The Washington Post gave over their op-ed page to science journalist Chris Mooney, who took apart George Will’s recent lie-filled column on climate change. The Post also published a letter from the World Meteorological Organization, rebutting Will’s distortion of their own data. Will claimed that the WMO’s temperature record shows “there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade.” According to the WMO itself, data collected over the past 150 years points to an “unequivocal conclusion: The observed increase in global surface temperatures is a manifestation of global warming.”
I have two comments on this.
The first is that the letter-writing worked. It’s unusual for newspapers to rebut their own columnists, but the uproar demanded a response. And beyond the immediate controversy, both Will and the Post are likely to act with a little more consideration before promoting demonstrable falsehoods about climate change.
The second is that this conclusion is wholly unsatisfactory and demonstrates the sharp limits on the effectiveness of dueling op-eds. Part of the imbalance is structural. George Will’s column is syndicated nationally, and Will can push his views weekly on television. Mooney was granted a single column, which wasn’t even enough space to unpack all the dishonesty in Will’s original piece.
But more broadly, Will and Mooney have mismatched aims, and they’re playing on a field that is fundamentally tilted.
Mooney’s goals were two-fold: to correct the specific inaccuracies in Will’s column, and to make a more general point about the misuse of science in journalism. He succeeded in these goals to the degree possible in the space available to him.
George Will also had two goals: to portray environmentalists as scaremongers, and to cast global warming as a confusing phenomenon based on a shaky foundation of contradictory observations. He also succeeded.
That’s the rub. They’re talking past each other, so they can both get their points across, and Will can still win the messaging war despite being wrong in both fact and implication. Will can call environmentalists “doomsayers,” but Mooney can’t call Will a liar. Mooney can point out that the specific arguments in Will’s column are scientifically inaccurate, but he can’t undo the general impression that climate science is inherently uncertain. Round and round it goes.
To end on a slightly less gloomy note: this is last-gasp stuff. We see much less of these out-and-out distortions than we used to (whoops, here’s another one), and I suppose in another ten years we’ll no longer be arguing about the basic reality of climate change, and will instead be arguing about something else entirely. If you wrote a letter, pat yourself on the back. Change comes slowly, but it comes.