The Sea Ice Affair, Continued

[Correction appended]

Monday I bemoaned the lack of fact-checking of opinion pieces in newspapers, pointing to a George Will column on global warming in the Washington Post as evidence. Now the Washington Post op-ed folks claim that it was in fact heavily fact-checked. All I can say is that none of them better apply for a fact-checking job here at Discover.

To recap: George Will wrote a column in which he tried to downplay the evidence that global warming has already affected the Earth, and that it will have bigger impacts in the future. Various bloggers have pointed out examples where Will misrepresented scientific studies in this column. The most glaring one was this: “According to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.”

The Research Center put a statement on their site explaining that Will was wrong. On February 15, the day Will wrote his column, there was substantially less ice than on February 15, 1979: the area of Texas, California, and Oklahoma combined.

I picked up this story from Talking Points Memo, and it has been bouncing around for a few days now. The folks at TPM and elsewhere have been trying to get a response from the Post about why they haven’t posted a correction. Today, Wonk Room appears to have finally broken through. And, oh, what a response they got. It’s worth quoting at length, because it reveals some intricately baffling behavior:

When contacted by the Wonk Room, the Washington Post’s ombudsman, veteran reporter Andy Alexander, “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.

Wow. I’d hate to see what Will’s columns look like before the “multi-layer editing process.”

Full email from Andy Alexander (ombudsman@washpost.com):

Dear Mr. Johnson,

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 (http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/global.sea.ice.area.pdf) 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

Update: Alan Shearer, the Washington Post Writers Group editorial director, told the Wonk Room that he looked into the accuracy of Will’s claim that “According to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979”:

We have plenty of references that support what George wrote, and we have others that dispute that. So we didn’t have enough to send in a correction.

There’s a lot of wiggly, lawyerly language here. What does it mean for the editors to check facts “to the fullest extent possible”? As I mentioned in my last post, magazine like Discover and the New Yorker assign a person to check every point in an article. It can become the fact-checker’s Moby Dick. The fact-checker doesn’t rely on press releases or blog posts, but calls scientists up to get the best information.

Did the veritable army of fact-checkers described by the Post fact-check to this degree? We can safely assume the answer was no, because the researchers at the Arctic Climate Research Center were baffled by Will’s claim about the ice. “We don’t know where he is getting his information from,” they wrote in their statement.

If someone from the Post’s crackerjack multi-layer squad of fact-checkers had bothered to pick up the phone, they could have simply asked, “Is it indeed true that global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979?”

And they would have probably gotten an answer like this: “Well, what do you mean by now? Today? And what do you mean by 1979? Exactly thirty years ago today? If that’s what you mean, the answer is no.”

A good fact-checker would then say, “Well, it seems this claim is based on an article that came out January 1.”

To which the scientist would say something along the lines of, “At that point it was near or slightly lower what was observed in late 1979.”

At the very least, that discrepancy would have to be corrected. But a good fact-checker would see a deeper problem, saying, “Whoa, that changed a lot in a month and a half.”

Which would then lead to a discussion of the fact ice cover is such a noisy process that picking out a single day to compare these numbers does not say a lot about how it is affected by climate change. Climatologists look over longer time scales.

A good fact-checker would also learn that almost all climate models project that increasing greenhouse gases will cause a decrease in the Northern Hemisphere sea ice area over the next several decades, but the response of the southern hemisphere is less certain. In fact, evaporation caused by the warming might lead to more snowfall onto the sea ice. If the southern ice expands, it cancels out some of the retreat of the northern ice. And lo and behold, the northern hemisphere ice is almost a million square kilometers smaller than it was in late 1979, and the Southern Hemisphere ice is about half a million square kilometers bigger than in late 1979. So not only is Will wrong on the particulars of his statement, but he’s wrong on what it means about climate change. A good fact-checker would make sure that this was fixed too.

How can I be so confident that a good fact-checker would learn this? Because it is in that same January statement from the Center that the Post cited as “evidence” that Will was correct.

If the Post’s fact-checkers actually looked at the statement before they published Will’s column, they could not have seen the sentence about sea ice coverage without seeing the broader discussion of what climate change does to sea ice as well. And yet, even if they did see it, it did not cause them to make Will change his column.

If that’s indeed what happened, it would be bad fact-checking. But it’s also possible that they only looked at the January statement after this kerfuffle broke out this week, and picked out one line that seems to justify Will’s false statement–even though it was nestled in the discussion of the differences between the two hemispheres. That’s not fact-checking at all. It smacks of quote-mining.

It’s easy to think of fact-checking as a luxury of old-time journalism, akin to three-martini lunches and business class flights. But if fact-checking is done right, it can make newspapers and magazines reliable and trusted–a distinction that may help them survive in these competitive times. Sadly, in this case, we see what happens when the process fails.

[Update, 2/22: I’ve added a new post addressing some confusion over some late-breaking news about the satellites that measure ice. And along the way, we are reminded of just how weak the multi-layered fact-checking at the Washington Post editorial page is.]

[Correction, 4/7: It turns out that there is no such thing as the Arctic Climate Research Center at the University of Illinois. That is a fabricated name. I should have referred to the Polar Research Group. Details here.]