Cherry picking OK at Washington Post

by John Q on March 2, 2009

The blogospheric response to George Will’s recycling of long-refuted talking points on climate change (a good summary here) has produced lots of insights into the way the mainstream media (particularly the Washington Post) works, and some reasons to be less regretful about its seemingly inevitable demise.

I was particularly struck by the opening statement in the latest contribution of WP Ombudsman Andy Alexander who states:

Opinion columnists are free to choose whatever facts bolster their arguments.

Really? Where I come from, citing supporting evidence and ignoring the existence of directly contrary evidence is called “cherry-picking” (when we are being polite).

Of course, if you are making an argument, you place more weight on the facts that support the argument and seek to downplay or explain apparently contrary evidence, but that’s not what Will does (and he’s by no means atypical of the Post commentariat in this).

Among other pieces of dishonesty, Will pulled together a string of quotes from the 1970s to make the case that there was a scientific consensus that the climate was cooling (with weaselly use of quotation marks, he sort-of avoided saying this in his own voice). But any competent writer (or ombudsman) would have discovered that very few scientists in the 1970s supported this claim, while some others predicted warming. The National Academy of Sciences looked into the question and concluded that we didn’t have enough data, or understanding of the global climate system, to make a prediction.

The fact that Will stuff has been recycled so many times makes the cherry-picking problem worse. Having been recycled dozens of times it’s been refuted almost as many. Thanks to the miracle of Usenet, resurrected as Google Groups, we can find examples going back at least to 1993.

None of this is a problem for the Washington Post, apparently. It’s perfectly happy to print claims about a non-existent consensus on global cooling. Perhaps the editors and owners ought to be more worried about the emerging consensus that the disappearance of the Washington Post would be no loss.



David in NY 03.02.09 at 10:48 pm

It does seem that an op-ed piece should be required to be at least as honest as a short paper in a freshman history or social-science course is. Right? And it seems to me that Will and the WaPo fail on this criterion.


Witt 03.02.09 at 11:18 pm

My bias on this issue is to believe that the incentives are misaligned. Like most human beings, those who work for the Post have both psychological and financial motives not to make social ripples or create awkwardness among the small group of people with whom they regularly interact. In contrast, they have virtually no incentive to embarass or police each other, absent direct social censure or immediate economic sanction from the wider public.

We members of the public have very limited power to censure them, since we don’t socialize. (I suspect this is part of why some journalists dislike blogging: the audience has the nerve to snark back.) Now that media gets so much less revenue from subscriptions, we also have very limited economic power. So unless someone does something that is extraordinarily egregious (e.g. Don Imus and the remarks about the women basketball players), the intertia is far too great to overcome.

N.b. Lately I’m belligerant over my hometown paper having given free ink to John Yoo, so I’m a bit interperate on this point right now.


bob 03.03.09 at 12:13 am

Andy’s statement would have been more accurate if he’d written instead:
Opinion columnists are free to choose whatever “facts” bolster their arguments.


chris 03.03.09 at 12:31 am

Witt: What is your home town paper? Curious minds and all that.

I think bob is correct about the emendation of Alexander’s statement. The shock value decreases when one reminds oneself that (a) editorialists are just that – opinion mongers – and (b) they really are not supposed to claim to proffer facts (of the no scare quotes type).
What is problematic in all this is that editorialists like Will, David Brooks, and -shudder – Limbaugh get much of their audiences to believe that they are presenting something more than their opinions -with or without warmed over ‘data’. So, people read Will and think he has conveyed some snippet of real evidence for his views.

One question I have and have not seen adequately answered: assuming these editorialists are quite well paid, why don’t their outlets look for younger folks who would do some real work and cost less? Surely, Will et alia don’t approve of anything like tenure, do they?


Witt 03.03.09 at 1:41 am

Intemperate, even.


Steve LaBonne 03.03.09 at 3:53 am

Just goes to show that the op-ed page remains one of the worst innovations in the history of journalism.


Ginger Yellow 03.03.09 at 12:09 pm

I find this widespread attitude among US newspapers that opinion columns are somehow exempt from the usual fact-checking process and for that matter general principles of intellectual rigour – and that this is how things should be – utterly bizarre. Not so long ago, the NYT was charging top dollar for online access to its columnists while giving its way its news for free. Did they really think paying customers felt it was fine to be lied to about matters of fact, just because they were buying opinion?


ejh 03.03.09 at 12:43 pm

If opinion columns were checked for intellectual rigour, we’d be looking at something like Len Shackleton’s What The Average Director Knows About Football.


c.l. ball 03.03.09 at 2:24 pm

I was never much of a WP fan. There metro desk in 1987 often produced unreadable leads; the NYT had better foreign policy coverage. But for Washington politics coverage, it was very good — and much cheaper than trade journals like Roll Call or the Hill.

But much of the commentary here goes too far. Op-Ed columns are not freshmen essays; they are advocacy pieces, and understood to be biased toward the views of their readers. Most op-ed columnists choose their own facts and ignore countervailing ones. That doesn’t mean Will can’t be called on the carpet for treating science as a scientifically illiterate po-mo wannabe would. (Arguably, he should know better; he has a Phd from Princeton and taught at MSU and UToronto before going into journalism).

Op-ed pages are better than the old days when only senior newspaper reporters got columns. Then they were next to the editorials and letters. The NYT introduced the practice of having a a page “opposite the editorial page” hence op-ed. If there was no op-ed page, there would be no Paul Krugman column.

What amazes me is that anyone takes Will seriously anymore. He’s been a hack for some years now. He rarely writes anything you cannot predict he will write. And he’s long been fast and loose with the facts.


Paul 03.03.09 at 2:33 pm

I sense a dislike for George Will on your part. That’s fair enough-now challenge his position . I disagree that Will has been “a hack for some years now”. And there are some Liberals columnists who are fast and loose with the facts. The discerning reader should sort it out and never trust anyone’s opinion without useing reason and common sense.


Hogan 03.03.09 at 3:03 pm

assuming these editorialists are quite well paid, why don’t their outlets look for younger folks who would do some real work and cost less?

I think the theory is that there’s more money and less risk in trafficking in an established brand than in trying to build a new one. Will et al. are like McDonald’s: whether you like it or not, you always know what you’re getting, and the less said about the ingredients the better.


CJColucci 03.03.09 at 3:12 pm

I wasn’t even aware before this dust-up that anybody bothered to fact-check opinion pieces unless a potential libel suit loomed. I wouldn’t be bothered by a paper that had, and declared, such a hands-off policy, but if you are going to check, you should do it right.


ScentOfViolets 03.03.09 at 3:33 pm

I suspect that the people who read Will are the same people who watch O’reilly and listen to (the late) Paul Harvey: the sort who subscribe to Reader’s Digest and National Geographic. The predominantly blue-haired set. The people upon whom advertising might legitimately be said to work.

Iow, he’s a comfort read for people who can afford to be comforted, and these are the people that the WP caters to.


Witt 03.03.09 at 4:50 pm

What is your hometown paper

Link to Yoo’s piece.


Joe 03.03.09 at 4:52 pm

I think this is evidence that the climate change argument is not working. As George Will’s columns show, it is too easy to put together a set of data that convinces people that we have been wrong before (1970s articles from Science) and maybe the environment has feeback controls to deal with our carbon (dramatic increase in ice recently). Realistically the argument needs to convince an overwhelming majority of the developed world that emissions are bad. PNAS recently advanced a simpler argument regarding carbon dioxide caused changes in ocean pH . We have designed a world of chemical and biochemical processes that validate Henry’s law (partial pressure of gas above ocean is proportional to dissolved concentration). Kid’s love Nemo. If the argument is not working we should refine it, not bully the critics and yell louder.

Comments on this entry are closed.