The Intersection

I really think the folks at Real Climate have an important point when they write, in outrage over Robert Novak’s recent attack on James Hansen, the following:

What is happening at the Washington Post, unfortunately, has nothing to do with a critical examination of the evidence for an imminent danger. It has nothing to do with a quest to come to a real understanding of the issue. The editorials mentioned above [by Novak and George Will] show no respect for the truth; they shamelessly use distortion and deception to discredit climate science and climate scientists. It is hardly new that us humans can go to great lengths when it comes to denying unwelcome truths – what is surprising and disturbing, however, is that the Washington Post does not seem to have a quality control in place that ensures minimal journalistic standards, such as intellectual honesty and basic fact-checking.

At the outset, I’d caution Real Climate that this missive should not have been directed exclusively at the Post. Both George Will and Robert Novak (who write “columns” or “op-eds,” not “editorials”) are widely syndicated. Whatever they write, it appears everywhere. Everybody prints it.

Still, the central point remains: Science and news reporters at the Post, or at any other of a number of leading papers, would never be caught dead printing the kind of junk that has been spewed recently by Will and Novak. If they did so, they would be in deep doodoo–with their readers first, and then later, probably, with their editors. So why does the mere fact that Will and Novak write “opinion” give them license to put out plain misinformation about matters of science?


  1. #1 Mark Paris
    April 4, 2006

    Both Novak and Will are political writers. They see the entire universe in terms of politics. It is inconceivable to them that there could be any motive other than politics for anyone to say anything with with they disagree.

    Chris, you are right to point out that they are not reporters of these newspaper. Neither the newspapers that print these op-ed pieces nor the writers themselves are under any obligation other then an ethical one to tell the truth.

  2. #2 steve s
    April 4, 2006

    I think what Will and Novak are doing is great. I *want* my political opponents to appear to be reality-denying kooks. The kookier the better.

  3. #3 Mitch
    April 4, 2006

    Bring it on.

    I’m ready for an open debate on the issue of intellectual honesty and the so-called-liberal print media’s journalistic standards. IMHO, improved standards are desperately needed and “opinion” writers must not be exempt (this includes the Wall Street Journal). And Novak should be exposed for the shameless shill that he clearly is. After years of propagandistic reporting in support of the right-wing conservative movement, Novak’s career has been punctuated by his instrumental role in the outing of a covert CIA operative (you know the story).

    I remain utterly amazed and perplexed that the so-called-liberal-media continue to give Novak one word of print space or one second of air time.

  4. #4 Mark A. York
    April 4, 2006

    Once you have columnist status only plagiarism can get you removed from the page, and there is a fear of not publishing other views even if they’re blatantly false.

  5. #5 NJ
    April 4, 2006

    Hey, they haven’t been calling him Robert No-facts for nothing, you know…

  6. #6 paul
    April 4, 2006

    Silly us in the reality-based community. Widely syndicated columnists can do pretty much whatever they please in today’s media environment. They sell papers and page views, so what more could their employers ask? (And for the most part, readers don’t judge the credibility of a paper by the columnists it chooses, so there’s not much collateral damage to reputation.)

  7. #7 Jon Winsor
    April 4, 2006

    I *want* my political opponents to appear to be reality-denying kooks. The kookier the better.

    Yeah, but a lot of people think that just because he wears a bow tie and appears on the TV in front of important-looking buildings, he must be right. (What did Jon Stewart say to Tucker Carlson on Firing Line? “You must be smart. ‘Cause those things are hard to tie.”)

  8. #8 Dano
    April 4, 2006

    I long for the day when cultural evolution is such that we see an idiotic column by a drinky-drink and we can ignore it so it will go away.

    “To oppose something is to maintain it.” – Ursula K LeGuin

    yeah, yeah, I know: this is Dano saying this…


  9. #9 James Bradbury
    April 4, 2006

    On the topic of media coverage of global warming… I think most of us in the blogsphere tend to forget that newspaper readership is declining and that a vast majority of Americans get their news and information from the TV. has an interesting piece out today:
    “Why is global warming a forbidden topic for most TV weather reporters? Climate change is “controversial” and bad for ratings.” HERE

    If the goal is to get more Americans thinking about anthropogenic climate change, then activists should be thinking beyond the blogsphere and the print media.

  10. #10 Fred Bortz
    April 4, 2006

    (What did Jon Stewart say to Tucker Carlson on Firing Line? “You must be smart. ‘Cause those things are hard to tie.”)

    George Will and I both wear bow ties. I tie mine myself, so that makes me smarter. (Click on my name to see one of my outrageous ones.)

    Seriously, though, I am disappointed in Will. He rarely changes my mind, but he usually forces me to examine my political biases, which is a good thing.

    When I watched GWill spout off about GWarming on ABC’s This Week nine days ago, it seemed as if he had been assigned to take a particular point of view and could only find outdated material to support his argument. Then, when he used the same tired arguments in his column, it made me question my previous judgments about him. (See )

    Of course, neither one of us can be described as fully rational. He’s a Cubs fan and I root for the Pirates, after all.

  11. #11 SkookumPlanet
    April 4, 2006

    Some here don’t quite get it. You’re not alone.

    Mitch York
    With whom and under who’s umpiring are you going to have a “debate on the issues”?
    The media give the “propagandistic reporting” of Novack “one word of print” because the owners and managers of the paper’s think it sells product. Debate on the issues, to overgeneralize, barely exists any more.

    There something else that’ll get a columnists yanked — no readers.

    They only appear like “reality-denying kooks” to us. Most of the country, the few that read newspapers, tend to be rather uncritical and often partisan. They’ve been preconditioned as to how new data is received.

    Mark Paris
    Your point about no obligation to tell the truth is correct. The right figured out, long ago, that you could lie your ass off as a columnist, and that this was a tool [of many] for use in propogating a falsified image of reality through media. Using columnists’ special functionial roles this way in a form of process manipulation. I’m going to add it to the paragraph below, which I’ve used several times as illustration of preconscious psychomarketing at work.

    The far right’s use of psychomarketing in politics, for example, includes carefully analyzing how the media works and devising ways to leverage that knowledge; from using talk radio and blogs to put ethical pressure on political coverage; to using ratings competition to skew away from issue discussion and into shouting matches; to the White House releasing negative environmental news to the press on Friday afternoons, so when the full media staffs return to work on Monday, it’s old news and not covered. This type of process manipulation is well researched, well thought-out, and expertly executed. As far as I can tell, no one on the left even thinks this way, which in itself has gone on so long it’s become a boring story.

    I’ve been having a hell of time getting people on the left to recognize that America’s citizens now learn about the world beyond their immediate lives only through media. And further, that the media is being highly manipulated in unobvious ways. And that by ignoring this, they are turning the country over to these guys. It’s a very, very tough sell.

    The unobviousness of the obvious: For years, I used to ask average people, “What’s the product or service that television news is selling?” Only a tiny fraction, tiny, were not stumped.

    I’ve been trying to make headway on this. Here’s my latest, and certainly greatest, attempt courtesy of Chris. The problem is MUCH bigger than going beyond two media, the problem is the minds of those against the far right. In a [compound and likely copyrighted] word, it’s “fantasyland” land in there.

    Dano! Return to the Evidence Project and read my note to you. Please.

  12. #12 hank
    April 4, 2006

    Skookum, which Evidence Project? I know only this one — important, especially the _Daubert_ section. What are you referring to?

  13. #13 Laurence Jewett
    April 4, 2006

    Chris Mooney asks: “why does the mere fact that Will and Novak write “opinion” give them license to put out plain misinformation about matters of science?”

    Good question.

    And an even better question: “Why does the mere fact that Will and Novak write “opinion” give them license to put out plain misinformation about ANY SUBJECT?

    I have always found it puzzling (and more than a little amusing) that so many people seem to consider newspaper columnists (or is it calumnyists?) the Oracles of our times.

    From whence comes the omniscience of columnists?

    From those who award the Pulitzer Prize?

    And from whence comes THEIR omniscience?

  14. #14 SkookumPlanet
    April 5, 2006


    Just my own private project. It’s in Chris’ post, Nordhaus & Shellenberger Make a Crappy Argument. It’s 5 posts back in time.

  15. #15 Splash
    April 5, 2006

    I think a great way folks can back up Hansen is to refocus on the other side of the risk equation – the extent of damage should an event occur. That is to say, the debate in the MSM is mostly limited to the likelihood of harm; but there is a 2nd aspect of risk: extent of harm. By focusing on only the likelihood, pounding on the “unlikely” argument over and over, the GW skeptics are able to marginalize talk of the latter as “emotional.”

    So we have to bring it back to everyday life everyone can understand. For example: as a car driver, you happily pay for auto insurance, even happily accept laws requiring it, even though the likelihood of an accident is small. The extent of the potential damage justifies it despite the low likelihood. That’s not being chicken-little; that is common sense.

    Then, after laying that foundation, the way is clear to say “and, in fact, the likelihood is much greater than we thought because of recent evidence XYZ …”

  16. #16 SkookumPlanet
    April 9, 2006


    I’d be surprised if you weren’t ahead of me on this. The carbon lobby has already established a fall-back position but the think-tank-media groundwork is still being erected. That is — it’s more efficient to adapt to a changed world than to try to mitigate it. The implication is, then, not to try to stop CO2 emissions at all.

    The “GW skeptic machine has already started publishing highly flawed cost benefit analysis of adapting to GW. Part of their upcoming strategy is apparent in them. There are two giant assumptive holes in the couple I’ve seen covered in mass media.

    1) Cherry-picked time periods. [How about 200 years of more of the same. Never addresses the cost of stopping CO2.]

    2) Cherry-picked consequences of GW. [Selected regional climate change — no south Asian monsoon disruption, no abrupt climate change, no accounting for ecological damage, no acknowledgment for unforseen costs, etc.]

    This is a great time to focus on blunting that, but counteracting as you suggest won’t work. Not the specific ideas, the lackadasical, amateur approach. It won’t be heard.

    Ed Luntz, an extremely successful psychomarketer explains how a message gets implanted in the public’s mind in Pat “Rush” Stosselson Speaks! Unsaid is that only one message at a time can be done. Obviously it also takes time. This all puts a very high premium on insuring the correct message is used and a very high cost for getting any part of the process wrong. That’s why professionals psychomarketers have to do it.

    Here’s a sense of the appropriate way one goes about this, written weeks ago. It’s one example of what could and should be currently communicated to the public, and something that would help build an appropiate, subconscious reality in the public’s mind — RISK — what you’re discussing. It’s also the manner in which one “lays a foundation”.

    “Scientists don’t have a final answer to GW yet. But almost all of them agree that if humans are rapidly warming the Earth’s atmosphere, there will certainly be serious, unpredicatble consequences, stopping it will be very difficult, and adapting to a changed Earth probably difficult beyond anything civilization has experienced. A rapidly increasing number of scientists are discovering an increasing amount about how the Earth’s climate works, now and in the past. The risks are so potentially high that our brightest and most creative minds are in overdrive looking for answers.” [it’s ballparked, so be kind]

    This, frame, if you will, then provides a platform in the public’s mind for them to minimally follow the progression of knowledge. It’s like watching a race. For example, the new science on the “abrupt climate change” of the gelogically recent past isn’t anywhere close to being on the public’s radar. The risk frame creates a pre-existing “reality” in people’s mind that allows them to more readily receive further knowledge about GW, such a psychomaarketing message on news about abrupt climate change..

    But none of this, anything regarding GW, really can get through without the appropriate use of psychomarketing. This definately means not overselling or catastrophizing our current situation. I’d argue this is always a danger with an issue like this because concerned, informed people, professionals in the fields, etc. tend to notice the message isn’t getting through, and out of ignorance about how to effectively do mass communication, try turning the volume up.

    America’s public space has become one vast, ongoing commercial of competing interests. Detailed, technical information like stats, specific findings, etc, can’t be pushed through such immense competition. Read what Luntz has to say. I can point you to the interview it came from. He’s the competition. Hell, he’s the conference champion a couple years running. It’s absolutely possible he’s a/the consultant for the GW skeptic machine. This his him revealing his secrets, his tactics, his thinking.

    Also, I’m going to try to scan and OCR the new Discover magazine interview with John McCarter, CEO of Chicago’s Field Museum. He gets it, gets how to reach the American public. Some of his explanation of that are the clearest, most cogent I’ve heard from science, and even the entire left. He also gives a few extremely sobering statistics about the public’s sources of media.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.