conclusions of science and how to distinguish them from scientific-sounding spin or misinformation?

Congress will soon consider global-warming legislation, and the debate comes as contradictory claims about climate science abound. Partisans of this issue often wield vastly different facts and sometimes seem to even live in different realities.

In this context, finding common ground will be very difficult. Perhaps the only hope involves taking a stand for a breed of journalism and commentary that is not permitted to simply say anything; that is constrained by standards of evidence, rigor and reproducibility that are similar to the canons of modern science itself. [...]

Readers and commentators must learn to share some practices with scientists -- following up on sources, taking scientific knowledge seriously rather than cherry-picking misleading bits of information, and applying critical thinking to the weighing of evidence. That, in the end, is all that good science really is. It's also what good journalism and commentary alike must strive to be -- now more than ever.

Mooney proceeds to expose Will's demonstrable mistakes -- in an exceedingly polite way. Mooney doesn't make any assumptions about Will's intentions; he just explains why Will's observations were factually wrong.

It's not quite the same as the Post running a correction, or better yet, holding Will responsible in some way for his distortions, but at least Mooney's piece sets the record straight, and makes the case for more reliable coverage of these issues in the future.

Matt Yglesias added, "Mooney can't really bring any of that stuff up and point out that George Will is an enormous liar, because to do so would lead naturally to the point that it's grossly irresponsible of The Washington Post to keep running his columns. And if you do that, you can't get published in The Washington Post! So good for Chris -- it's a good piece -- but it's still a rotten system."

Steve Benen 8:55 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (17)

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I hope the WaPo ombudsman reads it. I also hope NBC finds the nerve to do something similar vis a vis Jim Cramer and the defense contractor propagandists they use.

Posted by: Danp on March 22, 2009 at 8:59 AM | PERMALINK

One might certainly wonder what hold Will has on the WaPo that he should be treated so deferentially? Or is he untouchable because he's a made-member of the Washington media Mafia? Like the insufferable Cokey Roberts, David Broder, and Sally Quinn.

Posted by: rich on March 22, 2009 at 9:04 AM | PERMALINK

The kind of fact-based, empiracle debate called for in this post is exactly what Obama meant when he called for greater bi-partisanship. That phrase has been ridiculed for the touchy-feely consensus between the parties that seems impossible in our polarized age, but what Obama was really calling for were national debates based more on the merits of the arguement for or against a specific policy than the usual ideological manipulation and distortion we've grown accused to over the past few decades.

It's pretty hard to see a way forward when a conservatives are able to berate climate scientists for violating the scientific method when they marginalize global-warming deniers in the very same breath that conservatives work to undermine science as the foundation for policies to control global warming. That's the kind of dysfunctional irrationality that permeates public debate today.

Posted by: Ted Frier on March 22, 2009 at 9:22 AM | PERMALINK

It's better than nothing, but without a retraction or correction of Will's piece it just adds more fodder to the "he said/she said" debate.

Will's piece seriously distorted the findings of a scientific body in order to argue the opposite of their position. The WaPo needs to acknowledge that with a correction.

Posted by: Newton Minnow on March 22, 2009 at 9:32 AM | PERMALINK

"following up on sources, taking scientific knowledge seriously rather than cherry-picking misleading bits of information, and applying critical thinking to the weighing of evidence. That, in the end, is all that good science really is."

In other words science is a human activity subject to human error, and its conclusions always need to be viewed with healthy scepticism.

Posted by: Al on March 22, 2009 at 9:36 AM | PERMALINK

For the longest time journalism and commentary have been used to manufacture consent (if I may steal American's friendly critic Noam Chomsky's titled work).

With journalism and commentary as with any American product, buyer beware. That said, science is a tough field to cover and comment on in a world filled with so much self-interest, misnomer, superstition, myth and faith. Filters galore!

Finally, Will needs to feel his age a bit more - retire man! -Kevo

Posted by: kevo on March 22, 2009 at 9:48 AM | PERMALINK

Still, it's something--and might even evoke a "Downfall" parody:
"Hitler finds out about the Post's George Will Retraction".

Posted by: Steve Paradis on March 22, 2009 at 10:06 AM | PERMALINK

Dear Steve: There is a side to this issue which has not been mentioned by you or other bloggers which is very important.
George Will makes money for the Washington Post. He is a syndicated columnist, whose work is sold to those papers wishing pompous conservative commentary but which are either too cheap or exist in communities too intellectually bereft to provide their own.
The Post's refusal to acknowledge Will's errors is pure business, not ideology. Publishing a correction would be akin to publishing a note underneath a car dealer's ad that the dealer in question is an enormous liar.

Posted by: JMG on March 22, 2009 at 10:06 AM | PERMALINK

And Andy Alexander, the new Ombudsman, gets to keep his job; win win.

Wouldn't be surprised, given his column two weeks after the Will piece, if he had something to do with this. And his latest (it used to be displayed prominently on the Opinion page -- today I had to do a search to find it) says the WaPo's corrections policy is broken -- he discovered 160 unfulfilled corrections requests from readers going back to 2004, or about the time his predecessor took the job.

So maybe there's something of a new wind blowing at the WaPo, given today's lead opinion piece on Obama and liberal populism. By William Greider, public affairs correspondent for The Nation, it's headed "Obama told us to speak out, but is he listening?" and is full of great quotes like "Barack Obama beckoned Americans to put aside their cynicism about politics and re-engage as active citizens. They are now doing so with red-hot anger," and "...people have thrown off sullen passivity and are trying to reclaim their role as citizens. This disturbs the routines of Washington but has great potential for restoring a functioning democracy. Timely intervention by the people could save the country from some truly bad ideas now circulating in Washington and on Wall Street. Ideas that could lead to the creation of a corporate state, legitimized by government and financed by everyone else. Once people understand the concept, expect a lot more outrage."

For a paper more comfortable with Will and Krauthammer, this seems like cleansing with fire. If it lasts, of course.

Posted by: ericfree on March 22, 2009 at 10:41 AM | PERMALINK

JMG, Good points, however, another reason used is the one the Oregonian displays - That being, the "Fair and Balanced, We Print, You Decide" method. They try to re-print an equal number of liberal and conservative views. Then, they do not have to take a moral stand. "Have a problem, well, contact Will or Lowery or Deborah Saunders or the flip side". When, the Oregonian dropped Arriana Huffington due to her being an advocate for the electric car, they, picked up Kathleen Parker to balance the scale. The Editor said there had been an imbalance before the dismissal of Huffington. They had to replace her with a right winger. Must keep the teeter totter evenly balanced, must'nt one? Often, there will a split with Krugman on the left side and Will on the right of the paper. Funny that in a very Blue city, the Editorials run to the right.

Posted by: berttheclock on March 22, 2009 at 10:58 AM | PERMALINK

I had an interesting experience a few years back which I think illustrates the Post's kid gloves treatment of Will. Prior to 2006, when the Republicans still controlled Congress, Will wrote an article critical of the Democrats' use of the filibuster to block Bush's judicial appointments and supporting the Republicans' use of the so-called "nuclear option" to abolish the procedure. I dredged up a Will column from the Clinton years in which he had commented favorably upon the Republicans' use of filibusters to block Clinton's nominees, and posted a comment at the Post's website, pointing out Will's hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty, and linking to the earlier column.

Shortly afterward, I returned to Will's column at the Post website and noticed that all of the posted comments had been removed and that the Post was no longer accepting comments regarding the column.

It's been pretty clear to me since then that the Post won't brook any serious criticism of Will. Calling him out for this latest transgression would be out of the question.

Posted by: Django48 on March 22, 2009 at 11:24 AM | PERMALINK

In other words science is a human activity subject to human error, and its conclusions always need to be viewed with healthy scepticism.

In other words, Al misses the point.

Posted by: terraformer on March 22, 2009 at 11:30 AM | PERMALINK

Excepting when he's talking baseball,George Will's is a dick.

Posted by: steviio on March 22, 2009 at 11:31 AM | PERMALINK

"Funny that in a very Blue city, the Editorials run to the right."

An even "funnier" example is that the SAN FRANCISCO Chronicle's only in-house opinion columnist is the abominable Deborah Saunders. AND they routinely run other conservatives, too.

With the Hearst Corporation, you get right and further right opinion, and the local zeitgeist matters not at all.

Posted by: Cal Gal on March 22, 2009 at 11:50 AM | PERMALINK

I think he's a dick even when he's talking about baseball. He sees baseball as a pasttime for clubby aristocratic types - an American version of Victorian era cricket.

Posted by: Virginia on March 22, 2009 at 11:53 AM | PERMALINK

Yea I agree with you Al I too have a healthy skepticism of all scientific concepts such as gravity and how it effects my thinking when I'm high above the grond.

Posted by: gandalf on March 22, 2009 at 12:03 PM | PERMALINK

The Employee Free Choice Act should be called "The Employee Right For Intimidation" act!



Posted by: mjB on March 22, 2009 at 5:07 PM | PERMALINK



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