Sunday, March 01, 2009

Thoughtful Discourse (by Phila)

Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander acknowledges that George Will misrepresented the views of the Arctic Research Climate Center in two recent columns.

Eventually. Sort of.

The first half of his two-page article is given over to scene-setting. George Will offered data from the ARCC as a challenge to "those who believe in man-made global warming." Predictably, the result of taunting this mirthless special-interest group was "e-mails to The Post from hundreds of angry environmental activists and a few scientists."

That's about what you'd expect. Environmental activists are always angry, and the number of scientists who are true believers in AGW is relatively small. Everyone knows that.

Alexander asked Will's people to confirm that the ARCC citation was correct; in a spirit of sober scientific inquiry, they told him it was. But that wasn't good enough for the Angry Environmentalists:
Although I didn't render a judgment, my response was understandably seen as an institutional defense and prompted an orchestrated e-mail campaign in which thousands demanded that The Post correct Will's "falsehoods."
This seems like a state of affairs that an ombudsman would at least expect, if not welcome. But like a number of his colleagues, Alexander seems befuddled and irritated by the passions of his paper's audience.
The messages, often identical in wording, were soon countered by waves of e-mails defending Will and attacking what many labeled "global warming alarmists" trying to muzzle him.

By mid-week, it was a bit like watching chairs being thrown in a bar fight.
Although the sense of apathy communicated by this analogy is telling, I'd say it's more like sitting in the back of a limousine and watching someone get mugged, while congratulating yourself that you're neither a criminal, nor foolish enough to wander around at night on foot.

Alexander then proceeds to establish that "there was fact-checking at multiple levels." And with this reassurance, we reach the end of page one. It's only on page 2 that we realize that maybe -- just maybe -- the "angry environmental activists" may've been on to something.
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.

It said that while global sea ice areas are "near or slightly lower than those observed in late 1979," sea ice area in the Northern Hemisphere is "almost one million sq. km below" the levels of late 1979. That's roughly the size of Texas and California combined. In my mind, it should have triggered a call for clarification to the center.

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.
Think back to Alexander's world-weary complaint about the mid-week "bar fight," and then consider that it took the WaPo nine fucking days to contact the source of Will's quote.

So Will should issue a retraction, right?

Well, no...that would inconvenience him. As would addressing his other misrepresentations, instead of pretending that this was the sole error in two otherwise accurate columns. Instead, Alexander suggests that the Post should've allowed more public comment at (because everyone knows that the best way to handle a bar fight is to expand it to the dance floor). He also concedes that "clarifications from the Arctic Climate Research Center could have been posted" at some point after Will and the Post took it upon themselves to misrepresent its data to the world.

What have we learned from all this? The answer may surprise you. Then again, it may not.
There is a disturbing if-you-don't-agree-with-me-you're-an-idiot tone to much of the global warming debate. Thoughtful discourse is noticeably absent in the current dispute.
Quite so. When people get angry because you've allowed a smirking ideological hack with a history of lying about this very issue to turn your op-ed page into his personal sandbox, and you respond to the idea of issuing retractions as though you'd been asked to harness a goose and fly it to the moon, what else can this signify but that both sides have failed equally to be Reasonable?

It doesn't take a genius to grasp that when you place people who are lying on the same moral and emotional and intellectual level as people who are telling the truth, that's a net win for the liars. Which makes Alexander's closing platitudes sound more cynical than remorseful:
On its news pages, [the Washington Post can recommit to reporting on climate change that is authoritative and deep. On the editorial pages, it can present a mix of respected and informed viewpoints. And online, it can encourage dialogue that is robust, even if it becomes bellicose.
Or to put it another way, the Post will continue to publish pig-ignorant denialist horseshit, and people who are infuriated by these lies, and by the paper's utter contempt for its readers, will be allowed to vent their frustration online, at which point Alexander will once again lean down from Parnassus to lament the absence of "thoughtful discourse" on this controversial topic.

I'm so glad he decided to have this little chat with us.