Washington Post columnist George Will is among the most widely syndicated in the newspaper business–which means that his recent error-filled column about climate change will misinform the readers of hundreds of papers across the country.
He started by citing newsmagazine stories from the 1970s that warned of global cooling. The prevailing scientific consensus at that time did not support such claims (Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 9/08), but Will likes to pretend that it did–calling it another example of “predicted planetary calamities that did not happen”–in order to bolster the idea that scientists can be wildly off-base. (Will had actually been sent a copy of the BAMS piece by one of the authors after he made a similar false claim last year–Washington Post, 5/22/08. The author reports he “got a nice note back from him thanking me for sharing it”–ABQJournal.com, 2/15/09.)
Will then brought his climate denial up to date by writing:
This came as news to the University of Illinois’ Polar Research Group (the group’s actual name), which posted the following response on its website (Cryosphere Today, 2/15/09):
It is disturbing that the Washington Post would publish such information without first checking the facts.
(This inaccurate characterization of the university’s work has been peddled elsewhere by right-wing media, including Fox News Channel‘s Special Report–1/5/09.)
Will closed his column with another inaccuracy:
This is not the first time Will has misleadingly cited the U.N. body’s work; he wrote in a June 1, 2008 column that “global temperatures have not risen in a decade.” This is a simple statistical sleight-of-hand: 1998 was hotter than 2008, so by cherry-picking this year as your starting point, Will can claim that global warming isn’t happening. Unfortunately for him, the World Meteorological Organization does not agree, explaining (12/13/07): “The decade of 1998-2007 is the warmest on record…. Since the start of the 20th century, the global average surface temperature has risen by 0.74°C.” (See a striking chart showing the 21st century’s string of record-breaking average temperatures at Climate Progress—12/16/08.)
Of course, Will is entitled to believe that climate change is a mere “hypothetical” worry. But does the Post really allow him to misstate the facts in order to make his political argument? If so, should the papers that run Will’s column be made aware of this peculiar editorial decision? The website Talking Points Memo has tried to get a response from the Post, but so far has been given the cold shoulder (2/17/09).
Encourage the Washington Post to correct Will’s erroneous column–for the benefit of its own readers, as well as those who read his column in other newspapers. And ask whether the paper has a system for checking factual assertions made by its columnists.
Editorial Page Editor
If your local paper runs Will’s commentaries, please pass this along to them.
You can post copies of your letters to the Washington Post on FAIR’s blog here. Please remember that letters that maintain a civil tone are most effective.