In the Clamor Over George Will, Pundits Win But Public Loses


Back in January, Desmog blog noted what they dubbed a "troubling" trend online, plotting a rise in mentions of "global warming + hoax." The graph was construed as evidence of growing strength for the climate skeptic movement.

At the time I observed to a few colleagues that the graph probably also reflected the intense interest in so-called "denialism" among the liberal climate netroots. By constantly responding to and attacking the climate skeptics in blog posts and comments, liberal bloggers were only bringing additional attention to their claims.

The same observation currently applies to the clamor over George Will's recent syndicated column on global warming. As I detail in a cover article at the March/April issue of the journal Environment, Will's column is part of a decade-old message playbook on climate change, effectively (and falsely) framing the problem in terms of lingering scientific uncertainty.

The irony of this latest netroots clamor is that dozens of bloggers are just feeding the George Will beast, sustaining and amplifying attention to his false claims about climate science while providing easy cues to the public that the issue can be readily interpreted through the lens of partisanship and ideology. (Sound familiar? As I wrote at Skeptical Inquirer, the same thing happened in the initial response to Ben Stein's anti-evolution doc Expelled.)

The conflict and heat generated not only focuses more attention on Will's preferred uncertainty interpretations, but it also distracts from the narratives and frames that are actually likely to build broad-based support for action. As I note in the Environment article, these frames include an emphasis on the moral and religious imperative to action along with a focus on the public health and energy innovation dimensions of climate change.

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Will writes a widely syndicated newspaper column and a column in Newsweek, and he is a regular panelist on a Sunday-morning news/talk show. Leaving out the large portion of liberal and science bloggers' audiences who are "the choir" and aren't going to be persuaded, I really wonder how much extra exposure this all gives Will.

Absolutely; good show. I'm thinking our collective energy would be better spent advocating action rather than consensus. Avoid red meat, wheel out the bicycle instead of driving, plant more trees. Etcetera.

But when you are not cycling and not eating red meat, there's time to blog, surely.

Only thing that will slow down climate change is taxing the bejezuz out of fossil fuels at the point where they are extracted. Once they are extracted, the carbon in them *will* become part of the biosphere. They must be left sequestered.

Discouraging extraction of fossil fuels also makes sense in the medium to long term for a country. Sure, maybe people will import cheap coal from other countries. But the upshot is that you buy coal from them at today's prices, and sell it to them at tomorrow's prices. Pure win.

The bloggers I read are more concerned with the Washington Post's response, or lack thereof, than with George Will's errors. There is a world of difference between minor disputes over interpretation of date and the complete misrepresentations that were advanced by George Will. At the end of a day, one expects a reputable news source to stand by the facts. That is not happening here.

There's a dilemma certainly; we need to be careful when responding to ideas not to give them too much legitimacy but if they aren't responded to at all they will become more popular. If such views are simply ignored they won't die out. People will see the ideas and without seeing any rebuttal will find them plausible or even be persuaded. This only happens to some degree. Certain ideas (such as geocentrism) are so outlandish that there's no danger in responding to those ideas. But once the ideas are being brought up by major pundits it is well past the point where ignoring them is at all helpful.

The real problem is that pseudoscientific skepticism as espoused poorly by Will and much more cleverly by Lindzen, Spencer, Singer, Michaels, etc. -- and the couple of blogs that attract gullible denialists like fruit flies to a rotten banana -- is "fueling" the increasing vehemence of the conservative political right on this issue. The upcoming Heartland sham conference will be widely touted to them -- and will be passed off as further evidence of the "growing scientific opinion" (or whatever Inhofe's catchphrase is) against global warming. They are being increasingly cast as the noble fighters for the truth instead of the malfeasant authors of falsehood that they actually are.

This problem solidifies the political will of the Congressional minority party. Thus, if climate change and energy legislation passes with the same numbers as for the stimulus package, the pseudoscientific basis for the conservative political position on this issue will be given further credence amongst the conservative public. The promulgation of the uncertainty meme is seemingly far more effective now that it was for the tobacco-cancer link.

Changing themes: Scientific Creationism and Intelligent Design foundered (even though they still have followers, of course, again with political and religious polarity) when two things happened; utterly clear examples refuting their claims were discovered by science and widely publicized, and some of their heroic "best" espousers were put in positions that fully exposed their unscientific beliefs.

It's harder for climate science because there is still uncertainty. But the skeptical science that is being repeated incessantly on the right stands on a few shaky legs. If a couple of those legs could be eliminated (the Earth's climate could help by setting a new global temperature record soon), then some of the more clear-minded individuals might abandon the cause. But it won't be easy; below is an example why.

The skeptics widely say that the Earth has been cooling since 1998, due to the fact that this year set a global temperature record, aided by a massive El Nino. So they credit the global temperature compilations with being accurate because they show this cooling trend. If, however, a new global temperature record is set, the same skeptics constantly repeating the meme that the globe is cooling will claim that the new record is invalid due to weather station siting problems, urban heat effects, and errors of methodology by the agencies analyzing the data (and will cite previous minor examples of such errors). Thus, the Earth will be cooling if the data so indicate, but it won't be warming if the data so indicate. How can a position like that be "unframed"?

There are numerous examples like this. But I've written enough for now.

Forget about Will. Stop reading Newsweek, and quit watching those *totally* worthless talkinghead blabbermouth shows.

I've existed for decades without all that stuff.

Sure, I'm warped, but in a much more enjoyable way ;)

Will has totally failed to reach me. I'll take the tree-huggers over the Kool-Aid drinkers any day - ANY day.

If anything, Will has simply convinced me of the utter wrongness of his whole worldview - at that he has been successful.

I have to agree with MRW. The real debacle of the Will affair isn't that bloggers are telling people he lied -- it's that Will lied, and the Washington Post and the hundreds of newspapers that distribute him are standing behind him.

Matt, if you read down in the comments to that desmogblog post you'll find that it was more or less retracted, but that a couple of commenters (one of them me) used google tools to establish that while the use of "global warming + hoax" doesn't seem to be very meaningful in absolute terms, its incidence curiously ramped up by a large factor around the time of the November 2006 election. In addition to the Republican electoral defeat, recall that AIT was also released on DVD around that time. This looks to me like the clear track of one of the proverbial wingnut memos, this one directed toward shoring up the base. Of course Will is very much plugged in to the network that propagates the memos.

If the exercise I went through has any value (and I'd appreciate hearing your opinion on that), obviously much more could be done along the same lines.

By Steve Bloom (not verified) on 02 Mar 2009 #permalink