The equivalent of a correction

THE EQUIVALENT OF A CORRECTION…. George Will’s recent commentary on global warming sparked an interesting controversy, not just over Will’s errors of fact and judgment, but also on the reluctance of a major media outlet to correct mistakes, acknowledge missteps, and prevent these kinds of errors from taking place.

In Will’s case, the Washington Post published a seriously flawed column about a pressing international crisis, and rejected calls for a correction. Yesterday, however, more than a month after Will’s column first ran, the Post ran a related op-ed from Chris Mooney.

A recent controversy over claims about climate science by Post op-ed columnist George F. Will raises a critical question: Can we ever know, on any contentious or politicized topic, how to recognize the real conclusions of science and how to distinguish them from scientific-sounding spin or misinformation?

Congress will soon consider global-warming legislation, and the debate comes as contradictory claims about climate science abound. Partisans of this issue often wield vastly different facts and sometimes seem to even live in different realities.

In this context, finding common ground will be very difficult. Perhaps the only hope involves taking a stand for a breed of journalism and commentary that is not permitted to simply say anything; that is constrained by standards of evidence, rigor and reproducibility that are similar to the canons of modern science itself. […]

Readers and commentators must learn to share some practices with scientists — following up on sources, taking scientific knowledge seriously rather than cherry-picking misleading bits of information, and applying critical thinking to the weighing of evidence. That, in the end, is all that good science really is. It’s also what good journalism and commentary alike must strive to be — now more than ever.

Mooney proceeds to expose Will’s demonstrable mistakes — in an exceedingly polite way. Mooney doesn’t make any assumptions about Will’s intentions; he just explains why Will’s observations were factually wrong.

It’s not quite the same as the Post running a correction, or better yet, holding Will responsible in some way for his distortions, but at least Mooney’s piece sets the record straight, and makes the case for more reliable coverage of these issues in the future.

Matt Yglesias added, “Mooney can’t really bring any of that stuff up and point out that George Will is an enormous liar, because to do so would lead naturally to the point that it’s grossly irresponsible of The Washington Post to keep running his columns. And if you do that, you can’t get published in The Washington Post! So good for Chris — it’s a good piece — but it’s still a rotten system.”