Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Post Strikes Back

A previous post noted the reported non-response response of the Washington Post's new ombudsman, Andy Alexander, to the fact-challenged George Will column Dark Green Doomsayers (see the posts here and here).

Originally, Alexander didn't have much to say beyond (I'm paraphrasing here) "The Post's editors tell me that the piece went through a 'multi-layered' fact checking process."

Today, Alexander tackles the issue officially in his ombudsman's column:
Opinion columnists are free to choose whatever facts bolster their arguments. But they aren't free to distort them.

The question of whether that happened is at the core of an uproar over a recent George F. Will column and The Post's fact-checking process.
Here is what Alexander reports in regard to the actual fact-checking process on the Will piece:
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.

Next, it went to The Post's op-ed editor, Autumn Brewington, who said she also reviewed the sources.

The editors who checked the Arctic Research Climate Center Web site believe it did not, on balance, run counter to Will's assertion that global sea ice levels "now equal those of 1979." I reviewed the same Web citation and reached a different conclusion.
Here's the key: the Post's editors apparently "fact-checked" the column by looking at the links, and only the links, that Will's team provided. This is stunningly inadequate.

Suppose I submitted a column claiming that the Apollo moon landings were hoaxed. It would be trivially easy for me to provide twenty (or a hundred) links supporting this assertion. Would it be adequate fact-checking if the Post were to look at my links, and only at my links? Or should the fact checkers also look at NASA's site and other resources to get viewpoints from someone else? Maybe they could pick up the phone and get NASA's position ("Say, did y'all send some guys to the moon a while back? Got any evidence, like maybe a moon rock or something? Or a few snapshots?").

I think the answer is obvious, but the Post's editors apparently didn't do any of that. In fact, Alexander says that no attempt was made to check with the Arctic Climate Research Center until long after reaction to the column exploded:
But according to Bill Chapman, a climate scientist with the center, there was no call from Will or Post editors before the column appeared. He added that it wasn't until last Tuesday -- nine days after The Post began receiving demands for a correction -- that he heard from an editor at the newspaper. It was [op-ed editor Autumn] Brewington who finally e-mailed, offering Chapman the opportunity to write something that might help clear the air.
Something is seriously wrong here. The Post failed miserably in its most fundamental obligation to readers: to provide accurate information.

To compare what the Post did with what it should have done, it's instructive to look at a description of the op-ed fact-checking policy over at The New York Times. Here's an excerpt:
Here are the clear-cut things the editor will do:

* Fact-check the article. While it is the author's responsibility to ensure that everything written for us is accurate, we still check facts—names, dates, places, quotations.

We also check assertions. If news articles—from The Times and other publications—are at odds with a point or an example in an essay, we need to resolve whatever discrepancy exists.

For instance, an Op-Ed article critical of newly aggressive police tactics in Town X can't flatly say the police have no reason to change their strategy if there have been news reports that violence in the town is rising. This doesn't mean the writer can't still argue that there are other ways to deal with Town X's crime problem - he just can't say that the force's decision to change came out of the blue.
This is certainly not to say that the Times always gets it right. But the piece contains a pretty clear statement of what did not happen at the Post: "If news articles—from The Times and other publications—are at odds with a point or an example in an essay, we need to resolve whatever discrepancy exists."

Friday, February 27, 2009

He's Baaaaack

[Update: here's the response that Will should have written, from]

He's at it again.

In today's Washington Post, an unrepentant George Will writes a "defense" of his February 15 column, in which he tried to pass off a grab bag of myths and misconceptions as evidence for his head-in-the-sand contrarian stance on global warming.

In the February 15 column, Will made numerous easily-refuted errors of fact. These were not points of view that depend on whether or not you believe in global warming; they were, plain and simple, wrong. These "facts" were shown to be wrong by just about everyone you can think of including, modestly, me. (If you don't believe me, see a partial list here.)

And here he is today:
The column contained many factual assertions but only one has been challenged.
Whoa there, podner! Only one of your "factual assertions" was challenged? This statement in itself is blatantly false; the column contained, when you analyze it, three basic factual assertions, and all three of them were challenged. The column was picked apart in detail and at length:
  • Challenged: That there was a consensus in the 1970s that the Earth was in for a new ice age.

  • Challenged: That the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center said that sea ice levels hadn't changed since 1979 (the Center found this so wrong that it published its own denial of this particular claim).

  • Challenged: That the U.N. World Meteorological Organization said that there had been no global warming for the last decade.
In those three points, the entire original column is challenged, since it contained no other substantive factual claims.

So here he is today, defending the "one" factual assertion that he seems to think was disputed:
Citing data from the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, as interpreted on Jan. 1 by Daily Tech, a technology and science news blog, the column said that since September "the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began." According to the center, global sea ice levels at the end of 2008 were "near or slightly lower than" those of 1979. The center generally does not make its statistics available, but in a Jan. 12 statement the center confirmed that global sea ice levels were within a difference of less than 3 percent of the 1980 level.

So the column accurately reported what the center had reported. But on Feb. 15, the Sunday the column appeared, the center, then receiving many e-mail inquiries, issued a statement saying "we do not know where George Will is getting his information." The answer was: From the center, via Daily Tech. Consult the center's Web site where, on Jan. 12, the center posted the confirmation of the data that this column subsequently reported accurately.
Now, if you follow the link to the Daily Tech post, you will indeed see what he says you will see (note that Will uses an "interpretation" of the ACRC data from an electronics magazine's blog rather than the ACRC's own discussion—I wonder why?). But if you follow the link to the Center, where the data came from originally, you will not find the "accurate" reporting that Will claims. Where Will uses this data to show that there is no global warming, what the Center says—in the very post that Will links to—is this:
Observed global sea ice area, defined here as a sum of N. Hemisphere and S. Hemisphere sea ice areas, is near or slightly lower than those observed in late 1979, as noted in the Daily Tech article. However, observed N. Hemisphere sea ice area is almost one million sq. km below values seen in late 1979 and S. Hemisphere sea ice area is about 0.5 million sq. km above that seen in late 1979, partly offsetting the N. Hemisphere reduction. [My trusty calculator says that this is a net loss of a half million sq. km, an area considerably larger than California. I wouldn't call this "near or slightly lower", but that's just me. -ed]

Global climate model projections suggest that the most significant response of the cryosphere to increasing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations will be seen in Northern Hemisphere summer sea ice extent. Recent decreases of N. Hemisphere summer sea ice extent ... are consistent with such projections.


[T]he ice that is presently in the Arctic Ocean is younger and thinner than the ice of the 1980s and 1990s. So Arctic ice volume is now below its long-term average by an even greater amount than is ice extent or area.
So this post says that the sea ice data are consistent with global warming theories. In other words, Will actually tries to claim he's right by referencing a post from the original source of his data that says he's wrong. Well played, sir, well played!

Let's recap the essence of the dialog:
Will: "The Arctic Climate Research Center says there's no global warming."

ACRC: "No, we didn't. Our data are consistent with global warming predictions, and here's how."

Will (pauses): "The Arctic Climate Research Center says there's no global warming."
This is accurate reporting? Seriously? Would a more appropriate phrase be "grossly misleading"?

In my previous post, I posited that, based on the February 15 column, Will had to be either incompetent or a liar; I could come up with no additional explanations. I now see that there is a third possibility: is the man insane?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Toughest Reservation in Town

I hear the food's great, though.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Sean Hannity, Two-Year-Old

Sometimes you just have to see something to believe it.

Here is a transcript of his recent "interview" (and I put that in quotes intentionally--this is about as far from an interview as you can get) of Democratic Representative Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania. Hannity complains about the "9,000 earmarks" in the economic stimulus package, and then this happens:

HANNITY: Explain that to me. You're a Democrat. Help me out.
SESTAK: Absolutely. Sean, first off, you try to name me one -- one in the recovery bill of an earmark. Now, with a --
HANNITY: Got it.
SESTAK: -- 9,000 earmarks in this omnibus --
HANNITY: I got it.
SESTAK: -- bill -- just one moment.
HANNITY: Answer.
SESTAK: There were -- OK. If --
SESTAK: -- you could, just answer this: Is -- there's 9,000 --
HANNITY: The salt harvest marsh mouse that gets $30 million. The railway from Los Angeles to Las Vegas: that is a pork project. That is reckless spending.
SESTAK: Sean, that -- those words are absolutely not in the bill, and you know it.
HANNITY: What --
SESTAK: You may be reading them off --
HANNITY: -- the stimulus --
SESTAK: -- the Internet, but those words are not in the bill.
HANNITY: Yeah, of course, because you hide it. But we know where the money's going. It's just like, for example, all-terrain --
SESTAK: Now, Sean, those words --
HANNITY: I'll give you another one.
SESTAK: Sean, if I could.
HANNITY: All-terrain vehicles --
SESTAK: Now, wait a minute, Sean, you're reading off an Internet type of thing.
HANNITY: I'm actually reading the bill.
SESTAK: You've got to read the actual bill, and I've read every word.
HANNITY: You know --
SESTAK: Now let's talk about the 9,000 earmarks.
HANNITY: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You know and I know that Nancy Pelosi's district, that these marshlands to help save the mouse, that's where that money's going. This railway for Harry Reid, these all-terrain vehicle trails, they're in the bill, Congressman. We're spending $1.3 trillion of our kids' money. Why?
SESTAK: Sean, I just don't want to mislead the public. Those words are not in the bill. Number two: We're --
HANNITY: But the money is earmarked for it.
SESTAK: No, there are not, Sean. Number two --
HANNITY: You sound like Bill Clinton.
SESTAK: No, I'm just telling you what the facts are, 'cause I've read every word of the bill.
HANNITY: "I did not have sex with that woman." They -- that is where the money is going, Congressman. Be straight with the American people.
As comedian Demetri Martin says, it's almost as good to be loud as it is to be right.

Seriously, Sean, why do you even bother having guests? What is the point? You ask questions and then shout over the answers, repeating the same assertions over and over again (repeating things doesn't make them true, by the way, no matter how many times you do it).

Here are some simple tips for Sean:
1. When you ask a question, consider listening to the answer.

2. After listening to the answer, then you can respond. It's kind of a three-step process: you ask, he answers, you respond. This is called "interaction."

3. When you do respond, consider responding to what actually he said rather than just repeating stuff you already said.

4. Try to avoid calling the person you're talking to a liar unless you have some actual facts to back that up (which, you'll note, you didn't).
I learned this stuff when I was maybe three years old. Where does that leave Sean? (Hint: see the post title.)

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Tale of Two Editors

In the previous entry, we noted that the University of Illinois' Polar Research Group (misidentified as the Arctic Climate Research Center) said this in regard to its data being abused by George Will in his latest mondo-bizarro "global cooling" column:
It is disturbing that the Washington Post would publish such information without first checking the facts.
It sure is. And this has not passed without notice.

Post ombudsman Andy Alexander and Washington Post Writers Group editorial director Alan Shearer have reportedly responded, sort of, by saying that the Post has a "multi-layered" editing process and arguing, incredibly, that maybe Will wasn't all that wrong. Or that it's possible with a little digging and some creative thinking to come up with a scenario under which Will's statements aren't blatantly false. Or that somebody, somewhere, agrees with him. Or something.

Here's Shearer:
We have plenty of references that support what George wrote, and we have others that dispute that. So we didn't have enough to send in a correction.

I can find "plenty of references" supporting the hoaxed Moon landing theory, too. Can Will write a "Moon Landings: Fake!" column for the Post and get it printed? What about a column that gets its support from the good folks at the Flat Earth Society?. Exactly how false does a "fact" have to be before the Post op-ed staff will refuse to print it? (Of course, the hollow Earth people hotly dispute the claims of the Flat Earth Society, but that's another story--maybe Will could use both of them in one column.)

No, the Post's responses are excuses, pure and simple. Any objective, halfway-competent fact checker would have seen massive problems with Will's column in a few minutes. And it wouldn't matter what the checker's take on global warming is, because everything in the column fell into one of three categories: irrelevant, misleading, or, in our most popular category, just plain wrong.

Now, I've been a Post subscriber for three decades. It has always been a good paper; at times it has been a great paper. But, multi-layered editing or no, this is a sorry excuse for journalism. If this kind of blatant dishonesty is permitted, how can we take anything in the Post op-ed pages seriously?

A little comparison is instructive. Back in January, a newspaper printed a column in which the author wrote about a dilemma: the husband of a friend had been jailed for molesting a young girl. The man professed his innocence, and the columnist seemed sympathetic.

The problem is, the column was both misleading and factually inaccurate, with the result that the ambiguity of the man's guilt was greatly overstated. So the following subsequently appeared in the pages of the same paper:
The author [of the column] was writing about the dilemma she felt when a friend's husband was sent to jail for molesting a young girl, despite his protestations of innocence. In the end, she discovered that even though she wanted to believe her friend's husband, she couldn't quite do it.

The column had factual errors, and editors in the Magazine, including me, failed to catch them. The author wrote that the man had been talked into accepting a plea agreement, and implied that there had been only one accuser. In fact, the man had turned down the plea offer, and had been tried and convicted. Also, more than one girl made accusations. The inescapable conclusion is that the man's guilt was not as ambiguous as presented. .... Today, I want to apologize for our errors ....
Now that is a correction. That is an editor who takes responsibility for what he prints. And who is this? Why, it's Tom Shroder, editor of the Washington Posts's Sunday magazine. (Read the full correction here--it even includes a letter from the victim's grandmother, reprinted in full.)

Good for you, Tom. It's a shame that the op-ed editors don't have the same kind of guts.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Where There's a Will, There's No Way

George Will writes the most appalling drivel in his latest Washington Post column ("Dark Green Doomsayers", February 15, 2009). Here's a summary:
  1. Scientists in the 1970s widely predicted severe global cooling.

  2. The University of Illinois says that global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.

  3. The UN says that "there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade".

  4. Paul Ehrlich lost a 1980 bet that the prices of certain commodities would increase by 1990.

  5. Ergo, there is no global warming.
The first three items are just plain wrong, and the fourth merits a resounding "Huh?". This seems to make his conclusion rather dubious. How's about we look at each of these.

1: Scientists in the 1970s were predicting global cooling

No, they weren't.

The quotes Will uses to buttress this assertion are generally from news and popular media. He doesn't bother to look at the scientific papers of the era because, if he had, it would have ruined his thesis. Among other things, he would have found this comprehensive study of peer-reviewed climate-related scientific articles from 1965 to 1979 (summarized nicely in USA Today). Of the 71 papers reviewed, fewer than 10% predicted global cooling, while over 60% predicted global warming (about 30% made no prediction).

Where he does quote scientific sources, he's less than candid about context or accuracy. Here's an example: he quotes a 1976 article in Science as predicting "extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation". And Science did indeed predict that--but not in the way that George wants you to think. He quotes the prediction itself, but he doesn't bother with any of the fruity topping. Here's the bit he left out:

Having presented evidence that major changes in past climate were associated with variations in the geometry of the earth's orbit, we should be able to predict the trend of future climate. Such forecasts must be qualified in two ways. First, they apply only to the natural component of future climatic trends - and not to anthropogenic effects such as those due to the burning of fossil fuels. Second, they describe only the long-term trends, because they are linked to orbital variations with periods of 20,000 years and longer. Climatic oscillations at higher frequencies are not predicted. [Emphasis added]
George, this prediction doesn't take human activity into account. It's a very general forecast for the next 20,000 years in the absence of human activity.

There was no scientific consensus for global cooling in the 1970s; in fact, scientists were already tending, although not with today's near-unanimity, in the opposite direction.

Item 1 is wrong.

2: The University of Illinois says that global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979

No, it doesn't.

In fact, University of Illinois Arctic Climate Research Center immediately repudiated Will's statement:

In an opinion piece by George Will published on February 15, 2009 in the Washington Post, George Will states "According to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979."

We do not know where George Will is getting his information, but our data shows that on February 15, 1979, global sea ice area was 16.79 million sq. km and on February 15, 2009, global sea ice area was 15.45 million sq. km. Therefore, global sea ice levels are 1.34 million sq. km less in February 2009 than in February 1979. This decrease in sea ice area is roughly equal to the area of Texas, California, and Oklahoma combined.

It is disturbing that the Washington Post would publish such information without first checking the facts.
Plain enough? The very source that Will cites says, "We do not know where George Will is getting his information....".

Item 2 is wrong.

3: The UN says that "there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade"

No, it doesn't.

Will references the UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO) but appears to be quoting a badly written BBC News article.

Here's the deal: In early 2008, the WMO noted that 2008 was likely to be cooler than 1998. Why? Because 2008 was going to be a La Niña year, while 1998 was an extreme El Niño year. La Niña has a cooling effect, while El Niño has a warming effect. Now, anyone who was old enough in 1997-1998 will remember the extraordinary weather of that period. Along with everything else, it was damned hot--hot enough that almost everyone who tracks these things ranks it as the warmest or second warmest year ever.

So, it's not surprising that 2008 would be cooler than 1998, and the WMO said so. But here's how the BBC News article phrases that:
This would mean that temperatures have not risen globally since 1998 when El Nino warmed the world.
Uh, no, it wouldn't mean that at all. It only means that the specific year 2008 would probably be cooler than the specific year 1998 due to La Niña/El Niño effects. This has nothing to do with global warming, and it is unequivocally wrong for Will to quote the WMO as having said anything even remotely like "there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade." [Update: See Hume-an Error for more detail on why you can't do this.]

In fact, the WMO says this in the next paragraph of the same article that Will is quoting:
"When you look at climate change you should not look at any particular year," [WMO secretary-general Michel Jarraud] said. "You should look at trends over a pretty long period and the trend of temperature globally is still very much indicative of warming.

"La Nina is part of what we call 'variability'. There has always been and there will always be cooler and warmer years, but what is important for climate change is that the trend is up; the climate on average is warming even if there is a temporary cooling because of La Nina."
So when Will says that
[A]ccording to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade....
what the WMO actually says is that
[T]he trend of temperature globally is still very much indicative of warming....
Item 3 is wrong.

4: Paul Ehrlich lost a 1980 bet that the prices of certain commodities would increase by 1990.

Wow, this one is true. But I'm still trying to figure out how it's relevant. The fact that an individual scientist made a foolish bet thirty years ago and lost is supposed to somehow prove that the understanding of climate change that is now accepted by 97% of climatologists is wrong? Seriously?

Now, Will's column is an op-ed piece. He's entitled to his opinion (however wrong-headed it may be). But here's the thing: it doesn't matter what your view of climate change is--these "facts" are simply wrong. Opinion is opinion. Facts is facts. If your facts are wrong, your opinion is of no value.

It gets worse: not only is the column wrong on facts, it is fundamentally dishonest. Will had to know that everything he wrote was wrong (well, except for the part that's irrelevant). If he read enough of the BBC News article to find the WMO "statement" he used, then he had to have also read the WMO's refutation of that point--it's the next paragraph. Furthermore, Will was taken to task on the 1970s global cooling myth (and much more) when he wrote the same thing at least three times before.

George Will is a professional writer with a professional research staff. He is paid top dollar to write these pieces. It is inconceivable to me that he was unaware of the factual inaccuracy of this column. If he was, then he is grossly incompetent and shouldn't be writing for a top newspaper like the Post. If he wasn't, then he is lying.

I do not see a third alternative.

Update: We now know for a fact that Will was previously apprised of his misuse of a Science News article--but the current column misuses the same quote in the same way. Journalist and science writer John Fleck reveals in the Albuquerque Journal that he sent a copy of the complete article to Will in 2008:
When George Will last wrote about this subject, in May 2008, I sent him a copy of the 1975 Science News article, hoping he might get a fuller picture of what was going on at the time. I got a nice note back from him thanking me for sharing it. It doesn't seem as if he read it, which would have been nicer.