Note: This post was updated at 4 p.m. and again at 5:30 with some editing and additional information.
George Will’s serial falsehoods about climate change have been dissected and re-dissected in the blogosphere, but that doesn’t seem to shame him into stopping, as his interview two days ago shows.
So what’s up with fact checking at the Washington Post? I’ve been writing magazine articles since 1980 and thus have gone through the fact checking process countless times. So I have my suspicions about what may be going on.
Evidently, the work of their columnists is subject to some degree of fact checking, and the process is no doubt quite similar to what goes on at other publications. I suspect that the fact checkers try to verify every factoid in these columns and literally put a little check mark above each one after it has been checked out. But the best fact checkers are not just nit pickers. They look at both the technical accuracy of a statement and whether an assertion is substantially true. In the case of George Will’s original column, however, the fact checkers only concern appears to have been whether particular factoids were correct, not whether they added up to a larger truth. So when Will wrote that a particular news story in the 1970′s quoted a particular scientist saying that maybe we’re entering an ice age, that factoid probably got a little check mark, since the quote actually does exist in the story. Clearly, the fact checkers didn’t bother to see whether Will was cherry picking his evidence and ignoring the larger context.
Concerning the sea ice issue, I’m not sure where Will got his information and why the fact checkers failed so abysmally. Maybe readers of CEJournal can enlighten me. But I have my suspicions. Will quotes the Polar Research Group at the University of Illinois as his source. (Actually, he got the name wrong — more about that in a minute.) And Andrew Alexander, the Washington Post’s ombudman, claims the fact checkers went to the PRG’s Web site to check it out. But to me, it looks like Will actually got his information from Michael Asher’s Daily Tech blog.
On Jan. 1, 2009, Asher, citing Polar Research Group figures, said this: “Thanks to a rapid rebound in recent months, global sea ice levels now equal those seen 29 years ago, when the year 1979 also drew to a close.” It turned out that Asher simply was wrong. And I suspect Will gave the fact checkers a link to that secondary — and erroneous — source, and then they failed to check with the primary source. When the checkers found confirmation of Will’s statement in Asher’s blog, they simply put their little check mark above the factoid and moved on.
Why do I suspect the veracity of Alexander’s explanation? I re-read Alexander’s response to the charges against Will, and here’s what he said about the fact-checking process:
“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.”
So, they “reviewed every link.” And allegedly, they even went to the Polar Research Group’s website. But if they did, how did they miss that the group is not actually called the “Arctic Climate Research Center,” as Will referred to it in his column? Maybe I’m missing something, but right at the bottom of the group’s home page is the name, “Polar Research Group.” Catching an error on a simple factoid like this is Fact Checking 101. Yet the Washington Post’s checkers couldn’t even get this right.
If they had gone to the PRG’s web site, as Alexander says, then how did they miss the error in the group’s name? Either they really screwed up the fact checking process, or they never went to the PRG site. I suspect the latter is true. How else to explain not just the mistake on the research group’s official name but also Will’s much larger error — the wholly erroneous conclusion that the PRG said ice extent was the same in 2008 as it was in 1979? The only place that I can find that assertion is on Asher’s blog.
Adding insult to injury, the fact checkers do not appear to have inquired into the larger, substantive truth, as articulated by the folks at the Polar Research Group here. The substantive truth is that “global sea ice area may not be the most relevant indicator.” Global climate models have projected reductions in Arctic sea ice, whereas in the Southern Hemisphere sea ice extent could actually increase for awhile thanks to increased evaporation and resulting snowfall onto the ice, the PRG scientists say. In fact, Arctic sea ice is suffering badly, as I pointed out here, whereas Southern Hemisphere sea ice is not responding nearly as dramatically, helping to offset the losses in the north.
Note: I took the following paragraph out after I re-read Alexander’s explanation of the fact checking process. Evidently, it was carried out in part by higher level editors, not just low-on-the-totem-pole fact checkers. This just makes the flawed process at the Post even more disturbing.
The Washington Post fact checkers are probably young, inexperienced, and at the bottom of the totem pole. So rather than risk provoking the ire of George Will (which actually could have done their careers good!), they simply chose not to ruffle feathers. Don’t underestimate that fear factor. When I was a young fact checker at the bottom of the totem pole working at a magazine called Science Digest (RIP), I felt it, but resisted it. In one instance, I found numerous assertions that were wholly unsubstantiated in a feature by a famous science writer. After I brought this to the attention of the story’s editor, I had to endure a rather unpleasant phone call from the author. But I stuck by my guns, my editor backed me up, and the story ultimately was better for it. But I digress…
My guess is that Asher simply eyeballed this graph from the Polar Research Group and saw what he presumably wanted to see: that global sea ice extent seemed roughly equivalent in Dec. 1979 and and Dec. 2008. Had he dug into the raw data itself, or called the scientists at the PRG, he would have gotten an accurate take on the situation. But evidently he did not do those things, and then, I suspect, Will simply compounded the error by using Asher’s blog posting as his source, while erroneously citing the primary source. As I say, I don’t know whether this is true. But I can’t find any other explanation for how this happened. Most suspiciously, Will used the very same erroneous name for the research group as Asher. Is it even remotely possible that the two of them came up with the same bogus name by coincidence? (Or am I missing somewhere on the PRG’s Web site where they give their name as the “Arctic Climate Research Center”? If I missed this, please let me know.)
Lastly, the solution to this problem is for the Washington Post to empower its fact checkers not just to put little check marks above factoids in their columnists’ drafts, but to dig deeper and insist that the writers provide documentation from primary sources. Then they should check those sources and confront authors who don’t get their facts straight. Moreover, fact checkers should be empowered to provide feedback on whether an argument is factually accurate but substantially untrue, as was the case with several of Will’s assertions.
But I don’t think censorship is the best solution for an opinion column that is arguably untrue in a broad context. This cure would be worse than the disease. I’d rather encourage a free-wheeling exchange of ideas and simply knock down the nonsense from folks like George Will in blog postings like this one.