My Email to Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post

In the wake of the latest developments in the George Will scandal, I sent him this:

Dear Mr. Hiatt,
[Introductory Comments]...I believe what I've called the "Republican War on Science" continues, and the George Will saga represents a stunning example. In my opinion, the Post editorial/oped
page makes a terrible mistake by not correcting his manifest errors; but leave that aside--you've said people should instead "debate him." Would you publish an oped by me exposing Will's egregious errors, misrepresentations, and distortions of the science of global warming,
and thus further debate?

What do folks think the response will be (if there is one)? I think that if Hiatt is calling for "debate" then he should definitely publish an oped by someone setting Will's errors straight, no?

P.S.: Andrew Revkin shows Will is still wrong, way wrong, about sea ice.

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Chris - a couple of days ago I sent you a response to your article asking you to call this guy out with every means at your disposal. I am so very heartened that you are doing exactly that. It is my fervant hope the Post takes you up on this. If it does, it will have opened up a marvelous opportunity. This is turning into an important contest. Good luck.

By james wheaton (not verified) on 27 Feb 2009 #permalink

Well played. We'll have to see how Hiatt responds to your calling his bluff. He'll take you up if his interest is in selling newspapers. If he doesn't, I'd be interested to know what's on his mind instead.

By Jon Winsor (not verified) on 27 Feb 2009 #permalink

Good idea. I think challenging Hiatt to allow the "debate" is an excellent way to go, as well as pressuring Kurtz to respond. Will would probably quit before issuing a correction, but how can you prevent the Post from allowing the "debate" Hiatt called for?

Chris, as I mentioned in a previous comment, I sent a recommendation to ABC's This Week that they have you on to debated Will. It was unanswered. I wish you more luck with this one.

At the same time, we need to support acts like the Revkin comments that you mentioned today, where he publicly corrects Will. I commented there as well.

I really do not get the idea that journalists, in order to appear to be objective, must let every one with a c.v. and an opinion have their say. I thought being objective was to rely on reporting facts and, is someone disagrees with the facts, they could possibly make that the story.

My only worry is that Hiatt will grant your wish, it will run in the Post and be ignored by the other 449 papers that carry Will's column. We all should be addressing that possibility on our own in every way we can.

I hope Fred grants you the opportunity. I fear he will not. If he does, and you write a well supported factual piece that takes Mr. Will apart, Mr. Hiatt will loose the controversy. Given the Post's need for controversy to remain in business (if we all agree ont everything they have nothing to report on), I wouldn't be at all surprised of MR. Hiatt is intentionally trying to prolong this for all it's worth.

Have you thought about This Week... on ABC as well? George Will is a regular on there. He has to be challenged and challenged hard.

By ponderingfool (not verified) on 27 Feb 2009 #permalink

Wow. While the print world tries to keep a straight face as if nothing is happening, the blog world is running multiple circles around them. The argument that the best is what makes it into print is taking quite a hit here. I guess it comes down to "I'm Fred. I own a dead tree printing press. You pixel-stained technopeasants don't."

By Jon Winsor (not verified) on 27 Feb 2009 #permalink

I think we can all agree that The Washington Post has taken a HUGE credibility hit with this whole issue. It's to the point for me that I will no longer be reading that paper on a daily basis (as I have been doing for the past year or so).

So I think it would be pretty stinging to come up with a list of Washington Post substitutes (i.e., other newspaper sites or general news blogs) that people could easily replace their Washington Post bookmark in their browser with. Any ideas?

Fred Hiatt got back to me. He said he would review a piece but could not promise to publish it. I think I will do it, and if the Post doesn't publish, I'll blog it or do something else with it. I have more intellectually rewarding things to do, but this is too you haven't heard the last of it from me.

I challenged another columnist, Walter Williams, who occasionally guests for Limbaugh, on one of his more egregious examples of global-warming-skeptical punditry:

Global warming dope

I also addressed the issue on Nisbet's blog. If you look at Scientific Creationism and Intelligent Design (and I know Chris has), they lost a ton of credibility when fundamental segments of their arguments got easily refuted (such as the "no transitional fossils" argument: dinosaurs with feathers and whales with legs made that look fossil foolish) and when shining stars like Michael Behe and William Dembski were shown clearly to be shams and charlatans.

Something similar needs to be done to these global-warming-ignorant pundits. George Will is on the defensive -- clearly -- and if he gets blasted with fact pellets every time he sticks his head out on this issue, then he'll retreat. What really would be effective would be to get him flustered on TV. So somebody should be calling Stephanopoulos to invite Gore on. The timing is perfect given the Revkin column. Gore has to this time not engaged in a "debate" on the issue; and I happen to think that manipulative jerks with no compunctions like Patrick Michaels would take advantage of Gore's affability and decorum (demonstrated when Gore confronted Inhofe in Senate testimony). But on "This Week", Gore could politely demolish Will's positions, and in so doing suck the credibility right out of him.

It's interesting to note that Carl Zimmer is attracting global warming deniers in droves on threads where he has the temerity to criticize George Will. So far, they appear to be staying away from this blog.

Yah, I wouldn't hold my breath.

This is a good fight to have because it holds two Washington authorities accountable. The first is the conservative "cultural" authority, George Will. The second is the Washington media establishment in enabling Will to say anything he wants, no matter how factually bogus. The signal this debate sends out (if it's conducted the right way) is that things are changing.

It's interesting to see John Kerry getting in on this.

By Jon Winsor (not verified) on 28 Feb 2009 #permalink

My two cents on your most effective argument: You should tie Will's type of thinking to Bush, and that you'd hoped that this kind of thinking ended with the Bush administration, but evidently no.

By Jon Winsor (not verified) on 28 Feb 2009 #permalink

Hi Everyone,
Thanks for the suggestions and comments. I've finished a draft of the column--I'm definitely going through with this--and have sent it to some colleagues for comments. I've also documented my facts. I plan to submit Monday. More news soon.

My late comments:
1) Avoid any debate format that can be won by one side lying faster than the other side can speak truth.
2) Separate debunking of objectively provable/disprovable, non-technical claims ("According to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade, or one-third of the span since the global cooling scare.") from debunking of subjective interpretations of the data ("global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979"). And handle the objectively provable assertions first. Because your general readers can comprehend proof/disproof of an objective claim and might not read as far as the concensus on data that can be subjectively interpreted.
3) Raise the issue: "Does a carefully prepared essay that draws the reader to conclusions contrary to the evidence presented constitute a lie, or just bad writing?" I guess science journalism (and journalism in general) needs to delineate the distinctions among bad-reporting, selective-reporting, lies, and propaganda.
4) Co-author with subject-matter experts.
5) Spell-check and proof-read! Even Revkin missed typos.

...and another thing...
I think we're expending too many words on sea-ice extent, and not enough words on sea-ice thickness. Like, so what if the satellite pictures show the same sea-ice extent on days X/Y/1980 versus W/Z/2008, if the satellite pictures from 1980 show a lot of Sno-cat tracks in area ABC of the Arctic, while the 2008 pictures show a bunch of snowmobile-sized holes in the ice of the same area ABC?
I'm being a bit facetious, but in New England, lake ice-cover seems to become unsafe earlier from year-to-year.
Someone should compile the results of various ice-out raffles in various northern locales over the decades. Not truly scientific, but produces statistics that people can relate to.

Re Bruce

1) Avoid any debate format that can be won by one side lying faster than the other side can speak truth.

This is what is known as the Gish Gallop, named after YEC Duane Gish.


Is this like the "debate" about global warming that APS wished to encourage when they published the piece by Monckton?

All too often, the call to "debate" is little more than an effort/excuse on the part of climate change denialists to rehash old (long since debunked) arguments and to plant more doubt in the public mind.

With his cherry picking and other misrepresentation of the science, Will has proved himself completely unworthy of legitimate scientific debate.

As with Monckton, a "debate" forum (ie, equal footing) simply gives him far more credibility (and attention) than he deserves.

Forget "debate."

Far better just to make a fool of Will in the blogosphere as Lambert, Mooney, Romm, Zimmer and others have been doing.

Will and the Post ignore the latter at their own peril.

They have not only lost market share in recent times, but they have also lost credibility (eg on the WMD in Iraq issue).

The newspaper is in DIRE financial straights and can ill afford to look like they are avoiding the facts in this case or any other.

By Dark Tent (not verified) on 01 Mar 2009 #permalink

Kind of an interesting comment from WaPo's ombudsman:

It began with Will's own research assistant, Greg Reed. When the column was submitted on Feb. 12 to The Washington Post Writers Group, which edits and syndicates it, Reed sent an accompanying e-mail that provided roughly 20 Internet reference links in support of key assertions in the column. Richard Aldacushion, editorial production manager at the Writers Group, said he reviewed every link. The column was then edited by editorial director Alan Shearer and managing editor James Hill.

I wonder what 20 references the Washington Post's editors considered acceptable? Tech Central Station? Heartland Institute? He should publish these references.

By Jon Winsor (not verified) on 01 Mar 2009 #permalink

I agree, Dark Tent, political debates like this can be more spectacle than real debate. Although, I think this spectacle is a well chosen one (for the reasons I said above). You have to know what you're doing, though, and turn things to your advantage.

By Jon Winsor (not verified) on 01 Mar 2009 #permalink

"Richard Aldacushion, editorial production manager at the Writers Group, said he reviewed every link. " -- washpost ombudsman

What does that even mean, "Reviewed"?

Is that supposed to make us all immediately think of "scientific peer review"? (Is the sky blue?)

I wonder what Aldacushion's scientific background is -- ie that makes him qualified to review scientific information for accuracy. An Nobel prize-winner no doubt.

Then again, maybe Aldacushion merely clicked on every link to verify that it did not bring up porn. That's "reviewing" too right?

I tell ya. The state of the traditional press in this country is pathetic.

Most of these people are completely clueless when it comes to the internet, which is making relegating them to obsolescence without their even realizing it.

The most pathetic part is that they seem to actually beleive that they can simply ignore bloggers and others who call them on their BS as if these people did not exist.

I suspect that people like Will and Aldacushion are going to wake up some morning without a job and wonder "How did it all happen?"

By Dark Tent (not verified) on 01 Mar 2009 #permalink

I hate to say it, but this is hardly the first time George will has misrepresented scientific facts.

I remember a piece he wrote a while ago on the oil in ANWR, right after the USGS had come out with an updated report estimating the amount of recoverable oilthere.

I couldn't find a link to george Will's piece or i would include it here, but i remember it very well indeed because I actually researched Will's claims at the time and discovered that he was misrepresenting (or at least "selectively representing") the USGS report.

USGS, being a scientific organization, attaches probabilities to their estimates, having to do with uncertainty. They give the estimated oil as a mean value, along with an upper and lower value that represent the 5% and 95% confidence levels.

for example, they say in their report

Technically recoverable oil within the ANWR 1002 area (excluding State and Native areas) is estimated to be between 4.3 and 11.8 billion barrels (95- and 5-percent probability range), with a mean value of 7.7 billion barrels (table 1). "

no only that, but they provide multiple estimates for different things, eg for "technically recoverable oil" and for "economically recoverable oil".

technically recoverable oil is not the same as "economically recoverable oil", about which they said
(referring to fig 6)

"At a market price of $24 per barrel, there is a 95 percent probability of at least 2.0 BB of economically recoverable oil and a 5-percent probability of at least 9.4 BB. The mean or expected value is at least 5.2 BB of economically recoverable oil at $24 per barrel."

pay close attention to the :"at least" language in the last quote, because George Will makes use of that language in the piece in question.

He quoted the number at the upper (5% probability) end of the USGS estimate, stating that the USGS said there was "at least" that much oil.

Of course, technically Will is not lying.

But the meaning comes across very differently for what he said and what the USGS said (ie, taken in its entirety, with the probability: "There is a 5% probability that there are at least 11.8 billion barrels of recoverable oil" .)

Interesting parsing of the USGS report, no?

By Dark tent (not verified) on 02 Mar 2009 #permalink

Dark Tent,
There is more to know about the USGS reporting. For one thing, the "mean" value is not a statistical mean, which it is often confused with, nor is it the expected recovery. If I am not mistaken, actual recovery for most fields tracks the F95 values (low end). Furthermore, the big USGS 2000 report was criticized as being overly optimistic, and recently the USGS has revised downward some of their estimates, with probably more revisions underway.

By Eric the Leaf (not verified) on 02 Mar 2009 #permalink