The Washington Post’s “Multi-Layer Editing Process”

The Washington Post’s “Multi-Layer Editing Process”

I haven’t written about George Will’s factually challenged column from last Sunday, but I have been following the various refutations of mistakes he made. I have also been following the various requests for comment from the Washington Post, and wondering when the Post might respond. Now they have:

“Thank you for your e-mail. The Post’s ombudsman typically deals with issues involving the news pages. But I understand the point you and many e-mailers are making, and for that reason I sought clarification from the editorial page editors. Basically, I was told that the Post has a multi-layer editing process and checks facts to the fullest extent possible. In this instance, George Will’s column was checked by people he personally employs, as well as two editors at the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates Will; our op-ed page editor; and two copy editors. The University of Illinois center that Will cited has now said it doesn’t agree with his conclusion, but earlier this year it put out a statement that was among several sources for this column and that notes in part that “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,”

Best wishes,

Andy Alexander

Washington Post Ombudsman”

Until I read this, I had been under the impression that newspapers didn’t do as much fact-checking as magazines, because of deadline pressure; and I had imagined that the inaccuracies in George Will’s column might result from applying standards designed for reported stories to columns. But on reading that Will’s column had been subjected to a “multi-layer editing process”, and that this “process” had checked the facts “to the fullest extent possible”, I realized that I had been wrong. Naturally, I clicked the link Mr. Alexander provided, and read it. Did he? I don’t know what would be worse: that he did, and takes it to support Will, or that he didn’t take his job seriously enough to bother.

Here’s how George Will cited the Arctic Climate Research Center:

“As global levels of sea ice declined last year, many experts said this was evidence of man-made global warming. Since September, however, the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began. According to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.”

Here’s the statement Mr. Alexander cites as “one of” Will’s sources, including the sentence he specifically references. It’s a response to an article in the Daily Tech called “Sea Ice Ends Year at Same Level as 1979”:

“One important detail about the article in the Daily Tech is that the author is comparing the GLOBAL sea ice area from December 31, 2008 to same variable for December 31, 1979. In the context of climate change, GLOBAL sea ice area may not be the most relevant indicator. Almost all global climate models project a decrease in the Northern Hemisphere sea ice area over the next several decades under increasing greenhouse gas scenarios. But, the same model responses of the Southern Hemisphere sea ice are less certain. In fact, there have been some recent studies suggesting the amount of sea ice in the Southern Hemisphere may initially increase as a response to atmospheric warming through increased evaporation and subsequent snowfall onto the sea ice. (Details: )

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.”

Where I come from, when someone writes something of the form: “P is not evidence for Q, and here’s why”, it is dishonest to quote that person saying P and use that quote as evidence for Q. If one of my students did this, I would grade her down considerably, and would drag her into my office for an unpleasant talk about basic scholarly standards. If she misused quotes in this way repeatedly, I might flunk her.

Will does this more than once. Since it’s Will’s only citation of a peer-reviewed journal I recognize, I checked the quote from Science in this passage:

“Although some disputed that the “cooling trend” could result in “a return to another ice age” (the Times, Sept. 14, 1975), others anticipated “a full-blown 10,000-year ice age” involving “extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation” (Science News, March 1, 1975, and Science magazine, Dec. 10, 1976, respectively).”

It’s from this paper (pdf, subscription wall.) Here is the bit Will cited in context:

Future climate. 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 such anthropogenic effects 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.

One approach to forecasting the natural long-term climate trend is to estimate the time constants of response necessary to explain the observed phase relationships between orbital variation and climatic change, and then to use those time constants in an exponential-response model. When such a model is applied to Vernekar’s astronomical projections, the results indicate that the long-term trend over the next 20,000 years is toward extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation and cooler climate.”

So that “extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation” is (a) supposed to happen “over the next 20,000 years”, not imminently, and (b), more importantly: it’s a prediction that does not take into account anthropogenic changes in climate, like, um, those “due to the burning of fossil fuels”. Which is to say, the kind of global warming we’re now talking about.

The fact that this prediction specifically excludes anthropogenic climate change means that you cannot use it to say: those silly scientists; they used to believe that the earth was cooling, and now they think it’s warming. When scientists say “if we don’t take man-made changes to climate into account, the earth will get cooler over the next 20,000 years”, this is completely consistent with saying: “however, when you factor in those man-made changes, the earth will get warmer”, or “when you factor in those changes, we don’t know”, or any number of things.

If Will actually read these two articles, it’s hard to see how he’s not being deliberately deceptive by citing them as he did. If, as I suspect, he just got them from some set of climate change denialist talking points and didn’t bother to actually check them out for himself, he’s being irresponsible. All those people who supposedly fact-checked Will’s article as part of the Post’s “multi-layer editing process” — “people [George Will] personally employs, as well as two editors at the Washington Post Writers Group, which syndicates Will; our op-ed page editor; and two copy editors” — should be fired, either for not doing their job or for doing it utterly incompetently. These are hard times for newspapers; I wouldn’t have thought they could afford more than one layer of an editing process that produces no discernible improvement in quality.

And Andy Alexander? He should read the cites George Will gives him before he sends them out, under his own name, in support of his paper’s decision to publish Will’s piece, if he doesn’t want to be embarrassed like this again.