Recycling in the digital era

by John Q on February 26, 2009

The observation that most of the falsehoods in George Will’s notorious Washington Post column on global warming have appeared in many previous columns, some going back as far as 1992, raises some interesting questions. The obvious ones like “How does this guy justify getting paid” and “Why is this paper still being published” have already been asked, so I thought I’d look a bit more at the question of recycling.

As an opinion columnist, I certainly repeat arguments from time to time, and make no apology for doing so. There’s a lot of noise out there and if you want to be heard, you have to push your viewpoint reasonably hard. At the same time, I try pretty hard not to say the same thing in the same way more than once (at least without acknowledging that I’m doing so), and to update my arguments in the light of new evidence. I may not always succeed, but I don’t think I’ve ever sent the Fin anything as thoroughly dog-eared as Will’s piece (and this is only one of a dozen or more iterations).

To repeat the same tired collection of second-hand talking points decade after decade displays not only intellectual dishonesty but a basic lack of craft values. As an academic, I’m of course more upset about the first, but as an opinion columnist I’m almost as annoyed about the second. As Chris Mooney says, this guy isn’t even phoning it in, and yet he’s regarded as a star.

Will’s talking point “they were predicting an ice age in the 1970s” might have been reasonable back in 1992, considered as a suggestion that we should not jump to conclusions on the basis of limited evidence and analysis. But the factual basis of the claim has long since been shown to be worse than dubious, and after four IPCC reports and thousands of scientific papers, the case for anthropogenic global warming rests on much more evidence than some tentative papers and a few shock headlines in newsmagazines.

Moreover, the switch from newsprint to digital publication has changed things in a couple of important ways. On the one hand, self-plagiarism is now much easier to detect. Anyone with Google can check you it. On the other hand, the justification for repetition is much more limited. When yesterdays brilliant insights lined today’s bird cage, you could be forgiven for repeating them a few months later, for readers who might have missed them the first time. But now that every column is preserved for ever, there’s much less need. And when your column consists largely of a string of tattered talking points that anyone who wants to can already find on the Internet, it has very little justification for existing.



Total 02.26.09 at 1:40 pm

Will’s signaling that he’s still Republican. For him, the freshness of his evidence is irrelevant.


Cheryl Rofer 02.26.09 at 2:07 pm

Not to mention that science changes. New things are found, and old ideas modified or disproved. It’s utterly irresponsible to use twenty-year-old science without checking out what’s happened since.


gl nelson 02.26.09 at 3:08 pm

Here’s what Mr. Will wrote in the Post on January 20, 2005 about the other George’s Social Security privatization proposals:

“Personal accounts will respect individuals’ autonomy and competence and will narrow the wealth gap by facilitating the accumulation of wealth — bequeathable wealth — by people of modest incomes.” OOPS!
And Alan Greenspan, with his usual careful word choice, crowed that personal accounts would provide the “appearance of wealth” .

If the privatization idiocy that Bush was advocating would be in effect today , the “appearance” of “bequeathable wealth” for those who would retire today would be nearly half of what it was six months ago. What’s half of a semblance of wealth for people with moderate to low income who are unable to contribute significant amounts to their private accounts in the first place?

But at least this George sure does sound smart.


MattF 02.26.09 at 3:26 pm

Weird thing is that Will presents himself as a hard-core ‘policy’ guy– deep thinker, talking-head, voluminous notes on 3×5 cards, baseball fan, etc. I think it needs to be said, repeatedly and out loud, that this JUST AN ACT. Will is a Republican hack. Period.


Glen Tomkins 02.26.09 at 3:55 pm

Pothen to kakon?

You’re asking journalism to justify its existence? This would seem a tall order. I’m reminded of the observation that, “Beer does more than Milton can/ To justify God’s ways to man.” A justification of the ways of journalism would seem to be orders of magnitude more difficult even than justifying God’s ways to man.

If you’re serious about that project, I think you need to abandon the idea that journalism could only justify itself in terms of finding and recording deathless truths. Media outlest are owned by people who have an interest in propagandizing. Journalism doesn’t really pretend to be some sort of Diogenes. Especially for an op-ed writer like Will, there really is no committment to anything but advancing a partisan cause.

From that perspective, his latest column is thoroughly unremarkable. He’s a cheerleader for a party of admitted reality-deniers. So, yes, his columns will not be models of fairness, accuracy or any sort of diligence in finding the truth. But that is so, not because of any failure of Will to do his job, but because reality-denial is his job. The arsonist does not practice the same profession as the firefighter, and to judge the former as if he were trying to do the job of the latter is to miss the point entirely.

Now, if you are some sort of freak of nature journalist who imagines that truth-telling is your job, well, be my guest and have at it. But don’t expect others to live by your odd ideas.


Righteous Bubba 02.26.09 at 3:58 pm

You’re asking journalism to justify its existence? This would seem a tall order.

I believe you mean opinionatin’. It’s valuable to know if it may snow tomorrow.


Rich Puchalsky 02.26.09 at 4:04 pm

“Will’s talking point “they were predicting an ice age in the 1970s” might have been reasonable back in 1992, ”

Maybe. It wasn’t reasonable by the late 90s, when William Connolley was already trying to shoot down that zombie.


Doug K 02.26.09 at 4:14 pm

I’ve always thought of George Will as a Republican lapdog: lots of fussy yapping, and he can give a nasty nip if provoked; but a nuisance not a threat – in James Wolcott’s fine phrase, an attack poodle. It does seem odd that he still gets paid for this.


Russell Arben Fox 02.26.09 at 4:21 pm

The man was smart once. Statecraft as Soulcraft is not an especially artful book, but it’s a relatively solid and intelligent defense of one particular (and unfortunately mostly strangled in the crib) strand of American conservatism. Little right-winger that I was, I collected his columns and books back during the Reagan era. But by 1990, I found myself picking up a copy of Newsweek, turning to the back page, and thinking: this man can write well, sometimes, but he’s run out of things to say. Twenty years on, it’s more obvious than ever.


Barry 02.26.09 at 6:50 pm

Somebody once commented on a blog (I know, I know!) that he was sitting with his mother, watching WF Buckley, when his mother opined that Buckley was intelligent. The commenter replied, ‘no, Mom, he’s just *eloquent*’.

That’s almost a perfect summary of Will, but to be accurate it should be changed to ‘somewhat eloquent’. He’s sort of a Buckley-lite.


c.l. ball 02.26.09 at 7:54 pm

I disagree with George Will, but what the hell is “self-plagiarism”?

Will is wrong because he equates a few outliers talking about global cooling in the 1970s with a majority fearing global warming today, not because he repeats what he said.


bird cages 02.26.09 at 8:10 pm

I dont think he cares about the freshness of the evidence.


Hortense Powdermaker 02.26.09 at 8:34 pm

@Barry – or, to plagiarize T.S. Eliot –

O O O O that WapoWill rag
It’s so eloquent
So unintelligent


Matthew Kuzma 02.26.09 at 10:51 pm

And I think it bears repeating that the only new statement in his piece is simply false:

In an opinion piece by George Will published on February 15, 2009 in the Washington Post, George Will states “According to the University of Illinois’ Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.”

We do not know where George Will is getting his information, but our data shows that on February 15, 1979, global sea ice area was 16.79 million sq. km and on February 15, 2009, global sea ice area was 15.45 million sq. km. Therefore, global sea ice levels are 1.34 million sq. km less in February 2009 than in February 1979. This decrease in sea ice area is roughly equal to the area of Texas, California, and Oklahoma combined.

It is disturbing that the Washington Post would publish such information without first checking the facts.


Tom Fuller 03.01.09 at 12:58 am

As someone who was there in the 70s, I can attest that global cooling and the coming ice age were hot topics, whether or not there was global consensus.

I’m curious–I just spent about 15 minutes on and found these peer-reviewed papers from the 70s that discussed global cooling in their abstracts. I’m not saying there was consensus, but there was a lot of serious thinking going on about it, at least…

Cause and effects of global cooling Nature 1975
Guest editorial: The end of the present interglacial Quaternary Research 1972
Possible climatic impact of tropical deforestation Nature 1975
The natural breakdown of the present interglacial and its possible intervention by human activities Quaternary Research 1972
Background of a geophysical model of the initiation of the next glaciation Quaternary Research 1974
Insolation regime of interglacials Quaternary Research 1972
Physical Sciences: Atmospheric Total Ozone Increase during the 1960s Nature 1971
Climatic effects of increased industrial activity upon the world’s established agro-ecosystems Agro Ecosystems 1974
Changes in the poleward energy flux by the atmosphere and ocean as a possible cause for ice ages Quaternary Research 1974
Influence of aerosol cloud height on the change in the atmospheric radiation balance due to aerosols Atmsospheric Environment 1975
Influence of surface albedo on the change in the atmospheric radiation balance due to aerosols Atmsospheric Environment 1974
Dynamics of the ocean-cryosphere system: Barbados data Quaternary Research 1972
The application of computers to weather forecasting Physics in Technology 1973
The earth’s climate as seen from space Acta Astronautica 1974
Volcanic ash in the Antarctic ice sheet and its possible climatic implications Earth and Planetary Science Letters 1971
Holocene climatic variations-Their pattern and possible cause Quaternary Research 1973
Recent Climatic Change and Increased Glacierization in the Eastern Canadian Arctic Nature
Remote sounding from artificial satellites and space probes of the atmospheres of the Earth and the planets Reports on Progress in Physics 1973
Interglacial climates and Antarctic ice surges Quaternary Research 1972
Climates of the polar regions—world survey of climatology 1970
The salinity of the North Atlantic Ocean and the next glaciation Quaternary Research 1972


John Quiggin 03.01.09 at 10:18 am

I was also around in the 1970s, Tom. As your list suggests, and as I can recall, there was plenty of interest in global climate change, and there was a consensus of sorts reflected in the NAS reports, namely that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to make a prediction one way or the other. You can get more in the relevant Wikipedia article
or, with more specific reference to the delusionist myth being pushed by Will

Comments on this entry are closed.